I always had problems with “Animaniacs.” Maybe I was just a little too old to appreciate the finer points of the program, but to me, it seemed ridiculous that the makers of the show didn’t absolutely knock the ball out of the park. They couldn’t have had a better set-up – take the next generation of cartoon characters, add in the hyper-caffeinated personifications of the Warner Brothers, and just be absolute nutcases. Moreover, you’d think that anything that Stephen Spielberg would attach his name to would turn out all aces.
In my mind, they never really succeeded. For every wacky sketch or “Megalomaniacs” special (Josef Stalin’s Cossack hoe-down remains one of the funniest cartoon moments of all time), there was loads of insufferable tripe with the red-headed terror Elvira, or yet another played-out “kids-helping-adults” bit. I mean, how many times does Bugs Bunny really need to be rescued?
No, the guy who needs to be rescued right about now is one Mike Martz – a.k.a. “The Brain” – Head Coach of the 0-4 St. Louis Rams, and a man whose season was probably ended Sunday afternoon by a stunning loss to the Cowboys.
Even more ominous for the erstwhile genius is the broken little finger suffered by star quarterback and lamb of God Kurt Warner, who will miss four-to-five weeks to recover from surgery.
Martz has always had the mad scientist thing going for him, and it’s not just the crazy plays and shock of white hair that does it.
From him, there’s always been this overriding vibe that it’s his offensive system that made the Rams the juggernaut that they were; not, say, the inhuman accuracy of Warner, or the best receiving duo in the NFL, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Rather, Martz assumed full managerial control of the team, refusing to cede power to a personnel guy; he repeatedly calls plays that highlight his creativity or daring, refusing to accede to the greater interests of the team. This stubbornness trickles down to things as mundane as short-yardage running, which the Rams have been managing to screw up royally this year. In large part, this is due to the fact that Martz loves tricky blocking schemes, with guards pulling and tackles sliding. In the week-two loss to the Giants, facing a fourth-and-inches and an over-stacked New York line, the coach opted for a “load-left” play, one that packed so many linemen into a small box that Marshall Faulk – the most agile back in the league, mind you – had literally nowhere to run. Running off-tackle behind Orlando Pace – again, arguably an NFL-best at his position – was seemingly not an option.
Against “America’s Team” on Sunday, Martz had the unheralded Jamie Martin at QB, and was without Pace as well. The result? A variety of underneath throws and screens, with very little downfield action at all. Martin was entirely respectable – 24-of-37 for 262, one TD and one interception – but the problem wasn’t with him in the first place. It was with the “tactical genius” on the sidelines, whose vaunted offensive schemes and hairsplitting timing patterns came to little when deprived of the ecclesiastical marksmanship of Warner.
The real managerial genius this weekend was to be found in the English Premiership, in the form of Arsenal gaffer Arsene Wenger. It was a record-setting day for the boys from North London – Wenger’s team scored for the 47th consecutive match, eclipsing Chesterfield’s mark from the 1929-30 season. More importantly, Arsenal thrashed title pretenders Leeds United by the count of 4-1 at Elland Road, pushing their record tally to 23 straight road victories.
As a soccer manager, Wenger has powers comparable to those of Martz – full control of players, complete strategic and tactical influence. The comparison ends there, though; in every way that Martz is over-bearing and destructive, Wenger is cool and composed. Both coaches have squads full of outrageously talented players, but in the case of Arsenal, Wenger makes a conscious decision to let his talent dictate the terms of play, to let his on-field leaders establish a style of their own, and run with it. Having the talent in the first place doesn’t hurt, but neither does Wenger’s sensible approach to on-field matters.
Off the field, the story is the same. Martz completely blew the 2001 draft, gaining only one starter (Adam Archuleta) from three first-round picks, and massaging his ego by taking flyers on personal gambles, such as a no-hope OL from his alma mater Arizona State. In contrast, Wenger is widely regarded as a genius in the world transfer market. Arsenal have managed to keep up their level of play by developing young talent, and selling players at the apex of their value. Wenger unloaded the cancerous Nicolas Anelka after only one season, netting a cool 15 million pounds in profit; he similarly shipped out Highbury stars like Overmars and Petit, and used the profits to obtain up-and-coming youngsters such as Robert Pires and Freddy Llungberg at bargain prices.
The end result of sound policies like these is on-field depth, something that Arsenal has in spades. With Pires and Llungberg absent, goal number two against Leeds came from Kolo Toure, a 21-year-old midfielder signed for pennies from a club I’ve never even or heard of – Ivory Coast side Asec Mimosas (Mmm…Mimosas). The Gunners can count on Gilberto Silva and Jeremie Aliadere coming off the bench, players with far more impressive pedigrees and names than Jamie Martin.
In the end, I feel the same pity now for The Brain that I always have – his mad schemes have been dashed, yet again, by a Pinky.