Rams run into a new era

Friday, September 10, 2004

By R.B. Fallstrom ~ The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- If Marshall Faulk is entering the twilight phase of his career, the St. Louis Rams have the transition game plan in place.

Faulk is the only back in NFL history to put together four consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, but the last one was in 2001. He's missed 11 games due to injury the last two seasons, he's coming off another knee operation and heading into his 11th NFL season it's only natural to ponder the wear and tear factor.

That's where Steven Jackson comes in. The first running back taken in this year's draft is a more bruising alternative to the elusive Faulk and he led the league with 323 yards rushing and a 4.9-yard average in the preseason.

So, if Faulk breaks down again, the Rams, who were 12-4 and won the NFC West last season, won't be in huge trouble. The confident Jackson also could serve to prod Faulk to a big finish.

"I think when you're a competitor and a world class athlete like Marshall is, anytime you have somebody behind you I think that helps," coach Mike Martz said. "But that's not his motivation.

"He plays to his own standard and he's gotten himself ready to go."

While Jackson carried the load in the preseason, Faulk was coddled as usual with only 14 carries for 38 yards. The wraps come off in the opener on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

"I wouldn't say it's the last hurrah because he's been looking really good," Jackson said. "With both of us here, we can take the load off each other."

Martz said simply: "He has his juice."

Last year, Faulk was held to 818 yards, his lowest total since 1996. Jackson had 3,625 yards and 39 touchdowns in three seasons at Oregon State.

Drafting Jackson cleared the way for the Rams to trade Lamar Gordon, the backup to Faulk the last two seasons, on Wednesday to the Dolphins for a third-round draft pick.

"I'm coming along pretty fast, I guess," Jackson said.

Remaining question marks are a rebuilt offensive line minus two starters from last year and a defensive line that'll try to fill the void left when end Grant Wistrom signed a free-agent deal with the Seahawks.

The offensive line problems appeared more dire before five-time Pro Bowler Orlando Pace finally agreed to a one-year, $7.02 million contract as the Rams' franchise player on Sunday. Pace had only four practices to prepare for the opener, but teammates say he's good enough to shake off the rust during games.

Pace has experience playing catchup, after signing late again last year in retaliation for getting the franchise tag for the first time. And he staged a lengthy holdout after being the first overall pick of the draft in 1997.

"I'd have some problems, but I'm not quite the athlete he is," defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. "He's just a great player and he proved last year that he just needs a little bit of work to get ready."

The Rams also had to replace center Dave Wohlabaugh, whose contract was terminated when he was unable to return from hip surgery, and right tackle Kyle Turley, on the injured reserve list after reinjuring his surgically-repaired back. At least both of those departures came early in camp, giving the team plenty of time to adjust.

Andy McCollum, a starting guard last year, moves to center where he's been an NFL starter. Grant Williams, who has filled in for Pace, takes over Turley's spot, and former Cardinal Chris Dishman, lured out of retirement, starts at guard. That leaves Pace and guard Adam Timmerman as the only holdovers.

Bryce Fisher, a former seventh-round pick of the Bills in 1999 with three career starts, is the nominal low-profile replacement for Wistrom at defensive end. But the Rams rotate their defensive linemen frequently and rookie Anthony Hargrove, a third-round pick, also could help.

"Grant is gone and he's not coming back," Fisher said. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm getting the chance to prove I can be the starter."

That's not a problem with quarterback Marc Bulger, 18-4 the last two years as the starter. There's no hint of a quarterback controversy this year, not with two-time MVP Kurt Warner playing for the Giants.

Still, this will be his first season opener as the starter.

"It's probably just as exciting for everyone else in here," Bulger said. "It's not a playoff game but it's the first one that counts, and they all count from here on in."

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