Detroit Wheel

The biggest reason the Rams won't make the playoffs is now the Lions' leading receiver

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A year ago, the two-and-fourteen Detroit Lions looked like the NFL version of Ethiopia, circa Band Aid. This season, thanks in no small part to rookie quarterback Joey Harrington and Rams expatriate Az Hakim, the future's so bright, Az's gotta wear shades.

Three theories surround the Wizard of Az's off-season departure to Motown: (1) Salary-cap constraints forced the Rams to choose between Hakim and promising defensive lineman Leonard Little, and defense won out; (2) Hakim wanted to go someplace where he could start; and (3) Rams coaches and fans were fed up with Hakim's butterfingers propensity for putting the ball on the turf too often.

So could the Rams have signed Hakim if they had really wanted to? Probably. Hakim is making a little over $3 million a year, whereas Terrence Wilkins' and Troy Edwards' combined cap number is approximately $1.7 million. The Rams are about $2 million under the cap. Do the math.

Of course, Hakim's exodus may have been all about playing time. At any rate, Rams brass figured he could be easily replaced by Wilkins and Edwards, acquired in the off-season from their respective teams -- the Colts and the Steelers -- for sixth-round draft choices. Receivers coach Henry Ellard went so far as to call Wilkins "another Az Hakim" during training camp.

Az if.

If anything's for certain in this roster-roulette tomfoolery, it's that the embarrassing lack of first-half productivity on the part of the Wizard's would-be replacements -- especially Wilkins -- was the single biggest reason for the Rams' 0-5 start. Furthermore, their ineptitude could end up being the primary reason the suddenly resurgent Rams -- underdogs at home this weekend against the 6-2 San Diego Chargers -- narrowly miss the playoffs, injuries to ace quarterback Kurt Warner and cornerback Aeneas Williams aside.

A statistical comparison between Hakim's and Wilkins' receiving output over the preceding three seasons yields little data-based fault in the Rams' off-season logic. In Indianapolis, where the Colts' offense ranked number two behind the Rams' last season, Wilkins caught 119 balls for 1,466 yards as the team's situational receiver. In a similar role over the same period, Hakim notched 128 catches for 1,785. Factor in Wilkins' missing seven games to Hakim's single absence during that span, and you have a statistical dead heat.

This year, though, Hakim is the Lions' leading receiver with 29 catches for 384 yards, whereas Wilkins, with a piddly three catches for 22 yards, saw action exclusively on punt returns until the third game of the season. Factor in the hapless Edwards, who didn't even touch a football outside the Rams' climate-controlled Earth City practice compound until game eight, and the Rams' ballyhooed four-receiver spread that gave opposing teams such fits in the golden years has essentially been reduced to ashes and the occasional end-around.

In fairness, Hakim's breakout statistics can largely be attributed to his amplified role in the Detroit attack. But even in his first year in Coach Mike Martz's system (1999, Hakim's second in the league), Hakim caught 36 balls for 677 yards in a role similar to the one Wilkins was expected to play this year. Projected over a full sixteen-game season, Wilkins is on pace to catch seven passes for 44 yards this year, the sort of numbers Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk often put up by halftime.

The lack of a serviceable fourth receiver -- Yo Murphy has been garbage, too -- has had a trickle-down effect on the Rams' entire offensive scheme. Wanna know why Tampa Bay was able to smother Faulk in the Rams' 26-14 game-three loss? Because the nickel back they used to devote to Hakim was allowed to set up camp in Faulk's jock for four quarters.

Wonder why Warner threw eight interceptions before the Lord let his pinky finger break? Because he was throwing to seams formerly occupied by Hakim's timing patterns, which Wilkins, Edwards and Murphy didn't know existed.

It was only when Martz grudgingly went to a scaled-down grits-and-gravy offense predicated on handing Faulk the ball 30 times a game that the Rams began to achieve even a reasonable facsimile of their earlier success.

To be sure, the Rams run what is arguably the most complicated offensive system in the game, but it's one the green Hakim picked up just fine.

"The St. Louis offense wasn't difficult to me because I was in the system for three years and we all learned it together," reminisces Hakim, who, when asked whether Ricky Proehl is the white Terrell Owens, replies that it is Owens who's emulating the über-demonstrative Proehl.

As for picking up the Detroit system, "it took me training camp, but everything else was pretty much fluid," says Hakim, whose disc-jockey mother once worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Stevie Wonder at the Motown star's KJLH-FM in Hakim's native Los Angeles. The boy had soul even before he hit Soul City.

Bottom line: After a full preseason and eight games, unfamiliarity with any offense is a tired excuse for a three-year veteran such as Wilkins, something Martz is apparently oblivious to. When asked whether he's been frustrated by Wilkins' lack of offensive involvement, Martz replies matter-of-factly: "Not at all."

He's similarly pleased with Edwards' progress.

"Troy's doing great," says Martz. "He's started to run our quad sets. He's one of our four now."

There's a fine line between positive spin and moronic ambivalence, and this lip service -- as was the case with Martz's proclamation that he was satisfied with his team's effort after getting crushed in San Francisco, the Rams' low point earlier in the season -- teeters toward the latter.

Any coach who expresses satisfaction with such poor production from two veteran acquisitions -- players whom he had a strong hand in bringing in -- is taking an unintended shot at his ability to teach and integrate newcomers into his team's system.

Wilkins' impotence has not been lost on Don and Donna Chrisco of Shrewsbury, who vented their frustrations a few Sundays ago during St. Louis' blowout of the Seattle Seahawks, the sputtering franchise led by megalomaniac head coach/GM Mike "Pitino" Holmgren.

"Don't we keep hearing that he [Wilkins] doesn't understand the offense? Why not?" asks Donna Chrisco. "That doesn't say much for his college [Wilkins attended the University of Virginia]. "

"I don't think it's Wilkins' problem -- it's management's problem," says Don, Donna's husband. "There were other receivers out there."

Indeed there were -- namely Qadry Ismail, who replaced Wilkins in Indy for almost identical money, and Terance Mathis, who took Edwards' spot in Pittsburgh for the veteran minimum salary of $750,000. The vastly underrated Ismail has put up stellar numbers similar to Hakim's as Peyton Manning's second option, and even Mathis' comparatively pedestrian stats (twelve catches, 113 yards) should have Martz and his brain trust shaking their heads in regret right now.

Meanwhile, Hakim has turned lemons into lemonade in Detroit. He misses his friends in the Lou, but he's the man now in a once-great city that, much like St. Louis, has nowhere to go but up.

"I love it right now," says Hakim of Motown. "I think it's gonna be a great city."

Fans like the Chriscos couldn't care less. They just want their Wizard back, fumbles and all.

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