His quarterback collapsed into a heap of hostile pursuers, and a
rowdy crowd of 64,869 roared its approval as the seconds ticked
away. Then time stopped for Mike Martz, the St. Louis Rams'
rookie coach, as he stared across the field into the eyes of his
quarterback, Kurt Warner, and called the next play. Hearing
Martz through the earphone in his helmet, Warner popped to his
feet, grinning as he relayed the play, All-Go, to his teammates
with an all-too-appropriate signal: thumbs-up. At that vivid
moment--32 seconds remaining in Sunday's shootout at Husky
Stadium, the Rams tied with the Seattle Seahawks 34-all and
facing third-and-17 from midfield--Martz, in his second game as
a head coach on any level, realized precisely how good his life
is right now.
"Are we blessed to have Kurt? You bet we are," Martz said after
Warner, the ice-cold pilot of football's most potent offense, led
St. Louis to a thrilling 37-34 victory. "We have a lot of players
doing great things, but we are very, very blessed."
Blessed, and unstressed--that pretty much sums up the state of the
defending Super Bowl champions, whose transition from retired
coach Dick Vermeil to Martz has been smoothed by Warner's serene
presence. "You look at his face when things are going bad," Martz
continued, "and you'd think we were 50 points ahead. That's who
he is, man, and that's who he's always been. When things are at
their absolute worst, he's practically floating."
The audacious, perfectly thrown 41-yard pass that Warner
delivered to wideout Torry Holt set up Jeff Wilkins's
game-winning, 27-yard field goal with 23 seconds left and
continued a modern-day fable that shows no signs of ending.
Anyone still expecting Warner to come crashing to earth after
his astonishing MVP season in '99 can call off the deathwatch.
Think Warner's a one-year wonder? "I hate to disappoint some
people," he says, "but I'm in this for the long haul."
On Sunday the 29-year-old former supermarket stock boy completed
35 of 47 passes for 386 yards. He's now averaging 413.5 passing
yards for the 2-0 Rams, which makes him the league leader by a
mere 70.0 yards per game. During one stretch against Seattle,
Warner connected on 16 consecutive passes to eight receivers,
including a four-yard touchdown toss to tight end Roland Williams
that put St. Louis ahead 27-20 with 11:23 remaining.
There are no numbers, however, that adequately reflect the
cojones Warner displayed on the third-and-17 play that won the
game. With no timeouts left, Martz called for the same play
(albeit from a different formation) that produced Warner's Super
Bowl-winning, 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce. Four
wideouts--Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim from the left side, Bruce and
Tony Horne from the right--ran streak patterns against a two-deep
zone designed to seal off anything to the outside. As the pocket
collapsed, Warner gave a quick pump fake to freeze free safety
Jay Bellamy, who then bit on slot receiver Hakim's hard fake to
the post. Holt, who had whisked past Seahawks cornerback Willie
Williams, drifted down the left sideline and caught Warner's
touch pass over his outside shoulder before Bellamy recovered to
run him out-of-bounds at the nine.
Four hours after the game, as he sat in his town house near the
Seahawks' training facility in Kirkland, Seattle wideout Derrick
Mayes was awestruck by the replay of Warner's throw. "We were in
a prevent defense, and he threw a fade, man," Mayes said.
"Everyone knows that's crazy. I've never heard of a quarterback
even trying to make that pass." Mayes took a sip of his Corona
and swallowed hard. "I'm telling you," he said, "this guy is so
Despite having surrendered 70 points and an average of 382.0
yards in two victories, the Rams remain hotter than Bob Knight
after a last-name-only salutation. They may simply be capable of
outscoring whoever stands in their path. "I'm like a kid in a
candy store," Warner says. "In this offense, you drop back and
it's like, Take your pick."
Thanks to Martz's smarts, halfback Marshall Faulk's all-purpose
excellence and the NFL's deepest and most dangerous stable of
wideouts, the Rams have taken offensive productivity to
unheard-of heights. Against the Seahawks they hit the 30-point
plateau for the eighth consecutive game, a league record. "It's
tough in this league to put up 30 points, but we make it look
sort of easy," said Holt, a second-year receiver on the verge of
stardom. "If everything's clicking for us, we could probably put
up 50 or 60."
This is what it's like trying to play defense against St. Louis:
You can douse All-Pros Faulk and Bruce, as the Seahawks did on
the Rams' final drive, and still count on getting torched.
Consider Hakim, a 5'10", 178-pound blow dart who can't even crack
the starting lineup, which makes him the most prolific
second-stringer since Chris Rock was a bit player on Saturday
Night Live. Known for his quick cuts and breakaway speed, the
Wizard of Az had five receptions for 116 yards and one touchdown,
along with an 86-yard punt return for a score in the Rams'
opening 41-36 victory over the Denver Broncos. During Sunday's
game-winning drive he made two tough catches in traffic, a
nine-yard grab on third-and-seven and a 15-yard reception on the
next, hurried snap. "Game tapes don't do him justice," Martz says
of his third-year receiver. "You have to see him in person to
appreciate his elusiveness."
Hakim treasures his relationships with the Rams' other receivers,
who refer to themselves as the Termites. He is close both to Holt
and to Horne, who led the NFL in kickoff returns last season. He
also reveres Bruce and has a special affection for 11-year
veteran Ricky Proehl, the hero of last January's NFC Championship
Game victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "That's White
Chocolate," Hakim says of Proehl, who caught four first-half
passes for 44 yards on Sunday. "When I was a rookie he took me
under his wing and taught me everything about this business."
Once lauded for his deceptive speed, Proehl says he feels "slow
as molasses" in the company of the Rams' current corps of
receivers. Yet Martz swears Proehl "looks faster to me than a
year ago. I can't explain it, but that's what I see."
The 5'9", 173-pound Horne, who made the team in '98 as an
undrafted free agent, is the least-developed Termite. "I know
people won't want to hear this," Hakim says, "but when Tony gets
his chance he'll do the same things I can do, only with more
So many weapons, so little time. Yet Martz, who became the Rams'
offensive coordinator before last season, makes it all work with
a motion-filled, go-for-broke scheme that seems to violate all
the tenets of traditional football. "Sometimes we'll come in
after a game and watch film," says Hakim, "and we'll see that two
or three guys were open on a given play. Mike will freeze the
tape, point to the defenders and say, 'Look at those confused
looks on their faces. Don't you just love that?'"
Martz does, but he has yet to embrace the new responsibilities of
being a head coach. "I'd be very happy if nobody knew who I was,"
he insists. "I really enjoyed being the offensive coordinator--it
was my goal--but nothing could have prepared me for being the head
coach. I don't even have time to think about what I'm going to
say to the team. When I address them, I basically talk off the
top of my head."
Yet as much as Martz says he was caught off-guard by Vermeil's
decision to retire two days after the Super Bowl, players say he
seems infinitely more comfortable than he did toward the end of
last season. "There was a lot of tension between Mike and Dick,"
one veteran says. "Dick's such an emotional guy, whereas Mike is
all business--he doesn't even like having vocal players. But the
funny thing is, now that he's the coach, Mike's reminding me more
and more of Dick."
Any residual tension between the two coaches has been eased by
the thrill of victory, something the Rams figure to experience
often as long as Warner, Faulk and the wideouts stay healthy.
"With these guys, you don't worry about things," Martz says. "You
can make a bad call, and they'll make it work. I'm quite sure
I'll never be in this situation again. It's a unique place and
time, and the chemistry here is incredible. You've got guys with
superstar value but without the superstar mentality."
In the Rams' luminous galaxy, no star is brighter than Warner,
who has emerged from obscurity to become the league's best
quarterback. Going back to last January's NFC title game, he has
produced fourth-quarter heroics in four consecutive outings. As
the St. Louis locker room was emptying on Sunday, receivers coach
Al Saunders, who held a similar post with the Kansas City Chiefs
from 1989 to '98, dared to utter the unthinkable. "You know who
Kurt's like?" Saunders said. "Joe Montana. He's exactly the way
Joe was when he came to the sidelines in crucial situations--he
acts like it's a seven-on-seven drill in practice. Players like
them control the environment they're in, and that's [passed on]
to the other players in the huddle. It's an extremely rare
quality, and Kurt definitely has it."
The quarterback was clearing out his locker on Sunday when his
older brother, Matt Warner, came by to offer congratulations.
"That was wild at the end," Matt said. "It reminded me of the
Western Illinois game your senior year [at Northern Iowa]." Then
Martz walked over and put his hands on Kurt's shoulders. "Nice
going, man," Martz said. "You are awesome, just awesome."
A teammate walked by and flashed Warner the thumbs-up sign:
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK FAULK, DON'T RUN Seahawks cornerback Shawn Springs plants Rams running back Marshall Faulk during a game St. Louis won 37-34 (page 58). [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH NO POCKET CHANGE Warner's poise under the Seahawks' pressure enabled him to lead yet another fourth-quarter comeback.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK POURING IT ON Behind the speed of Bruce (opposite) and Faulk, the Rams have produced a record eight consecutive 30-point games.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above]
"With these guys," Martz says, "you can make a bad call, and
they'll make it work."