The St. Louis Rams officially ended an era with the June 1 release of quarterback Kurt Warner, the former grocery bagger and Arena League player who crafted one of the most improbable success stories in NFL history by leading the team to two Super Bowls and winning two league most valuable player awards in a three-season span.
But, in truth, that era already had ended. Warner hasn't won a game as a starting quarterback since 2001, and the Rams would have been Marc Bulger's team even if Warner had wanted to accept a pay cut to stay as a backup.
And Bulger's Rams aren't Warner's Rams -- at least not the version of Warner's Rams who were "The Greatest Show on Turf" and came oh-so-close to winning two of the most thrilling Super Bowls in history, rather than splitting them. Yes, the Rams went 12-4 last season under Bulger and earned a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs. But Coach Mike Martz showed a lack of trust in his young quarterback when he played for a tying field goal at the end of regulation during the Rams' double-overtime loss to the Carolina Panthers in an NFC semifinal, rather than allowing Bulger to make risky throws into the end zone trying for a winning touchdown.
Bulger may have thrown as many interceptions (22) as touchdowns during the regular season, but the the Rams are committed to him. They gave him the highest tender offer in restricted free agency -- $1.824 million -- to keep him from leaving and, immediately after he signed that tender, they added three years to the deal for what essentially is a four-year, $19.074-million contract extension that included a $9-million signing bonus. Long before Warner's exit, the Rams signed Chris Chandler -- three days after he was released by the Chicago Bears in March -- as a veteran insurance policy, and selected Michigan State's Jeff Smoker in the sixth round of the draft in April.
The offensive weapons are still there for Martz and Bulger, from tailback Marshall Faulk to wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Left tackle Orlando Pace, kept off the unrestricted free-agent market by the franchise-player tag, has sent public signals that he might become more involved in late-summer negotiations to attempt to settle the contract dispute between the club and his agent, Carl Poston. The Rams put Faulk's eventual successor in place by trading up two spots to draft Steven Jackson when the Oregon State tailback, regarded by most executives around the league as the top runner available, dropped to the 24th overall choice.
The potential problems, though, are on defense. Coordinator Lovie Smith left to coach the Chicago Bears and was replaced by Larry Marmie, a Martz associate in the collegiate ranks who most recently was the Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator.
The Rams lost defensive end Grant Wistrom when the unrestricted free agent signed a six-year, $33-million contract with the Seattle Seahawks that included a $14 million signing bonus. He had 71/2 sacks last season. Fellow end Leonard Little, who had 121/2 sacks last season, is facing a felony drunk-driving charge but probably will be able to play most or all of the upcoming season before the case goes to trial. The Rams hope that rookie end Tony Hargrove, a third-round pick out of Georgia Tech, can take up the pass-rushing slack.
Some in St. Louis and around the league, it seems, have tired of Martz's mad-scientist routine, and his questionable sideline management of last season's playoff defeat to Carolina has put him in a relatively precarious position for a coach with a regular-season record of 43-21 and a Super Bowl appearance on his resume. But if he wins big again with this season's team, with its still-developing quarterback and its holes on defense, there will be no doubting his coaching genius.
Around the League
The Dallas Cowboys reached a contract agreement today with quarterback Vinny Testaverde, released Tuesday by the New York Jets, a source familiar with the negotiations said. The deal reunites Testaverde with Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells, his former coach with the Jets. Agent Mike Azzarelli had sought assurances from the Cowboys that Testaverde would be allowed to compete with Quincy Carter for the starting job. The signing comes in time for Testaverde to participate in a three-day minicamp that starts Saturday. The Cowboys likely will have Carter, Testaverde and Drew Henson on their season-opening roster and might release quarterback Chad Hutchinson. . . . New England agreed to a one-year contract with free agent cornerback Terrell Buckley worth the veteran's minimum salary of $760,000, plus incentives. . . .
The Baltimore Ravens' signing of Kordell Stewart as backup quarterback was driven by General Manager Ozzie Newsome. Newsome has liked Stewart since his days as Pittsburgh's starter and pushed for the addition after the team learned that backup Anthony Wright would have to undergo shoulder surgery.
Titans Still Trying to Retain George
Tennessee Titans General Manager Floyd Reese and Coach Jeff Fisher continue to try to get Eddie George and his agent, Lamont Smith, to agree to a revised contract to avoid releasing the tailback. . . .
The Detroit Lions agreed to a one-year contract with free agent tight end Stephen Alexander, a former Redskin released by San Diego earlier this offseason. The Lions excused tight end Mikhael Ricks from a minicamp this week and probably will release him if he doesn't agree to rework his contract. . . .
The extensive offseason practice routine that all NFL teams follow has its downside. Rookie wide receiver Drew Carter, a fifth-round selection by the Panthers out of Ohio State, tore his right anterior cruciate ligament -- the same knee on which he has had surgery -- likely will miss the entire season. The Atlanta Falcons feared that safety Keion Carpenter, re-signed as a free agent this offseason, also tore an ACL Wednesday.
USC Wide Receiver Has Two Options
Azzarelli's public comments Wednesday regarding his soon-to-be-former client, USC wide receiver Mike Williams, outlined the approach that the Williams camp plans to take: Williams and USC will petition the NCAA to attempt to have his collegiate eligibility restored. If they succeed, Williams will play one more season for the Trojans and enter the 2005 NFL draft. If the NCAA denies the application, Williams likely would pursue legal action to try go get into the NFL this year via a supplemental draft.
After leading the Trojans to a share of the national title last season as a sophomore, Williams entered this year's NFL draft after the February ruling by a federal judge in former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett's lawsuit against the league temporarily opening the draft to college sophomores and freshmen and high school players. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit granted the NFL's request for a stay of that decision, keeping Clarett and Williams out of the draft, then reversed it. Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein, has asked the full, 12-judge appeals court to take up the case and seems prepared to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Azzarelli previously threatened immediate legal action on Williams's behalf if developments in the Clarett case kept Williams out of the NFL this year, but has held off. Williams and Clarett are eligible for next year's draft under the NFL's eligibility requirement mandating that a player be at least three years removed from high school. . . .
The Panthers have agreed to a contract extension with Coach John Fox, a source familiar with talks said today. The deal gives Fox a considerable raise after he led the club to the Super Bowl last season, the source said. Fox's previous contract had one season remaining, plus an option for a second season.