Martz's Rams: big-play way

Offensive coordinator uses team's speed to get ball downfield

Super Bowl XXXIV

January 28, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The offense is high-tech wizardry. The plays seemingly are drawn up in cyber-space. But the architect of the most prolific passing game in the NFL this season is from the old school.

Mike Martz, the man who whipped up the St. Louis Rams' potent offensive concoction, is a descendant of the Air Coryell offense of the early 1980s.

Mentored by Ernie Zampese, who once coached for Don Coryell on the San Diego Chargers' offensive juggernaut of another era, Martz has taken that system to giddy heights this season.

On Sunday, the Rams' offensive coordinator will take it into Super Bowl XXXIV. Playing on the fast track of the Georgia Dome, against the Tennessee Titans' aggressive defense, Martz figures to have ample opportunity to go on a big-play binge.

"We like to be as aggressive as we can," Martz said. "At times, a great defense won't let you do that. They will take some things away. We tried to take some shots last weekend [against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game] and we couldn't get them.

"We're not going to change how we run things. We want to get guys in position to make plays. Our offense is probably a little closer to what Coryell used to do -- we'll throw the ball down the field."

It is a philosophy that dovetails conveniently with the talent available in St. Louis. It is an offense that features multiple formations, empty backfields, men in motion and mismatches.

Built on speed, with the idea of going deep to the wide receivers or short to Marshall Faulk, the offense has been virtually unstoppable this season.

This is what unstoppable looked like: The Rams scored 526 points, the third-best total in league history. Their quarterback, Kurt Warner, threw 41 touchdown passes. Faulk broke Barry Sanders' single-season record for total yards.

Big plays? Warner threw 60 completions of 20 yards or longer. The team had 14 runs of 20 yards or longer.

Only once, when Martz turned conservative in the NFC championship game a week ago, has the Rams' offense been stymied.

"He puts together a brilliant package," Rams wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim said. "He knows personnel and what to do with the style of people we have on the team. He knows how to take a matchup and try to take advantage of who's matched up against who."

In his eighth season as an NFL coach and first as offensive coordinator, Martz, 48, recently signed a two-year contract extension with the specification he will replace Dick Vermeil as head coach in 2001.

He joined the Rams in Los Angeles in 1992 when Zampese was the coordinator, and moved with the team to St. Louis in 1995. When head coach Rich Brooks was fired after the 1996 season, Martz spent two years as quarterbacks coach with the Washington Redskins.

After last season, Vermeil fired offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome and lured Martz back to St. Louis. What Martz found was a coach's gold mine.

"I came in the spring," he said, "and here was Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Az Hakim, Ricky Proehl. all these players.

"There aren't very many teams that have the four wide receivers we have."

Faulk makes five. The versatile running back, acquired in the off-season for second- and fifth-round draft picks, gives Martz mismatches most coaches can only dream about when Faulk lines up at a wide receiver position.

"Our system is conducive to a guy like him because of the versatility," Martz said. "We can move him around. He really fits this system. We didn't have to fit anything to him.

"You line him up out there and you're not sure he's not a wide receiver. He'll run routes with the same speed and crispness that a wide receiver does. He doesn't limit you in any way."

The offense underwent one major revision in training camp. With newly signed free agent Trent Green at quarterback, Martz wanted short dropbacks, quick reads and a point-guard mentality for distributing the ball.

When Green went down with a season-ending knee injury in August, Martz fine-tuned the game plan. Warner was less nimble, but stronger-armed than Green. The Rams scratched the sprintout game that played to Green's skills, and went more to a straight dropback for Warner.

It didn't take long before the Rams realized the potential for a devastating deep passing game. When Warner threw for five touchdowns and 323 yards in a Week 5 demolition of the San Francisco 49ers (42-20), the deep-strike mentality was in motion.

"What happened in the San Francisco game was we got the monkey off our back," Martz said of a win that snapped a 17-game losing streak to the 49ers. "Our confidence level jumped significantly. At that point, the football team felt like there wasn't anything it couldn't attain."

As fate would have it, the Rams' first stumbling block in a 13-3 season came in a 24-21 loss at Tennessee in Week 8. The Rams coughed up three turnovers in the first half and fell behind 21-0. They spent the rest of the day looking at defensive formations with seven and eight defensive backs.

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