At halftime of Sunday's NFC Championship Game in St. Louis, Rams coach Mike Martz sat with his offensive staff in the coaches' dressing room. His heavily favored team trailed the Philadelphia Eagles 17-13. All sound and fury before the game about how much they would blitz achy league MVP Kurt Warner, the Eagles had stunned Martz by rushing only four linemen on 17 of the Rams' 20 first-half pass plays and dropping seven men back to clog the passing lanes. The coaches discussed how to attack this conservative defense until Martz said, "You know what we'll do? We'll put this game on Marshall. Let's see the Eagles stop him."
Must be nice. The NFL's best aerial show, largely responsible for St. Louis's averaging 33 points a game over the past three years, gets neutralized, and Martz can turn to Marshall Faulk, one of the top 10 backs of all time, to grind out a win. To start the third quarter Faulk swept left for five yards, slammed for seven over left tackle, burrowed over right tackle for five, slashed right for four and went right, left and left for three, one and two. "It didn't look like Rams football," said tight end Ernie Conwell, "but that's the beauty of this team: We can play any way we need to."
Martz morphed from a big-play guy into Woody Hayes as St. Louis ran Faulk 22 times in the second half, held the ball for 18 of the first 22 minutes after intermission and scored 16 unanswered points. Faulk finished with 31 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns; Warner completed 22 of 33 passes for 212 yards and another score. Philadelphia couldn't stall St. Louis's multi faceted attack, and the Rams walked away with a 29-24 win and a date with the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
After the game, relaxing with a light beer in the same coaches' quarters where he'd decreed Faulk would carry the mail, Martz summed up why St. Louis had won its second NFC title in three years—and why it's a double-digit favorite on Sunday. "There are just so many ways this team can win," he said.
Martz, 50, has two overarching rules for his offense. First, all egos must be checked at the door. Ask Martz if he'd like to have enigmatic Minnesota Vikings wideout Randy Moss on his team, and he says, "We wouldn't let Randy Moss in the door. Our players would kick his ass. He wouldn't fit here." Second, anyone—from Faulk to fourth wideout Ricky Proehl to No. 3 tight end Jeff Robinson—might be called on at any time. The Rams' first six touchdowns of the season were scored by six players. By the end of the year six receivers had caught more than 35 passes; no other team had more than five with that many receptions. The winning touchdown in a Nov. 18 game at New England came on only the 10th catch of fullback James Hodgins's three-year career.
"People love to watch us play because we attack," Proehl says. "I'd been on three other teams before I got here, and the mentality was always the same: Get a seven-point lead in the second half and start protecting it. I believe one reason we've been so good on offense is Mike's not afraid of doing anything. That builds confidence."
Sometimes he also rubs outsiders the wrong way. New York Jets players ripped Martz after he called for an onside kick late in the third quarter of an Oct. 21 game that the Rams led by 24 points. "You guarantee me they won't get the ball four times the rest of the game, and we won't onside kick," he countered. Talk shows roasted Martz after Warner, in the division playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, suffered bruised ribs with 8:30 left and continued to play with St. Louis sitting on a 28-point lead; Martz said he wanted Warner to move the chains and keep his tired defense off the field. When New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn questioned what he called the Rams' offensive impatience, Martz said, "Who cares? Do you think I need to worry about what Jason Sehorn thinks? We just keep running by Jason, that's all I know."
An important part of Martz's philosophy is showing his players that he's got their backs. After hearing that a TV analyst had predicted a 45-40 St. Louis victory in the meeting with the Packers, Martz wrote 45-40 in huge letters on the grease board in a team meeting room and indignantly told his players, "We've got the Number 1 defense in the NFC! This is the biggest insult I've heard in all my years of coaching!"
During a regular-season game against the New Orleans Saints, cornerback Aeneas Williams swore to Martz he had made a clean interception, though Martz was sure Williams had trapped the ball. "Go to the replay, Mike!" Williams yelled. Martz challenged the call, and the ruling was upheld. "So I burned a timeout," Martz says. "Big deal. You've got to stick up for your guys."
Martz also believes a coach has to make his players feel he cares about them. When the Rams played the Jets at the Meadow-lands, Martz knew the game was a homecoming of sorts for Proehl, who grew up in Hillsborough, N.J. Guess who was a captain that day? And guess who had high-five passes thrown his way? "I wouldn't sacrifice the game for it, but I tried to get him the ball," Martz says.