In their great days as a Super Bowl team, the Rams played unconventionally, playing as if charged with electricity. They repeatedly whisked down the field on big plays by continually throwing first-down passes to the magnificent Isaac Bruce and as many as three or four other classy receivers.
On defense, the Rams played like and looked like Tampa Bay, which has the NFL's most respected defense — as constructed by Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy in the pre-Jon Gruden years and as brought to St. Louis by Dungy disciple Lovie Smith. But on offense, unhappily, the Rams are also beginning to look like Tampa Bay, whose quarterback, Brad Johnson, doesn't move around much and whose running back, Michael Pittman, grinds out the hard yards.
For the Rams, a rookie running back, Arlen Harris, has been grinding out the hard yards, 85 Sunday in 18 runs on a day when Bulger, who doesn't move around much, completed 22 of 34, dispatching three for touchdowns.
The Rams are not as exciting as they used to be, but their coach, Mike Martz, seems just as smart. Having built both Ram teams, Martz is betting that in a wide-open championship race, he can be successful either way.
Dallas-Tampa Game of the Week
THE DALLAS COWBOYS, 5-1, have become the most reliable winner in pro football under their new coach, Bill Parcells, who, however, hasn't beaten anybody yet. Or so his critics keep saying privately.
That could change when Dallas plays at Tampa Bay in Sunday's Game of the Week.
The 3-3 Buccaneers have had a defending champion's usual troubles, meaning that every opponent is pointing their way, the San Francisco 49ers included. The 49ers unloaded their only good game of the season last Sunday to drop the Buccaneers, 24-7, on a day when 49er wide receiver Terrell Owens showed that in the NFL, world-class footspeed is hard to beat and impossible to catch. On his 70-yard scoring run, he ran through and away from a very fast defense.
As for the Cowboys, they've won their five straight from the two fading New York teams and two other hopeless opponents, Arizona and Detroit, plus struggling Philadelphia.
Still, it's the way they've won that makes the Cowboys seem pretty good. For one thing, they seem to be proving that Parcells, before accepting work in Dallas, had identified a much better nucleus of players than most other people saw. In three prior winning tours in New York and New England, that had also been Parcells' secret weapon.
Moreover, he's had some luck. In New England, he had decided, before ownership's personnel people drafted wide receiver Terry Glenn, that he didn't want him. At Dallas he insisted, as a condition of employment, that the Cowboys bring Glenn in. And at Detroit Sunday, Glenn caught three touchdowns as the Cowboys romped, 38-7.
Nonetheless, if the Buccaneers choose to put up a fight, they can make it hard on Dallas quarterback Quincy Carter — who says he's ready. That's the Parcells effect.
You Don't Win Titles Carolina's Way
THE CAROLINA PANTHERS, undefeated until they ran into the tough Tennessee Titans Sunday, have discovered one of the controlling truths about life in the NFL, namely that the hard way to win professional championships is with a running team, even one that plays grand defense.
In a parity-bound league with many good title contenders, it is possible for any club to fall a couple of touchdowns out of it early on, or even 17 points out as the Panthers did in the first quarter Sunday.
When that happens, the best, usually the only way, to get up off the mat is with a well-rehearsed, well-respected pass offense. The Panthers, however, are a running-and-defense team under their second-year coach, John Fox, who made it a point to bring in a tiger of a running back in the offseason, Stephen Davis.
For the last month, Davis has been earning oohs and ahs from the many devoted running-and-defense analysts on the NFL beat, but in an 0-17 game he's helpless. And so in time the Titans won handily, 37-17.
Along the way that day, the Panthers learned that maybe their quarterback, Jake Delhomme, is better than advertised. By game's end, Delhomme had completed 31 of 49 passes — with no interceptions — for twice as many yards, 362, as those gained by Tennessee's renowned quarterback Steve McNair.
Delhomme's one problem, perhaps, is that the Carolina pass offense has not been rehearsed at length or in depth. Thus in Week 7, the Panthers weren't ready to make big pass plays in the first half, when they dropped off the pace, 27-3. What Delhomme showed in outscoring Tennessee in the second half, 14-10, is single-handed promise. Depending on his coaches' present interest in pass offense, there could be more progress in New Orleans Sunday.
One (Brady) Pass Tops Tory Team
THE MIAMI DOLPHINS, another bunch of running-and-defense problem children under conservative coach Dave Wannstedt, broke out with another way that such teams can lose Sunday when New England quarterback Tom Brady launched an overtime bomb to underrated wide receiver Troy Brown on the 82-yard play that settled a 19-13 struggle.
A reliable pass offense provides by far the best way to come from behind in even a low-scoring, low-interest game like this.
And Brady is the best passer in a division in which Wannstedt convicts himself of neglect by trying to win with Jay Fiedler, a nice guy from Dartmouth but no NFL passer.
Dolphin kicker Olindo Mare has been taking most of the heat in Miami for missing two 35-yard field goals at the end, but that's the way kickers are. They make some and miss some. They're not football players, they're soccer players.
In this instance, some responsibility for the misses can be charged to Wannstedt, who could have had Mare out there on his home field, day after day, practice-kicking on the bare infield. The traction that kickers need is harder to get on a bare infield, but on 35- or even 40-yard attempts it can be worked up if the kicker has worked at it.
The Raiders, who haven't won many games this year, put themselves in position to win one when they were prepared for a key, difficult 48-yard field goal off the bare Oakland infield by Sebastian Janikowski, who of course also misses some and makes some. That's the way kickers are.
Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at latimes.com/bookstore or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).