TAMPA, Fla. — Kurt Warner clenched his teeth and exhaled, his soft whistle piercing the awkward quiet of the St. Louis locker room. It is the awkward quiet of the Ram offense, however, that has everyone in the organization frustrated and confused.
"I'm a little bit baffled," Warner said after Monday's 26-14 loss at Tampa Bay, a game in which four of his passes were intercepted. "It's the same team that's been here so long. I can't believe that it's taken this long and we still haven't gotten out of this rut we're in. It starts with me. I've got to take care of my part first, quit putting the team in bad positions and not in positions to win."
It was a typical moment of humility for Warner, voted the NFL's most valuable player twice in the last three seasons. He has never been reluctant to shoulder blame, even though the Rams can point in plenty of other directions to explain their 0-3 record, the team's worst start in a non-strike season since 1963. Since 1970, only five of 59 teams that started 0-3 have made the playoffs, most recently the Buffalo Bills in 1998.
The onetime "Greatest Show on Turf" is averaging 17 points a game this season--barely more than half of the 32.6 it averaged last season. Seven times last season, the Rams started drives inside the opponent's 50-yard line and came away with zero points. This season, they had done that seven times in the first two games. Warner has thrown one touchdown pass and seven interceptions, and the Rams now have lost their last three against Tampa Bay--all on "Monday Night Football."
For proof there's enough blame to go around, rewind the Buccaneer game and check out what went wrong.
Marshall Faulk was crunched into the turf in the second quarter, leaving the game with a neck strain. Backup running backs Trung Canidate and Lamar Gordon each broke the wrong way on pass routes, leading to two interceptions. Isaac Bruce couldn't hold onto a pass near the goal line after beating his defender by 10 yards. A beautifully placed punt trickled past Ram players who were trying to down it at the one and rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
Warner was sacked five times, and clobbered many more, in large part because St. Louis right tackles John St. Clair and Grant Williams had pass rushers whistling past them all night.
The Ram defense scarcely resembles the third-ranked unit that played so well last season, even though it has 10 returning starters.
"If you could put your finger on any one thing, it would be easy to fix," backup center Frank Garcia said. "It's just, we're not in sync with each other, and we're not making the plays at the critical times when we need to make plays. You can look back at that game and there are three or four instances where you say, 'Hey, that's going to change the game.' We didn't make those plays."
The Rams have never really recovered from their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. Gone is the swagger, the unwavering belief that Warner and Faulk could extricate the team from any tight spot, the notion that Coach Mike Martz has an answer for any scheme a defensive mastermind might devise.
"You have to play with a certain attitude," tight end Ernie Conwell said. "That attitude, in the past few years, has been portrayed as speed, excitement and fun. That attitude has to get back in here. We've got to maintain what attitude we have left, and where we're lacking, we've got to find it somehow."
By most accounts, Martz is far more tightly wound this season. He has closed practices, something he didn't do before, and has been especially sensitive to media scrutiny. His decisions to go for it on fourth down in losses to Denver and the New York Giants were widely criticized; the Rams failed on both attempts, and the plays turned out to be pivotal.
Trailing 13-7, the Rams spent the better part of the third quarter in Tampa Bay territory but decided to punt on fourth and one and fourth and two--choices not only influenced by the absence of Faulk but perhaps by the offense's diminished confidence.
Finally, after the Buccaneers began the fourth quarter with a touchdown drive, the Rams answered with one of their own, scoring on a 21-yard run by Gordon on fourth and one.
After the game, Martz was bracing for the possibility that Faulk's injury could keep him on the sideline awhile. Tuesday, Faulk's injury didn't seem as serious as first thought--Martz said Faulk had no numbness in his neck--but the running back's status was uncertain for Sunday's game with the Dallas Cowboys. Faulk was scheduled for an MRI, but results will not be made available until today.
"I was very disappointed with Trung, very disappointed," Martz said, who later declined to elaborate on his second-string running back. "So I put Lamar Gordon in, and it looks to me like we've found a starter."
It might have been the only bright spot for the coach, whose team catches a break Sunday in playing host to the 1-2 Cowboys.
"I'm upset," Martz said. "I feel bad for these players. We've played well enough at times to have won these games, and we've had some mistakes here and there. We're not good enough to overcome those mistakes. In the past, we were good enough where we could have done something about it."