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Rams hope rookie is their money man

December 04, 2005|By R.B. FALLSTROM

ST. LOUIS - Ryan Fitzpatrick's Harvard education was supposed to prepare him for a career as a money manager. Instead, he's busy trying to solve NFL defenses.

Fitzpatrick's big finish against the Texans kept the St. Louis Rams' faint playoff hopes alive for at least another week. In only three quarters he passed for 310 yards, third best for an NFL debut quarterback, and erased a 21-point deficit in an overtime victory.

The victory was shocking, even against lowly Houston, because the Rams trailed by 10 points with a half-minute to go. His cool under fire was not so surprising.

The rookie with the economics degree quickly became a favorite of coach Mike Martz, and of his teammates. Martz is notoriously tough on young quarterbacks, but interim coach Joe Vitt said Fitzpatrick is the only one who's never been yelled at. In the preseason, wide receiver Isaac Bruce noticed something special.

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"You can pretty much judge a guy from that point, and it can carry over," Bruce said. "So you're not surprised when a guy gets in a huddle and does what he did.

"His eyes weren't wide open, he came in with confidence and just played."

Fitzpatrick's big finish earned him his first career start today for the Rams, who will be without injured Marc Bulger for the third straight game and perhaps the rest of the season. The rookie knows it's just one game, and he's eager to pass out the praise.

"It was a great situation for me to step into," Fitzpatrick said. "Isaac Bruce on one side, Torry Holt on the other, Kevin Curtis coming in, handing off to Steven Jackson, throwing the ball to Marshall Faulk."

For the Rams, it spelled at least a smidgen of hope.

"We had a good week of practice (last week) and I don't know how many good practices we were going to still have if we didn't have some success to show for it," Vitt said. "For them to come back and do what they did, it was a great tribute to them."

"Now, we'll see where it leads them."

Without the comeback, the Rams (5-6) would have been done this early in the season for the first time since 1998, when they straggled in 4-12 and Dick Vermeil was forced to hand over the offense to Martz, who then helped produce the franchise's first Super Bowl championship the following season. Now, heading into today's game against the Washington Redskins (5-6), at least they're still long shots.

That goes for both teams, one of whom will be knocked out.

"Maybe not mathematically, but you would definitely need some kind of miracle to make it with seven losses," linebacker Trev Faulk said. "It's a huge, huge game for us and especially because it's the next one."

The Redskins have lost three in a row after a 5-3 start and need to regain focus or else. They led deep in the fourth quarter in all three games and blew a 17-7 cushion last week against the Chargers, threatening to spoil the second season of Joe Gibbs' coaching comeback.

"I think that's the three toughest in a row I've been through," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "But it can happen to you. It was a tough stretch and it'll be interesting to see emotionally how our team bounces back from that.

"We'll have to answer that on the field."

Gibbs is third among active coaches with 151 victories. But he won't lean on those numbers, his four previous Super Bowls with the Redskins or a reputation as a strong finisher, because his comeback hasn't been nearly the success as his first time around. Last year he finished 6-10.

"I believe the past buys you nothing," Gibbs said. "When I came back to coaching I was pretty much starting all over again. So those stats, there's nothing much to them."

Brunell has cooled off the last few weeks, but the Redskins remain a threat with Santana Moss topping 1,000 yards receiving last week and Clinton Portis needing 57 yards for his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing season.

The Rams' health could give the Redskins an opening, too. There's a possibility both starting offensive tackles, Orlando Pace and Alex Barron, will be out, and the defense is worst in the NFL in points allowed - although safety Adam Archuleta and cornerbacks DeJuan Groce and Travis Fisher could return from injury.

St. Louis trails the NFL in points allowed, giving up 327.

"They're banged up a bit, but the guys that have come in have done a good job," Brunell said. "We certainly have a lot of respect for them on defense."

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