John Robinson came out a winner in this winter’s power struggle with the Rams’ front office when owner Georgia Frontiere extended his contract and expanded his control over the team.
The losers were announced Wednesday at Ram Park: Defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur and five other Ram defensive assistant coaches were fired.
It was hardly a surprise for a team that finished 5-11.
Linebackers coach Fred Whittingham, secondary coach Steve Shafer, assistant defensive line coach Larry Brooks, assistant linebackers coach Artie Gigantino and special teams coach Jairo Penaranda got the bad news along with Shurmur. Marv Goux, the defensive line coach who came to the Rams with Robinson from USC, was the only defensive assistant spared.
“We’re going to change our approach on defense,” Robinson said. “I want to go with a more aggressive, attacking-type of philosophy. We’ve been a defense that’s been deteriorating, and it was just a question of what I felt was the solution to get us going again.
“Once I have established a new defensive philosophy and found somebody that fits what I want to do as a coordinator, one or more may be asked to rejoin our staff. I like the guys we’ve had on our staff, but I felt I had to clear the way for a new approach.”
Shurmur, who had been defensive coordinator for eight of his nine seasons with the Rams, will almost certainly be asked to return in some coaching capacity if he chooses. But he was a finalist for the head coaching job at Phoenix last year and could already be employed by the time the Rams’ find his replacement.
Shurmur’s innovative schemes have gained him a measure of acclaim around the league, but the restructured defensive plan the Rams took into the 1990 season was scrapped after a month.Then, nothing much worked, with the exception of the four-safety “big nickel” formation that surprised and frustrated the 49ers in the Rams’ 28-17 victory at San Francisco Nov. 25.
Preseason injuries and training-camp holdouts surely played a role in the Rams’ defensive woes this season, but even when the team was winning in 1989, no one considered the Rams’ defense among the league’s most talented.
In both ’89 and ’90, they ranked 21st overall in defense. The numbers particularly declined in rushing defense, where they slipped from fifth in ’89 to 13th in ’90; and in points allowed, where they dropped from an average of 21.5 in ’89 to an average of 25.7 in ’90.
Still, Shurmur said he doesn’t think that he has been made a scapegoat.
“Coaches are held accountable for how their group of players play, and ours didn’t play well enough to win enough games, and as a result, we were fired,” Shurmur said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it should be.
“Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, but when you sign on, you have to accept the ultimate responsibility.”
Shurmur’s “soft” zone defenses might have been an appropriate response to the talent on hand--as Robinson often argued--but that approach was clearly unpopular with some in Ram management. Even so, Executive Vice President John Shaw said the decision to wipe the defensive slate clean was “100% John Robinson.”
Shaw added: “John is fully empowered to hire and fire his staff, and obviously, we support anything he does.”
Robinson maintained that he was under no pressure to make any changes. “It was strictly my choice,” he said. “I feel like Fritz has done a good job over eight years, but I want to clear the way for a new philosophy, as opposed to trying to make it fit with the old. That’s kind of where we’ve been in this patchwork thing. I want to stop and start over.”
Shurmur had been answering questions about his job security for most of the season, so he wasn’t surprised when Robinson informed him of the decision.
“I think it became apparent that some changes would have to be made and they were made,” Shurmur said. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and, well, you look at these jobs and we’re all just passing through them anyway.
“I think you look back and it’s been an excellent run. We’ve had some really good times here, and I think football people pretty much recognize that, given the tools we’ve had over the years, we’ve found ways to play with the people we’ve had and be successful.
“I haven’t talked to anybody around the league yet, but I guess the next step is to see if there’s any interest in me somewhere else.”
Shurmur said he is trying to help his former defensive staff adopt a similar perspective.
“Nobody likes to go through this, and for some of the guys, it’s the first time,” he said. “I feel responsible. They’ve been excellent workers, and I’ll be forever indebted for their efforts.”
Whittingham had been a member of the Ram staff for nine years, tying him with Shurmur for most seniority. Shafer completed his eighth season as coach of the defensive backs. Brooks had been a part of the Rams’ defense for 19 years, the first 11 as a defensive tackle--he made five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1976-80--and the last eight as an assistant defensive line coach.
Gigantino, a defensive coordinator at USC for four years, was the special teams coach during his first three seasons with the Rams before working with the linebackers last year. Penaranda, who played for UCLA and the Rams, was in his first season as a Ram assistant.