One 60-minute street fight—Sunday's 11-6 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game—transformed the St. Louis Rams from scary good to scary mortal. But we do know one thing about the Rams going into their first Super Bowl in 20 years: They've got guts.
Had them, really, 12 months ago when coach Dick Vermeil hired professorial Washington Redskins quarterbacks coach Mike Martz, 48, as his offensive coordinator. "Dick, if I get this job, we're going to attack the defense every game for four quarters," Martz had told Vermeil while being interviewed. Had them when they chose to start the untested Kurt Warner after quarterback Trent Green went down for the year with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament. Had them in Week 3, when Martz said to a fretting Vermeil through his headset, "Don't go chicken on me now, Coach," and then called a 38-yard touchdown pass to wideout Torry Holt that gave the Rams an early 14-0 lead over the Atlanta Falcons. "If you've got a Mercedes," Martz said last week, "you don't keep it in the garage."
Funny, because St. Louis sure seemed to do just that against the fast, brash, physical Tampa Bay defense at the Trans World Dome on Sunday. With multipurpose back Marshall Faulk bottled up and two receivers slowed by injuries, the Rams trailed 6-5 late in the fourth quarter, and NFL MVP Warner—who had thrown three interceptions and no touchdowns while manifesting uncharacteristically poor judgment—was looking like the quarterback who fell to earth. Faulk, the league's Offensive Player of the Year, had picked up 7.1 yards per touch during St. Louis's dream season, but he was averaging only 2.4 yards on this day. Holt, the Rams' number 2 wide receiver, had spent good chunks of the game on the sideline, once spitting up blood after suffering bruised ribs; number 3 wideout Az-Zahir Hakim had become dehydrated and had been hooked up to an IV in the locker room.
Then, here came the guts again. With 4:50 to go, the season on the line and facing third-and-four at the Tampa Bay 30, Martz called Flex Left Smoke Right 585 H-Choice. The play would send Faulk four yards past the line of scrimmage, where he would choose an open spot and await the pass for the first down. However, if a safety blitzed, which scouting reports had said might happen if the Rams used this formation, Warner would fling the ball deep, not down the right sideline toward Isaac Bruce, St. Louis's top receiver, but down the left sideline toward fourth wideout Ricky Proehl. Instead of calling a play with safe second and third options, Martz, who had been Ronald Reagan-conservative after Holt and Hakim had gone out, called for a safe first option and a home run second option. At the snap Bucs free safety Damien Robinson blitzed, Warner went long, Proehl fended off cornerback Brian Kelly with his right arm and glued the ball to his body with his left. Touchdown.
"We are the champions...of the world!" Faulk sang along with the Queen song blasting over the Trans World speakers as he left the stadium floor. Not so fast. The Super (Moving Van) Bowl, between franchises that were in Anaheim and Houston five years ago, will pit 15-3 St. Louis against the 16-3 Tennessee Titans. After Sunday's performance, the sobering reality for the Rams is that their offense can be stopped, and they better be able to make adjustments during the Super Bowl if they want to win their first NFL championship since 1951. "We were nervous" Martz said in the postgame quiet of the equipment room. "We were jittery. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot. That's not us. Plus, we had an awful lot in the game plan for Tony Holt and Az Hakim, and when they went out, I could have handled the play-calling better. But I think we'll be much better against Tennessee. We've got a tough defensive game under our belts."
History will be tough on St. Louis, the third-highest-scoring team in NFL history, if it flops on offense and loses the Super Bowl. Stumbling against the Bucs was understandable; the Tampa Bay defense is very quick and plays a disciplined, stifling zone. Tennessee uses man-to-man coverage 90% of the time, which may help the Rams' speedy receivers, assuming they can get off the bump at the line that the Titans like to employ. Warner threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns when Tennessee beat St. Louis 24-21 on Oct. 31 in Nashville. "I don't think we'll be remembered as one of the great offenses unless we go all the way," said Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan, a 27-year NFL coaching veteran, two days before Sunday's game. "If we screw it up, you won't be thinking how great this offense was."
He's right. Detractors will point to a cushy schedule as the reason for St. Louis's bloated offensive numbers. During the regular season the Rams played one opponent with a winning record (Tennessee), and only two of St. Louis's 18 foes, including those in the playoffs, had a defense that ranked among the NFL's top dozen in yards allowed. The Rams' four NFC West rivals ranked 25th (Atlanta Falcons), 26th (Carolina Panthers), 28th (New Orleans Saints) and 30th (San Francisco 49ers) in scoring defense.
For now, give St. Louis the benefit of the doubt and posit that Sunday's 11-6 outcome was a blip on the Rams' radar screen. Instead, consider how St. Louis got from the disaster of 4-12 last year to the Super Bowl.
The Rams' backfield at the end of the 1998 season—quarterback Steve Bono, running backs June Henley and Derrick Harris—offered no hope for the future. The reconstruction started with the January 1999 hiring of Martz, who believes in multiple sets with lots of motion and lots of four-receiver plays. As the offensive coordinator at Arizona State, he pondered getting out of coaching after the Sun Devils staff was dismantled in the fall of 1991. Then his wife, Julie, told him, "The kids and I love your job as much as you do," and he didn't give quitting another thought.
It was the turning point in Martz's career. Leaving Julie and their four children in Arizona in the summer of 1992, he showed up on Rams coach Chuck Knox's doorstep, asking for an unpaid assistant's job under offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, who believed strongly in an aggressive passing attack. "Chuck said he'd take me on for six months," Martz says. "At the end of the season, if I was any good, he'd either give me a job or help me find one in the league."