If quarterback Neil Lomax, shooting from an arthritic hip, can lace the Rams for 519 yards in total offense, and control every tick on the clock while doing so, what's in store when Joe Montana comes to town in 2 weeks?
It was the question debated after Sunday's scoreboard scorcher at Anaheim Stadium, where the Phoenix proved it was a much better bird than the Eagle in a 41-27 win over the Rams.
You can look at this two ways:
Either Lomax exposed a flaw in the new Rams' defense as wide as the Colorado River or the Rams just woke on the wrong side of the bed Sunday morning.
Today, the Rams are clinging to the mattress theory--the defense is fine, the execution horrible.
"We didn't tackle, defend the run, defend the pass or rush the passer," Coach John Robinson said. "Other than that . . . "
The Rams headed into the game with 25 sacks in 4 games and a growing reputation. On Sunday, they got to Lomax just twice and watched the Cardinal quarterback counter their rush attack with an assortment of draws and short passes to a tight end named . . . Jay Novacek.
Lomax, who needed a cortisone injection in an aching hip just to make it to the huddle last week, completed 28 of 43 passes for 342 yards against a Ram secondary too often caught in single coverage.
Novacek, a former decathlete and sixth-round draft choice, slipped beyond the rush time and again and finished with 9 catches for 92 yards and 1 touchdown.
When Novacek wasn't dragging Ram tacklers across the field, he was knocking them out altogether. Safety Vince Newsome, the biggest hitter the Rams have, left the game with a pinched shoulder nerve after a collision with Novacek in the third quarter.
Lomax beat the Rams' rush with a quick-drop passing attack and excellent timing. Guard Derek Kennard said the Cardinals assigned bigger players such as himself (Kennard is 6 foot, 3 inches and 285 pounds) on blitzing Ram linebackers instead of running backs.
The Cardinals weren't offering much more than that.
"I ain't going to tell you," Phoenix offensive coordinator Jim Shofner said when asked to divulge secrets.
Whatever they were, Lomax and Co. were having so much fun they never wanted to give up the ball. Or maybe this was a payback for last year, when the Rams used up the last 11 minutes on a game-winning drive in St. Louis.
The Cardinals (3-2) drove 94 yards in 11 plays for 1 touchdown in the first half. But it was nothing compared to the drive of the game in the fourth quarter, when Lomax and the offense consumed 95 yards and nearly 9 minutes before scoring on a 7-yard Earl Ferrell run.
That put the Cardinals ahead, 34-20, with 6:35 left.
The Rams had their chances here. Kevin Greene's sack of Lomax had Phoenix pinned third-and-12 on its 3-yard line, at which time Lomax dropped into the end zone and found Novacek over the middle for a 26-yard game.
"To me, that was the key play of the game," Shofner said. "Without that, there is no drive."
Seconds after Ferrell's score, Ram tailback Greg Bell fumbled the ball back to the Cardinals at the 35, setting up Stump Mitchell's 35-yard, game-clinching touchdown run, a prance in which he bounced off four would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone.
It was one reason Robinson viewed the game not as failure for a defensive scheme, but rather a complete mental and physical breakdown.
"It's clear you can't play the game without strength of will," he said.
Almost everyone agreed. Don't blame the Eagle defense for this one.
"You can't expect our defensive line to come up with 7 sacks every game," cornerback LeRoy Irvin said. "They got the ball off quick and we couldn't get our rush started. But we have to enforce our will on them."
Irvin wasn't enforcing much of anything on Sunday.
"You'll have to ask my wife what happened," he said. "I was too busy getting blows to the head."
Still, it was the first big test for the Rams' aggressive Eagle defense, which had been feasting on deep-drop passers during the first 4 weeks.
Skeptics wondered how the Rams' defense would go over with their biggest rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, and their quarterback, Montana. Montana, of course, is a master of the quick-drop and ball control through the air.
It appears that Lomax may have provided the Rams with an unpleasant sneak preview.
"Their offense is similar to San Francisco's," linebacker Mel Owens said. "We knew what they were going to do and they hit it. If we can't stop that, we're in trouble."
But again, as Robinson stressed, this debacle was a group effort. He even questioned one of his own calls, a play that turned out to be critical.
Trailing just 17-14, the Rams had the ball at their own 32-yard line with 27 seconds left in the half.
Instead of running out the clock, the Rams wanted more. It's the offense's attitude-of-choice this season.
So Everett dropped back to pass but was hit by defensive end Rod Saddler. Everett thought his arm was moving forward. The official didn't. The ball came free and was recovered by Saddler, who returned it 16 yards for a touchdown.
Everett defended the call.
"We're playing aggressively," he said. "We're not going to shut down. When you're trying to play aggressively, sometimes those things happen."
Robinson, though, took the blame.
"I probably should not have given us the opportunity to allow that to happen," he said. "I will probably think about it well into the night."
Everett, playing from behind most of the game, completed 25 of 33 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown. Greg Bell rushed for 82 yards in 18 carries and scored 3 touchdowns.
On Sunday, it wasn't enough.
On Sunday, everything went wrong. Kicker Mike Lansford missed an extra point and a 25-yard field goal.
Just a slump?
"I hope so," Robinson said. "As opposed to something else. He's clearly not kicking the ball well."
Of course, it's only one loss in five tries for the Rams, who drop from the ranks of the unbeaten. But 519 yards yielded isn't exactly the Joe Montana litmus test they had in mind. The 49ers come to town Oct. 16. You know they'll be getting the game film of this one soon. And taking a lot of notes.
"The only way you can rush Lomax is if he mis-reads the coverage," Ram linebacker Owens said. "It's hard to get to him because he takes a quick two or three step drop."
Sunday, Lomax dropped the Rams.
Injury report. Wide receiver Aaron Cox sprained an ankle in the second quarter but returned to play in the second half. Safety Vince Newsome suffered a pinched nerve in his shoulder after tackling Cardinals' tight end Jay Novacek in the fourth quarter. . . . Bell keeps rolling: The Ram tailback scored on touchdown runs of 5, 4, and 1 yards, giving him 9 touchdowns for the season. . . . Linebackers Mike Wilcher and Kevin Greene had 1 sack each, giving the Rams 27 for the season. . . . The Cardinals sacked Everett 3 times for minus 32 yards. . . . Phoenix won Sunday's game despite commiting 12 penalties for 123 yards. . . . The Rams gained 353 yards of their own in total offense, but it still fell 166 yards short of the Cardinals' final total. . . . Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax: "Our offensive line made some real good calls up front," he said. "They protected me and I was able to throw real well. We controlled the game from the start and we had two excellent chances to blow them out.