The rise and fall of a defensive coordinator:
Last spring, Fritz Shurmur was one of two finalists for the Phoenix Cardinals' head coaching job. Shurmur's defensive game plan against Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham in the Rams' 1989 wild-card playoff victory had been lauded as a masterpiece of coaching. He had taken a rag-tag unit of mediocre players and, for one game, silenced the league's most dynamic performer, Cunningham.
Shurmur's future never was brighter.
After nine years of distinguished service with the Rams, Shurmur would get the Phoenix job and take his favorite pupil, former linebacker Carl Ekern, to Arizona as a member of his coaching staff.
Ekern, an over-achieving linebacker who lasted 13 seasons with the Rams, played more on heart than on talent. Shurmur needed players with heart because the Rams' draft wizards had never provided him much talent.
In Phoenix, teacher Shurmur and student Ekern would reunite and live out their lives under Arizona sunsets.
Instead, fate stepped in and set off a chain reaction that ended Wednesday with Shurmur's firing.
In a close call, the Cardinals selected Washington assistant coach Joe Bugel over Shurmur. Shurmur remained a Ram.
Then last August, four days before the Rams were to board their flight to Berlin for an exhibition game, Ekern was killed in a car accident en route to Nevada, where he had accepted a coaching position at a youth camp.
Shurmur, who loved Ekern as a son, couldn't even attend the funeral. In Germany, Shurmur's wife, Peggy Jane, said her husband had never accepted a death so hard, not even ones involving close relatives. Shurmur couldn't help but curse his lot and wonder what might have been.
Had Shurmur been given the Phoenix job, of course, Ekern wouldn't have been on that Nevada highway. Instead, Shurmur was in Berlin and his best friend was dead.
Privately, some players criticized the Rams for not hiring Ekern as an assistant coach.
It was all downhill from there. I knew the team was in trouble after its last exhibition, against Washington. Coincidentally, it was my last assignment on the Rams after four seasons as this paper's beat writer. Shurmur's defense was a shambles, and he knew it.
In the Washington game, cornerbacks Jerry Gray and Alfred Jackson had collided trying to defend against a pass in the end zone. Gray suffered a knee ligament injury and was not the same player all season. Later in the game, inside linebacker Larry Kelm suffered a serious knee injury and joined Gray in the operating room the next day.
The Rams were also trying to change defenses, switching pass-rush specialist Kevin Greene from the left to the right side in a new alignment. The problem was that Greene was a summer-long holdout and wasn't there to learn his new position. Shurmur was also working without holdout defensive end Doug Reed and safety Michael Stewart.
Defensive end Bill Hawkins, the team's first-round choice in 1989, was being force-fed a new inside pass rush position while trying to recover from off-season knee surgery. He still hasn't recovered.
A week before the season opener, the Ram defense was a mess. In the locker room, Shurmur's face was drawn and he could hardly speak.
"Can we play without players?" he kept asking over and over.
Turns out he couldn't. The Rams went 5-11, and Shurmur got the ax, even though the Rams had failed to draft one legitimate pass rusher in his eight seasons as defensive coordinator.
The Rams got lucky with Greene, a fifth-round choice from Auburn who blossomed unexpectedly, but the Rams struck out every other time up. They thought they had something in 1987 with Winston-Salem State's Donald Evans, but gave up on him too soon and cut him. He started 16 games for Pittsburgh this season.
Coaches know they're hired to get fired. Shurmur knew it, too, but never could have imagined that his career would unravel this quickly. I don't know if Shurmur was a great defensive coordinator. I always assumed he was, because he always seemed to get the best out of his players.
Shurmur, for what it's worth, also happens to be a class act. He was patient with reporters who didn't know a 3-4 defense from a lounge chair. Shurmur would take you to his office, pour you a cup of something dark and thick he called coffee, and hammer out the X's and O's until you got it right.
The Rams will never fire a better defensive coordinator than Shurmur. He will land on his feet somewhere, maybe on a team with a little better knowledge of first-round draft choices. But more than anything else, I wish Shurmur was coaching in Phoenix today and pouring coffee for Carl Ekern.