The St. Louis Rams' first home playoff victory in the city's pro football history had an immediate impact on the future of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. The Rams announced today that Martz, who was expected to be pursued as a head coach by other NFL teams, would become the team's head coach whenever Dick Vermeil decides to step down.
Vermeil himself initiated the move, in which Martz will sign a two-year contract extension to remain as the team's offensive coordinator. Vermeil, 63, said he intends to quit coaching when his contract runs out in two years. Other sources in the organization said Vermeil could retire sooner if the Rams win the Super Bowl this year or next.
"We promised to offer Mike the head coaching job, if it's available," team president John Shaw said today. He added that the prospect of losing Martz, 48, the architect of the league's No. 1 offense, to another team seeking a head coach "was a serious factor in what's taken place here. No one in this organization wants to lose Mike Martz."
But Shaw also said: "As far as I'm concerned, Dick can coach as long as he wants."
Martz's extension will prevent owners such as Jerry Jones in Dallas and Robert Kraft in New England from speaking with Martz about coaching vacancies. New Orleans and the New York Jets also have openings.
"I'm excited about the opportunity," said Martz, the Redskins' quarterback coach in 1997-98 before joining the Rams last season. "It's from Dick's intervention that this opportunity could work out for me. I'd just like to say this is where I want to be. I don't want to be the head coach anywhere else but St. Louis."
Said Vermeil: "Mike and I are here for one reason--to win football games--and we're doing it together. I don't want to work my rear end off and get it at a level up here and not have a qualified guy to take it to the next level. My plan is to coach through my contract--two years."
The Rams' sudden success has been the talk of the NFL all season. Oddsmakers have installed St. Louis as a 14-point favorite against Tampa Bay in Sunday's NFC championship game, even though the Bucs bring the league's third-ranked defense to the Trans World Dome.
"Hopefully, we painted a glaring picture that we really don't have any obvious weaknesses," Vermeil said of his team's 49-37 victory over Minnesota last Sunday. "And I don't think you've seen the best of us yet."
The Rams are 9-0 in the dome this season after playing, and winning, the first home playoff game in St. Louis history since the old Cardinals moved here from Chicago in 1960. The Rams have been in town since 1995, when they moved from Southern California.
The remaining 2,000 tickets for Sunday's game were snapped up this morning in about the same time it takes for quarterback Kurt Warner to drop back and hit an open receiver. He did that 27 times in 33 attempts for 391 yards and five touchdowns against a wholly befuddled Vikings defense that simply couldn't cope with St. Louis's schemes, speed or matchups that were usually more like mismatches.
Warner, with 46 touchdown passes this season, has four receivers with 4.4 speed or better in the 40. His running back, Marshall Faulk, gained 1,381 yards rushing and 1,048 on 87 pass receptions.
"It's a quarterback's dream," Warner said today. "We've got weapons all over the place."
The Rams offense is yet another permutation of a previous St. Louis coach's creation. Former Cardinals head coach Don Coryell's "Air Coryell" had its beginnings here in the 1970s. Martz learned the game under Ernie Zampese, another Coryell disciple who also helped train Norv Turner when Martz coached with Zampese on the Rams staff in the early '90s.
Vermeil essentially has turned over the offense to Martz and allowed him to go full throttle. Somewhat conservative back in his days with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1970s, Vermeil did a study last year on the statistical difference between Super Bowl teams and teams that missed the playoffs from 1991 to 1998.
What struck him was the difference in points scored--24.5 by the Super Bowl champions as opposed to 16.8 by the also-rans. He also has steadily built his offense with speedy skill position players, creating what now resembles the Air Coryell offense on steroids.
"The only way we can be slowed down is if we make mistakes," Faulk said today. "We've got too many guys out there for teams to stop. Our kickoff guy [Tony Horne] is our fifth receiver, and you saw how he can run [with a 95-yard kickoff return Sunday]. The game is about getting the matchup you want and taking advantage."
The Rams' only weakness on offense has been turnovers, with 15 interceptions (13 from Warner) and 16 lost fumbles. Minnesota stayed in the game through the first half only because of a fumble, interception and several dropped passes by St. Louis.
The quick-striking Rams defy conventional wisdom, particularly for the playoffs, about establishing the run in order to open up the passing game. Faulk gained 31 yards on the ground last Sunday and the Rams had the ball about six minutes in the first half. Still, they trailed by only three at intermission before scoring 35 straight points.
"I'd never been around this many guys who could make plays," Faulk said. "Never. Now we look at each other in the huddle and it's whoever gets open first is going to get the ball."