NEW ORLEANS (Jan. 31, 2002) -- Marshall Faulk has had three nearly perfect seasons with the St. Louis Rams.
I say nearly perfect, because for all of his rushing and receiving brilliance, he averaged only 2.0 yards per carry in his first two postseason appearances with the Rams. In the 1999 playoffs, Faulk had a mere 82 yards and one touchdown on 38 carries in three games, including 17 yards on 10 attempts in the Rams' victory over Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. In last year's first-round playoff loss to New Orleans, he rushed for only 24 yards and no scores on 14 tries.
Counting two playoff appearances with the Indianapolis Colts, Faulk's postseason rushing average entering 2001 was 2.2 yards per carry. That's right. Those were the numbers of one of the greatest running backs in NFL history.
All of that changed in the past two weeks, of course. Faulk averaged 5.1 yards per carry in each of the Rams' victories on the way to Super Bowl XXXVI. He rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown (to go along with 47 receiving yards) in the divisional-round victory over the Green Bay Packers, and 159 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
You think the New England Patriots' defense wishes it were catching the pre-2001 Faulk on Sunday? On top of all the problems he can cause them, you think they might be cursing the fact that he is about as hot as ever as a runner?
Now, more than ever, the question begs to be asked: Can anyone stop Marshall Faulk?
"Everybody's stoppable," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi says. "Can you do it? It's going to be tough."
This is not to suggest that it would have been all that easy even if Faulk hadn't dramatically improved his postseason rushing numbers.
Faulk contributes to the Rams' success in a variety of ways. Besides rushing and catching the football, he also runs pass routes as well as any wide receiver, he picks up blitzes, and his 5-foot 10-inch, 211-pound frame can be as effective as that of any behemoth tackle in basic blocking.
"There's just nothing he doesn't do well," quarterback Kurt Warner says. "To be surrounded by such a great player -- and we have so many great players on this team -- and to see how great he is even amongst those guys really lets you know how special he is."
When Rams coach Mike Martz talks about Faulk, he sounds as if he is discussing a work of art that needs to be seen up close to be appreciated. In Martz's view, one of Faulk's greatest traits is being able to stop, then hit top gear again in a matter of three steps.
And few backs, past or present, share Faulk's instant awareness of where every hole, blocker and tackler is located.
"Watching him on tape or television doesn't do him justice," Martz says. "He has that great runner's vision that people talk about and he probably has the best hands on the team. I don't know if there's ever been anybody like him."
The Patriots aren't about to challenge that point. However, they would like to put a sizeable blemish on Faulk's career in the form of another quiet Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick and his coaching staff have spent the past few days devising a scheme that is likely to include a strong emphasis on dealing with The Faulk Factor.
But even the greatest strategy won't matter if they don't stick to the basics. That means remaining disciplined in all of their defensive responsibilities. That means swarming around him, but maintaining control on the way to attempting a tackle.
"We've got to be good in staying in the gaps because he sees the holes before they form," Bruschi says. "And once he sees the holes, he hits them. He's also probably the greatest cutback runner in the NFL today.
"Wherever he lines up, the percentages are pretty high that he's going to get the ball at certain times. In certain situations, if you know he's going to get the ball, you have to try to get one or two guys on him and try and stop him that way."
Another problem that facing Faulk presents is that he plays for the Rams. As Bruschi points out: "He's not the only guy we can focus on. They've got great receivers: Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Ricky Proehl, Az-Zahir Hakim. And we haven't even started to talk about Kurt Warner."
Adds Patriots cornerback Otis Smith: "He lines up as a receiver, and he lines up in the backfield. I have not seen him at quarterback yet, so he may do that, too."