Super Bowl loss isn't going to change the Rams' ways
By John Clayton
MACOMB, Ill. -- The signs on the two-lane roads to Macomb are misleading. Every two miles for as much as 100 miles, you see, "No Passing Zone." After seven years as the summer home of the Rams, you'd think somebody would change those signs.
This is the Rams. They're in a passing zone all the time. Even when discussions center on the disappointing Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, the Rams think pass. Conventional thinking might have been to call more Marshall Faulk runs against the Patriots' schemes of six and seven defensive backs.
"That's not what we do," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "It's all about matchups. If you get Marshall or Isaac Bruce or another receiver on a defensive back, you get him the ball if he's better than the guy he's going against, you throw him the ball. You have fun. There is a certain energy and excitement about opening things up a little bit."
The strategy has worked for two trips to the Super Bowl in three years, and now that the emotions from the Super Bowl are gone, the Rams are reloading for the next rounds. Taking less than what he could get on the open market, Faulk signed a seven-year, $45 million contract Monday. Before camp, Martz locked up his Rams future through 2006 with a $3 million-plus deal. Next up is left tackle Orlando Pace -- a 2003 free agent -- and after that receiver Torry Holt, who's up in two years.
History to the Rams comes in two forms -- victories and statistics. Individually, the Rams dwell more on the team stats. Warner talks about continuing the show in order to be ranked with or above the best offenses in league history. Those aren't idle words. The Rams spend two fast-paced practices a day pushing the envelop of perfection on the offense.
Long-time NFL offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, who goes back to the beginnings of this offensive philosophy when Don Coryell brought it to the Chargers, has been hired as an aide to Martz. Because Martz was an understudy of Zampese, Martz considers him a conscious for times when his inventive mind veers in weird directions.
"Three years in a row, they have scored 500 points, and nobody has ever done that," Zampese said. "They rank with the top offensive groups who have ever played. His offense is so far ahead of anybody else in the NFL and how well they do it. For formations and plays, Mike is way beyond anything we've done in the past. He's way out there."
So, in this farm town with only two-lane roads to approach it, Martz and the Rams keep going against conventional NFL logic. To a player, the Rams offense knows defenses will copy the Patriots nickel and dime packages to try to stop them.
"There won't be a big adjustment, we are just trying to strive for perfection," wide receiver Torry Holt said. "The key is really honing in and finishing. We didn't start well in the Super Bowl, but we finished well. When we get to the 50, we usually score, even if it's a field goal. We didn't do that well. But lots of teams base a lot of defenses like the Patriots did. So we may see a lot of six or seven defensive backs. It's up to us to execute and Mike drawing up great plays."
The Rams sound as though they relish the idea of teams loading up the secondary against them. That's visible in practice. Warner has been particularly sharp this week hitting receivers in difficult spots in the middle of the field with defenders around. Sure, gashing a defense with a Faulk run is a good strategy. But so is isolating Faulk in the short zone against the lone linebacker or hitting Terrence Wilkins or Holt against the weakest cornerback.
"The Patriots and Titans did it, but we have had a lot of success with it," Warner said of playing against the nickel and dime strategies. "It gives you things, big things. It's hard for teams to really get used to doing that. The defensive players aren't used to playing in that space, so it's easy to move the guys and easy to find the holes in there. Your passing lane are a little smaller because the defense has better athletes there, but sometimes they aren't real comfortable covering those area. The guys who are used to being back there as the first line of defense are now the first line of defense. They aren't used to doing that."
No passing zone? Forget about it. Perhaps the most amazing part of the Rams offensive phenomenon in how well the players buy into it. They should. It's fun. Faulk agreed to what will be a career-ending contract and he barely knew the details. Believe him. He'll gain 2,000 combined yards this season, but he doesn't pay attention to those numbers.
"I look back and all I want to do is win," Faulk said. "More yards, more touchdowns, more catches, that doesn't mean you are winning. At this stage in my career, the personal things aren't of value right now. What we do as a group is the most important thing. That's what keeps us going. That's why you don't have guys here who are griping and moaning about getting the ball. People ask me, `Did you want to touch the ball more in the Super Bowl?' I just wanted to win."
Individually, Faulk works on ways to counter the downfield holding he received against the Patriots. Warner works on perfecting the throws. The coaching staff is trying to give a three-year crash course to Wilkins, who takes over as the quick receiver and return specialist after the departure of Az-Zahir Hakim. Meanwhile, Martz keeps experimenting with rookie halfback Lamar Gordon, a big, powerful runner, and receiver Eric Crouch, a Heisman Trophy quarterback learning a new position.
Faulk's contract, though, created a big buzz in camp.
"With this team, it's not about the numbers and it's not about how much money we are all going to make," Warner said. "As a matter of fact, we are all making a lot of money. We are all successfully working together as one unit. What a great example for the young guys. In the age of free agency, when everybody is trying to get the most money, you've got the greatest player who ever played the running back position willing to take less than he deserves to be with a winning unit."
It meant something to Faulk that ownership ripped out the turf in the practice facility and installed Field Turf in the hopes that it might be easier on his right knee. It meant something to the players that Martz arranged for lights to be installed on the practice field for a night practice to get them out of the heat of the day.
"I kinda wondered when I was drafted by St. Louis, but once I got here, the front office made the right moves," Pace said. "No one knew who Kurt Warner was. But once we got everybody in place, it started to roll. Those guys could have egos, but everybody is contributing and having fun doing it."
Remember this is the team that passes in a no passing area.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.