Even Vermeil shaking head

NFL: It's been one right move after another for the long-suffering Rams and their coach, with the evidence an amazing 5-0 record.

October 24, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Just 10 months ago, Dick Vermeil was too old-school to win in today's high-tech NFL.

In December, the coach of the somnolent St. Louis Rams was derided for his exhausting practices, his old-fashioned approach and a two-year record of 9-23.

But that was before Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. It was before Vermeil caught lightning in a bottle with a big-play offense. And it was before he won back his players with a scaled-back training camp.

Vindication arrived for Vermeil and the Rams this fall with five straight wins and a revamped lineup. The Rams aren't just unbeaten this season; they're threatening to shatter the league's all-time scoring record, set last year by the Minnesota Vikings.

It took a frenetic off-season of roster remodeling, the hiring of a couple of young assistant coaches and a soft, fifth-place schedule, but the Rams have finally turned a long corner.

From the worst team in the decade to Super Bowl contender. That's the improbable path they're traveling this season.

From an over-the-hill, lame-duck coach to coach-of-the-year material. That's the remarkable journey Vermeil is on these days.

"He deserves 100 percent of the credit for the turnaround," said Charley Armey, the Rams' vice president for player personnel. "He made the right moves with the staff, with the players, with practices. He's done everything right."

You may not see a more curious transformation in the NFL, although there are precedents as recently as the last two years. The New York Jets went from 1-15 in 1996 to 12-4 and the conference championship game in 1998. The Atlanta Falcons went from 3-13 in 1996 to 14-2 and the Super Bowl in 1998.

The Jets' rise coincided with the arrival of Bill Parcells in 1997. The Falcons' fortunes turned with the hiring of Dan Reeves the same year.

The Rams, however, seemed to be going nowhere after Vermeil's appointment in 1997, 15 years after he last coached in the league with the Philadelphia Eagles. His first two teams went 5-11 and 4-12, and his regime was filled with acrimony and suspicion.

Players nearly mutinied over his grueling training camp and long practices. His star receiver, Isaac Bruce, missed 15 games in two seasons because of chronic hamstring problems. His star running back, Lawrence Phillips, proved to be a poor gamble. His star quarterback, Tony Banks, was booed out of town.

Vermeil, who turns 63 this week, was seen as too old and his approach too antiquated to survive in today's era. There was no free agency or salary cap when he took the Eagles to the Super Bowl in the 1980 season. Defenses were much more sophisticated and offenses much more varied upon his return in 1997 with a five-year, $9 million contract.

When the Rams collapsed last season -- losing six of their last seven games and nine of the last 11 -- Vermeil's job security came into question. In December, when team president John Shaw said Vermeil would return, he hinted at a major shake-up, both at the coaching and player levels.

To a staff that included four assistants 60 or older in 1998, Vermeil brought in 48-year-old Mike Martz as offensive coordinator and 52-year-old Al Saunders as receivers coach.

Martz was a critical addition because he had coached quarterback Trent Green at Washington last year and Bruce to a Pro Bowl season in 1996.

The Rams used all of their resources to reshape the roster. They plucked guard Adam Timmerman from Green Bay, linebacker Todd Collins from New England, safety Devin Bush from Atlanta and Green from the free-agent pool.

They traded second- and fifth-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts for running back Faulk. And they got talented wide receiver Torry Holt with the sixth pick in the draft.

"We wanted to add offensive weapons to our arsenal so we'd be able to attack teams and have more than one way of scoring," Armey said.

"We didn't want to just run or just throw to Isaac Bruce. We needed somebody to complement him. And we made the commitment to get Trent Green."

Vermeil wanted playmakers to keep up with today's offensive trends.

"We feel in today's game, if you don't have those skilled people who can do something beyond your coaching and design, you're not going to be a real contender for the Super Bowl," he said.

Armed with new weapons, Vermeil went one step further. He made concessions in training camp, cutting down practice time by some 30 minutes and reducing the number of practices in full pads. Players were fresher, and results were evident.

The new Rams offense was unstoppable in the preseason until Green torn knee ligaments in a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 28. Yet, with Green out for the season, unheralded Warner stepped forward to deliver the biggest surprise of all.

Warner, who quarterbacked in NFL Europe and the Arena League, leads the NFL with a passer rating of 131.4, a completion percentage of 71.4, an average of 9.98 yards a pass and 15 touchdowns.

"Warner is a surprise to everybody, but he's not a surprise to us," Armey said. "If I told you we thought he'd be playing at the level he's playing at, I'd be lying. I always had great confidence in Kurt Warner. I said if he had to line up and play, he wouldn't lose us any games."

So far, he hasn't. The Rams lead the league with 183 points, a pace that would produce 586 and shred the Vikings' record of 556. Averaging 37 points and allowing only 12, the Rams face only two teams with winning records the rest of the season. Today, they play the winless Cleveland Browns.

"I'd be a liar to tell you that I thought we'd be 5-0 six weeks ago," Vermeil said.

"I thought we'd have a winning record at this time -- 4-1 or no worse than 3-2. To be dominating like we are is beyond my expectations."

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