Sometimes, when Charging Chub is making so much noise I can neither read nor concentrate on whatever’s on TV, I’ll go back and reread old blog entries. Tonight was–is–one of those nights: as recently as five minutes ago he was upstairs throwing a full-scale temper tantrum (thanks for abandoning me and leaving me with your crazy extended family, surrogate mother!). So I started digging, and soon stumbled across a bunch of journal articles I wrote for PHED 475, an independent study course taught by the redoubtable Dr. Geoff Smith. One in particular stood out…and because I haven’t been very prolific of late, I figured I’d post it. The Simmons Influence is obvious–but for those of us who were in the living room of 5 Birch Street when this happened (and, since I mention that there were five of us, I’m gonna assume it was me, Gavin, TJP, Tim and Gulley/Byrne), I think it does a pretty good job of evoking a memorable afternoon.
Without further ado (and with nothing but a few cosmetic changes), here it is:
After Grady Little’s historic gaffe in Game 7 of the Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees American League Championship Series, you’d have thought Red Sox fans would have undisputed hegemony over dumb coaching decisions. But then along came Mike Martz, the mad genius who runs the Greatest Show on Turf, to pull an equally dramatic, equally cataclysmic boner [hey, nice gratuitous use of the word “boner” there, Steve! Can you believe I actually submitted this?]. His decision to let time run out at the end of this week’s National Football Conference playoff game between his St. Louis Rams and the underdog Carolina Panthers, rather than take at least one (and likely two) shots at the end zone, was an undeniable screw up, a move that was questionable when it happened–and which now, given Carolina’s eventual 29-23 double overtime win, can be attributed with reasonable accuracy to the Rams’ demise.
Granted, Martz’ blunder won’t resonate like Grady Little’s, and given the Rams’ recent history–two Super Bowl berths, one championship–it probably doesn’t deserve to. It did, however, cost the Rams a gilt-laden opportunity to win the NFC, a conference so weak this season it evokes memories of the early 90s AFC. Instead, we’ll have the Panthers and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game next weekend, with the victory likely cannon fodder for either the New England Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts, one of whom will be this year’s AFC representative. It isn’t shaping up to be a Super Bowl to remember.
Instead, we got an NFC Divisional Playoff Game as potentially the game of the season. Seriously: how many playoff games in recent memory have had as many twists and turns as this one? Consider the facts. Carolina entered the game as 7-1/2-point underdogs to a Rams team that hadn’t lost at home in over two years. Early in the first quarter the Panthers’ star running back, Stephen Davis [yes, this is an old piece–Ed.], tweaked a hamstring on the tail end of a 64-yard run and was forced to leave the game, replaced by DeShaun Foster. Carolina’s “x” factor, quarterback Jake Delhomme, was doing just enough to keep his team in the game without ever doing enough to help them win. On the St. Louis side of the ball, Marc Bulger was doing his usual self-destruction routine, missing receivers, fulfilling his one-a-game “overthrown bomb that goes for an interception” quota, digging his team into a hole on the scoreboard and in terms of the momentum. For reasons known only to Mike Martz, the Rams weren’t putting the ball in the hands of the one man who should have been their automatic go-to guy: Marshall Faulk. Instead, they were putting the game in Bulger’s hands, and he was promptly throwing it away.
Still, this was absorbing stuff. Watching the game with the boys, I don’t think I’ve ever seen five people so transfixed by a sporting event–not even during the Canada/U.S. gold medal hockey game at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Our reactions swung wildly from disbelief (“I can’t believe Carolina’s in front!”) to calm resignation (“Here’s where St. Louis runs up the score”) to utter bewilderment (John Kasey nailing a field goal, then missing after a penalty negated the first). Our friend Gavin is also the world’s biggest St. Louis Rams fan; he didn’t exactly have the best 2003 (which is putting it mildly) and was counting on his team to deliver in this year’s playoffs. Every second was taking years off the kid’s life–and yet there he was, somehow finding faith to stand behind Marc Bulger as he led the Rams into the fourth quarter.
With five minutes left until the end of his season, Bulger woke up: ineffective all afternoon, he suddenly found a rhythm, and eventually Faulk, the Rams’ forgotten man this afternoon, punched it in from a yard out to give the Rams a pulse. A two-point convert brought them to within a field goal, and then, in an amazing turn of events, the subsequent onside kick managed to find a yard of open field and bounce straight back into the hands of…kicker Jeff Wilkins.
What happened next turned the game on its head and will forever be debated by Rams football fans. St. Louis had enough time to take one, probably two shots into the end zone, and with Bulger in a sudden groove it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Martz to have put the game in Bulger’s hands…y’know, like he’d been doing all afternoon. Instead, Martz–a gunslinger coach if ever there was one–decided to run the clock down to three seconds, at which point he sent Wilkins onto the field for a perfunctory field goal attempt. Wilkins nailed it and sent the game into overtime, but Martz’s sudden, puzzling refusal to go for the jugular effectively doomed his team. Given his coaching resume, it was even more surprising.
Still, when Delhomme found Steve Smith streaking upfield on the first play of the second overtime period it was an undeniable shock. As Smith bolted towards the end zone and Gavin collapsed on the living room floor and it dawned on us that Carolina was going to win the game, it was a truly remarkable moment. I know exactly how Gavin feels…I mean, in 1998 my team, my Vikings, were eliminated from the playoffs in similarly improbable fashion–and yes, it was a loss owed to a large extend by an idiotic decision by an otherwise competent coach. (Only Denny Green knows why, with thirty-four seconds left in the game, the ball at midfield and the most lethal aerial strike force in NFL history just itching to win the game he called on Randall Cunningham to take a knee.) But it was an undeniable great moment in recent sports. Godspeed, Carolina: let’s see if you can pull off another miraculous upset on the road, outdoors, against a head coach, Andy Reid, who is a much more worthy adversary than Mike Martz.
They did, of course, and then lost to the New England Patriots in one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played. Gavin, equally miraculously, survived the afternoon. Martz hung around St. Louis for a couple years before becoming the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions; unable to replicate in Detroit what he accomplished in St. Louis, he was fired in early January and is now on his way to football purgatory…by which I clearly mean San Francisco. Sorry, Bri Monster–but you know I’m right.
Oh: and on a related note, I just want to put it down in writing that Martz reminds me of Boris from GoldenEye. “I am invincible!” I sort of miss Mike Martz, actually.