Ram Defensive Shuffle Hinges on Humphery : NFL: If the former New York Jet can handle the corner, Jerry Gray will be moved to free safety.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In case you have a shorter memory than Fritz Shurmur, the Rams were dead last in the NFL in pass defense last season. Shurmur, the Rams' defensive coordinator, had to watch as one of the league's best passing offenses shot holes in his secondary during practice all week, then had to bear much of the same Sunday before facing the onslaught of instant replays in the film room.

Shurmur is hardly the only one in the Ram organization who's determined there won't be a repeat performance in 1990.

The grand scheme hinges on moving cornerback Jerry Gray to free safety, where he will be free to wreak havoc at will, like San Francisco 49er Ronnie Lott. The Rams are confident Gray can do the job, the question is whether or not they can afford to move him out of the cornerback spot.

Bobby Humphery, the veteran cornerback the Rams acquired from the New York Jets on the first day of the draft for a fifth-round choice, says not to worry. He says he can help increase the efficiency of the Rams' zone defense and ease his new coaches into a comfort zone at the same time.

Heck, he's already making an impact.

Ram Coach John Robinson: "We're very pleased with what we've seen so far."

Said Shurmur: "We are absolutely elated with the way he's performing."

Humphery may have been inexpensive, but this was not a capricious, Let's-Make-a-Deal move by the Rams. They spent more time in the film room than a movie mogul.

After the trade, Dick Steinberg, the Jets' new general manager, said Humphery was a player who had peaked. But the Rams scoffed at that; they figured they knew a lot more about Humphery than a GM who'd been on the job for three weeks.

"We tried to be certain when we made the call to try and get him that we knew what we were getting," Shurmur said. "And we haven't been a bit disappointed. I observe him out there and see the vast strides he's made in learning our system already, and I can't find any area in which we're disappointed.

"We finished the season with a hole. LeRoy (Irvin) was leaving and we had some young corners who had to develop quickly. We were uncertain. We were looking for a guy who knew how to play corner, a player for our young guys to look at and see how it's done."

Humphery played a lot of bump-and-run, man-to-man defense in New York and is having to adjust to the Rams' zone-oriented defense. Shurmur says it's much easier to make the transition from man to zone than the other way around, but Humphery isn't so sure.

"Actually, I think it's harder to go from man-to-man to zone," he said. "Now, you're playing an area instead of a person. You have to get to an area and know how to protect that area instead of just following a man anywhere he goes. But I think it's a pretty small transition. It's not a problem."

Robinson says the Rams might be willing to meet Humphery halfway, anyway.

"He's working on learning right now," Robinson said, "but we will adapt our style to fit his a little, too, I'm sure."

At the moment, Humphery just wants to prove he belongs. In the fall, however, he'll be trying to send a message back East.

"First, I just want to make sure the coaches are comfortable with putting me at left corner and show the guys on this team that I deserve to be a part of it," Humphery said. "But there is another challenge that I welcome. I want to come out here and prove to some people out in New York that I can still play."

The Rams, of course, are counting on it.

Quarterback Rick Johnson, signed by the Rams Wednesday, admits that he's "an absolute longshot" to hang on with the team, but said he was going to stay in the L.A. area and retire from football to pursue an acting career, anyway.

"I've had three movie roles and a spot on 'Dallas,' and I wasn't going to go back to Canada," said Johnson, who played the past five seasons in the Canadian Football League after spending two years in the USFL.

He also said his acting career had taught him a lesson about persevering in the face of overwhelming odds.

"The deck is stacked, but I won't let it get me down," Johnson said. "And I have a little extra incentive here, too. Chuck Long and I went to the same high school (Wheaton North in Chicago) and every time I go back there, all I hear about is Chuck Long, Chuck Long. They even have a Chuck Long Day at the high school.

"I was the first guy from that school to make it to the pros, even if it was only the USFL. Chuck graduated two years after me."

Johnson figures to lose out to Long and/or Mark Herrmann in the battle for the job as Jim Everett's understudy, but maybe his role as Roger the masseur in "Dallas" will be revived.

The only J.R. around Rams Camp, of course, is John Robinson, and it didn't take Johnson much time to find out who's the leading man in uniform.

Asked to list his strengths as a quarterback, Johnson said, "I have a quick release and I used to think I had a strong arm . . . until I saw Jim Everett throw today."

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