A day after the most exasperating defeat of this exasperating season, a frustrated Coach John Robinson suggested that it finally might be time to temporarily bench his most exasperating Ram player.
Tailback Cleveland Gary certainly isn’t the Rams’ only exasperation this season--there are about 44 other players who can fit that bill--but now, 11 fumbles deep into the season and counting, he clearly is the most visible symbol of the team’s problems.
Robinson took great pains to say that he hasn’t soured on Gary, and that eventually Gary will justify the high hopes the team has for him. But after committing two key fumbles in the Rams’ 24-20 loss Sunday to the New Orleans Saints, which dropped them to 5-8 and probably put them out of the playoff race, Gary leads all NFL running backs with 11 fumbles, seven of which have been lost.
His bobbles Sunday cost the Rams a sure touchdown and gave New Orleans the ball in Ram territory for the Saints’ go-ahead score late in the game. Gary has fumbled five times in the Rams’ past four games, and lost all of them.
“We can’t keep accepting it. . . . We have to take steps to protect ourselves as the rest of the season goes on,” Robinson said at his weekly media luncheon Monday.
“Whether it’s limiting his playing time, I’m not exactly sure yet. But in the same regard, we can’t make him the butt of this loss. . . . It’s a difficult period for him. I think every athlete goes through a period like that. The (28-yard) run he made down to the one-yard line was a brilliant run, one of the best runs of the day in the NFL. Then he fumbles . . . “
Brilliant run, then a fumble . . . the story of Gary’s season. The second-year running back has run for 702 yards in 179 carries despite having missed parts or all of three games because of an early season back injury. Early and often this season, Robinson has staked the Rams’ future and present on Gary’s powerful legs.
He was still doing it Monday, perhaps for lack of anything else to cling to. But even Robinson, who has defended Gary consistently, now acknowledges that for the sake of Gary’s mental outlook, it probably would be best to bench him for a while.
He wouldn’t say whether Gary would be a backup next Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers, but seems to be leaning that way--with Gaston Green probably starting.
“I don’t know,” Robinson said when asked who would start at tailback Monday. “My expectations are that Cleveland Gary’s going to be really a fine, fine back in this league and he’s going to do a fine, fine job. Now whether its short-term or long, we (might) have to give him some time to kind of recover his ground. . . . But my belief in this guy has not (waned).
“We’re in place now in sports that when a player makes an error, or goes through a (bad) period, there’s not a lot of mercy for him,. You know, walking off that field wasn’t particularly pleasant for him. There weren’t a lot of guys saying, ‘Hang in there, Cleveland, you’ll get the next one.’ The word hanging was used, but . . .
“The tremendous focus on criticism makes it tough. He’s 24 years old. He’s never gone through anything like this in his life. Obviously, you can say, ‘Well, these are highly paid players,’ and they are. . . . It’s just a tough time in a guy’s life.”
Robinson was concerned enough by the fans’ booing and Gary’s reaction to his fumbles that he made it a point to stop by Gary’s locker after the game to cheer up the running back.
Gary told reporters before Robinson’s pep-talk that he might understand if Robinson didn’t want him any more, that if he were cut Monday he wouldn’t be shocked--although the likelihood of that happening was about the same as the Saints deciding to forfeit the victory in order to brighten Gary’s spirits.
“We discussed that and suicide,” Robinson said with a smile. “Hey, it’s tough. And all his teammates . . . you’re out there blocking, all of a sudden the ball’s on the ground.
“I just tried to talk to him and tell him he’s going to be a fine player, he’s going to fight his way through this. There’ll be a period when this is by him and he goes through a long stretch without fumbling and he’s one of the best backs.
“I think he’s working hard at trying to overcome the problem. I think he’s trying so hard to make the extra yard and to run the football that the ball comes out at the end of runs. He’s going forward, he’s getting hit, pulled, the ball is coming down, falling down underneath him. He’s working at it, but he’s not having success with it.”
The answer is not, Robinson emphasized, that Gary should begin running with two hands on the ball at all times. Gary acknowledges that he gets lackadaisical with the football every so often, but Robinson said that two-handed runners are the kind who look nice when they fall down after one-yard gains. And that is not what he wants from Gary.
“The good runners don’t put both hands on the ball,” Robinson said. “That’s not a normal way to run the football. There are no NFL Saturday morning films of great runners of guys with two hands on the ball, unless it’s Larry Csonka, who tended to run like that as he trampled over people.
“The runner has to run with one hand on the ball. Now I think Cleveland has to have a better sense of, ‘Oh, God, I’m in trouble here and getting spun,’ and then get another hand on the ball.
“But running with two hands on the ball is not the solution. It’s never been the solution and never will be the solution.”
What else can the Rams do? For now, not much.
“Here’s a guy who you’re looking at saying, ‘Boy, this guy is a runner, fights for that extra yard, breaks loose from that pile to break the run,’ and now still fumbles the ball,” Robinson said.
“Yeah, it’s a dilemma. He’s got to be in a position where he just holds onto the ball. Whether he’s snake-bit and all of this gets better at some point. . . . I’m not in a position to tell you exactly what’s happened other than try to get him to improve, concentrate, understand. I mean, he clearly understands that it’s bad to fumble. His life is falling apart around him and he knows.”