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Fallen Idols
MICHAEL SILVER
November 21, 2005
Once billed as the Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams have seen their dynasty-in-the-making crumble, in large part because of a power struggle between the front office and coach Mike Martz
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November 21, 2005

Fallen Idols

Once billed as the Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams have seen their dynasty-in-the-making crumble, in large part because of a power struggle between the front office and coach Mike Martz

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The coach, sources say, added to the tension within the organization with his obsession over peripheral matters--such as the color of the locker room carpet and the selection of player photos for the halls at Rams Park--and his brusque treatment of employees. "Some of the things he did were ludicrous and crazy, and a lot of it came down to power and control," another former player says. "He was so insecure, so worried that people were out to get him, that he would do things to make everyone feel that he was in charge."

Late last season, according to team sources, the coach bristled after coming to believe that employees in the Rams' business department had an office pool on when he would be fired. In Martz's defense, there have been indications that his paranoia was sometimes justified. Just before the start of the '05 season Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote a column naming various team executives who Miklasz had been told were disloyal to Martz and imploring them to stop undercutting the coach. A few days later, Miklasz reported, one of those executives, director of football administration Samir Suleiman, left a message on Miklasz's voicemail stating, "Tell your source that I'm not a back-stabber; I'm a f------ throat slasher, and he'll know the difference before all is said and done." Suleiman, who is Zygmunt's righthand man, was reprimanded by Shaw but remained with the organization.

While many players and staffers speak fondly of Shaw and laud him for his intelligence, he's perceived by some of the same people as lacking leadership qualities and the ability to make tough decisions. It doesn't help that he lives in L.A. (where he stayed after the team moved in 1995). As one Rams executive says, "Because Shaw is [often] not around, it's like a substitute-teacher mentality, and everyone has carved out his own little kingdom." Adds former Rams tackle Kyle Turley, who late last season had a heated confrontation with Martz over the severity of a back injury and was released in May, "A lot of things broke down, communicationwise, because John Shaw wasn't there to see what was going on firsthand. I just don't understand how you can try to run what is almost a billion-dollar business from afar, and then have all that junk going on and not do anything to fix it."

One instance in which Shaw was on hand to assert his authority occurred late last month, during the third quarter of St. Louis's 28-17 home victory over the New Orleans Saints, the Rams' first win under interim coach Joe Vitt. Martz, who had taken an indefinite leave of absence because of his illness, was watching the game on TV at home and called security director Dan Linza at the stadium in an effort to discuss play-calling with offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild. When Linza entered the coaches' booth to give his cellphone to Fairchild, Zygmunt reportedly denied Martz's request to talk to the coordinator and, after physically removing Linza, walked him to Shaw's box. Shaw sided with Zygmunt and forbade Martz from contacting his assistants during the game, a move that Martz said, in a subsequent radio interview with Miklasz, made him "very, very angry." Martz also said he was unsure he could coexist with Zygmunt if he were to coach the team next year. Shaw responded, in an interview with the Post-Dispatch, by saying, "I think his anticipation is that he's going to want an extension, and he's going to want to dictate terms of that extension. At this point I'm not sure that any of that's going to happen."

The day after the cellphone incident Martz announced that because of his heart condition he would not rejoin the team this season. Given Shaw's alliance with Zygmunt, the likely outcome is that Martz, despite a 57-37 record, has coached his last game for St. Louis. If so, says one staffer familiar with Martz's personnel decisions, "He'll have no one but himself to blame because he had [most of] the personnel power." Critics point to Martz's penchant for "reaching" on draft day, resulting in busts such as halfback Trung Canidate (first round, 2000); linebacker Robert Thomas (first round, '02); wide receiver Eric Crouch (third round, '02); and guard Travis Scott (fourth round, '02). The trio of young defensive tackles cited by the veteran player after Sunday's game may turn out similarly.

The Rams took the field again in Seattle with a sense of optimism, having won their previous two games under the straight-shooting Vitt, who's friends with Martz but less concerned with nonfootball issues, and welcoming back four Pro Bowlers from injury: Bulger, wideouts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, and defensive end Leonard Little. Yet St. Louis, which beat the Seahawks three times last year, was outclassed in suffering its second loss to Seattle this season.

After the game Turley, from his new home in West Hollywood, offered a show-biz analogy for the decline of the Greatest Show on Turf. "Playing for the Rams," he said, "was like being on Survivor, with Mike Martz and all those other guys forming secret alliances and doing whatever they could to sabotage each other."

At that moment the Rams were enjoying a screening of the movie Jackass aboard their charter to St. Louis. As the plane swept through the darkness, the aisles were filled with laughter.

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