Martz seeks cure for Rams' recurring turnover problem

Wednesday, November 28, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams' latest rash of turnovers has coach Mike Martz looking for solutions -- even the chance that one of the key players in the NFL's highest-powered attack could lose his job.

Punt returner Az-Zahir Hakim accounted for the first of the team's five turnovers in Monday night's 24-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Martz hinted Tuesday that he might make a change.

Hakim, also a wide receiver, has five fumbles this season and two have come on punts.

"We'll have to see," Martz said. "It's become an issue, more than I want it to be. He's got to take that ball up the field and go and protect it and just get what he can."

The problem with making a switch is the Hakim's backup as punt returner, Dre' Bly, also has a history of drops.

Hakim has two career punt returns for touchdowns, one each the past two season.

"God bless him, he wants to score a touchdown every time he gets his hands on it," Martz said. "I appreciate his effort, but some of those things, we just have got to use better judgment."

Hakim's first-quarter fumble didn't end up hurting the Rams (8-2) because Martin Gramatica was wide left on a 25-yard field goal attempt. But in some ways it set the greased-pig tone for the Rams, who have committed 13 turnovers in their two losses.

"I know we're a real good team, and the only thing that will stop us is these turnovers," Martz said. "The turnovers are outrageous. We just have got to protect the ball, period."

Kurt Warner accounted for three of the turnovers, with two interceptions and a fumble, but wasn't singled out for criticism by Martz. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce fumbled for the third time this season, on a reverse, and the Rams also had a punt blocked.

It was another case of the Rams being their own worst enemy. Eight giveaways cost them in a 34-31 setback to the Saints on Oct. 28.

Martz has always run a high-risk attack, but never more so than this year. In 1999, the Rams' Super Bowl championship season with Martz as the offensive coordinator, they had 31 turnovers the entire season. Last year's 10-6 wild-card team had 35 turnovers.

At the present rate, this year's team will finish with 51. Already, the mistakes have dropped the Rams (8-2) into a tie for the NFC West lead with the 49ers.

Martz believes it all comes down to awareness. It's definitely not, he said, because the team hasn't paid attention to turnovers.

All season in practice, skill-position players run a gauntlet of grabbing arms trying to pry the ball free. The Rams also have more contact in practice than many NFL teams.

"We're in full gear out there and most teams are not at this time," Martz said.

The Rams nearly overcame all of their gaffes in both games, losing by a combined 10 points.

"I guess that's the scary part," guard Adam Timmerman said. "Without the turnovers, you ask where would you be? But you make mistakes like that, it's going to cost you, even against average teams."

The Rams' defense has made great strides from last season, rising to No. 2 overall this week and trailing only the Steelers. But they can't make up for all of the offensive gifts, taking the ball away 23 times for a minus-9 turnover ratio -- third-worst in the NFC.

The Buccaneers, by contrast, are 5-5 in part because they're plus-12.

The defense also had its problems against the Buccaneers, allowing five straight third-down conversions in the second half. Tampa Bay drove 90 yards for the game-winning score.

"They ran the ball right at us, and we just sat there and took it," defensive end Grant Wistrom said. "They just handed it to us."

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