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PRO FOOTBALL / WEEK 1 : Struggling Packers, Rams Meet : Robinson Coming Off First Losing Year; Infante’s Debut

Times Staff Writer

It has been 69 years since the Indian Packing Company offered up some jerseys for the local team here, and it has been quite awhile since someone scrawled horns on the sides of helmets.

The Rams and the Green Bay Packers, teams with storied traditions, meet for the 60th time in today’s opener at Lambeau Field.

It seems funny that both teams should still be struggling to put the pieces together. You may have noticed that tradition isn’t buying much these days.

The Rams’ struggle, coming off a 6-9 season, is more recent. For the Packers, who must reach back to the 1960s for comfort, the pain endures. The latest setback was a 5-9-1 showing last season, prompting another coaching change in a long line since Vince Lombardi.

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For each team, failure has spawned movement and re-shuffling and re-thinking. The Rams are turning over in personnel faster than local burger chains these days in an effort to get back to that almost-championship season of 1985. The offense and defense are almost brand new, and maybe improved.

The Packers have rolled out a new coach, Lindy Infante, who worked miracles as coordinator of the Cleveland Browns’ offense and has now been asked--begged--to do the same with the Packers. Except, instead of working with Bernie Kosar and runners Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, Infante will try to make it work with quarterback Randy Wright and mirrors.

Infante’s inferno is surrounded by long shadows and famous names that leap from walls in a town where a team was great enough once to merit its own hall of fame.

The coaches who walked before Infante--Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Dan Devine, Phil Bengtson--mostly sank into a quicksand of expectation. No coach after Lombardi has left town with a winning record. If fact, winning percentages have gotten progressively worse, starting with Bengtson (.488), Devine (.474), Starr (.409) and Gregg (.405).

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Infante doesn’t want to become the next .400 hitter. Yet, instead of cowering from the Lombardi legacy, Infante has chosen to face it.

“For us to set our sights on anything less than a championship as long as I’m here or any place I think is unrealistic,” he said this week. “Nobody wants to set a goal of anything less than champions. We will never say 8-8 is successful, or just winning is a success, or getting into the playoffs is acceptable.”

Infante says this even after looking at his depth chart. No one’s calling him Lucky Lindy yet.

“I’ve been asked many times if the shadow of Lombardi is a negative,” Infante said. “To me it’s very much a positive. I’d much rather be part of an organization that’s had the success that Green Bay’s had in history. . . . To me, it drives you harder and makes you want to win even more.

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“When you walk around through this building and see the championship trophies, the banners from years past, it gives you goose bumps. My feeling is I’m proud to be a part of it. I never want to be compared to the man. I’ve never done anything he’s done. But somewhere down the line I hope we can create our own little spot in history, where people can look back on the teams of the late ‘80s and early 90s and say we were a very competitive football team. But to sit around and worry about history is wasted energy.”

The Rams feel pretty much the same way, though they don’t have anything close to a Lombardi psychological complex to throw on their new coaches.

Still, John Robinson is coming off his first losing season as a head coach, and that means something. Furthermore, he has quickly assembled a young team that promises to remain a mystery for some time.

Besides, for the Rams to sit around and worry about last year would rekindle thoughts of Eric Dickerson, which is reason enough to stand up.

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The team’s experiments on offense and defense have been well documented, but no unit is in a more frenzied state than Artie Gigantino’s special teams, which may be anything but.

Let’s start at kick returner, where rookie Gaston Green and maybe a cast of thousands will try to replace Ron Brown. Say what you want about Brown’s hands, but the man could return kicks.

Punter Dale Hatcher’s left knee is ailing badly, though Gigantino all but knelt and kissed the asphalt when the Rams were able to sign veteran Rich Camarillo last week.

Kicker Mike Lansford is fine, though he did miss two clutch kicks this summer. The problem is his holder, who used to be Steve Dils. The backup was Hugh Millen. Both were lost on waivers last week.

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Meet new holder Pete Holohan.

Also, three of Gigantino’s best special-teams players from last year are gone--Cliff Hicks (broken leg), Tim Tyrrell (hamstring) and Norwood Vann (Raiders).

All this, plus Henry Ellard can’t return punts yet because of a bad ankle. Cornerback LeRoy Irvin, who’s trying to get on anyone’s good side this year, has offered to pick up the slack.

“I’m a team guy,” said Irvin, who made his name as a punt returner. “I’m age 30, but I can still do it. Whatever John (Robinson) says, I’ll do it. I alienated him enough last year. It’s not too much to ask. Plus, I have a better shoe (endorsement) contract when I return punts.”

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Ram Notes

This is the first time the Rams have played the Packers at Lambeau Field since 1970. Since then, the Rams have lost three times to the Packers in Milwaukee. . . . The Packers will be without linebacker Brian Noble, who’s still a holdout. However, speedy wide receiver Phillip Epps signed last Tuesday and has been activated. . . . Jim Everett is the ninth opening-day quarterback for the Rams since 1975. . . . A former Auburn star and first-round pick, Brent Fullwood, is listed as the third-string Green Bay halfback, but Coach Lindy Infante said he could start today.


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