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Vermeil changes for better, takes Rams with him; Coach almost was fired after 2 years, but got a third if he adjusted; Super Bowl XXXIV

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- For most losing teams, the easy solution is to fire the coach.

The St. Louis Rams did it a different way.

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Instead of changing the coach, they persuaded the coach to change his ways.

The Rams' remarkable one-year turnaround from the losingest team in the decade to the Super Bowl is a blueprint for losing teams trying to find a way to win.

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They had the King Midas touch in the off-season.

It all started when president John Shaw decided to give Dick Vermeil a third year as the team's coach.

Vermeil, who had been out of coaching since 1982 when Shaw decided to gamble on him three years ago, seemed to have no clue how to coach at the end of the 1990s. He went 5-11 and 4-12 in his first two seasons, and the players were in virtual rebellion at his taskmaster ways.

His practices were so long and tiring that the players left their games in training camp and were prone to injuries. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was hampered by hamstring pulls that the Rams feared were caused by Vermeil's practices.

Shaw, though, had two reasons for keeping Vermeil.

The first was monetary. It would have cost the Rams about $10 million to fire Vermeil and his staff. Another major consideration was the fact he had fired the last coach, Rich Brooks, after two seasons. Shaw feared getting a reputation for a quick trigger finger.

"It would be a lie to say finances are never an issue. But that [changing again after two years] was definitely an issue," Shaw said. "It would hurt your ability to get a good coach. Also, every time you make a coaching change, you have to start changing personnel because coaches want different systems or schemes. It's hard in a cap system to be trying to replace personnel that quickly. That was really the main issue."

If Vermeil were to remain, though, it was obvious he had to change -- particularly on offense. The team was shut out by the Miami Dolphins, scored three against the New Orleans Saints and scored 17 or fewer points in seven other games.

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At a meeting in Los Angeles -- Shaw still has a home there even though the team moved in 1995 -- at the end of last season, they discussed the future.

Vermeil was ready to fire offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, whose offense had sputtered. (Rhome now has the distinction of being fired by both teams in this season's Super Bowl.)

Shaw suggested Vermeil talk to Mike Martz, who was Washington Redskins quarterback coach and had been fired by Vermeil when he brought in his own staff three years ago. Vermeil hit it off with Martz and he was hired.

"It helped that some of the key players [notably Bruce] liked Mike when he was here," Shaw said.

Martz, along with some veteran players, also persuaded Vermeil to lighten up on his practice sessions, and that helped to keep the team fresher this season.

The next major decision was the quarterback. After three years, Tony Banks had worn out his welcome in St. Louis. He was too erratic, and his work habits weren't the best. He threw 14 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes and was sacked 41 times before being hurt late in the 1998 season.

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"Tony is a good player and has lots of ability. The way the fans were reacting to Tony at the end of the year, we concluded we needed to upgrade that position to give our fans some type of hope that there would be change at the position," Shaw said.

Although Vermeil was and still is a Banks booster, Martz helped to convince him they couldn't turn the team around with Banks at quarterback.

Martz also recommended that the Rams sign free agent Trent Green, who was effective with the Redskins last season. The Rams got him with a $16 million deal.

Once Green was on board, Banks was traded to the Ravens in March.

Getting Banks off the roster proved critical, because it enabled the Rams to move Kurt Warner, who was the third-stringer last season and threw only 11 passes, into the backup role, where he was available to step in when Green hurt his knee in the preseason.

The next major step was getting Marshall Faulk from Indianapolis for second- and fifth-round picks.

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"That kind of fell in our lap," Shaw said. "I called Bill [Polian, Colts general manager] when I heard rumors they were thinking of trading Faulk. I made it clear we weren't going to give up the sixth pick in the draft, but we were interested. Nothing happened for a month and a half, and he called us the Monday before the draft. We happened to be in the right place at the right time. They didn't want to trade him to an AFC East team."

The signing of guard Adam Timmerman as a free agent also plugged a hole in the offensive line.

"We thought Timmerman would bring a certain toughness to the line and we could move Fred Miller to tackle," Shaw said.

The Rams had bolstered their line and had a new quarterback and a running back. They decided they needed another receiver to team with Bruce.

That's why they drafted Torry Holt with the sixth pick.

"I think the consensus with Charley [Armey, vice president of player personnel] and Dick was that if the receiver was there, we'd take the receiver," Shaw said. "We wanted to maximize our offense."

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Armey, the brother of Texas Rep. Dick Armey, was brought in by Vermeil from New England, and he upgraded the Rams' drafts. This was the team that bypassed Eddie George for Lawrence Phillips in 1996.

Armey was instrumental in signing several key free agents, including Ricky Proehl, who made the catch that put the Rams in the Super Bowl, besides making several good draft picks.

In 1998, they selected defensive lineman Grant Wistrom and wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim on the first and fourth rounds, and they got Dre' Bly, whose interception set up the Rams' winning score in the NFC title game, in the second round of 1999.

The Rams thought they now had a team that was ready to make major improvements after going 45-99 in the decade.

In the preseason, Green completed 28 of his first 32 passes before Rodney Harrison of the San Diego Chargers ended his season with a questionable hit.

"I was devastated when Trent went down. I felt like all the hopes we had were pretty much shattered," Shaw said.

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Nobody had any idea that Warner would step in and take the team to the Super Bowl.

Just last year, Rhome wanted to cut him for Will Ferrer, who's no longer in the league.

Armey argued for Warner, and Vermeil decided to listen to him and kept Warner as the third-stringer, although Warner was exposed in the expansion draft. However, the Cleveland Browns took former Maryland quarterback Scott Milanovich instead.

"We felt he wouldn't be taken in expansion, but I don't think anybody in the organization thought that he would play as well as he has," Shaw said.

All the moves clicked, and now they're going to the Super Bowl.


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