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SPORTS EXTRA / NFL 2000

Rams or Rodneys?

St. Louis Doesn't Get Much Respect After Super Bowl Season

August 26, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So what difference did a Super Bowl championship make for the St. Louis Rams?

Nobody picked them last season, naturally. They were 4-12 the year before.

Not that many are picking them this season either.

"Nobody thinks we're going to repeat, I don't think," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "At least I haven't heard too many people outside of our locker room that think that.

"We do."

Get ready to witness one of the marvels of sports: a defending champion claiming the role of underdog.

It's true, all eyes seem to be elsewhere--partly because of blockbuster moves by a couple of teams, partly because the Rams' sudden success made it seem as if almost any team can win the Super Bowl.

Fine by Marshall Faulk.

"Washington? They've got to win it. They spent all this money," Faulk said, redirecting the pressure as smoothly as he finds a hole at the line of scrimmage.

"Tampa Bay? They got Keyshawn Johnson. They've got to win it.

"We've just got to go out there and play. When you look at that, coming off a Super Bowl and you don't have the media distracting your team? Don't tell anybody, but I mean, it helps. It just helps."

What really helps is having all the major elements of an offense that scored 526 points--third most in NFL history--right where they were last season.

Sure, Dick Vermeil retired, leaving the Rams as only the fifth team to try to defend a Super Bowl title with a different coach.

But his replacement is Mike Martz, the architect of the offense. He simply calls the touchdown plays from the sideline instead of the booth.

A season later, Warner is no longer the stock boy turned wonder boy, he's the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXXIV. And when you see the zip and accuracy of his passes in person, you know there was nothing flukey about the 41 touchdowns and the 109.2 passer rating.

Faulk is the engine of the offense, setting an NFL record last season for most yards from scrimmage with 2,429--1,381 rushing and 1,048 receiving on an astounding 87 catches.

At receiver, the depth is extraordinary. It starts with veteran Isaac Bruce--for all the justified hullabaloo about Mike Jones' tackle on the final play, it was Bruce who scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl on a 73-yard reception with 1:54 left.

Alongside Bruce are young speedsters Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim and 11-year veteran Ricky Proehl, whose 30-yard touchdown reception in the final five minutes against Tampa Bay gave the Rams the NFC championship.

What's to stop the Rams?

Their schedule?

It's more difficult than the easy road that helped them to a confidence-swelling 6-0 start last season. The only team they faced before the playoffs that finished with a winning record was the Tennessee Titans, and the Rams lost that game.

This season, the schedule includes Denver, Seattle, Carolina, Washington and Tampa Bay.

Still, the NFC West isn't what it used to be, and the Rams should win the division again.

Personnel changes?

There are two new starters on the offensive line, with Andy McCollum replacing Mike Gruttadauria at center and Ryan Tucker replacing right tackle Fred Miller.

But both new starters were Rams last season, so the transition seems smooth.

"They're coming along good," Faulk said. "Andy played some last year. He has game experience. Tucker, he's like we haven't missed a beat. Those five guys, they've just picked up where we left off last year."

The truth is, for a Super Bowl champion, the Rams are amazingly intact--and still young at all the right positions, with scattered veterans to anchor every unit.

What about the rushing defense?

The Rams led the league, giving up only 74.3 yards a game. But there might be an issue here. The statistics were solid, but most teams were passing as they played catch-up--and the success of Eddie George and Steve McNair in the second half of the Super Bowl sticks in the mind.

In addition, the return of Jamal Anderson for the Atlanta Falcons and probable improvement by Ricky Williams for the New Orleans Saints suggests some of the NFC West's lackluster running games will perk up.

What else?

Injuries?

If the worst happens and Warner goes down, the Rams still have Trent Green, who was the starter before his preseason knee injury opened the door for Warner's phenomenal season.

"That makes it nice," cornerback Todd Lyght said. "Because in this league, it's very easy for the quarterback to get hurt the way they've got the zone blitz and everything set up. They put a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks."

Warner a one-year wonder? Martz won't even consider it.

"First of all, he's got just exceptional ability," said Martz, a former quarterback coach. "He's at his best under pressure. He's very intelligent, he's tough, and he's accurate.

"He was going to come to the surface sooner or later. He's too good not to. We were just fortunate we happened to have him. We were very lucky. He's just that good."

How about Super Bowl hangover?

The exhibition season hasn't been scintillating, with the Rams sort of wandering through.

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