Rams to Take a Shot at a Moving Target : Cardinals Playing Today With Their Bags Packed and Stadium Half Full

Times Staff Writer

It's the Rams and the St. Louis Cardinals today in a game that matches two teams overwhelmed by a season of fatal distractions.

As of this writing, the game is still scheduled to be played at Busch Stadium before maybe 20,000 people, but anyone from Baltimore knows how easy it is for an owner to get U-Haul on the phone and be out of town by morning.

The Cardinals, too, will soon be leaving the Gateway Arch for bigger money and crowds. Will Baltimore be the lucky city? Phoenix?

"My favorite city is Portland, Ore.," said Cardinal quarterback Neil Lomax, who played his college football there. "But they're not going to get a franchise there."

The Cardinals have played this season with suitcases packed, which isn't exactly a mind-clearing experience.

"It's basically been one distraction after another," Lomax said. "First there was the strike, then the baseball playoffs, and now all the distractions of the move.

"The fans are pointing the finger at our owner (Bill Bidwill), our mayor, our county commissioner. Everyone's going to blame someone. A few have blamed the players for not performing well. A few have blamed the trainers. The trainers aren't doing a real good job here."

If Lomax seems perturbed, consider the source and the season.

Of course, it all makes for an exciting match-up with the Rams, who aren't taking a back-stabbing seat to any other team's measly problems this season.

Using carbon dating, the Rams can trace the root of their collapse as far back as July 13, a week before training camp opened, when Rea Ann Silva slapped Eric Dickerson with a paternity suit.

It was followed by blowups July 14, July 15, July 16 . . . you get the idea.

It is believed that Ram Coach John Robinson exhaled this week for the first time in months after hearing final arguments in the messy case involving cornerback LeRoy Irvin.

"Wednesday was the first day I can remember when I had nothing else to do (but coach)," Robinson said. "When there was not some huge thing hanging over our head."

So has the dark cloud finally passed?

"Except for the 1-7 record, in terms of upheaval, I have that feeling," Robinson said. "It seems that way to me."

Except for 1-7, of course.

The fate of both teams' seasons has rested on how well each could play football with a court date or a lawsuit hanging in the balance.

The Rams have failed miserably, as their record indicates. The Cardinals (3-5), haven't fared much better, but they did prove last week that pride was not all lost.

Trailing Tampa Bay, 28-3, before 22,000 jeering home fans, St. Louis scored 28 unanswered points, pulling off the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in National Football League history.

"We were out of it," Lomax said. "We had lost that football game in the third quarter. We just said, 'Yeah, we're out of the thing, let's just see what we can make out of it.' "

So the Cardinals, motivated only by themselves, made a win out of it.

The Rams, meanwhile, spotted the New Orleans Saints 17 early points and rallied briefly before losing, 31-14. It would have been difficult, for sure, to have two greatest comebacks in history on the same day.

But Lomax, it seems, knows all about returning from the dead. The Cardinals planned to move him long before they planned to move themselves. Lomax was rumored in at least a dozen or so trade packages during the off-season.

The team was so sure that Lomax was gone that in the first round it drafted a quarterback, Kelly Stouffer, to take his place. The Cardinals haven't been able to sign Stouffer and opponents haven't been able to stop Lomax, who has rebounded from an off-year in 1986 and become the NFC's third-leading passer.

Lomax has even done it in large part without his great receiver, Roy Green, who has been hobbled with injuries for the last two seasons and is questionable even for today.

Luckily, Lomax has J.T. Smith, the 10-year veteran and an all but forgotten man until joining the Cardinals in 1985.

Smith goes into the game today as the NFC's leading receiver with 47 catches for 644 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Ram Notes Defensive end Donald Evans was supposed to be the answer to the Rams' pass rush this season. But the rookie from Winston-Salem State, and the team's first choice no less, is now toiling at fullback and will not likely play a down this season. "We're not dealing with an inferior athlete by any means," John Robinson said of Evans. "We're just dealing with a man without a position."

With that said, the Rams today turn to their 12th-round pick for help. Fred Stokes, who played offensive tackle at Georgia Southern, will get the start at right end in pass situations. "This is a blessing," said Stokes, a long shot to even make the team. "I was hoping, like the rest, not to stay on injured reserve all year." Through weight work, Stokes has gone from 250 to 270 pounds this season. "A lot of guys get man-handled upfield," Robinson said. "That's happening to him less and less." . . . Note to Stokes: The Rams' greatest pass rusher, David (Deacon) Jones, was a 14th-round pick.

Hard-to-believe Dept: The Rams have been outscored in the fourth quarter this season, 62-19. . . . Robinson on his new tailback, Greg Bell: "Bell, in his most productive fashion, is a Roger Craig-type player," he said. "He can catch 50 balls. He could almost match his yards catching with his yards running." . . . Robinson said he has no immediate plans to move Bell in as the full-time tailback. He said that Bell and Charles White will share the role this year and probably next. . . . Robinson said this might have been the Rams' best week of practice. "I'm pleased with what we're doing," he said. "If you took off the 1-7 cloud and asked how things were going, I'd say OK."

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