ST. LOUIS (AP) – Whenever Mike Martz comes back, the St. Louis Rams want him to return to a successful team.

Players insisted on Thursday, the day the 2-3 team returned to practice in preparation for a Monday night game at Indianapolis, they wouldn’t and couldn’t allow the absence of their ailing head coach to be a distraction.

“You have to prepare just like it’s normal,” linebacker Brandon Chillar said. “No one else cares that we don’t have a head coach, that’s how the league is.

“We’re preparing to win. Like Joe Vitt said, you have no other choice.”

Vitt, the assistant head coach and linebackers coach, will be in charge and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild will call the plays until Martz returns from an indefinite leave for a bacterial infection of a heart valve that an initial round of antibiotics failed to cure. The 54-year-old Martz missed two practices last week but coached the team in a 37-31 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday before stepping aside the next day.

Team president John Shaw said earlier this week that the coach would be hospitalized for four to 12 days. He’s expected to miss at least two games, and could be out as many as six.

“Your first concern is for him,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “I know how coaches are and anything that’s going to knock a coach out for more than a day is serious.

“Mike is a really good guy, a unique guy, and I just wish the best for him.”

Players know that they can’t use Martz’s absence as an excuse.

“It is pretty bizarre, but this team has to get back on the right track,” defensive end Leonard Little said. “It’s tough not having him around but we know in our hearts we’ve got to go out and try to win the game.”

Defensive end Tyoka Jackson said it’s up to everyone to pick up the slack. And he means everyone.

“If you answer phones, do that better. If you tape ankles or sweep the floor, you do that better. If your job is to get to the quarterback, you do that better,” Jackson said. “Everybody does their job better than they’ve ever done it before, and we’ll be fine.”

While Martz is gone, the biggest difference may be the way team meetings are conducted under Vitt.

“He’s a little bit more fiery,” Jackson said. “He’s a linebackers coach and linebacker coaches and linebackers are a little bit crazy anyway, so he brings that craziness to the team meetings.

“Coach is a little bit more cerebral and coach Vitt, his use of language is not top shelf like coach Martz’s is.”

The change might be toughest to take for quarterback Marc Bulger, who joined the Rams in 2000 and has worked under only Martz aside from two days last week when Vitt ran the team while Martz was getting treatment.

Bulger doesn’t expect the practice routine to change, but was unsure whether game days would be different. Fairchild, in his third season with the Rams, has a long association with Martz that goes back to the 1970s when he was the quarterback at Mesa Community College in San Diego and Martz was the offensive coordinator there.

“All I know in the NFL is coach Martz calling plays,” Bulger said. “I think Steve’s been with him long enough to know his philosophies. He’s taught him a lot about offense, so I’m sure Steve has picked that up and he’ll try his best to call like he’s learned from coach Martz.”

One thing Bulger knows is it will be tough for Martz to stay out of the action. He wouldn’t put it past Martz to try to communicate on game day via phone, noting that the coach has already called Fairchild “a couple of times from the hospital.”

“I think him having to watch a game on TV, you should put a camera on that because that should be something to see,” Bulger said.

AP-ES-10-13-05 1613EDT

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