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Analysis : Plummeting Rams Search for a Reason

Times Staff Writer

November was a great month for Dan Quayle and Geraldo Rivera’s plastic surgeon, but it was a lousy 30-day sentence for the Rams, who came out of it with 4 losses and faces redder than cranberry sauce.

John Robinson can’t afford a deep and dark December. His team, which was 7-2 after a pre-Halloween victory party over the Saints in New Orleans, is perilously close to scratching a favorite item off its Christmas list--the playoff payoff.

That would make 2 consecutive years without any extra game for the Rams, enough to make any owner call 911.

“Obviously, fingers should be pointed,” Robinson said this week. “But they should be pointed at all of us. Me is fine. But the team is a team. And you cannot allow your team to become fractionalized when things are going badly.”

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Meet the L.A. Splinters, the team that looked so unbeatable before, you know, that month. Lately, the Rams have played like a boat with three holes in the bow and only two corks.

They’re sealing leaks as fast as they can, but everywhere they look, there’s more water.

Meanwhile, they’re planning a comeback strategy for Monday night against the Chicago Bears, of all teams.

So what happened? Let’s get right to some theories, starting with one of Darwin’s:

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--Survival of the fittest: Hey, maybe the Rams aren’t as good as everyone thought. Their first 6 games were against teams that failed to make the playoffs in 1987. The Rams won 5 of those games but have won only 2 since. It’s a solid theory.

--Blame it on the kids: It’s easy to forget sometimes that the average Ram is barely 26 years old, the result of considerable turnover through the draft this year and last.

There are 14 first- or second-year players on the 47-man roster, and 11 of those are playing a lot. Too much? In some Ram pass defenses, you might find rookies James Washington and Anthony Newman teamed with second-year men Michael Stewart and Cliff Hicks.

Talent isn’t the problem here. Blown coverages are. Funny, it wasn’t a problem until the Rams quit sacking quarterbacks.

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--When Ram sacks turned to sad sacks: Looking to camouflage a weak defensive line, the Eagle defense was developed in the off-season, and an all-out attack on opposing quarterbacks ensued. It produced a whopping 36 sacks in 6 games, but 3 teams contributed greatly to the sack total--Green Bay with 7, the Raiders and Atlanta with 9 each.

The Rams have managed just 8 sacks since Oct. 9, putting increasing pressure on the secondary and exposing all kinds of punctures.

“We can all see certain areas are exposed,” Robinson said. “Then you try to cover up those areas. This team has a tremendous opportunity in the draft to gain ground in areas that it’s weak.”

One of those areas is still the defensive line, and the Rams have two first-round picks and three second-round picks next year, which may help them fill the voids.

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--For the love of Mel Owens: The outside linebacker was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season--5 sacks, 21 tackles, a fumble recovery, an interception--before he badly twisted an ankle in practice Oct. 6. He tried playing 3 days later against the Falcons, a mistake, and then 2 weeks later against Seattle, an even bigger mistake. Owens hasn’t played since and was finally put on injured reserve last week.

Owens was rotating with Kevin Greene and Mike Wilcher, keeping all three sackers fresh and exciting. With Owens out, Wilcher and Greene have had to play too many downs, and their production has fallen off.

Wilcher had 6 sacks through 6 games but has just 1 since. Greene had 10 sacks through 6 games and just 2 since.

The honorable mention most-costly-injury award goes to strong safety Vince Newsome, who is out for the year with a disk injury.

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--Jim Everett, you’re a great quarterback but you’re no Roger Staubach: Not yet, at least. Everett has thrown up some Pro Bowl numbers this season--3,209 yards, 25 touchdowns--but so far has lacked the touch of legends. Everett blew chances to lead dramatic comeback victories against Philadelphia and New Orleans with intercepted passes deep in enemy territory. He’s only 25, though, so there’s still hope.

What ever happened to John Robinson’s tried-and-true theories on winning football?

Theory I--Robinson has long preached that great scoring offenses produce weak defenses. A team that scores too fast, he says, keeps its defense on the field too much. Has he been proven correct at his own expense?

His offense is averaging 25 points a game and is 40 Greg Bell rushing yards away from a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher in the same season.

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Yet the Rams have lost their last 2 games by scores of 38-24 and 35-24. The bright side? The Rams rank fourth overall in total offense.

“It’s like you get in a fast-break, high-scoring game in basketball,” Robinson said. “And the game gets out of control.”

So who wants to tell Ernie Zampese to pull back on the reins?

Theory II: The running game. Robinson believes in the healing powers of the dominating tailback. He has said it a thousand times: runners get stronger the more they carry the ball and are at their best in the fourth quarter.

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This year, though, he has tried a new tack--rotating Bell and Charles White in and out of the lineup. Again, it appears that Robinson has fallen victim to his own theory or his affection for White.

The statistics suggest it. In the 5-game period during White’s suspension that Bell was the No. 1 tailback, he flourished. He gained 597 yards and averaged 5.1 yards a carry.

In the 8 games that White and Bell have shared the job, the position has yielded just 637 yards and 3.5 yards a carry.

Robinson insists that production has fallen off because the Rams have fallen behind early. But would they have fallen behind with a one-back, ball-control attack? Is this a Coach-22 situation?

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The Rams are still an inch or two from pounding the panic button. But Robinson suggested that players may soon be visiting his office for evaluations. Lineup changes are a possibility. Still, he would prefer that people blame him rather than his players.

The heat is on. Imagine if the Rams had a losing record.


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