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From Rams to Rambos : As Camp Opens, Robinson Tries to Mold Youngsters Into a Super Bowl Team

Times Staff Writer

Is it mere coincidence that 29 veterans from the Rams’ season-ending roster of 1987 no longer pick up a paycheck in Anaheim, or just one organization’s sweeping tribute to the man who handed it an industrial-strength broom?

That’s right, ol’ No. 29 himself, Eric Dickerson?

You better not confuse old Rams with new Rams. The old ones--Dickerson, Carl Ekern, Jim Collins, Mike Guman, David Hill, Johnnie Johnson, Nolan Cromwell, Greg Meisner, Gary Jeter, Mickey Sutton, are history. The new Rams, save one emerging star quarterback and a few crusty veterans, are fresh from college dormitories. Remember Coach John Robinson’s seminar last season on rookie eating habits--"I don’t want you guys eating hot pizza for dinner and cold pizza for breakfast.

Well, welcome to Baby Boom II. The Rams open camp for rookies today, almost a full week ahead of the rest of the league. Maybe they need the extra time to get all the names straight.

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The turnover the last two seasons may be unprecedented in recent National Football League history. Eight rookies made last year’s 47-man roster, and just as many figure to make the final cut in 1989.

For the second consecutive season, thanks in large part to the Dickerson trade, the Rams need to make room for two first-round choices and three second-rounders. Two spots opened when the team nudged veterans Ekern and Guman into retirement. The Rams also lost 12 unprotected players to free agency, most notably free safety Johnson, who led the Rams in interceptions in 1988, and tackle Jeter, who finished with a career-high 11 1/2 sacks.

If nothing else, the Rams proved in 1988 that it is possible to win while in transition, provided your new players are first- or second-round draft choices. The Rams finished in a three-way tie for first in the NFC West at 10-6 and rode a three-game winning streak into the playoffs before losing the wild-card game to Minnesota.

“Being hot isn’t as good a thing as being good,” Robinson said this week, summing up the loss to the Vikings.

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“The clear message is don’t go to the playoffs having to travel to the game. You have to earn the right to stay at home. That’s the key issue.”

There are other issues for the Rams, of course, but for the first time in a few decades they don’t involve the quarterback or the offense. The Rams ranked third in overall offense last season, thanks to the rather stunning emergence of quarterback Jim Everett (3,964 yards, 31 touchdown passes) and wide receiver Henry Ellard (1,414 yards, 10 touchdown), both of whom had career seasons.

“Before we found a high-echelon quarterback, we were not going to be a championship-caliber team,” Robinson said in praise of Everett. “We knew that.”

The Rams are bracing for the anticipated holdout of tailback Greg Bell, the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher in ’88, but will no doubt use the free space to take a long look at Gaston Green, the 14th pick in last year’s draft who carried the ball only 35 times last season. And into this dynamic offense the Rams will plug first-round fullback Cleveland Gary, one of the best receiving backs to come out of the draft in years. Bell or no Bell, the cupboard is not bare.

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More interesting will be the Rams’ defense, which is loaded with talent and inexperience. Using a few dozen mirrors and a five-linebacker scheme called the Eagle, the Rams managed to lead the NFL in sacks last season with 56 and make a star of outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who finished with 16 1/2 sacks, second in the NFL only to Philadelphia’s Reggie White.

The defense finished ninth overall in the NFL, but has since lost Jeter, Sutton, Johnson and Meisner to free agency.

The Rams are hoping first-round pick Bill Hawkins (Miami, Fla.) can fill Jeter’s role as designated pass rusher and second-round cornerback Darryl Henley (UCLA) can step into Sutton’s spot in pass defense.

The inside linebackers will be new, with Larry Kelm and Fred Strickland taking over for Ekern, Mark Jerue and Jim Collins. Jerue, who has lived an NFL life of tough luck and injuries, is coming off yet another knee surgery and may not be able to practice until late August.

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After missing most of last season with a disk injury in his neck, Vince Newsome returns to full strength at strong safety and will join a four-safety rotation that includes James Washington, Michael Stewart and Anthony Newman.

The big question is whether a strong crop of rookies can make up for veteran leadership lost in Jeter, Johnson and Sutton.

Robinson expects his defense may take even more chances than last season, when it wrote the book on risk.

“Our defense has to become a real scene of attack,” he said. “We have to get that kind of momentum. We have to become the Wild Bunch or Lethal Weapon III.”

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However, no one around the league is shedding tears because the Rams may have to tinker with an assortment of talented parts. The pieces of the Dickerson trade are now in place.

“Our potential now, if we live up to it, is competing for the world’s championship,” Robinson said. “I feel good about what lies ahead of us.”

Ram Notes

What if they held a rookie camp and nobody came? The Rams are facing that problem when workouts open today. At a time when few draft choices around the league have signed, the Rams enter camp having signed only one of their 14 draft picks. Quarterback Jeff Carlson, the team’s fourth-round choice, agreed to terms Tuesday. The Rams made their first contract offer to top pick Bill Hawkins Monday. Hawkins was the 21st player taken in the draft and thinks he’s worth as much as the 22nd pick, receiver Andre Rison, who signed a five-year, $2.6-million deal with the Indianapolis Colts. The consensus among league owners, however, is that the Colts paid too much for Rison at the No. 22 slot. The Rams’ other first-round pick, fullback Cleveland Gary, had not received a contract offer as of late Tuesday night, his agent said.

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Kevin Greene’s agent will soon approach the Rams about a contract extension. Greene, the NFL’s second-leading sacker last season with 16 1/2, will make $250,000 this season, the last year of his contract. . . . The Rams are bringing players to camp in shifts. Quarterback Jim Everett will join 14 veterans in camp next Monday at Rams Park. Veterans aren’t due to report until July 24.

The Rams have eight free agents who are still unsigned, the most interesting cases being tailback Greg Bell and wide receiver Ron Brown. Bell has all but announced he will be a holdout, but some are convinced Brown has rededicated his life to football and will not be a problem this season. Brown retired from football after the 1987 season only to return to play the last seven games in 1988. The other unsigned players are kicker Mike Lansford, nose tackle Alvin Wright, tackles Irv Pankey and Robert Cox and guards Tony Slaton and Duval Love.


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