Rookie Coach Moves to Retool Rams' Defense

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006; 10:51 AM

The St. Louis Rams were one of two teams in the league this offseason to fire a coach who had gone to the playoffs four times in six seasons. And like the Green Bay Packers, who dismissed Mike Sherman and hired San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, the Rams didn't seem to have a clear idea what they were looking for in a successor and made a curious choice, replacing the ousted Mike Martz with Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Martz was fired on the heels of a season in which he took a leave of absence because of a bacterial infection in his heart and gave way to interim coach Joe Vitt. Martz hadn't been able to peacefully coexist with the team's front office, and the Rams' 6-10 season gave the club's management cause to dismiss him. The Rams began their search apparently looking for a defensive-minded coach to replace the offensive-oriented Martz, but ended up going with a former offensive coordinator in Linehan. Linehan is a rookie head coach who will have an experienced head coach, Jim Haslett, as his defensive coordinator. The Rams hired Haslett after he was fired by the New Orleans Saints.

Most of the Rams' biggest player moves were made to bolster Haslett's defense, not Linehan's offense. They signed defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who formerly played for Haslett in New Orleans, to a three-year, $12 million contract, including a $3.5 million signing bonus, after he was released by the Dallas Cowboys. The Rams' most expensive move was signing linebacker Will Witherspoon, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, to a six-year, $33 million deal that included $15 million in guaranteed money. Witherspoon wasn't a game-changing player in Carolina, but the Rams are paying him like he'll be one for them.

The Rams also went defense first in the draft, using the 15th overall pick on Clemson cornerback Tye Hill. He's a smaller cornerback, but has the speed to excel in coverage. The Rams had three selections in the third round and took a big risk with one of them, choosing LSU defensive tackle Claude Wroten. He's a big, talented player. But he was arrested in January for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. A prosecutor declined to pursue charges, but Wroten reportedly failed a drug test at the NFL scouting combine.

The Rams also picked up defensive tackle Jason Fisk, linebacker Raonall Smith and cornerback Fakhir Brown in free agency. The defense needed to be fortified because it suffered some free-agent losses with the departures of safety Adam Archuleta and tackles Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett.

The changes on offense were less drastic. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was released but quickly re-signed. Veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte, who was with Linehan in previous stops in Minnesota and Miami, was signed to back up Rams starter Marc Bulger after being released by the Dolphins. Frerotte replaces Jamie Martin, who departed as a free agent. The Rams traded tight end Brandon Manumaleuna after selecting two tight ends, Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein and USC's Dominique Byrd, in the first three rounds of the draft.

Martz is gone, and his "Greatest Show On Turf" offensive approach should exit with him. The Rams still have a dangerous group of wide receivers led by Torry Holt. But third-year tailback Steven Jackson is more than ready to take over as the offensive centerpiece, and Linehan would be smart to hand the ball to Jackson as often as possible. The problem is, there were several glaring instances last season in Miami when Linehan seemed to forget that he had tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams on the roster and put games into the hands of the overmatched Frerotte. These Rams probably aren't a threat to challenge the Seattle Seahawks for NFC West supremacy, but they perhaps could get back to .500 if Linehan gives Jackson an opportunity to be the club's best offensive player.

Around the League

The case of Jason Grimsley, the pitcher who was released by the Arizona Diamondbacks this week after reportedly admitting to federal investigators that he took human growth hormone, steroids and amphetamines, has illuminated the loophole that exists in drug-testing programs throughout sports. The NFL, like other professional sports leagues, has banned growth hormone but has no way to enforce that ban because no reliable urine test for it exists.

There is debate among medical experts whether a reliable blood test for growth hormone exists. Olympic officials began using a blood test at the 2004 Games in Athens, but it has not been firmly established that the test is effective. Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said Thursday that he and other league leaders continue to have their doubts on that issue.

"What we're doing at this point is reviewing to see about the performance of the test," Upshaw said in a telephone interview. "We're not so sure the test works. There's no urine test, and even the blood test is not reliable."

The NFL always has prided itself on having the best steroid-testing program in U.S. pro sports. Members of Congress have said during hearings on Capitol Hill that the league's efforts deserve praise, especially when compared to what Major League Baseball has done, but have added that the NFL's testing program is less than perfect. Upshaw and Tagliabue have acknowledged that, citing the inability to test for human growth hormone as one of the primary reasons.

Upshaw always has been a staunch advocate of the league doing all that it can to get players using performance-enhancing drugs out of the sport, but he said Thursday that privacy concerns would prevent him from supporting players being subjected to blood-testing for human growth hormone even if what he regarded as a reliable test were developed.

"When you start talking about coming in to take a person's blood, that's different than taking someone's urine," he said. "I know personally I would have a problem with someone coming in and trying to take the players' blood. I'm not ready to make that leap."

Upshaw said he's not convinced that growth hormone is anywhere near as effective as anabolic steroids as a performance-enhancer, and he said the NFL isn't ready to change its policies based on Grimsley's alleged statements to investigators. But he said the NFL will do what it reasonably can, when it can do it, to prevent players from using growth hormone.

"We'll do what we have to do," he said. "We've always done what's right." . . .

The New York Giants signed tight end Boo Williams, who was released by the Saints in February. The Giants waived tight end Matt Kranchick . . . .

Veteran defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, cut by Detroit, visited the Dolphins . . . .

Chicago signed two draft choices, fifth-round defensive end Mark Anderson and sixth-round guard Tyler Reed.

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