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Question of Time for Rams : Preview: The efficiency of their new defense and the nature of their offense remain to be seen.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rams, cast down so suddenly last season from the ranks of the NFL elite, begin the season hoping to reclimb the ladder but uncertain if they remember the way.

The defense is completely remade, and the Rams themselves are not sure how long it will take to fully understand the new, attacking style.

The offense is looking for its identity--is it a passing team or a running team?--and will continue its search through at least the early stages of the regular season.

The specialty teams have changed both kickers, haven’t settled on the kick returners and are coming off a dismal 1990.

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The coaching staff has been revamped--eight gone, seven added--and even though Coach John Robinson got a three-year extension after much delay late last season, nobody is saying he is safe this year if the Rams struggle again.

Everything is a question heading into the season, which begins Sunday at Anaheim Stadium against the Phoenix Cardinals. And every answer the Rams can come up with must be offered with conditions, expectations, speculation--and apprehension.

“I think everyone is anxious to find out what we’re going to be like,” fullback Buford McGee said.

“I don’t think our attitude is like, ‘Well, we know we can do it.’ It’s, ‘Let’s see what’s really going to happen.’ ”

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Last season, after having been beaten in the NFC championship game the year before, the Rams’ question was how to dethrone the San Francisco 49ers. They quietly assumed that with their roster of proven veterans, a trip to the playoffs and a final showdown with San Francisco were almost inevitable.

This season, after a 5-11 flop and with a roster filled with younger players, the Rams’ consolation is that the 49er problem is irrelevant, and nothing is a sure thing.

“I think we’re a difficult team to predict,” said Robinson, whose eight-year tenure as coach was seriously challenged last year.

“If you gave a peripheral evaluation of it you’d say, ‘Hey, some things are happening here. They’ve had a good training camp, they’ve done some really good things. They’re inconsistent, they have some problems, how do they solve these problems, or can they solve them?’

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“I think it’s out on the floor.”

Led by coordinator Jeff Fisher, the Ram defense has tried to learn physical, intimidating football. The offense has sought to reinvent Robinson’s running game, lost in the muck of 1990.

Robinson has said if all goes well, he expects to compete for a playoff spot, and this year in the NFC, 8-8 probably will compete. But do the Rams have the ability to go 8-8?

Said Robinson: “Although I would be surprised if somebody were less optimistic about this team than they were coming into camp, I also would be taken aback by somebody saying, ‘Man, I know these guys are going to be good.’

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“I don’t know that. But I see some things, if it all falls over these next weeks successfully, we could be on a fast rise.”

The defense, bland and ineffective in 1990, has the greatest room for improvement.

The new defense--a four-man line and man-to-man coverage--worked reasonably well in exhibitions, with the defensive players raving about the freedom they feel.

Kevin Greene, previously a blitzing linebacker, is now the right end and must take on tackles every play. Larry Kelm, a quiet inside linebacker before, has been thrust into a leadership role as the team’s signal-calling middle linebacker. Pat Terrell, a backup safety last season, is being asked to make the deep secondary his turf.

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There are kinks on defense--most notably the lack of a dominating pass-rushing tackle and a proven run-stopping, quarterback-attacking linebacker--but at least in the exhibitions, nobody could point to the defense as a catastrophe in the making.

“It’s a scheme that requires players,” Fisher said. “So it’s going to take a while to get to the level where we’re a dominator. But I think you can be successful in it if you’ve got smart, aggressive people, and we have that now. We’ll have a certain level of success this year with it.”

The Rams are shaping a talented secondary, with late-signing No. 1 pick Todd Lyght eventually stepping in at cornerback and Darryl Henley, Jerry Gray, Terrell, Anthony Newman and Michael Stewart.

But Fisher’s scheme is based on one overriding premise.

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“Can we stop the run?” Robinson asked. “That’s the question this year that’s unresolved.”

By stopping the run, as Fisher’s Philadelphia Eagle defenses did year after year, the defense forces opponents to pass.

The running game is also Robinson’s priority on offense. Last season was the first in his head coaching career that Robinson did not have a 1,000-yard rusher, no thanks to tailback Cleveland Gary’s 12 fumbles and a mediocre season by the offensive line.

Robinson has revamped the offensive line and repeatedly insisted that last year’s offense was too dependent on the arm of quarterback Jim Everett, whose productivity plunged in 1990.

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But the Ram offense struggled in exhibitions, unable to find a rhythm and seemingly uncertain whether it was a running team that threw occasionally or a passing team that ran occasionally. Granted, tailbacks Gary and Marcus Dupree were both hurt for much of that time and the offensive line is only now at reasonably full strength.

Still, there are problems of philosophy and offensive balance to be resolved.

“I think that’s the big question this year, are we going to be a running team or a passing team?” McGee said. “Or are we going to try and combine both? I think that’s going to be up in the air for a while.”

Robinson, however, said he wasn’t worried about the offense’s lackluster exhibitions or the erratic play of Everett. He points out that two key positions on the offensive line are still unsettled.

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At center, Tom Newberry held out during most of training camp and is still learning the position after five years at guard. At left tackle, longtime starter Irv Pankey is still unsigned and recently acquired Gerald Perry didn’t play in a single exhibition because of knee problems.

“In the passing game, you’d say, ‘Well, Jim Everett hasn’t played a real good game yet,’ but you think he’s going to,” Robinson said. “Biggest question in the passing game was (often-injured receiver) Aaron Cox, was he going to be able to play? Boy, he’s having a good camp.”

Despite the remaining questions, Robinson says he will begin the season knowing that at the very least, the groundwork has been completed for the team’s eventual return to success.

“I feel like we accomplished the first thing we wanted to do, to establish that we were going to be an aggressive, physical football team,” Robinson said. “Now you get into the personnel things, the smoothness, the efficiency, those are unresolved now.

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“I don’t want to blow any games. I’m worried about blowing a game that was there for us to win because we screw something up. Right now, that’s my biggest worry.”

But far from his only one. In this year of question marks, no one questions that.

NFC PREVIEW: C6

NFL SCHEDULE: C6

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