Questions abound for Rams after loss

Monday, January 12, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams face an offseason filled with questions and doubt -- all created by their double-overtime playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Questions abound: Who will be the team's quarterback? Why did a defensive line loaded with No. 1 picks fail to stop the run all season? Has coach Mike Martz, once a bold offensive innovator, become too cautious? Has the window of opportunity closed on a team that went to 2000 and 2002 Super Bowls?

But most of all, is one game enough to spoil a 12-4 season filled with accomplishment?

"If you're going to be a part of a game like this, you have to accept this part of it in order to enjoy winning," running back Marshall Faulk said. "I don't know if I have been in a game with this much back and forth."

Martz was steadfast in his support of Marc Bulger over struggling two-time MVP Kurt Warner until a few days before the Rams' 29-23 double-overtime playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers on Saturday. Then he changed, saying he'd do anything to win, including benching Bulger.

Bulger was intercepted three times in his first career playoff game.

Martz appeared to have lost a bit of confidence in him in the final minute of regulation, electing to play for a tie instead of going for a win with a first down at the Panthers' 15, with 39 seconds to play and one timeout remaining.

"He's a gunslinger, he's aggressive and he likes to get after it," center Dave Wohlabaugh said. "But it's his choice."

Bulger threw for 332 yards, but struggled to finish drives, and also got picked off in overtime when the Rams were close to field-goal range.

'Plenty of opportunities'The Rams had to lean heavily on kicker Jeff Wilkins, who tied an NFL playoff record with five field goals. They were in danger of going without a touchdown at home for the first time in more than six seasons before Faulk scored on a 1-yard run with 2:39 left in regulation.

"We had plenty of opportunities to make plays," Martz said. "You can go back and look at this whole game. You have to execute if you're going to be a championship team."

Including the playoffs, Bulger had 22 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions. He was booed by the home crowd in the fourth quarter Saturday.

"Marc should hold his head high because he played well under a lot of extreme pressure out there," wide receiver Dane Looker said. "He is going to be a great quarterback in this league and he already is. For anyone to boo him in this building is absurd."

Trading Warner would mean a $4 million salary cap hit for the Rams, unless he gives back some of his bonus. In any case, Martz needs a quality backup.

The Rams have three No. 1 picks on their defensive line, Grant Wistrom, Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett. But their performance against the run was a weakness all season as opponents averaged 4.8 yards per carry.

The Panthers piled up 216 yards, and there was no drop-off after Stephen Davis (86 yards, six carries) left with a quadriceps injury in the first quarter and was replaced by DeShaun Foster (95 yards, 21 carries).

The Rams allowed 485 yards overall, a play-it-safe showing that could hurt defensive coordinator Lovie Smith's chances for a head coaching job.

Martz, who's never been a safety-first guy, got two opportunities to talk his way out of his ultraconservative decision at the end of regulation.

"I knew the field goal would be good," he said. "To me, that's the right thing to do at that point in the game. To come back like we had to get in that position, I just felt like the risk wasn't necessary."

It might be premature to say that time has passed this team by.

Faulk is 31, but he accounted for 131 yards rushing and receiving, and the roster is a mix of experienced players and newcomers.

"I think the future does look bright, but I think you do have to say it was a failure," strong safety Adam Archuleta said.

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