The St. Louis Rams are the NFL's answer to the "Blair Witch Project."
Scary things seem to happen to them.
The Rams are plunging to depths no NFL team has ever seen before.
The worst team of the 1990s, their next loss will be their 100th of the decade.
That would enable them to match Tampa Bay, which lost 106 games in the 1980s, as the only teams to ever lose 100 games in a decade.
The Rams were supposed to bring NFL football back to St. Louis when they moved from Los Angeles in 1995, but they've only provided a pale imitation of it while going 22-42 in four years.
Their victory total has dropped by one each year from 7-9 to 6-10 to 5-11 to 4 -12, a pace that should have them at 0-16 by 2002.
Among their stellar personnel moves since moving to St. Louis were the decisions to trade Jerome Bettis and draft Lawrence Phillips.
The one thing they're good at is making money. They have one of those lucrative new stadium deals and their owner, Georgia Frontiere, has virtually no debt.
They even decided to spend a lot of it in the off-season, shelling out $26.7 million in signing bonuses for free agents and draft picks.
They thought they had retooled their offense with Trent Green at quarterback, Torry Holt joining Isaac Bruce at wide receiver and Marshall Faulk taking over at running back.
They seemed to have real firepower before Green was lost for the season a week ago when San Diego's Rodney Harrison lunged at the back of his legs while coming off his block.
Coach Dick Vermeil cried the next day at a news conference.
He said yesterday on a conference call that it took him three days to get over it.
"It's like your wife died when you lose your quarterback," he said. "You go through a state of shock and depression all at the same time. It hurts, plus I'm an emotional guy. You almost start to think, well, the season is over."
They were left with a former Arena League player, Kurt Warner, to start the season. Just a year ago, he was the third-teamer and the Rams played Steve Bono over him in the final two games when Tony Banks was hurt.
"We were trying to win football games," Vermeil said. "People who pay for tickets to come to see us play weren't interested in watching us experiment. They were interested in us playing the best people we had. We thought Steve Bono was the best person we had and he was."
Bono left for Carolina and the Rams promoted Warner rather than bringing in another veteran backup.
The Rams gambled Green would stay healthy and lost.
The loss of Green hasn't been their only problem.
Their veteran offensive line coach, Jim Hanifan, a former Cardinals head coach, was arrested Saturday on a drunken driving charge.
The Rams have a linebacker, Leonard Little, serving an eight-game suspension this year because he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Little was drunk when he drove his car through a stop sign last year and crashed into a car driven by a 47-year-old woman, who died in the accident.
The team lost another player this week because of a bizarre clerical mistake. They didn't file the paperwork on time on two players waived with injury settlements.
The result is that the league made them cut two other players and one of them, defensive tackle Corey Sears, was claimed by the Arizona Cardinals before they could re-sign him.
Despite the setbacks, Vermeil sounds surprisingly upbeat about the team.
"You get over the depression. I'm not one who lingers on things I have no control over. I feel this team represents me and my personality and the kind of players I want on my roster," he said.
Starting his third year, he has only nine players who were on the roster when he arrived.
"The whiners and crybabies are for the most part gone. I think we've got this thing turned around," he said.
He likes gung-ho overachievers. He noted he went to the Super Bowl in Philadelphia with 18 undrafted players. He has 19 on his current roster, blended with some blue-chip players.
He said that his wide receivers (Holt and Bruce) "are as good as anybody in football" and his left tackle (Orlando Pace) can be a Hall of Famer. He says Faulk can solve the running back problem.
"If Kurt steps up, I think we'll be a good football team," he said.
It's a big task for an inexperienced quarterback, but Warner, who's 28 and has coped with adversity in his life, shouldn't be overwhelmed by the job.
His 10-year-old son has been blind since suffering a head injury when he was six months old. His wife's parents were killed a couple of years ago when a tornado swept through Mountain View, Ark.
Despite the fact he's thrown just 11 regular-season passes, he's impressed his teammates.
Fullback Derrick Harris said, "He has the arrogance of a big-time quarterback."
Warner makes his first start Sunday against the Ravens -- a team Vermeil refers to as the "Colts" -- and it's impossible to overestimate its importance for the Rams.
If they can't record a home win over the Ravens, a team with a 6-18 road record, it's hard to imagine them posting a winning season. If they don't, Vermeil is likely to be fired, and at age 62, his coaching career is likely over.
Still, Vermeil said he'll have no regrets about returning to the sideline in 1996 even if he doesn't turn it around.
"Sometimes you feel sorry for yourself and you say, 'Gosh, I shouldn't have done it,' " he said. "I'm really glad I did it. I have no regrets."
Pub Date: 9/09/99