In grading players and coaches, I'll try to take into account injuries and other factors that may have led to sub par performances by Rams players, and how that reflected on team success. I'll also look at my own personal bests and worsts, for readers to compare to their own, in a later piece.
Mike Martz was faced with a dilemma when his defensive coordinator, Lovie Smith got the Bears head coaching job. Martz could either elect to stay with the same type scheme Smith had installed over three seasons, and choose a replacement with that philosophy, or start over with a defense that he wanted to employ after seeing Smith's scheme fall short of what he desired across from his world-class offense.
In the end, Martz decided to go with a coach he was familiar with, Larry Marmie, instead of risking an unknown that might not fit in with his head coach. From the start, it looked as if the Rams personnel was not a good fit for what Martz wanted to do, and so Martz decided to stay with much of the "cover two" early, and blend he and Marmie's new stuff in little by little over the season. In the end, that decision was wrong, and did nothing but confuse the Rams younger defenders, many who had to assume bigger roles because of key injuries to cornerback Travis Fisher and safeties Aeneas Williams and Adam Archuleta.
Martz made his poorest decision near the end of the first half in Miami, and as a result, Miami scored a touchdown instead of having to try a 53-yard field goal, a play that broke the Rams momentum, and their backs. He was also criticized far too often for trends and play calling and the like, most of it off base, and coming from fans who couldn't repeat even one of the Rams plays five seconds after hearing it, let alone understand a game plan.
The repeated failure of the special teams, after hiring a new veteran assistant coach, Mike Stock, instead of a younger, more energetic man, was Martz biggest failure of all, and it's the one that must not be repeated to the extent it was in 2004.
On the positive side, Martz guided his team to postseason by keeping them together, and other than Kyle Turley, who did not play, or choose to support his teammates much, Martz has their support. That bodes well for 2005, and is the primary reason that Martz must be retained for at least another season. Some changes must be made, and one should be a new special teams coach, one under 40. It's difficult to say whether Marmie's unit failed because of the lack of horses or Martz holding his scheme back early. Late in the year there was marked improvement, and maybe the way Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn did them in was a bit of an anomaly, helped by horrific punt coverage, and other special teams gaffes.
All in all Martz warrants a "C" grade for his game day work and preparation, but a D for his handling of the roster and special teams. His grade for media relations is a D-, but that grade doesn't really figure in what makes for a great coach anyway. Overall, Martz and his staff, who I felt graded out an A- in 2003, would receive a C- mark for 2004.
Marc Bulger emerged as one of the best in the NFL, particularly when the game was on the line. Bulger is one of the top five passers in the league, and among its most underrated stars. GRADE A
Chris Chandler was supposed to be a steady influence and a guy who could play if called upon, but instead played like a free agent rookie in his two starts. He almost certainly won't be back. GRADE F
Jamie Martin played pretty well for a guy off the street, and deserves a B grade and another training camp
Rookie Jeff Smoker appears to have what it takes, and should win the #2 job in camp.
Both Marshall Faulk and rookie Steven Jackson had moments when one could get very excited about the running game, but injuries on the line and to those two backs slowed that offensive metamorphosis. Grade B.
Arlen Harris gained weight to play fullback and be better on special teams, but he did neither. He's a Martz favorite, but he hardly earned a 2005 job this year. Grade D-.
Joey Goodspeed did a decent job blocking and catching the occasional ball, but nothing spectacular. Grade C+.
The deepest unit on the team had only minor injury problems, mainly to Kevin Curtis at the start and Ike Bruce at the end of the season, and again look to stay one of the best in the league for years to come. It's a crime that Torry Holt, the only player ever to go over 1300 yards five straight seasons, wasn't voted to the Pro-Bowl, though he will no doubt replace Terrell Owens in the game. Bruce had another stellar season, and no one was better the first half of the season.
Curtis came on like gangbusters the last month, and his deep speed makes for an even scarier proposition for NFL defenses in the future. Shaun McDonald won the miracle in Seattle with a score, and set up the game winner against the Jets with another. Few teams have a #4 with his ability, let alone the skill the Dane Looker and Mike Furrey also possess. Grade A+.
Another area the Rams seem to ignore in adding talent year after year, in a league full of young impact tight ends. Brandon Manumaleuna was given the starting job without earning it, and he has improved, but still makes far too many errors for a starter. Cam Cleeland had a huge catch in the playoff win over Seattle, and is a quality #2 who should be retained. Grade C-
This unit battled through far too much adversity in 2004, losing their beloved coach, Jim Hanifan, who still made sure to stay close to the team after retirement, then being forced to overcome long holdout by the line's star, Orlando Pace, and serious injuries to center Dave Wohlabaugh and tackle Kyle Turley even before camp began. Guard Adam Timmerman, inked to a new long term deal that will allow him to end his career as a Ram, played hurt all season, often when he should have sat.
The leadership of Timmerman and Andy McCollum was the glue that held the line together as well as it did, and helped youngsters like Blaine Saipaia, Larry Turner, and Scott Tercero improve. Chris Dishman and Tom Nutten came in late but displayed inspirational effort to do what they could to help the team. Grant Williams did his best with a shoulder injury, but it wasn't very good. The Rams improved their average per rush by a yard this year, and Bulger threw for a ton of yards, so the results were not as bad as one might have imagined.
The loss of Jimmy Kennedy early on cost the team their biggest, strongest lineman, and on the heels of the loss of Grant Wistrom and Brian Young to free agency, the unit struggled badly early. Their star, Leonard Little was double and triple teamed every game, which also hindered the defense. Later in the season, Kennedy returned and was one of the better Rams players the last month of the year, and rookie Anthony Hargrave also emerged as a starter. Bryce Fisher did well when used sparingly, and was NFC defensive player of the month in December, which only makes the unrestricted free agent harder to sign.
Defensive tackles Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis stayed healthy, and look to finally be the players the Rams hoped they might become, if good health continues. Tyoka Jackson remains one of the most underrated linemen in football, and he is a leader in the locker room as well, who was missed in the last two games when an ankle injury ended his season. Grade B.
This is the major problem area on the Rams team, and the lack of toughness here also infects the special teams. Pisa Tinoisamoa, though undersized, is the only starting caliber player, and he showed tremendous courage in playing all season with a sling due to a shoulder injury that will be repaired surgically. Robert Thomas is not a middle linebacker, and he can't stay healthy no matter where he plays. He may be moved outside in 2005, and it may be as a backup, and one last chance to stay on the team that drafted him in the first round in 2002.
Tommy Polley simply lacks the physicality to play the strong side, and his coverage wasn't any good either in 2004, when he lost his starting job to rookie Brandon Chillar, who then got banged up and was ineffective on special teams. Polley won't be back if another team offers him starting pay in free agency.
Trev Faulk was decent on special teams, but isn't a starter in the NFL.
The loss of Travis Fisher before the season started was a major blow, as big a loss as that of Turley to the offense. Even after he returned, he was not near the player he had been before breaking his arm in pre-season, but he was still pretty good in coverage. Jerametrius Butler stayed a Ram after the team matched an offer sheet from the Redskins, and it was a very good move, as Butler led the team in interceptions and played at near Pro-Bowl level all season.
Both Kevin Garrett and DeJuan Groce were expected to make big strides as the nickel and dime backs, and also play a big part of special teams, but neither player did much at all, nor did rookie Dwight Anderson, who did show some raw tools. The team will be looking to bring in some real competition for those three this offseason. Grade C
Expected to be the backbone of the defense, the position turned out to be a nightmare. Both starters, Adam Archuleta, and Aeneas Williams, were hobbled by serious injury, and though each tried to play through them, it was to no avail, and that left the Rams open for big plays all year. The team brought in a plethora of safeties to bolster the weakest part of the roster, starting with ex-Niner Zach Bronson, who lasted one day before injury.
Others added to the roster were either hurt or ineffective, until the team found Antuan Edwards late in the season and made him their free safety. Edwards is a free agent, and the Rams want to keep him, although his play is not what one would call physical. Of all the backups, only Rich Coady stayed healthy, mostly because he wouldn't hit anyone.
The Rams must draft a couple of physical safeties in April, at least one in the top three rounds, to keep this problem from resurfacing, especially if Williams calls it quits, and Archuleta isn't able to regain his health. If Archuleta becomes a bigger question mark, the team will need to acquire a top veteran safety as a free agent priority. GRADE D-
Kicker Jeff Wilkins and deep snapper Chris Massey are two of the very best at what they do, and the only worry is that Wilkins will have to again be the best Rams tackler on kick coverage. Holder Dane Looker is also very good at that task. Grade A
Punter Kevin Stemke showed little to have a guaranteed job in 2005, nor did KR Aveion Cason. Shaun McDonald wasn't very good as a punt returner either, showing a tentative nature and also struggling to catch balls he had to move to get under. Grade D-