Vermeil attributes Rams' rise in NFC to easy schedule

Less challenging road built confidence, coach says

Notebook

January 29, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Dick Vermeil made a surprising admission yesterday.

The St. Louis Rams' coach conceded the Rams' fifth-place schedule was a factor in the team's drive to the Super Bowl.

In his final news conference before his team faces the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV tomorrow, Vermeil said, "Our schedule was not as demanding as many teams played this year. We were able to gain some confidence as you go along and beat some teams."

Not only did the Rams fail to beat a team with a winning record during the regular season, but they faced one team ranked among the top 12 in defensive yardage allowed -- the Ravens in the season opener -- before they were held to a touchdown by Tampa Bay's third-ranked defense last week in the NFC championship game.

Most winning coaches get irritated at any suggestion they played an easy schedule, but Vermeil's comment was an indication of how much he's changed in the 19 years since he brought the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl XV and lost to the Oakland Raiders.

An intense, driven coach, Vermeil was obviously uptight the week before that game, but he's acted different this week.

"I was always an intense and emotional, driven-type guy. OK, I still am. But at 63, I have better control of it than the last time I went to the Super Bowl. I don't let the small things bother me," he said.

It helps that he doesn't run the offense and call the plays the way he did then, but he said, "As you get older, you learn how to handle things. There was a time [when they were losing] if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't. [Now] I'm glad I did it."

There were fears that Vermeil might revert this week, but he has remained on an even keel. In his first Super Bowl trip, he had a team meal on Monday, six days before the game.

This time, Vermeil is letting the players have dinner tonight with their families before they have a team meeting at 9 p.m.

Vermeil, who doesn't make the players stay in a hotel the night before home games the way many coaches do, said, "We have stayed with the exact same practice routine that we used in the league opener against the Baltimore Ravens. I want them to relax and have fun. I think they will play better that way."

Flare-up

Practice heated up yesterday for the Titans, and not just because they moved inside to the Georgia Dome.

Receiver Derrick Mason and safety Blaine Bishop came to blows in the final session of the 1-hour, 40-minute practice. Bishop had been covering Mason on a pass in a two-minute drill when the ball fell incomplete, and Mason accused the safety of hitting him on the helmet.

The two started fighting and had to be separated by teammates. Mason and Bishop didn't stop and were ordered off the field.

After practice, coach Jeff Fisher pulled his players and coaches together for a talk. Then he spoke privately with Bishop and Mason for several minutes. The players hugged and then left.

"It's over with," Fisher said. "They compete. They are highly competitive. That happens over the course of the season. Did you see them walk off the field together? Those two are about as competitive guys as I've got."

Who's king in NFL?

Vermeil sent mixed messages on the value of coaches yesterday.

"Players win games, not coaches," he said early in his news conference.

But when he was asked about the New England Patriots giving up a first-round pick for Bill Belichick, he said, "I believe there are people who can make a difference in a leadership role as head football coach in a major corporation. I think leadership can make a difference.

"I would give up two first-round picks to have Bill Parcells coach my football team. I don't know Bill Belichick that well. Obviously they think that much of him. If they're right, it's a tremendous investment. To me, there have been a ton of first-round flops."

Vermeil defends Little

Rams linebacker Leonard Little, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after killing a St. Louis woman in a drunken-driving collision in 1997, was again defended by Vermeil yesterday.

"Leonard Little is a nondrinker, OK. They take him out for his birthday, OK, [they say] you have got to have a beer with us. He goes along with them. And it takes less for you [to become drunk] if you never drink, I think, anyway. And he commits a terrible mistake. OK, he will live with that mistake the rest of his life. But he is not a problem person. He is just the opposite. It is unfortunate he will pay the price the rest of his life," he said.

Vermeil said Little is accepting counseling and the "people in St. Louis are very understanding and very forgiving." Little was suspended the first eight games of this past season.

One person who isn't so understanding is Bill Gutweiler, the husband of 31 years of the woman, Susan Gutweiler, who died in the crash.

Gutweiler has given several interviews this week and said he won't watch the game because Little is on the team and would like to see him traded.

Bursting the Net

Superbowl.com is bringing a new term to football vernacular: the cybercast.

Evan Kamer, NFL director of business development and overseer of Superbowl.com, said more than a million hits are expected on the Internet site tomorrow. Web surfers will be attracted by interactive chats, polls, video clips and electronic games.

While its game-day capabilities are limited (no live feeds for the game), Superbowl.com was especially active on media day on Thursday. Live video of all team news conferences were Webcast.

One of the most popular features was a 360-degree video camera that allowed online users to personally tune in to what they could see during media day.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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