They stared in disbelief as the last-second, 48-yard field goal attempt by Dallas rookie Billy Cundiff sailed between the uprights, giving the Cowboys a 13-10 victory and striking at the heart of everything we've known the St. Louis Rams to be. In front of 66,165 stunned fans in the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday, coach Mike Martz's team suffered a wound from which it may not recover.
The Greatest Show on Turf is strictly an off-Broadway production now, and everyone seems to know it but the Rams and their coach. "We're so close to being a great team," Martz said in the empty locker room, long after his 0-4 Rams had cleared out. Earlier, tight end Ernie Conwell had rationalized the defeat, saying it set the stage for "the greatest comeback story ever, by the best 0-4 team in history." And quarterback Kurt Warner—whose broken right pinky will sideline him for eight to 10 weeks—declared, "We're a long way from giving up on what we plan to accomplish."
Perhaps St. Louis will rally to join the 1992 San Diego Chargers, the only team to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start, though right now that seems as likely as Randy Moss's getting a good-driver discount on his auto insurance. It's true that even without Warner, the Rams still have football's brightest star in halfback Marshall Faulk and a half-dozen other players most teams would kill for. But if the defending NFC champions are to salvage their season, they'll have to scrap their way back to respectability. Their aura of intimidation is gone.
"Instead of having us on our heels, they were the tentative ones," said Cowboys defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who faced the Rams twice a year while with the New Orleans Saints for five seasons. "Instead of trying to put points on the board, they were playing not to make a mistake. They max-protected like [crazy]. I've never seen that."
No longer does Martz's aerial scheme seem a grade smarter and his players a step faster than opponents. "Uh-uh, no way," said Darren Woodson, Dallas's veteran strong safety, shaking his head vigorously for emphasis. "I look at them and I see us a few years ago. You lose a couple of key people, the offensive line breaks down, and all of a sudden...blam. It can happen so fast, before you even realize it."
As suddenly as they burst onto the scene in 1999, shaking off a decade of failure by launching an unprecedented run of offensive productivity and winning the franchise's first Super Bowl, the Rams have imploded in 2002. When they lost Super Bowl XXXVT last February to the New England Patriots on Adam Vinatieri's last-second field goal, it was viewed as an aberration that would be rectified with the start of another season. Revisionist history: The outcome was an aberration, all right—New England should have smoked St. Louis.
The Rams, after all, haven't won since last January's NFC Championship Game, and a road game against the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers (2-1) looms on Sunday. "It's unbelievable," Conwell says. "I mean, 0-1 was bad enough, and 0-2 and 0-3 made us sick to our stomachs. Now it feels like this is not even reality. Somebody please pinch me, or turn on the alarm so I can wake up."
If this strikes you as the most preposterous waking dream since Vanilla Sky, a closer examination is in order. For reasons obvious (Warner's inability to produce touchdowns) and obscure (fullback James Hodgins's broken right foot), the offense has been awful. Every lineman, including All-Pro left tackle Orlando Pace, who missed Sunday's game with a torn left calf muscle, has been a liability at times. Moreover, since the Super Bowl, when star wideouts Isaac Bruce and Tony Holt were manhandled, the Rams' receivers have faced increased contact from opponents. The dangerous third receiver, Az Hakim, was allowed to leave for the Detroit Lions by way of free agency, and the player signed to replace him, former Indianapolis Colts wideout Terrence Wilkins, has failed to grasp Martz's offense. That forced Martz to move No. 4 wideout Ricky Proehl, a savvy veteran who had thrived mostly against overmatched competition, into Hakim's old spot, causing a drop-off in explosiveness.
After Sunday's game Martz cited a lack of attention to detail and of overall focus among his players. Cornerback Dre' Bly added, "It's like Coach says, I guess we're not good enough to make mistakes and overcome them like we used to. We have some new guys who need to understand how we do things. The fire that we've had ever since I've been here is missing."
After a spirited practice last week Bruce—whose 21-yard touchdown catch with 1:30 left in the first half tied the Dallas game at 7—pondered his team's predicament. "I can sense a defense's disrespect for us from their positioning," he said. "The safeties are getting closer and closer to the line, and the message to us is, Y'all ain't gonna run by us. Well, once we start attacking upfield, they'll be backing up, and Marshall will be slashing again."