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RAMS : Team Far From Opening Form

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The team some have billed as the second-best in pro football is giving thanks today that the regular-season opener is still three weeks away.

After Saturday night’s 30-27 loss to the Chargers, the Rams remain a struggling work in progress.

If the Rams were a stage play, Coach John Robinson said, they’d probably be dodging tomatoes and bringing down curtains.

“We obviously could not open the season right now,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to return to Broadway at the moment. We want to stay in Hartford a couple more weeks.”

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A rash of injuries, holdouts and special-teams nightmares have knocked the team far off its projected regular-season course.

The injuries:

--Darryl Henley, the team’s starting right corner, is suffering from a mysterious hip ailment. It kept him out of Saturday’s game and might sideline him next week and, perhaps, longer.

“There’s a vagueness to it,” Robinson said of Henley’s injury. Kind of like the Rams’ future without him.

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On the hot corners for now are one veteran, Bobby Humphery, and two former offensive players--A.J. Jackson, a converted wide receiver, and rookie Latin Berry, a former fullback. You don’t think Joe Montana is licking his chops?

One temporary alternative is to shatter Jerry Gray’s free safety dreams once again and return him to corner.

“If we don’t get him (Henley) back, we’d have to do that,” Robinson said.

--Fred Strickland. He’s a world of talent when healthy, but he never seems to be. The third-year inside linebacker suffered a pulled right hamstring against the Chargers and is out indefinitely. Inside linebacker Mel Owens also aggravated a back injury, which may force outside linebacker Brett Faryniarz inside to compensate. Which sounds like last year all over again.

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--The defensive line. Nose tackle Sean Smith, who was replacing the injured Alvin Wright, suffered a left ankle sprain and will be lost for two weeks. Defensive end Brian Smith is out with strained knee ligaments. Bill Hawkins’ knee is still not 100%, but the team swears he’s getting there. Mike Piel still wears a brace to protect the elbow he dislocated last season.

Doug Reed is healthy, but he hasn’t signed a contract yet.

--Joe Milinichik. The Plan B free agent guard was looking good until he broke his right thumb Saturday. Robinson says Milinichik might be able to cast the digit and play. What’s a thumb to an offensive lineman?

--The team’s top three receivers--Henry Ellard, Flipper Anderson, Aaron Cox--have yet to catch a pass in two exhibition games. All are nursing injuries, Cox’s hamstring pull being the most serious. He won’t be ready until the season opener, if then.

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“You got to feel like good news is going to start happening and everyone is going to get healthy,” Robinson said. “But now it’s a little depressing on the short term. We had 11 players who didn’t play (Saturday) night.”

The holdouts: Linebacker Kevin Greene, tackle Jackie Slater, defensive end Reed, tight end Damone Johnson, and safety Michael Stewart. As injuries mount and the season approaches, the need to speed along negotiations with some of these key players is obvious, but, as Ram fans know, reason does not always give way to resolution.

Special teams: In a word, abysmal. The Chargers won Saturday night’s game on Nate Lewis’ 87-yard kickoff return. Mike Lansford missed an extra point.

Punters Hank Ilesic and Kent Elmore were supposed to be in competition against each other. Now there’s some question as to whether either will survive the final cut.

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“We’re going to have to evaluate the situation with our punters,” Robinson said. “I don’t have any other comment on that.”

The bright spots are equally obvious. Tailback Gaston Green has rushed for 186 yards in two games. The race for the team’s No. 4 receiver is a heated battle involving Tim Stallworth, Derrick Faison and Tony Lomack. This one will come down to the final roster cut.

Quarterback Mark Herrmann, who seemed on his way out after the off-season acquisition of Chuck Long, was superb in his relief role Saturday, rallying the Rams from a 17-0 halftime deficit to two, fourth-quarter leads.

“What Mark proves every time out is that he’s a good quarterback,” Robinson said. “Every time.”

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The debate lingers as to whether the team will carry three quarterbacks, but Herrmann is building a strong case.

“It’s really uncertain with all our injuries,” Robinson said. “But I want to.”

Ram Notes

Tailback Curt Warner has averaged 2.3 yards per carry in two games, compared to 5.3 for Gaston Green. Cleveland Gary, who has missed the first two games with a lower back problem, reportedly is ready to make his debut Saturday night against Phoenix. Warner gained only 20 yards in nine carries against the Chargers, but Coach John Robinson said he’s not concerned. “On two of the plays he blew an assignment,” Robinson said. “On two or three others he had no chance, and on all the others, I thought he did OK.” . . . Here’s a Saturday night recap on the race for No. 4 receiver: Derrick Faison, the free agent from Howard, had two catches for 53 yards, including one spectacular over-the-shoulder grab for 35 yards. Tim Stallworth finished with two receptions for 62 yards with a long of 48. Tony Lomack had one catch for 11 yards. . . . Robinson said a little exhibition season adversity may prove to be just what team needed. “I didn’t want to go into the season fat, dumb and happy,” he said.

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