From an outsider’s perspective, everything at Rams Park has changed in the past few days with the announcement that
coach Mike Martz won’t be returning to the team this season and, perhaps, beyond.
But inside the locker room, upstairs in the coaches’ offices and out on the practice field, the players and coaches
are forging on, business as usual.
Leading the way is the even-keeled, always-focused interim head coach Joe Vitt. Never one to hold his tongue or speak in
any terms but blunt honesty, Vitt is leading the Rams through adversity one brutally candid comment at a time.
After 27 years as an assistant coach in the NFL, Vitt has seen and done it all and he isn’t about to change because
of the “assistant” part of his assistant head coach title has been removed for the rest of the season.
“I don’t read the papers,” Vitt said. “I’m not a tabloid guy. My life hasn’t changed
one bit. It’s my job to prepare our football team to go win a big game. It hasn’t changed one bit. We had a good
practice today. We’ll have a better practice tomorrow and we’re going to prepare to win the game.
“I feel the same today as I felt last Monday and the Monday before that. This is my third week of doing this and
I feel exactly the same.”
That attitude might not have been adopted yet by those outside of the Rams locker room, but inside, the “all we want
is a win” mantra permeates the room. Sure, the players and coaches miss Martz. He was, after all, their leader and had
proved time and again to be a favorite of his players.
At 3-4 with the bye week on the way and a good Jacksonville team on the way to town, the Rams don’t have time to
sit around and feel sorry for themselves. They have to focus on the task at hand.
Taking a cue from their new leader, that seems to be exactly what they’ve done.
“Coaches coach and players play,” defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. “I have been saying that since
I have been here. When you blur the lines that’s when you get in trouble. I love Coach Martz; everybody that knows me
knows that. But he has to do what he has to do to take care of himself. He made the decision to step away to make sure that
he could become healthy so he can live the rest of his life the way he’s supposed to live it. That doesn’t change
what we do, especially on defense.
“He’s never made a tackle, Coach Martz on our team. Coach Vitt won’t come out and make one and neither
will coach Fairchild throw a block or a pass. It’s all about the players on the field between the white lines. It’s
a player’s league; it always has been and always will be.”
So far, the Rams have proved to be fine without Martz. At his news conference on Monday, Martz even joked that it “made
him mad” how well the team was doing with him not there.
Thus far, St. Louis is 1-1 with Vitt as the head coach, including a loss to Indianapolis and a win Sunday against New Orleans
at the Edward Jones Dome. Still, there haven’t been many changes to the way the Rams do things with Martz not around.
The Rams are running on the same practice schedule, with the same set up and similar game day breakdown of responsibilities.
Vitt is still coaching the linebackers and helping the defense. Of course, his duties have changed slightly. He does do
the addresses to the players in team meetings and has helped Fairchild a little with the offense, though it’s mostly
just communicating situations with him during the game.
Although Vitt and Martz are close friends and do things mostly the same way, there are a few slight things that Vitt has
done that Martz wouldn’t. Take the playing of the Monday Night Football theme music during a practice the Saturday before
the game with the Colts or the addition of a college referee to Wednesday’s practice to help get the message across
to the players that stupid penalties need to be eliminated. Vitt even took over some of the defensive play calling duties
during the second half of Wednesday’s game.
“As a person he hasn’t changed at all,” free safety Mike Furrey said. “He comes in here every day,
even when Coach Martz was here, to prepare this defense to win. Now he has stepped up as the head coach and he is overseeing
what the offense is doing, but he is getting us prepared every week. Him and coach (Larry) Marmie are getting us prepared
every week. You have got to commend him for what he’s doing.”
Likewise with Fairchild, who has seemingly done a solid job of handling the offense in Martz’s absence. Fairchild,
of course, has learned under Martz for many years and is doing many of the same things, but he has not been afraid to add
some wrinkles of his own.
Fairchild wanted to make it a point to get running back Steven Jackson at least 20 carries against the Saints, even if
New Orleans wanted to stack the box with eight defenders. Mission accomplished. Jackson got 20 carries and picked up 97 yards
and a pair of touchdowns.
With quarterback Marc Bulger out, Fairchild also wanted to protect replacement Jamie Martin and give him an opportunity
make plays, but limit risk. Against the Saints, Martin was 18-of-29 for 198 yards. He didn’t have a touchdown pass,
but more important was the goose egg he posted in the interceptions column.
“We miss (Martz) obviously,” Martin said. “He’s good at what he does; he’s one of the best.
But Steve is getting better every week also and he has been around the offense long enough and been around Mike and learned
from him. He’s done a good job.”
And Fairchild has yet to get a chance to run the offense with the full complement of weapons including Isaac Bruce, Torry
Holt and Bulger.
The absence of those players has only added to the turmoil that could easily be pulling this team apart. But Jackson says
that he doesn’t have the time or the inclination to allow that stuff to bother him and his teammates don’t either.
“I’m not worried about the future,” Jackson said. “I know today that coach Martz is at home trying
to get better. The future will take care of itself, you take care of today. If you don’t take care of today, there is
no future. I’m not sitting around worrying about what’s going to happen next year or two years from now or next
week. I have too many problems right now to take care of. I have to figure out how to help my defense get Byron Leftwich on
the ground. I have to figure out how to help my defense try to stop Fred Taylor. I’m too worried about that. I don’t
have time to be worried about anything else.”