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Fallen Idols

Once billed as the Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams have seen their dynasty-in-the-making crumble, in large part because of a power struggle between the front office and coach Mike Martz

The chilly Seattle rain drenched the St. Louis Rams as the final seconds ticked away on Sunday, and after exchanging some quick postgame pleasantries with their victorious opponents, most of the Rams jogged briskly across the slippery Qwest Field turf seeking shelter from the storm. One disgusted veteran, however, took his time heading to the tunnel, stopping in the end zone to lay some blame for the maddening decline of a once-lofty franchise. Though the vaunted St. Louis offense had failed to score a touchdown until seven minutes remained in the 31-16 defeat by the Seahawks, the peeved player pointed a finger at defensive tackles Jimmy Kennedy, Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis, saying, "We have three [former] Number 1 picks at tackle, and those guys are killing us. They're not playing hard, and they can't stop anybody. It's horrible." ¶ That the Rams, at 4-5 and with little hope of winning the NFC West, showed signs of internal friction in the immediate aftermath of the loss to division leader Seattle (7-2) was hardly surprising. Less than four years after taking the field for Super Bowl XXXVI with a swagger befitting pro football's presumptive dynasty-in-the-making, they have devolved into a mediocre team on the field and a mess off it. A power struggle between coach Mike Martz, sidelined since early October with a bacterial infection of a heart valve, and president of football operations Jay Zygmunt has played out publicly and sometimes comically. Said one longtime team staffer last Thursday, "If you went to Hollywood with this stuff and tried to pitch it as a series, they'd laugh you out of the room. They'd say, 'Come on, this is too over-the-top. Give us something real.'"

As the Rams muddle through the melodrama, they're continually reminded of how quickly the curtain fell on the Greatest Show on Turf. This Sunday at Edward Jones Dome they'll face their Super Bowl XXXIV hero, Kurt Warner, the two-time league MVP who now quarterbacks the hapless Arizona Cardinals. "With the pieces we had in place and the comfort level we all had together, we should have been a dynasty," says Warner, who threw for 359 yards in the Cards' 29-21 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday. "As we prepared for that second Super Bowl, I think everybody felt we had something special, and we thought we'd keep it together for three, four or five more years."

Instead, following the team's stunning NFL title game loss to the New England Patriots in February 2002, the organization has been torn apart by jealousy, pettiness and a lack of accountability. With owner Georgia Frontiere, 77, having withdrawn from the franchise's day-to-day operations and Los Angeles--based team president John Shaw hesitant to confront internal conflicts, Martz has clashed with Zygmunt and general manager Charley Armey over personnel and other issues while alienating people in the organization with his aloof and paranoid demeanor.

So tense is the atmosphere at team headquarters that Shaw, Zygmunt, Armey and Martz all declined to be interviewed for this story. Likewise, almost all current and former players and staffers contacted spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Earlier this month a team insider familiar with the infighting said, "What goes on [here] is a joke--there's absolutely no leadership at the top--and you're starting to see the consequences on the field. We never should've won that Super Bowl because we didn't deserve it. We got lucky in '99--we traded for Marshall Faulk, and Kurt Warner fell out of the sky. The bottom line was, and is, that we're a dysfunctional franchise."

Slicing through a veal chop last Thursday night at a St. Louis steakhouse, Faulk, the future Hall of Fame halfback who, at 32, is now a backup, was philosophical about the Rams' legacy. "Dynasties aren't made by the [individual] players; it's how well [the team] plays together," he said. "When you're at your best as a team, you feel like you can score every time and win every game and that you should win every Super Bowl." After a pause Faulk asked, "Would this even be a conversation if not for one play in January of 2000?"

When St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones stopped Tennessee Titans wideout Kevin Dyson a yard short of the goal line on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV, preserving a 23-16 victory, the Rams completed the most startling turnaround in NFL history. Coming off a 3-13 season in '98 that cemented their status as one of the least successful teams of the decade, they suddenly morphed into an offensive juggernaut with first-year coordinator Martz calling the plays and Warner, a former Arena Leaguer, vaulting to stardom after replacing injured quarterback Trent Green in the preseason.

Less than 48 hours after the franchise had won its first championship, however, 63-year-old coach Dick Vermeil retired, and Martz was named his successor. At the same time, Shaw announced an organizational restructuring: Zygmunt, an old friend of Shaw's and a team employee since the early 1980s, was promoted from salary-cap specialist to director of football operations; Armey moved up from vice president of player personnel to general manager; and Martz was given control of player personnel decisions, though Shaw held veto power.

After a choppy first season, at the end of which St. Louis lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs, Martz guided the Rams to a 14-2 record in '01. They were 14-point favorites over the Patriots entering the Super Bowl but lost 20-17. This time Martz's play-calling was widely questioned. Though New England frequently sent in extra defensive backs, essentially daring the Rams to run, Martz stuck to the passing attack. From then on, several current and former players and staffers say, the close relationship between Zygmunt and Martz began to deteriorate, with battles over personnel becoming more frequent. Though Martz had nominal power, Zygmunt became more assertive in his personnel recommendations, and Shaw would sometimes side with him over Martz.

A series of injuries to Warner's throwing hand helped doom St. Louis to a 7-9 finish in 2002. But the Rams rebounded again in '03, when backup quarterback Marc Bulger took over for Warner (who'd suffered a concussion) in Week 2 and led the team to a 12-4 record and the NFC West title. When the Rams dropped a divisional playoff home game in overtime to the Carolina Panthers, Martz was roundly criticized for not being more aggressive at the end of regulation. Last year St. Louis snuck into the playoffs with an 8-8 record and defeated the Seahawks in the wild-card round before getting bounced by the Atlanta Falcons 47-17. In the off-season Martz, down to the final two years of his contract, asked for an extension. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he balked when Shaw told him such a deal would be linked to the team's performance in 2005.

As Martz weakened from his battle with endocarditis, he became more deeply mired in his feud with Zygmunt--who was rarely seen at games or the team's facility early in the season--and with other members of the organization who he felt were out to get him. This wasn't the first time Martz appeared insecure about his job. One former player says that Martz, before releasing Warner in June 2004, told other Rams that he believed the quarterback wanted him fired; the player says that Martz "vowed to get rid of Kurt before that could happen." (Warner said he had no knowledge of such an attitude by Martz.)

The coach, sources say, added to the tension within the organization with his obsession over peripheral matters--such as the color of the locker room carpet and the selection of player photos for the halls at Rams Park--and his brusque treatment of employees. "Some of the things he did were ludicrous and crazy, and a lot of it came down to power and control," another former player says. "He was so insecure, so worried that people were out to get him, that he would do things to make everyone feel that he was in charge."

Late last season, according to team sources, the coach bristled after coming to believe that employees in the Rams' business department had an office pool on when he would be fired. In Martz's defense, there have been indications that his paranoia was sometimes justified. Just before the start of the '05 season Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote a column naming various team executives who Miklasz had been told were disloyal to Martz and imploring them to stop undercutting the coach. A few days later, Miklasz reported, one of those executives, director of football administration Samir Suleiman, left a message on Miklasz's voicemail stating, "Tell your source that I'm not a back-stabber; I'm a f------ throat slasher, and he'll know the difference before all is said and done." Suleiman, who is Zygmunt's righthand man, was reprimanded by Shaw but remained with the organization.

While many players and staffers speak fondly of Shaw and laud him for his intelligence, he's perceived by some of the same people as lacking leadership qualities and the ability to make tough decisions. It doesn't help that he lives in L.A. (where he stayed after the team moved in 1995). As one Rams executive says, "Because Shaw is [often] not around, it's like a substitute-teacher mentality, and everyone has carved out his own little kingdom." Adds former Rams tackle Kyle Turley, who late last season had a heated confrontation with Martz over the severity of a back injury and was released in May, "A lot of things broke down, communicationwise, because John Shaw wasn't there to see what was going on firsthand. I just don't understand how you can try to run what is almost a billion-dollar business from afar, and then have all that junk going on and not do anything to fix it."

One instance in which Shaw was on hand to assert his authority occurred late last month, during the third quarter of St. Louis's 28-17 home victory over the New Orleans Saints, the Rams' first win under interim coach Joe Vitt. Martz, who had taken an indefinite leave of absence because of his illness, was watching the game on TV at home and called security director Dan Linza at the stadium in an effort to discuss play-calling with offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild. When Linza entered the coaches' booth to give his cellphone to Fairchild, Zygmunt reportedly denied Martz's request to talk to the coordinator and, after physically removing Linza, walked him to Shaw's box. Shaw sided with Zygmunt and forbade Martz from contacting his assistants during the game, a move that Martz said, in a subsequent radio interview with Miklasz, made him "very, very angry." Martz also said he was unsure he could coexist with Zygmunt if he were to coach the team next year. Shaw responded, in an interview with the Post-Dispatch, by saying, "I think his anticipation is that he's going to want an extension, and he's going to want to dictate terms of that extension. At this point I'm not sure that any of that's going to happen."

The day after the cellphone incident Martz announced that because of his heart condition he would not rejoin the team this season. Given Shaw's alliance with Zygmunt, the likely outcome is that Martz, despite a 57-37 record, has coached his last game for St. Louis. If so, says one staffer familiar with Martz's personnel decisions, "He'll have no one but himself to blame because he had [most of] the personnel power." Critics point to Martz's penchant for "reaching" on draft day, resulting in busts such as halfback Trung Canidate (first round, 2000); linebacker Robert Thomas (first round, '02); wide receiver Eric Crouch (third round, '02); and guard Travis Scott (fourth round, '02). The trio of young defensive tackles cited by the veteran player after Sunday's game may turn out similarly.

The Rams took the field again in Seattle with a sense of optimism, having won their previous two games under the straight-shooting Vitt, who's friends with Martz but less concerned with nonfootball issues, and welcoming back four Pro Bowlers from injury: Bulger, wideouts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, and defensive end Leonard Little. Yet St. Louis, which beat the Seahawks three times last year, was outclassed in suffering its second loss to Seattle this season.

After the game Turley, from his new home in West Hollywood, offered a show-biz analogy for the decline of the Greatest Show on Turf. "Playing for the Rams," he said, "was like being on Survivor, with Mike Martz and all those other guys forming secret alliances and doing whatever they could to sabotage each other."

At that moment the Rams were enjoying a screening of the movie Jackass aboard their charter to St. Louis. As the plane swept through the darkness, the aisles were filled with laughter.


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"Playing for the Rams" says Turley, "was like being on Survivor, with all those guys forming secret alliances to SABOTAGE each other."


Photograph by Al Tielemans




Bulger (above) and Holt (opposite) failed to connect in the rain in Seattle as the Rams dropped to 4-5.




Martz's absence due to illness has left control of the Rams in the hands of (from left) Vitt, Shaw and Zygmunt.