ESPN the Magazine ESPN


ESPNMAG.com
In This Issue
Backtalk
Message Board
Customer Service
SPORT SECTIONS







The Life


ESPN The Magazine: Strength In Numbers
ESPN The Magazine

The lines are architect-quality, precise and exact. Through the 45 angles of the post patterns and the crisp 90s of the crossing routes, Kurt Warner's steady hand guides the green, fine-tipped felt pen across the papers of the Rams playbook. The clean simplicity of the lines conceals the malicious intent -- Torry Holt across the middle, Isaac Bruce deep downfield, Marshall Faulk on a devious flare out of the backfield. Each line carries with it an implied disdain for the opposition. You can hear the piercing cackle, the ruthless defense this challenge.

Warner is sitting in a soft leather chair at a small table in the office of an assistant coach, awaiting the commencement of a Wednesday night bible study group. The pages in front of him -- themselves possessing a certain Old Testament sensibility -- hold the game plan for the New England Patriots, roughly 160 pass plays, as many as 50 of them new and never before practiced. The six boxes on each page are blank, with only the play's name at the top of each. Warner fills them with the savage beauty of green lines on white paper.

Green for go.

To Warner and the Rams, these lines are proof of life's possibilities. They are the commandments for the NFL's best offense. They are intended to make defensive backs and heavy-legged linebackers as indecisive and slow -- and as paranoid -- as old folks driving in a rainstorm. These lines are sadism disguised as geometry.

Rams coach Mike Martz gives Warner one game plan with completed plays and one with just formations, and by Wednesday night, Warner has abandoned the completed copies and taken to drawing plays blind. "I could get away with not doing this," Warner says, "but I like to do it. It gives me a chance to go over every play and think about my reads. I went through a plan from earlier this year, and we counted 235 pass plays for one game. It's a lot to learn in a matter of four days."

Martz is the mad chemist, concocting a weekly mix. Many plays are variations of established formulas, others the result of exotic beaker-and-test-tube experimentation. They are expected to be memorized and digested. Even though some never make their way onto the practice field -- there's simply not enough time to run through 160 plays in three days of practice -- they can and will be called on game day. Says wide receiver Ricky Proehl, "I can't wait to come out here on Wednesday and see, 'Okay, what's he got? What are we giving them this week?' "

"It's a credit to Coach Martz because he has to come up with it all," says Holt. "It's a credit to us because we have to absorb it all."

Miami linebacker Zach Thomas compiled his own game plan in the week before the Dolphins faced the Rams on Sept. 30. He studied as much film as possible, and came away with a folder two inches thick. Then, after the Rams went out and ran up 441 yards of total offense in a 42-10 stooge-slap, Thomas said that most of what St. Louis did he'd never seen before. "You know how some coaches might look at a play and say, 'I can't put that in; I don't have anyone who can run that'?" says Holt. "Well, in this offense, you've always got a guy who can run that."

So Warner goes about his work, drawing tiny circles for each offensive player, then the definitive lines of the pass routes. As you watch him draw, you're hit by a realization: There is nothing on the other side. Warner is not drawing X's for defenders. The green lines head toward nothing but white paper, the great wide-open. They could go on past the page, past the field, off into forever.

This is the Rams' ethic: There is no defense for these lines.

Imagine you're on the Rams' side. Imagine that these convergent and divergent lines -- these schematics of destruction -- are drawn for you. What a thing it must be to trust these lines implicitly, to value their worth and give yourself over to them. Then imagine what you'd think if you were on the other side, in that invisible, unacknowledged world of white. You might feel like you didn't exist. The truth is, the way the Rams see it, you don't.

Their mistake wasn't becoming good. That part was fine. It was heralded and honored and almost universally appreciated. The Rams' Super Bowl season of '99 was a triumph of unpredictability, and -- most prominently in the form of Warner -- a testament to the elasticity of the human spirit. It was, on several occasions, enough to make then-coach Dick Vermeil cry.

But their mistake was staying good, and knowing it, and being unafraid to pronounce it. Their mistake was taking those lines on paper and seeing them for what they are: inventive, refreshing and, most of all, unstoppable. Their mistake was taking their superiority and creating the impression that it needed to be coupled with a disdain for the opposition. It is a perception that the opposition, adrift in that great white nothingness, fails to appreciate.

The dark soul at the center of this ethic doesn't come across as one of those death-or-football martinets who makes it his life's work to educate the world on its collective ignorance. Martz's fleshy, unlined face and thin voice seem to inhibit his ability to command a room. Mostly, he talks in an almost apologetic tone, insisting that any head coach in the league would have the Rams in the same position at this point in the season. He deflects questions that tread within four zip codes of anything that implies genius on his part. He says he isn't trying to offend, and feels bad if he does. Sorry to report, the Evil Genius comes across as a pretty regular guy.

"I don't think we outsmart anyone," Martz says. "Matter of fact, I'm sure we don't. We have players with the discipline, intelligence and ability to do a lot of things. It's not any more complicated than that."

But the offense, dubbed "Max-Q" for its alleged similarities to the condition of extreme force that occurs one minute after a space shuttle launch, is Martz's complicated creation. He puts the work in, devising the formations and calling the plays, and he's not bashful about displaying its more flamboyant qualities. He says the only problem is that "you can really get carried away with it if you're not careful. And we do."

"There's an air about Coach Martz, no question about it," says Proehl. "He doesn't care what people around the league think. He doesn't care about the other guys. Doesn't matter. It's all about us."

Says Warner, "He's not necessarily an arrogant guy, but I think there's a touch of it in there. You have to have some to be a football coach. It comes across like that because of the way he says it's always about us. The opposition doesn't matter, and we don't worry too much about hurting feelings."

All of which raises this question: Is false humility better than no humility at all?

"You can only be Cinderella once," says Isaac Bruce. "And then you become that evil witch. You know what? We're fine with that."

Martz refuses to submit to the allure of etiquette. He regularly informs his players of slights, both real and perceived, that he finds coming from opponents and media. "There are times when people challenge our manhood, and he lets us know about it," says defensive end Chidi Ahanotu. "He doesn't really tell us what he thinks about it; he's just the messenger." Says Warner, "Mike uses that stuff as a way of telling us we deserve the respect we're not getting. It's basically his way of saying, 'You deserve it, and these guys aren't giving it to you.' He comes in and it's like, 'This is what they don't think you can do this week.' "

Says Martz, "It's typical in the NFL to worry about the strength of your opponent. We've just never been that way."

Play by the rules? Whose rules? Martz's credo for his team is "a special place in time," which might sound like a Tony Bennett song but is intended as a constant reminder of how rare it is for a team in the parity-or-bust NFL to keep such high-level players together for any length of time. His offense consists of back-to-back MVPs (Warner and Faulk), four top-shelf receivers and an offensive line with Pro Bowlers Orlando Pace and Adam Timmerman. It's an offense with a legitimate claim as the best in NFL history, an offense that caused Dolphins defensive backs to ask Bruce, "How many plays you guys got, anyway?" It's an offense that often has Warner walking to the line, surveying the defensive alignment and then thinking to himself, These guys have no idea how we're going to attack them. What they're doing is a complete guess. This is a team that is so together, so solid in its solidarity, that the six players on the cover of The Magazine this issue insisted on wearing one another's jerseys throughout the photo shoot.

Doesn't this ethic of entitlement and dismissal invite unfortunate interpretations? Martz, standing on the Rams' practice field, shrugs and says, "I'm sure it can be interpreted wrong, and I feel bad about that. But those people truly don't understand what we're about. We've all been given something, and we're all trying to use it to the fullest. We're a talented enough team that if we do what we want to do, the result will be something we're happy with, regardless of the opponent."

The facts, of course, are with Martz. His team's only loss through the first nine games, to the Saints, was a direct result of eight turnovers. If you remove the antithetical notion that New Orleans caused those turnovers, you can say the loss was the exception that proved the rule: The Rams lost only because they beat themselves.

But the flash point in the Rams' opponents-as-hood-ornaments crusade came on Oct. 21, in a 34-14 win over the Jets at the Meadowlands. Leading 31-7 with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Martz called for an onside kick, which the Rams recovered. With four minutes left in the game and the score 34-7, he challenged a fumble ruling. In the final minutes, Martz allowed Warner to go to the stands and sign autographs while play on the field continued. Some Jets players took offense at each of the perceived transgressions. "We're trying to win the surest way possible," Martz says. "That day, that was part of the deal. If it hadn't happened in New York, I don't think it would have been an issue."

The most common indictment of the Rams, the one that offends them the most, concerns the word "finesse," the most vile epithet known to football. The 49ers, offensive innovators during their reign, suffered the same indignity on the way to five Super Bowl titles. After the Rams pummeled the Panthers 48-14 without throwing a pass in the fourth quarter, Carolina safety Mike Minter said, "All they did was hand it to Marshall Faulk and he ran up and down the field ... when a guy can run for 80 yards and not get touched, I don't know what you call that." Said Timmerman, "It makes no sense whatsoever. If Marshall is running 70 yards without being touched, somebody is being hit -- and hit hard."

From dominance springs backlash. The Rams hear it all -- Martz makes sure of it -- and they'll gladly use it to their advantage. Martz sees it as his responsibility to keep his team informed so it stays energized. As the playoffs approach, he might find a dwindling supply of material. Those who reside on the unacknowledged side of the page don't figure to have the same problem.

"I know all of you analysts think they are the team to beat every year," says Saints receiver Joe Horn. "Until guys like Warner and Faulk and Bruce and Holt retire, you'll just keep on thinking that. We don't think that. And that's probably why we beat them most of the time we play them.

"Yeah, they won a Super Bowl -- two years ago. A different team wins the Super Bowl every year. Who knows who it's gonna be this year? But are the Rams the best team ever? Nah, nah -- we don't believe that."

That's how it looks from the other side, but what would you see if those green lines rolled for you? Put yourself on one, running free through the anonymous white void, through all eternity. Would you pretend? Probably not. In fact, there's a good chance you'd see exactly what the Rams see: There's no defense for this.

This article appears in the December 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



Latest Issue


Also See
Keown: Bragging rights
Do the St. Louis Rams have ...

St. Louis Rams clubhouse
Unstoppable?

Monday Night Football home page
Are you ready for some football?

NFL front page
Latest news from the gridiron

ESPNMAG.com
Who's on the cover today?

SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...


 ESPN Tools
Email story
 
Most sent
 
Print story
 


Customer Service

SUBSCRIBE
GIFT SUBSCRIPTION
CHANGE OF ADDRESS

CONTACT US
CHECK YOUR ACCOUNT
BACK ISSUES

ESPN.com: Help | Media Kit | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | PR
Copyright ©2002 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. For ESPN the Magazine customer service (including back issues) call 1-888-267-3684. Click here if you're having problems with this page.