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Vintage Reserve As if they didn't already have enough ways to score, the Rams uncorked beloved veteran wideout Ricky Proehl, who showed the 49ers he still has plenty of legs

He spends the better part of his Sunday afternoons running wind
sprints behind the St. Louis Rams' bench, stopping
intermittently to do knee bends, windmill stretches and various
other calisthenics. So often, the bulk of Ricky Proehl's workday
is an exercise in futility. "I feel like an idiot out there,"
says Proehl, a 12th-year wideout who long ago abandoned his
claim to first-string status. "It's like the other guys are
getting their groove on, and I'm in the background looking like
Jack LaLanne."

While the Rams' souped-up offense rewrites record books and
thrills a football-watching nation, Proehl, 33, is content to
finish his career as the Greatest Sideshow on Earth. Well, he's
usually content. Sometimes even the juggling unicyclist commands
a turn in the center ring, and on Sunday, with St. Louis's pride
and standing at stake, Proehl played a starring role. In a 27-14
win over the San Francisco 49ers that vaulted the Rams to the
top of the NFC with a 10-2 record, it was No. 4 receiver
Proehl--rather than the heralded trio of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt
and Az Hakim--who provided the strongest rebuttal to Niners
safety Lance Schulters's midweek pronouncement that the St.
Louis wideouts were "soft."

Think this 6-foot, 190-pound technician is soft? Hardly. Proehl,
who seven years ago glared defiantly at coach Buddy Ryan after
Ryan told him that he wasn't good enough to play for the Arizona
Cardinals, traverses the secondary as fearlessly as Picabo
Street handles a bunny hill. He struck a blow for the Rams'
receiving corps on Sunday by knocking Schulters off his feet
with a block during quarterback Kurt Warner's career-long
23-yard run late in the first half and finished with six
receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown. In the biggest game of
St. Louis's season, Proehl, as is his custom, came up huge.

"Ricky deals with pressure better than anyone else we have,"
said Rams coach Mike Martz after Sunday's victory, which left
St. Louis a game ahead of the 49ers, the Chicago Bears and the
Green Bay Packers in the race for the NFC's No. 1 postseason
seed. "I don't know why that is, but the greater the pressure,
the more big plays he makes. He's the guy who got us into the
Super Bowl two years ago with his catch against Tampa Bay, and
he stepped up again today. Our only problem is that we don't use
him enough, but that will change--I promise you."

Told of Martz's promise later on Sunday, Proehl replied with a
bemused expression that conveyed the words, We'll see. After
all, the Rams' offense is more loaded than the cast of Ocean's
Eleven. Bruce is one of the NFL's best receivers, while Holt is
a budding star and Hakim is among the league's most dangerous
open-field playmakers. Throw in Warner and multitalented running
back Marshall Faulk, the NFL's last two MVPs, and there aren't
many touches left to go around.

Proehl may be the most overlooked member of the league's
500-reception club--he has 526 career catches--but he's got
old-school credibility among those in the know. "That's Rock 'n'
Roll Ricky Proehl, man," says St. Louis safety Kim Herring.
"Back in the early days of video games, when we used to play
Nintendo's Tecmo Super Bowl, Ricky was the Truth. When you need
a vital catch, he's the guy."

As recently as 1998 Proehl hauled in 60 passes for 771 yards and
was voted the Rams' most outstanding offensive player by the
coaching staff. Since then it's as if Proehl made some bargain,
exchanging a reduction in individual opportunity for an increase
in team victories. It's an arrangement he enjoys, though he has
never become accustomed to the lack of rhythm in a backup's role.

He's generally on the field for 15 to 20 plays a game--a lot for
a fourth wideout but still less than a third of the
snaps--making for stretches when he starts to feel stagnant.
"That's been the hardest thing for me, standing there and
waiting my turn," Proehl says. "You get loose in warmups, and
then you have to find a way to stay in the game mentally and
keep ready physically."

Proehl's solution is to impersonate a junior high gym teacher
behind the bench, no matter how silly it might make him appear.
On Dec. 2, during St. Louis's 35-6 victory over the Falcons in
Atlanta, Proehl was running knee-pumping sprints when a Georgia
Dome fan began mocking him. Born in the Bronx and raised in New
Jersey, Proehl didn't mind the verbal abuse. "The guy said,
'Hey, Ricky, you still suck,'" Proehl recalls. "I looked up and
realized it was the same guy who heckled me last year! I love
when people in the stands talk s---."

Speaking of trash talk, Proehl and his teammates have received a
stream of uncomplimentary banter from opponents this year. The
latest came from Schulters, who questioned the willingness of
the St. Louis wideouts to go across the middle and fight for
extra yards. Predictably, Martz tried to use the charges as a
motivating force for his players. The coach, however, needed no
extra impetus. Although they have now beaten their onetime
upstate rivals six consecutive times, that streak was preceded
by a run of 17 consecutive losses to San Francisco. For Martz, a
Rams assistant from 1992 through '96 before succeeding Dick
Vermeil as coach in February 2000, the bitter memories are fresh.

"Nobody else here feels that sting, but Isaac [Bruce] and I
remember," Martz said after Sunday's game. "I can still see Ken
Norton throwing punches at our goalpost [during a 44-10 Niners
victory in 1995], and I think about that every time I walk on
the field before we play them. It still makes me angry."

Already the league's most aggressive coach, Martz was
particularly driven on Sunday. After St. Louis cornerback Aeneas
Williams stepped in front of a Jeff Garcia pass on San
Francisco's third play and made the first of his two
interceptions of the game, the Rams took over on the 49ers 41.
On third-and-four Warner threw deep down the right sideline to
Proehl, who was shadowed by Schulters and couldn't get to the
ball. "As we were jogging back," Proehl said later, "Lance
yelled, 'You're too slow to reach that.' I just laughed. I'm a
white guy, so it's not as if I haven't heard that a million
times." Jeff Wilkins then made a 53-yard field goal, but the
49ers were penalized for having 12 men on the field. Martz took
the points off the board--a football taboo--and sent his offense
back onto the field.

St. Louis continued its drive with the help of a pair of fourth-
and-one conversions, the second of which came on a trick play
the Pittsburgh Steelers had used the previous week against the
Minnesota Vikings. Warner stepped out from under center,
disgustedly unbuckled his chin strap and started back toward the
referee acting as if he were going to call a timeout. It was the
worst bit of overacting since Keanu Reeves in Speed, but the
diversion worked. Faulk took a direct snap and ran four yards
for the first down. On the next play Faulk staked the Rams to a
7-0 lead with a six-yard scoring run through four defenders.

The first quarter ended with Warner, who finished the game with
26 completions in 42 attempts for 294 yards and two touchdowns,
finding Proehl in the middle of the end zone for a 15-yard
touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Warner exploited a defensive
alignment in which San Francisco had assigned four defensive
backs to quadrants across the end zone. "That was the defense I
was hoping for, and once I saw it, I was looking for Ricky,"
Warner said on Sunday night, as he changed the diaper of his
10-month-old daughter, Jada Jo, at his suburban St. Louis house.
"He juked the safety [Zack Bronson] and cut inside, and I knew
he'd be open."

At that point the 49ers had yet to produce a first down, further
proof that the Rams' defense has undergone a startling
transformation from a year ago. New defensive coordinator Lovie
Smith has molded a group of swarming, unrelenting playmakers.
St. Louis, which ranked last in the league in points allowed in
2000, is now fourth. On Sunday the Rams limited the explosive
Niners to a season-low 220 yards--12 fewer than they gave up in
their 30-26 road victory over San Francisco in September.
Several defensive Pro Bowl bids are likely to come St. Louis's
way, with Williams ("If he doesn't go to Hawaii," Herring says,
"I'll be out there with picket signs"), middle linebacker London
Fletcher and end Grant Wistrom among the leading candidates at
their positions. "I'm so happy Aeneas is here," Proehl says of
his former Cardinals teammate, who came to the Rams in a
draft-day trade last April. "I want us to win so badly, because
no one deserves it more than he does."

Driven out of Arizona by Ryan following the 1994 season, Proehl
spent two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks and another with the
Bears before signing with St. Louis as a free agent in 1998.
Though he caught 33 passes for the Rams in '99, he failed to
score a touchdown in the regular season and seemed to be an
afterthought during their march toward the franchise's first
Super Bowl victory. Then, in the NFC Championship Game against
the Buccaneers, Proehl singlehandedly pulled out the 11-6
victory. His brilliant, one-handed grab of Warner's 30-yard
floater with 4:44 remaining provided the winning points and gave
him his last 100-yard receiving day until Sunday's effort.

Proehl could have called it a career after St. Louis went on to
win the Super Bowl, especially after being asked to take a pay
cut the following summer. However, he agreed to return in
exchange for two years of guaranteed money, and now he says he
still may not be ready to retire. His teammates aren't eager to
see him go. "The guy is extremely difficult to jam at the line
of scrimmage, runs perfect routes and makes tough catches,"
Williams says. "More than that, he's a guy who keeps people
together. You look at our receivers and say, How do you keep
them all happy? You can't, unless you have a guy like Ricky,
who's such a stabilizing force."

Last week, as Martz grew increasingly tense and players chafed
over Schulters's comments, Proehl helped lighten the mood.
During a meeting with offensive players on Friday, Martz was
stressing Proehl's assignment on one play when he heard
muttering from the back of the room. After Martz called him out,
Proehl said, "Come on, Mike. I've been running that route for
three years. I think I know it by now."

Everyone cracked up, but Martz had the last laugh. As Proehl
explained on Sunday, "Later that day at practice, I was filling
in for Isaac on a different play, but I ran Torry's route by
mistake. Mike jumped all over me and started imitating my Jersey
accent: 'Uh, yo, you've been running that route for three years.
Uh, what the hell are you thinking?'"

While Proehl's teammates may chide him for the first-down signal
he often makes after catches that move the chains or for his
stirring karaoke rendition of Sinatra's New York, New York at
the team's 2000 Christmas party, they're sensitive to his status
on the team. Recently, a photographer arranged a magazine cover
shot featuring Warner, Faulk, Bruce, Holt and Hakim, but the
players refused to pose unless Proehl was included.

On Sunday night, as he drove his Mercedes along U.S. Highway 40
toward downtown St. Louis, Faulk tried to put Proehl's
contributions into perspective. "Everyone talks about our stars,
but it's the guys like Ricky who add the little things that
allow us to reach the pinnacle," said Faulk, an eight-year
veteran. "He's a leader in so many ways, and though his
opportunities to be successful are few, he comes through under
pressure. If I make it to my 12th year and I'm anything like
Ricky Proehl--on and off the field--I'll be completely satisfied."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Mr. Clutch In the big win over the 49ers on Sunday, Proehl had his first 100-yard receiving day since the NFC title game in January 2000.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Zeroing in Warner picked apart the Niners' defense for 294 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the air.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Handful The 49ers couldn't contain the multidimensional Faulk, who scored by run and by reception.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Middle man Fletcher is the leader of a defense that has gone from last in the NFL in points allowed in 2000 to fourth this season.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Well received Proehl, here catching a touchdown pass, commands respect from his teammates.

Schulters questioned the willingness of St. Louis receivers
to go across the middle.

First-year defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has crafted a group
of swarming playmakers.

"Ricky deals with pressure better than anyone else we have,"
Martz says.