They aren't "The Greatest Show On Turf'' nowadays. Far from it, in fact. The St. Louis Rams, after all, were 8-8 during the regular season.
But, for the first time since disassembling the cast of offensive players that carried the club to Super Bowl appearances in the 1999 and 2001 seasons, the Rams are beginning to accumulate the sort of depth of pass-receiving talent that can give a defense fits.
Kurt Warner was the Rams' quarterback then, and was the NFL's most valuable player in each of those seasons. He had two of the game's best wideouts, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, at his disposal, and tailback Marshall Faulk was a force as a receiver and as a runner.
But what Warner and those Rams also had was the sport's most dangerous third and fourth options at wide receiver. In '99, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl combined for 69 catches for 1,026 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2001, Hakim and Proehl totaled 79 receptions for 937 yards and eight touchdowns.
These days, the Rams have Marc Bulger at quarterback. Faulk's career seems to be winding down, but rookie tailback Steven Jackson looks like a capable replacement. The Rams still have Holt and Bruce, and they remain among the league's most productive receivers. Each topped 1,200 receiving yards this season. But the key to last Saturday's 27-20 triumph at Seattle in a first-round NFC playoff game was the contributions made by the Rams' third and fourth wideouts, second-year pros Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.
"We're coming around,'' Coach Mike Martz said after the game. "We really are developing and maturing as a team. You could see some young players have some terrific success out there. . . . There are a lot of good, young players here that played at a really high level. That's what is really thrilling. Who knows what this team can achieve from here on out.''
Curtis had four catches for 107 yards against the Seahawks, setting up a touchdown with a 50-yard reception and a field goal with a 31-yard catch and run on a slant pattern. McDonald made the key play on the Rams' fourth-quarter drive to their go-ahead touchdown, turning a swing pass by Bulger into a 31-yard gain. According to McDonald, the Rams had practiced the play for weeks but never had used it in a game. "It came out just how Coach Martz drew it up -- perfect execution and the perfect call,'' McDonald said.
Said Curtis: "That's the best, when everyone is getting involved and contributing. It makes us that much more dangerous.''
Curtis was a third-round draft pick by the Rams last year out of Utah State, and McDonald was a fourth-round selection out of Arizona State. They combined for only 14 catches last season as rookies. But they made significant progress this year, totaling 69 catches for 915 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season.
"You can't double[-cover] everyone,'' Bulger said. "That's why the Rams back with Az in 1999 and 2000 were so good, because they had that third guy with the matchup. I think we are starting to get that matchup with the third and fourth guy on safeties, on linebackers.''
Martz's trust in Bulger also seems to be growing as the Rams prepare to play an NFC semifinal this weekend in Atlanta. Last year, even on the heels of a 12-4 regular season, Martz seemed distrustful of Bulger in the playoffs, when he settled for a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation -- instead of allowing his inexperienced quarterback to made a risky throw into the end zone trying for a potential winning touchdown -- and ended up losing in double overtime at home to the Carolina Panthers in an NFC semifinal.
Last weekend, Martz gushed about Bulger's sense of calm in crunch time after watching Bulger direct the winning drive in Seattle, culminating with a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cam Cleeland with just over two minutes remaining. In his second full season as the Rams' starter, the 27-year-old Bulger was the NFC's fourth-rated passer, throwing for 3,964 yards this season, with 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
"He never gets flustered,'' Martz said. "He is never rattled. . . . He gets angry about a couple of plays we should have made and didn't. But he has a short memory about all of that stuff.''
Bates Leaving Dolphins
Jim Bates, who led the Miami Dolphins to a 3-4 record as their interim coach following Dave Wannstedt's resignation in November, has declined to remain with the team as new coach Nick Saban's defensive coordinator.
Saban indicated that Bates informed the club of the decision Sunday night. The two once worked together in Cleveland and have remained friendly, and they met last week to discuss the possibility of Bates staying on. They said then that they'd speak again this week. But Bates had indicated earlier that he'd have a difficult time remaining with the team as an assistant after getting a taste of being a head coach. He is a long-shot candidate for the Browns' head-coaching job and is scheduled to interview for the position today in New York.
In a written statement released Monday by the Dolphins, Bates said: "Nick and I are good friends and we respect each other as colleagues, but I think this decision is in the best interest of the football team.''
The Dolphins' defensive-coordinator candidates could include Houston Texans defensive line coach Todd Grantham and New England Patriots linebackers coach Dean Pees, each of whom formerly worked for Saban at Michigan State.
The Texans granted the Dolphins' request to interview Grantham after denying Miami permission to interview offensive line coach Joe Pendry. Pendry would have been an offensive-coordinator candidate for the Dolphins, and teams generally allow their assistants to interview for jobs that represent promotions. But that's not required under NFL rules, which hold that all assistant-coaching jobs -- even coordinator positions -- are equal, and the only requests that must be granted are for assistants to interview for head-coaching positions.
On Monday, the Dolphins officially announced the hiring of three assistants from Saban's staff at LSU -- Will Muschamp, Bobby Williams and Derek Dooley. The team said that Muschamp will be on Saban's defensive staff and Williams and Dooley will be offensive assistants, without being more specific. In addition, the club hired Scott O'Brien as its coordinator of football operations. O'Brien recently announced his "retirement'' as the Panthers' special-teams coach. . . .
Defensive coordinators Jerry Gray of Buffalo and Tim Lewis of the New York Giants were among the finalists for the Syracuse head-coaching job, but the school reportedly chose University of Texas co-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson on Monday. Robinson is the former defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. . . .
Terry Shea, fired as Chicago's offensive coordinator, perhaps could rejoin the Kansas City coaching staff that he left when he was hired by the Bears last winter.
Bates and Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan are scheduled to interview for the Browns' coaching job today in separate meetings with a contingent of team officials that includes owner Randy Lerner, club president John Collins and new general manager Phil Savage. The Browns have been conducting interviews near Lerner's home on Long Island.
Terry Robiskie, who served as Cleveland's interim coach after Butch Davis's late-November exit, interviewed for the job Monday. He became the fourth candidate known to have interviewed for the job, following Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm. . . .
Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger is scheduled to interview for the San Francisco 49ers' head-coaching job today. He had dinner Monday night in St. Louis with 49ers co-owner John York. Lewis is to interview for the job Wednesday. They will become the second and third candidates known to have interviewed for the position, following Crennel.
Business As Usual for Holmgren, Shanahan
Despite first-round playoff losses that cast further doubt on their job status, coaches Mike Holmgren of the Seahawks and Mike Shanahan of the Broncos spent Monday beginning to make plans for next season and, at least for now, seem convinced that they're not going anywhere.
Holmgren met with Seahawks President Bob Whitsitt, and the team decided to dismiss special teams coach Mark Michaels. Shanahan conducted a lengthy news conference and, among other things, offered his continued support of quarterback Jake Plummer and said he doesn't think the Broncos are far away from being a championship-caliber team.
Holmgren has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the 49ers, for whom he once was an assistant coach, but has two years remaining on his contract in Seattle. He led the Seahawks to this season's NFC West title but fell to 0-3 in the playoffs during his tenure with the team. The Broncos went a sixth straight season without a playoff victory. But Shanahan has four seasons remaining on his contract, and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has said that Shanahan can coach the club as long as Shanahan wishes.
Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy said during his news conference Monday that he's uncertain if defensive end Robert Mathis will be able to play in Sunday's AFC semifinal at New England because of a sprained knee. Mathis had 10 1/2 sacks during the regular season as an effective pass-rushing complement to fellow end Dwight Freeney, who led the NFL with his 16 sacks. Mathis underwent an MRI Monday, Dungy said.
Dungy indicated that Brad Scioli or Nick Rogers likely would play more in pass-rushing situations behind Raheem Brock, Indianapolis's starter at left end, if Mathis is sidelined this weekend. . . .
The New York Jets don't seem to know if they'll have defensive end John Abraham back this week, either. Abraham missed the final four games of the regular season and Saturday night's overtime playoff triumph at San Diego because of a sprained knee ligament. The Jets believed early last week that they'd have Abraham back against the Chargers, but their hopes of that gradually diminished as the week progressed.
The Jets do seem convinced that they will have back wide receiver Wayne Chrebet for Saturday's game at Pittsburgh after he missed the San Diego game because of a concussion. . . .
Jets Coach Herman Edwards has said little publicly about his sideline screaming match with running backs coach Bishop Harris during the Chargers game. But it apparently came over Edwards's desire to have backup tailback LaMont Jordan more involved in the offense. Edwards was separated from Harris during the episode by other assistant coaches and Jets fullback Jerald Sowell. . . .
Steelers Coach Bill Cowher still isn't saying whether Duce Staley or Jerome Bettis will be his starting tailback against the Jets. The Steelers plan to get back cornerback Deshea Townsend, who missed the regular season finale because of a broken hand, and linebacker Clark Haggans, who was sidelined for the final three games of the regular season because of a groin injury. Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is set to return to the lineup after missing the regular season finale at Buffalo because of the bruised rib cartilage he suffered the week before against the Ravens. . . . The Patriots signed free agent cornerback Hank Poteat. . . . The Minnesota Vikings are concerned that running back Moe Williams's sprained ankle will keep him out of Sunday's game at Philadelphia.
Hall of Fame Finalists Announced
Quarterbacks Dan Marino and Steve Young are among the 15 finalists for this year's Pro Football Hall of Fame class that was announced today.
Marino and Young are considered virtual locks to be enshrined this summer in Canton, Ohio, and were joined on the list of finalists by two other former players who are in their first year of eligibility, wide receiver Michael Irvin and late linebacker Derrick Thomas.
Grimm joined his former Washington Redskins teammate, wide receiver Art Monk, among the finalists. The other finalists are Harry Carson, Richard Dent, L.C. Greenwood, Claude Humphrey, Bob Kuechenberg, Roger Wehrli, George Young and the two nominees of the seniors' committee, Fritz Pollard and Benny Friedman.
The selections for this year's Hall of Fame class will be made during a meeting of the media members who serve as voters in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl.