Pro football was in a different era the last time Dick Vermeil coached a Super Bowl team. The year was 1980--before free agency reshuffled rosters annually and the salary cap eroded traditional dynasties. Vermeil, then 44, was preparing the Philadelphia Eagles for Super Bowl XV.

At 63, and in his third year with the St. Louis Rams, Vermeil has re-invented himself this season, relaxing his notorious iron-fisted grip on his players and allowing his coaching staff a bigger role in game-day preparations. That transformation, according to longtime Rams coaches and players, is largely responsible for the team's stunning rise from an NFC Western Division-worst 4-12 record in 1998 to an NFC-best 13-3 mark and a spot in Super Bowl XXXIV against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

"I'm not as intense as I used to be," Vermeil said. "I'm not as demanding as I used to be. I'm not as emotional as I used to be. I'm still a little too much of all--but not as bad as I used to be."

Specifically, Vermeil has eased on the length and intensity of training camp and practice, which has helped his players stay fit mentally and physically.

He has turned over the offense to coordinator Mike Martz, the former Washington Redskins quarterbacks coach who largely was unproven before the promotion. That unit finished the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL, having scored 526 points--the third-highest total in league history. Rams officials responded last week by signing Martz to a contract that guarantees his promotion to head coach once Vermeil steps down.

Vermeil also has put more responsibility on his players, who have no curfew this week (as is customary prior to the Super Bowl) and aren't required to spend nights before games in a team hotel (also customary for most teams).

"Coach Vermeil is always challenging us to have the individual acceptance of the responsibility to make the team great," said defensive end Kevin Carter.

Vermeil retired after the 1982 season with a case of burnout. The Rams coaxed him back in 1997, and his first two seasons were miserable for all concerned. The team went 9-23, finishing at the bottom of the NFC West both years. And players, weary of working too hard to lose so badly, were on the brink of mutiny.

"When Coach Vermeil took over, he wanted to install his way of doing things," said veteran cornerback Todd Lyght. "It was understandable because we hadn't been successful, and the way we were doing things obviously wasn't right. He wanted to do things his way.

" . . . We'd have three-hour practices, three-and-a-half-hour practices. You'd call guys around the league, and nobody else was doing it like that. You practice that hard and you practice that long and you still don't see results--it makes it difficult to convince a team, 'Hey, this is the right way of doing things.' "

Vermeil apparently recognized this.

He opened a meeting with his staff before the start of this season by asking why they thought the Rams hadn't been a playoff team. Vermeil got the conversation going by pointing to injuries and coaching. The discussion quickly broadened, as others stressed intangibles that made Vermeil think.

"I think when he heard the other coaches listing a whole bunch of other things--trying to create more team unity, trying to create more charisma, trying to create a real mentally and physically fresh team coming out of camp--and making those an emphasis--he saw [what that could do]," said defensive coordinator John Bunting, who had played for Vermeil with the Eagles.

Injuries had taken a toll. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce missed parts of two seasons with hamstring problems, he was so worn down from the rigors of camp. The team had some attitude problems. And it lacked a reliable running game and quarterback. Personnel issues were addressed first.

The Rams signed free agent quarterback Trent Green, who Martz had groomed with the Redskins; traded for running back Marshall Faulk; and drafted North Carolina State's coveted wide receiver Torry Holt.

As Vermeil culled his roster, he put a premium on speed and character. And by the time players convened for spring practice, the Rams had a new set of rules. Training camp was shorter. Team meetings were over by 10 p.m.--a far cry from Bunting's playing days, when meetings ran so late players had to sprint to their dorms to make 11 p.m. curfew.

"We decided we're going to give the players a little more relaxed time," Bunting said. "We're not going to go out in pads every day. We were extremely organized. And when we broke camp, we were as mentally and physically fresh and enthusiastic as the first day that we went there, and that is a difference."

Not surprisingly, players responded with more positive attitudes.

"When we got to minicamp, there were no complaints," said defensive tackle D'Marco Farr said. "There was no, 'What are we doing out here?' All those guys were gone. We had a bunch of guys that wanted to win."

Said longtime offensive line coach Jim Hanifan: "What Dick Vermeil did was adapt to certain things that he had been so locked in on. He adapted. And it was a hard thing to do for an individual who has had success going the other way."

The result has been two-fold. The team is more successful and more relaxed, though those who work alongside Vermeil use the word "relaxed" in a relative sense.

Said Martz: "Coming into this situation, I didn't realize that he'd have the patience--especially with me--or the willingness to step away and let us do our jobs or not be as involved as I'd heard he was in the past. You have to consider this guy was not only a great coach, but was the offensive coordinator. He called all the plays. He did everything. For him to all the sudden turn around and do that. . . . That took a lot of courage."