For the first 4 1/2 seasons of his career, Henry Ellard was the NFL's smallest run blocker. He lined up at wide receiver and then tried to knock down the cornerback in case Eric Dickerson broke through the line and into the secondary.
"When we had Eric, I used to wear bigger shoulder pads," said Ellard, who at 5-11, 180 pounds couldn't cut an imposing figure on a football field if he donned a suit of armor. "I felt like I was a receiver at USC."
But Coach John Robinson's student-body-right, student-body-left offense left with Dickerson on Oct. 31, 1987 and the Rams took a fancy to passing. As a result, Ellard averaged 1,400 receiving yards a season in 1988 and '89 and went from being an expert at bowling them over to being a Pro Bowler.
"Before, we had that so-called vanilla offense where we ran the ball and stayed pretty basic," Ellard said. "Don't get me wrong, I loved watching Eric run, but now we're a much more sophisticated offense. The ball comes out anywhere on the field and anybody can come up with big plays."
Ellard would like to be on the receiving end of a couple of those game-breakers today at Candlestick Park. He had five catches for 63 yards in the Rams' 13-12 victory over the 49ers early in the season, but he was nursing a sore hamstring and made just two catches for 38 yards in San Francisco's 30-27 win at Anaheim.
Ellard was well on his way to his best season when he strained his right hamstring in practice two days before the Nov. 26 game in New Orleans. He was coming off a five-catch, 163-yard, two-touchdown performance against Phoenix. He already had six games where he gained 95 or more yards, including a 12-reception, 230-yard, three-touchdown outing against Indianapolis. He had scored eight touchdowns in 11 games.
Then the injury kept Ellard out of two games and he was only marginally effective in his return to action against the 49ers. So Ellard says you can wipe the blackboard clean of the old X's and O's and start anew.
In the first game, safety Ronnie Lott, the leader of the 49er secondary, was sidelined with an ankle injury. In the second, Lott was back, but Ellard was hobbled. Both will be at full strength today, but there's more to this saga than a medical report.
Flipper Anderson, you'll remember, was certainly no flop as Ellard's replacement against the Saints. He set an NFL record with 336 yards and has been burning cornerbacks on deep patterns ever since.
In his last three games, Ellard has caught 16 passes for 323 yards and is still being overshadowed by Anderson. He's no longer running interference for Dickerson, but he has spent much of the past week answering questions about Anderson.
This time, however, he relishes the supporting role.
"I guess I've become what you call a possession-type receiver," he said. "You know, the intermediate routes, the stuff over the middle. I still go deep once in a while to keep them on their heels, though.
"But Flipper has really taken the pressure off me as far as double coverage goes. Before, when I'd line up on third down or obvious passing downs, there would always be double coverage. Now, people are tending to slack off a little because of the plays Flipper is making on the other side of the field."
San Francisco cornerbacks Don Griffin and Darryl Pollard get the unenviable task of matching up with a healthy Ellard and a confident Anderson in a defensive scheme that often delegates one-on-one responsibility to the corners.
"Griffin is good," Ellard said. "Pollard may not be quite as quick as Griffin, but he's come along. He's really learning the game and he can hold his own.
"If we find a weak situation, we try to take advantage of it with any team. But San Francisco doesn't really show any obvious weakness. It's just a matter of catching them in the right situation as far as the defensive coverages go."
That, of course, is where Lott comes into the equation. The veteran free safety has to decide where best to direct his considerable talents on any given play. When he guesses right, it can spell disaster for an offense. Just ask the Minnesota Vikings, who watched Lott force, then recover, a fumble and also return an interception 58 yards for a touchdown in last week's NFC divisional playoffs.
"Lott makes a big difference," Ellard said. "He runs everything. Everybody reacts off him and he gets everybody up and going.
"When we played them the first time, I noticed the difference when he wasn't back there. They didn't play as well as a defensive unit compared to the second game when he was back."
Ellard says only one factor remains a constant in Ram-49er games: "These games are always very physical."
Today's game will be the fourth meeting of the season between the two--counting a summer exhibition game in Tokyo--and the 49er defensive backs are getting used to watching Ellard cut patterns through their secondary.
"I guess playing over and over against their corners, they pick up our tendencies," he said. "But it goes both ways. We can pick up on theirs as well and we know what we can do to get open on them.
"They might know, from watching the movement on the line and other reads, what we're running and try to shut us down. So, for us, it's just a matter of changing some little things that hopefully will get us open."
In a game like this, it's often the little things that make a large difference and quarterback Jim Everett hopes the Rams' recent game films will cause the 49er defense to make a small error in judgment. He wouldn't mind at all if Lott and Co. concentrated on preventing Anderson from making the big play.
"The last part of the season, when Henry hurt his hamstring a little, we used him more for short passes," Everett said. "But the hamstring is better now and you never know where on the field he's going to be. Or where he's going to end up.
"If a team doesn't respect Henry Ellard as an all-around receiver, they're in for trouble."
For a trip to the Super Bowl, Ellard can stand one more day without getting his due respect.