As a runner or receiver, he has a flowing, liquid playing style. Combined with his intense game preparation and the effort of star teammates, St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk has turned in the most productive season of any back in NFL history.
Faulk's 2,429 combined rushing and receiving yards this season set an NFL record, breaking Barry Sanders's 1997 mark of 2,358 yards. Faulk became only the second running back to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.
As a result, Faulk, 26, was named the Associated Press offensive player of the year Wednesday. In his first season with the Rams, he helped turn the team's record from 4-12 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999. On Sunday, St. Louis will host the Minnesota Vikings in the city's first playoff game ever.
Since St. Louis acquired Faulk in April in a trade with Indianapolis, where he played five seasons, the Rams' offense has gone from being mistake-prone and sloppy to being one of the league's best units.
It leads the NFL in scoring, and quarterback Kurt Warner, in his first season as an NFL starter, threw 41 touchdown passes. He was named the Associated Press's MVP, but Faulk's play has grabbed his teammate's attention, and last week Faulk was named the Rams' MVP.
"You just don't know when he's going to put the pedal to the metal and put it in the end zone," Rams Coach Dick Vermeil said of Faulk. "More so than most teams, I think our offense has taken advantage of him out of the backfield. He turns the boost up on our engine. It's a great advantage."
"He's the type of player that if I'm going to cover him, he's probably going to embarrass me," said Vikings safety Robert Griffith, a teammate during Faulk's record-setting collegiate career at San Diego State. "Nothing he does is new to me, because he's been doing it all since he was 18. He makes everything look so easy."
Despite carrying the ball 253 times, the fewest times of his career, Faulk led the league with a 5.5 yards-per-carry average and was third in the NFC with 1,381 yards. His career-high 87 receptions (fourth in the NFC) led the Rams. On 340 touches this year, the 5-foot-11, 211-pound Faulk fumbled only twice. With at least one play of 20 or more yards in 13 of 16 games this season, he developed into one of the league's most explosive big-play threats.
"We always knew he was shifty, but the way he changes gears is different," said Rams linebacker Mike Jones, who played against Faulk when Jones was a member of the Oakland Raiders. "He sees the whole field, and he's always two or three moves ahead when he's running the ball. Most backs don't have the awareness to anticipate where the defense is coming from."
With 4,656 yards and 22 touchdowns during the past two years, Faulk has produced two of the most prolific seasons in NFL history despite playing with a first-year NFL starter at quarterback each year--Peyton Manning as a rookie in 1998 and Warner, a former Arena Football League and NFL Europe star, this season.
But Faulk has shined during his six-year career. He has rushed for 10,553 yards, only 354 yards behind Dallas running back Emmitt Smith's total for his first six years in the league. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls and had 14 offensive linemen selected to the Pro Bowl during that time. Conversely, Faulk's teams have made the playoffs three times and have had two offensive linemen selected to the Pro Bowl.
Now, Faulk is in a system that features not only him but also those surrounding him. This season, Faulk and three other Rams offensive players--Warner, wide receiver Isaac Bruce and tackle Orlando Pace--were selected to the Pro Bowl. Faulk commonly calls it "our" offense.
"I've never been a part of something like this," Faulk said. "I play with a bunch of guys who are unselfish, who want to see every other person in the end zone as well as themselves. When it's like that, it's fun. You just go out and the only thing you care about is winning. We don't run plays for certain people. We run plays and the defense dictates who gets the ball most of the time."
Rams running back coach Wilbert Montgomery has said that Faulk, who dissects up to 20 tapes a week, has game-day preparation similar to that of a quarterback. As a Colt, Faulk often knew blocking schemes better than his quarterback did.
"When we both played in Indy, we were in shotgun, and I was calling out the protection at the line of scrimmage. And I had the right protection in my head, but I was calling out the opposite protection," said former Colts quarterback Paul Justin, now a backup in St. Louis.
"Halfway through it Marshall's over there slapping me, telling me what to call. And I picked up on it, caught it, we got the ball off, and it turned out to be a good play. To say he prepares like a quarterback isn't exaggerating."
With an injured knee in 1995, Faulk contributed only one carry in the playoffs when the Colts advanced to the AFC championship game. Now, fully healthy, he is motivated by playing with a talented team that has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Rams are to make it to the Super Bowl, Faulk won't be an afterthought.
"Offensively, Marshall sets so many things up," Jones said. "Everything is dictated on what he does. That's the main reason why he's our most valuable player. He's at the center of our offense. Kurt had a great year, but our offense was dictated by what we did with Marshall Faulk."