Eagles, Rams unsettled entering Monday matchup

Saturday, December 25th 2004, 11:07 am

By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ For vastly different reasons and on teams going in opposite directions, these are unsettling times for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the St. Louis Rams.

While the Eagles' begin life without Terrell Owens, Rams coach Mike Martz spent part of the game week assuring players that contrary to a report by ESPN's Chris Mortensen, his job is not in danger. That's the broad backdrop to an otherwise low-wattage Monday night game.

Just before boarding the team bus for last week's loss at Arizona, Rams players heard that their fifth-year coach might resign or be fired at the end of the season. Understandably, they were distracted.

``Not because they love me so much,'' Martz said. ``It's just disruptive. You've got coaches and players worried about what's going to happen and not worrying about playing this game. It's unethical.''

And untrue. Rams president John Shaw said Martz, 6-8 this year but 51-32 counting playoffs in St. Louis and with two years remaining on his contract, was in absolutely no danger.

``The thought of firing him has never entered my mind,'' Shaw said. ``His record speaks for itself.''

Martz said he tried to squash the report a day before it aired, telling the reporter it was baseless.

``(Shaw) knows we're busting our butts trying to get this thing done,'' Martz said. ``He knows the issues we have and he's trying to help. I'm not going to be fired, and I'm certainly not resigning.

``Why is this an issue?''

Martz's status is ripe for speculation because the Rams were 12-4 last year and supposed to contend for another Super Bowl. They've lost six of eight, their season all but destroyed by injuries to the offensive line and systemwide problems on special teams, defense and, lately, offense.

The last two weeks, with quarterback Marc Bulger sidelined by a sprained right shoulder, the Rams' formerly high-powered attack managed only one touchdown.

This week, Bulger is back. With him, returns a measure of confidence in themselves.

Not to mention the future of their coach.

``We know he's going to be here,'' Bulger said. ``Rumors are going to fly. We hear them about ourselves all the time and 90 percent of the time they're not true.''

Defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson blasted the rumormongers.

``I laugh at people who seem to act like they know what's going on but really don't,'' Jackson said. ``I don't believe there's anybody in the building who's had anything negative to say about his coaching future.

``There are some people who've said stuff like if we make the playoffs, we shouldn't go.''

Meanwhile, the Eagles will try not to get anybody else hurt that would further alter their postseason designs. They clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs in last week's victory over the Cowboys, but lost one of the NFL's top receivers in that game with torn ankle ligaments.

There's some hope that Owens could be back in time for the Super Bowl. In the meantime, they'll begin the task of retooling their offense without him.

``It's unfortunate what happened to T.O.,'' quarterback Donovan McNabb said. ``We definitely would love to continue this thing with all of our guys healthy.

``But this is an opportunity for other guys to step up and make plays for us.''

That means it's time for players like Todd Pinkston, the only other Eagles wide receiver with a touchdown catch but one whose courage has repeatedly come under question. The top receiving threat is Brian Westbrook, a younger version of Marshall Faulk who's second on the team with 73 catches for 9.6-yard average, and also has a team-leading 812 yards rushing.

``They've all got to step up,'' coach Andy Reid said. ``They're going to have more opportunities. They're going to have to make sure that when given the opportunity, they execute.''

Reid said Owens' injury won't affect his lineup decisions in the last two games. Nobody will get a day off, although he might sprinkle in more reserves as the games progress.

``The starters are going to start and play,'' Reid said. ``On the other hand, it's an opportunity for some of the young guys to get in and play. We'll see how it works out.''

McNabb, for one, wants to play the entire game against the Rams.

``We're in a position where we can obviously improve going into the playoffs,'' he said. ``I'm looking forward to it.''

The Rams can't concern themselves with such issues. They've got enough problems of their own.

``They're a great team and whoever they put out there will be more serviceable,'' defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. ``So I don't really care who they decide to play and how long they play them.''

Despite their troubles, the Rams remain in the playoff picture. They're a game behind equally mediocre Seattle with two games to go and hold the tiebreaker in the NFC West.

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