By Rams Nation's Barry Waller
The Rams still talk about finishing with a .500 record, which would mean they would have been 8-3 after that abysmal 0-5 start, something to build upon going into 2003. On Sunday they nearly proved that they don’t deserve to be a team with an 8-8 record at season’s end.
The Rams jumped out to a 24-7 halftime lead, mainly because they finally found some excellence in their special teams, with two new return men, Dre Bly and Trung Canidate, giving the Rams great field position and also seven points, courtesy of a Bly 78 Yard punt return that gave the Rams a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter after a dismally sluggish first 31 plus minutes of play.
There were an incredible total of five punts in that yawner of a first stanza, which had fans thinking that the Rams had indeed packed it in for the season, instead of displaying the fight that head coach Mike Martz is demanding. The Rams had 129 total yards in the first quarter, but as been the case much of the season, they always shot themselves in the foot when scoring range loomed.
As soon as Bly gave his team that 10-0 lead, The Rams defense began to look like the soft unit that they have been far too much in 2002. They stopped Arizona in their first possession after the Bly return, but gave up touchdowns on three of the next four Cardinal possessions. The only time the Rams stopped the visitors was when Leonard Little hit Cardinal quarterback Jake Plummer and recovered on the Arizona 32. Middle linebacker Jamie Duncan had his picture on the game program, and had the picture been stationed in the middle of the Rams defense, the results could not have been worse that what the Rams got from the real thing in the flesh.
Marc Bulger, who struggled in the first half and really most of the game against the blitzing Cardinal defense, until leading the offense to a 68 yard scoring drive, came through again after Little’s play gave the Rams the ball back with only 39 seconds left before intermission, with a three yard touchdown pass to Torry Holt with only a couple seconds left on the clock.
It should be noted that the Rams went for the six points rather than kick a field goal to give them a 13-point lead. Of course, if you don’t get any points right before the half, it’s not like missing when the outcome of the game lies on that last play.
However, as it turned out, the Rams needed that touchdown, because after the half, they played like they had just returned from a sensitivity class. Martz explained that he felt the team was “sluggish” in the third quarter, and also blamed his play calling for some of the problems. Nice try Mike, but those who could see this game with their own eyes could see a team try to sleepwalk through one more period against a very bad team, but one which nonetheless showed some heart in their comeback to hold the lead with two minutes left. Calling that Rams squad “sluggish” would be like saying Senator Trent Lott made a little “boo-boo” at Strom Thurmond’s party.
Martz had to be steaming, just as the crowd was, watching his defense, especially
his linebackers, play matador to the Marcel Shipp, the Cardinal running back,
the unknown Cardinal receivers, so off the depth chart they had numbers in the
teens, like the early cuts in training camp, who ran past the Tommy Polley-less
linebacking corps for big yardage over and over.
By the time the game was over, the Rams had given the beat up and talent poor visitors 378 total yards and 28 points.
At the end, the Rams looked dead as doornails, and deservedly so. Martz was seen giving raking Bulger over the coals for a costly pick thrown into triple coverage, and there was no real sign of life on the Rams sidelines. It looked like Mr. Bowtie, Cardinals owner Billy Bidwill, who took his team to the desert from St. Louis in 1987, was going to leave town happy, something St. Louis fans would not take lightly.
The only positive play the Rams had gotten to speak of was a 35 yard pass to Holt that set up a Jeff Wilkins field goal to give the Rams a six point lead, the Rams first points of the second half, after a third quarter of offensive ineptitude that garnered a total of 17 total yards for the home team, on 16 plays. Meanwhile the Cardinals lit up that slacking Rams defense for 161 yards. Only once did the Cardinals even face a third down in the period, and of course they were successful on that one.
In the fourth quarter, it had not been much better either, as the defense allowed Plummer to take his team to the lead in only seven plays, one a 24 yard third down scramble from the Rams 33 that led to a one yard toss to tight end Steve Bush that gave the Cardinals the lead 28-27.
Still, with almost eight minutes left, St. Louis fans still had hope that the Cardinals would revert to the team they knew and loved and suffered with for 27 seasons. In the end, that’s just what happened, but not before the Rams showed the home crowd just how bad it can get for a team with some starters that don’t care.
After the go ahead score, the Rams went three and out, even with great field position after a 38 yard kickoff return by Canidate, now out of Mike Martz doghouse at last, at least for awhile. Martz is so happy with his former whipping boy, that Trung will get the start at halfback in Seattle. Lamar Gordon didn’t fumble Sunday, but his inability to know where the first down marker was on a couple of key plays left Martz speechless when asked about it on Monday.
All three plays on that second to last Rams chance were dropped passes right in the hands of Holt, Ike Bruce and normally sure handed Ricky Proehl. “The Greatest Show On Turf” had become Mike Martz and his juggling clown act, and the Eddie Dome had all the excitement of a mausoleum after that three-act performance.
The Cardinals got the ball back with 7:07 left, still lots of time for one, maybe two more possessions to send the visitors home as losers. Even though they played safety first offense, the pathetic Rams defense allowed the Cardinals to run off 12 plays and over five minutes of clock, not mention all three Rams timeouts, before they basically stopped themselves by running the ball three straight times, the last on third and six from midfield.
You can’t fault Cardinal coach Dave McGinnis from thinking his defense could hold the Rams offense one last time, with fifty long yards to get into field goal position for the win. Then again, as it turned out, maybe you can, and Cardinal fans probably are right now.
What McGinnis did not count on was that Martz had one more wild card up his sleeve, one that spared him enormous criticism for the team’s lackluster play, for at least another week. This game was won in the end because Martz is an offensive wizard, no more no less.
The Cardinals had blitzed and blitzed and blitzed some more as the game wore on, with great effect, but Martz gambled that they would be playing “cover two” at first as the Rams took over from their 20. He also took a gamble in that the play he sent in with Bulger, “double wide H right 38” is almost never called in that situation.
“ Their safeties were exceptionally wide in the coverage area, and you don’t usually throw that pass against two-deep, “ explained a relieved Martz after the game. Fortunately, the offense, so inept all day, executed the deep slant to Holt perfectly, and he caught it in stride, galloping 58 yards to the Arizona 22. From there it was the Rams running the clock down, though they did throw one dangerous sideline pass to Bruce and Marshall Faulk limped in to gain nine yards and almost score.
Maybe it was fitting that the game ended up in the hands of the guy Martz criticized most last Monday, kicker Jeff Wilkins, something Rams fans and the local media thought was a bit unusual following a pasting such as the Rams received in Kansas City last week. Martz calling him out openly hurt Wilkins, and the two had a meeting during the week to iron things out if that’s possible. Many have speculated that Wilkins days as a Ram are numbered, though that seems to happen a lot with guys who get in the Martz doghouse.
Wilkins nailed the game winner, his third field goal in three tries on the day, making him the only Rams player who had a perfect day Sunday. For the rest of the organization, it was a win, but little else, nothing to be proud of, nothing to cherish or even remember, and certainly not to be added to Rams lore. Still, compared to what a loss would have meant to everyone connected to the Rams and all their fans, this ugly win was definitely something more than nothing at all in this painful season.