By Rams Nation's – Barry Waller
August 17th 2002
Unlike the Rams initial pre-season contest in Tennessee, which at least seemed exciting during its progress, St. Louis’ home opener was more of the usual boring stuff that exhibition games have become in recent years.
The home crowd cheered their team, but the team they cheered was hardly the juggernaut squad the Rams will field on the real opening day. Marshall Faulk sat it out again, and so did Aeneas Williams. So did any Ram starter with even the mildest injury, including free safety Kim Herring and #1 draft pick linebacker Robert Thomas.
That’s no big deal to Rams fans, however, although paying full price for what amount to glorified scrimmages is a black mark on the normally fan friendly NFL. The Rams faithful know what a talented team they have, just as the Rams players and coaches do.
That means almost no great need to play the superstars this early, as even one practice game should be enough for the regulars to get ready for the games that count. As one sees the number of players hurt in pre season already, a few key players even gone for the season, seeing Rams head coach Mike Martz playing it safe with his big guns makes sense completely.
The Rams are not a team without any questions remaining, however, and the Rams nation has been very eager to see those thin roster areas solidified. Any fears remaining among Rams fans will be either soothed or exacerbated by how the group of second and third tier players performs in August.
On Friday night, the Rams got a dose of what they should expect from teams feeling that the way the Patriots were able to defeat the Rams in the Super Bowl can be duplicated in the 2002 season. For the last three years teams have tried to intimidate the Rams to little avail, as the Rams have sent some trash talking, supposedly “tough” teams packing with another loss.
In the Super Bowl, New England was allowed to add some borderline and sometimes blatantly illegal hits to the mix and that ploy was able to take the Rams offense out of their usual game. Its common knowledge that in the Super Bowl the officials have had a history of “letting them play” which can drastically even the playing field for a less talented club.
However, such dirty play could never be allowed in the regular season without changing the rules completely. In pre-season, the over zealousness of young guys trying to make a roster is exactly why Martz and any coach with a brain won’t risk his best players in meaningless games at least until the first round of cuts gets rid of many of the players most likely to play out of control in August .
On Friday, the Rams got another taste of a team thinking a message can be sent to the Rams before anything counts, as the Bears committed three personal fouls that were called before the first half ended and probably at least three more that were not flagged, two of which injured Rams front line performers.
Torry Holt ended his evening spitting up blood after being speared by a Bear defensive back in the first quarter, and Terrance Wilkins was helped off after a very late hit on a punt return in the second half. Wilkins could be out three weeks with his rib injury, and will possibly miss the opener against the Broncos. While Martz called the knee to Wilkins chest “accidental”, it certainly looked like a cheap shot to the eyes of the fans I the Edward Jones dome and watching on TV.
Equally cheap and uncalled was a helmet to the chin of Rams RB Lamar Gordon near the Bears goal line after a nice catch on a quick slant from backup QB Marc Bulger, courtesy of Bears safety Larry Whigham.
The FOX “A-Team” broadcast crew of Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Chris Collinsworth pointed out after the play that just a week ago the league had a meeting stressing the need to make sure the helmet is not used as a weapon against defenseless receivers or backs. The Bear defense apparently never got that memo, because Whigham went head hunting on Gordon, sending both the Rams rookie’s helmet and the ball to the turf. Gordon got his helmet back, but the ball was recovered by the Bears, much to the chagrin of the crowd, angered at another no call on the Bears.
The Rams starters seemed surprised by the intensity the Bears brought at the game’s beginning, and Kurt Warner was nearly killed on a couple plays, mainly due to whiffs on pass blocks by right tackle hopeful John St. Clair. If Rams fans have one fear above all others these days, it revolves around the right tackle situation on the Rams. On Friday, St. Clair’s horrific evening send an alarm though out the dome and all the way to Rams Park.
There is no way Mike Martz is going to allow St. Clair to drag him down this season with so much in place to help return the Rams to the Super Bowl. One can expect several free agent tackles still unsigned, mainly ex-Bill John Fina and veteran journeyman Ben Coleman, to get calls from the Rams this week, before some other team ends any chance to acquire a better option than St. Clair quickly enough for them to learn the Rams offense.
Martz could also move Tom Nutten to right tackle, but then the line continuity is disrupted anyway, as Cameron Spikes or Heath Irwin would take the left guard spot. In any case, if there was any feeling among Rams fans and the media that St. Clair would be fine as the starter on the right side, it is decidedly gone now.
The Rams got another fine performance by Bulger as the backup to Warner on Friday, as he may even take the #2 roster spot away from injured Jamie Martin if he continues to shine. Bulger got increased time with the top unit and fared pretty well, though the fumble by Gordon short-circuited a good drive. Still, Bulger was able to put ten points on the board, including a great pass and catch by #2 tight end Brandon Manamaleuna, who is showing fans why Martz is so high on the 300 pounder.
The second year player is eliminating any concern over the second tight end spot to replace departed Jeff Robinson, and rookie Chris Massey appears to be doing the same as the deep snapper. The other candidate for the job, James Broyles, was awful Friday, while Massey has been very impressive, despite his lack of great size.
The Rams gave up a quick scoring drive to the Bears, sending them off to what would become a 10-0 lead as the Rams offense sputtered early. On the scoring play, Dexter McCleon, starting at free safety in place of Herring, was forced to choose between two wide open Bears receivers, one on the deep sideline, the other down the middle, and covered neither one as Bears QB Jim Miller hit Dez White for the score.
Most of the damage in that drive and the second Bears scoring drive was done working on rookie CB Travis Fisher with White in single coverage by the Rams second round pick. With Williams out nursing a thigh bruise, and Jerametrius Butler also joining Herring on the inactive list, the Rams were a bit short in the defensive backfield in the game, and it showed.
Later in the game, backup safety Nick Sorenson and rookie safety Steve Bellisari headed to the locker room with thigh and knee injuries respectively. Both could be out until at least the regular season, and Bellisari possibly longer with a partially torn knee ligament, which won’t require surgery at this time according to team doctors.
None of the borderline guys stood out for the Rams in the game, especially on special teams, where the Rams were woeful, and what eventually cost them the game, as far as meaningless final score, which was 19-17 Chicago, after someone named Christian caught two passes, one a 51 yard, fourth down “Hail Mary” from someone named Mastrole, which gave the Bears a final minute victory, sending the Rams to an 0-2 record in 2002 meaningless games.
Punter Mitch Berger made his Rams debut with a great game, showing how he may well be the best Rams punter in their eight year St. Louis history. Berger average 40.4 on seven punts, but his average was lowered by a couple pooch punts ending inside the 20. His first two efforts averaged 52.5 yards even with some shaky snapping by James Broyles.
Gordon was again the game’s offensive star for St. Louis, as he gained 49 yards on seven rushing attempts and added 4 catches for 50 yards. Trung Canidate, being pushed hard by the rookie #3 pick from North Dakota State, had an up and down type performance, though he did finish with 139 total yards. Like Gordon, he also lost one fumble, something Martz was not happy about.
Warner shook off the rust to take the offense on a 71-yard scoring drive before ending his night after a quarter, finishing with a four-yard dart to TE Ernie Conwell. The rest of the damage on the drive came solely from Holt and Canidate with help from Warner.
The next two Rams drives made it to the Bear 43 and 26 before Canidate and Gordon fumbled away plays, Gordon on the 4 after his catch. The Rams defense by then had come to life and snuffed the Bears offense completely, allowing just two first downs after falling behind 10-0 until the fourth quarter, with five “four and out” possessions from late in the first quarter through the final stanza, when hardly anyone making the team hits the field in early pre-season.
By the half the Rams had tied the game and by the end of three quarters it was still tied, though the Rams took a 17-10 lead only three minutes into the final period, then handing it over to the fourth stringers the remaining 12 minutes of play. Bulger stayed in and finished with 13-19, 188 yard slate, though he was again unable to rally in the final minute with the scrub team. Most importantly, Bulger was not intercepted, though he did absorb some sacks when holding the ball far too long.
The Rams have only until Thursday evening to lick their wounds before hosting the Chargers in meaningless game #3. With so many injured starters and top backups, quite a few “bubble” players will be able to make their mark, or at least get noticed by other less talented NFL teams. Whether Martz will use his top guys much is still in question, but not as much in question as whether John St. Clair or someone else can make sure the risk of playing NFL MVP Kurt Warner is not simply foolhardy.