Tight End Tony Hunter Gives Rams an Added Dimension

Times Staff Writer

If Dieter Brock can't convince his critics that the Rams made the right decision by trading Vince Ferragamo, maybe Tony Hunter can.

Coach John Robinson had already declared for all the world that Brock was the quarterback for 1985 when the Rams finally managed to deal lame-duck Ferragamo to the Buffalo Bills for tight end Hunter. More than a few NFL insiders said that, given the circumstances, the Rams got a steal.

That appears to be the case. Ferragamo was benched in the fourth quarter of the 1-8 Bills' 35-17 loss to the New York Jets Sunday, while Hunter has his best day as a pro in the Rams' 28-10 victory over New Orleans.

Hunter caught 6 passes for 113 yards and one touchdown, and ended up with the game ball.

Hunter has been waiting for this kind of day. He refers to the first half of the season as a frustration, because he didn't feel part of the offense.

The Ram offense has yet to be described as "Air Robinson," but if Hunter was feeling left out, you wonder why the rest of the receiving corps even bothered to suit up. After all, Hunter is the Rams' No. 2 receiver with 26 catches for 320 yards.

Sunday, Hunter showed up at Anaheim Stadium with a feeling things were going to get better. First of all, the coaching staff installed some new plays specifically for the U-back (Hunter's position, a sort of roving tight end who is in motion on most plays). Then, they called one on the first play from scrimmage and Hunter turned a swing pass in the flat into a 24-yard gain.

It set the tone for a day when the Ram offense became more diversified and Hunter's stock went up.

Hunter's touchdown came on a third-and-seven play from the Saint 29 midway through the third quarter after New Orleans had trimmed the Rams' lead to 14-7. Hunter was slanting across the middle when Brock hit him in full stride. He turned the corner, put a move on safety Brett Maxie and eluded him before running through the attempted tackle of cornerback Willie Tullis en route to the end zone.

"That play was designed to go to the Z-back (Henry Ellard), but Dieter checked off to me." Hunter explained.

At least nobody can say Brock isn't willing to throw to any letter that's open.

"We came into this game with the idea of adding some diversity," Hunter said. "We want to be as balanced as possible and the coaches felt that the U-back hadn't been as much a part of the offense as they'd like.

"We added a couple plays that look like the 46-gap (the Rams' favorite running play) and we caught them off guard because I was wide open a couple of times."

Hunter thinks the significance of his performance Sunday goes beyond just proving he can be an important part of the offense.

"The confidence we gained today will show up even more in a couple of weeks," he said. "If there's one thing I've learned in this league it's that a quarterback has to be comfortable with you before he'll throw to you. It's taken some time to get in the groove, but hopefully Dieter feels comfortable with me now."

That was news to Brock, who talked as if he couldn't have been more comfortable with an old pair of jeans.

"I've felt comfortable throwing to him all along . . . maybe it just happened today for him," Brock said. "He's an excellent receiver. It's great to have a big person who can get open down the middle."

Hunter was making his presence felt as a big blocker as well as a big pass receiver Sunday. Just ask Johnnie Poe. The Saint cornerback was leveled by Hunter, opening the way for Charles White's five-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

"Tony played an outstanding game for us," Robinson said. "He made some big, big plays. We did put in some new plays to open up some things and he responded."

Hunter, 6-4 and 237 pounds, was a wide receiver at Notre Dame before the Irish coaching staff decided he was beginning to grow into a living model for the the tight end of the '80s.

He was a first-round pick by the Bills in 1983 and can describe his feeling when he learned of the trade to the Rams in one word: "Elation."

"I was really so excited," Hunter said. "I knew I was coming to a good organization that was committed to winning. And I knew I'd be given the opportunity to grow as a player."

He grew considerably Sunday, a day when the Ram offense showed its potential for growth as well.

"It was the most effective we've been throwing the ball all year," Hunter said. "We did things we hadn't been able to do all year. And it feels good . . . really good because I think Dieter Brock is an outstanding quarterback."

Of course he'd say that. If it wasn't for Brock, Hunter would still be in Buffalo and, as he puts it, "I know a lot of people who would like to be 8-1."

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