Rams Can't Block Out Latest Defeat : Pro Football: Robinson and his players haunted by setback in Minnesota, their fourth straight loss.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Merriweather's block of Dale Hatcher's punt remained flash-burned in Ram memories and pain centers Monday, just hours after the team's fourth consecutive loss and the second truly avoidable, heart-wrenching defeat in less than a month.

It leaves the Rams to explore the fine line between tough luck and bad karma. Are the Rams inherently jinxed, hexed, cursed or possessed?

A young team wants to know.

Think about it. Cliff Hicks blocks a punt Sunday and it bounces back into the hands of Bucky Scribner, who throws a pass for what would have been a first down had the play not been nullified by penalty.

Merriweather blocks Hatcher's punt and it rolls out of the end zone for a safety. Minnesota wins, 23-21.

Weirdness. The Rams can't even knock down a Hail Mary pass to save a game. In Buffalo, they blew a sure victory and made a hero out of a journeyman quarterback named Frank Reich, who had been sitting on the pine for almost three years.

Ram Coach John Robinson tried to dismiss the freakish loss to the Bills on Oct. 16, thinking that if he didn't show the team the game film, it wouldn't have as many nightmares.

Now what? An exorcist? Palm readers? Tea leaves? Next year?

"There's a point I suppose when we can say . . . 'This isn't our year. We're bad luck,' and all that," Robinson said. "Start blaming the officials, the weather, where the stars are ascending or descending, and the relation to Mercury or something like that. Or you can say we're going to do something about it. I think we're probably in pretty good shape that way."

The Rams will be back, Robinson vows, even if there remain lapses in his near-constant state of optimism.

"We're 7-2 if we just stop two 70-yard drives," he says in another moment. "And we don't do it in either one of those."

Often more composed in defeat than victory, Robinson was visibly shaken in the losers' locker room in Minneapolis Sunday. A coach can never let on that a cause is lost, for then it almost certainly is.

By Monday afternoon, Robinson's spirits had risen again.

"I judge a lot by how I feel," he said. "And I'm not discouraged at all by it. I feel more determined and I actually feel more confident about us now than I did a week ago. Because the scary thing about a slump is, 'Will we ever play good again?' And I don't have that feeling."

Robinson's concern is persuading his players that they are not under the influence of some demonic spell.

"If you keep reminding somebody, you know, 'Look out for the curve around the bend,' you can create some apprehension," he said.

Anthony Newman, the Rams' second-year safety, says astral planes and rotten luck have nothing to do with four consecutive losses, unbelievable as two were.

"It seems the last couple of games the ball hasn't bounced our way," Newman said after Sunday's game. "We haven't been getting the luck. You can't play like that. You've got to go out and take the game away. You can't be hoping for luck."

Veteran defensive end Doug Reed said painful last-second losses can be avoided by changing all the minutes that precede them.

"We have to start to talk about finishing games off," Reed said. "We haven't been finishing games. "That's been the story the past few games. . . . They take their toll on you. You look at four in a row, and that gets kind of tough, but I don't think it's to the point where we're ready to throw in the towel."

What's the difference between last year's four-game losing streak and this year's? This time you can't blame quarterback Jim Everett, who had chances to win two games, against New Orleans and Philadelphia, in the final minutes last season but had passes intercepted both times in the end zone.

Overlooked in the bizarre losses to Buffalo and Minnesota this year has been Everett's last-minute work. He threw what most perceived to be the game-winning touchdown pass to Flipper Anderson against the Bills and, Sunday, led the Rams on two fourth-quarter drives to give his team a three-point lead with 28 seconds remaining.

The culprit in both losses this year has been the defense, the secondary in particular.

Ram Notes

As of Monday evening, the Rams were only a few hundred tickets shy of selling out Sunday's game against the New York Giants at Anaheim Stadium. . . . Further X-rays on safety Vince Newsome's neck Monday proved negative. Newsome left Sunday's game in the second quarter with a pinched nerve. The Rams were cautious with Newsome because he missed most of last season with an inflamed disk in his neck. The latest injury is not related, the Rams say, and Newsome expects to play next week.

Why was cornerback LeRoy Irvin replaced by Cliff Hicks in the second half of the Viking game? Coach John Robinson said that Irvin sprained an ankle earlier and wasn't 100%. "I think LeRoy got a little tentative after he twisted it," Robinson said. . . . For what it's worth, Mike Lansford was not trying to kick the ball out of bounds on the kickoff after the Rams' go-ahead touchdown with 28 seconds left. Lansford just miss-hit the ball, which gave Minnesota possession on its own 35 with no time lost off the clock.

Are there such things as coaching slumps? "Nobody came up to me and said I was doing a real good job the last four weeks," Robinson said. . . . The Rams simplified their pass offense against the Vikings to avoid the rush of defensive tackle Keith Millard. Despite the modifications, Millard had an impact. "Keith Millard is something else," Robinson said. "Keith Millard is big time. Big time." . . . Linebacker Larry Kelm is eligible to come off injured reserve this week after missing the first nine games with an injured foot. "You remember Larry Kelm," Robinson said. "He used to play here six years ago."

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