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SEASON PREVIEW: RAMS ’91 : Robinson Won’t Pass on the Run

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In spare moments, when he is in the mood to mock himself or the way he is most often portrayed, Ram Coach John Robinson cannot help but sneak in wry references to the image he has been assigned.

Woody Hayes, he will say forcing back a subtle smile, that’s me. Conservative football, that’s the only way. Change? Never. Not a chance.

Coach Sitting Still, we might as well call him.

Robinson remains amused by that continuing idea, mostly because he has done so much this off-season to befoul the premise. Mostly because he has never thought the premise was true.

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Sitting still has never become John Robinson. The last time he allowed himself to do it was the 1990 off-season, and the Rams provided him with 11 painful reasons last season to remember what happens to those who sit still.

They lose. They lose often enough and long enough, and they get fired.

This off-season he unblinkingly fired longtime assistants, shuffled the offensive line and, in the most dramatic move, after wrangling futilely with Fritz Shurmur for years to try to revitalize the squad, turned over his defense to a new staff of aggressive assistants, led by Jeff Fisher, who are determined to transform the Rams into a swaggering bunch of demolishers.

Faced with a team that failed in 1990 after predictions of imminent glory, Robinson has mandated massive change, so much so that not even he knows where the team is headed and by what standard he can measure success for 1991.

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This is a transitional Ram season defined by change, energized by change, devoted to change.

But Robinson and several of those close to him insist that these quick changes are in character for him, that he is a coach always on the prowl for new ideas, new methods and above all, new ways to succeed.

“I don’t see myself as conservative as much as I feel I’ve chosen the proper ways to win,” Robinson says. “I’ve given myself the best chance to win.

“It seems to me that if hitting 18 in a game of 21 is high-risk gambler, I’m not that. I don’t believe I have a tendency to do things that titillate. I believe there are some coaches that do, they need excitement as opposed to saying, ‘This is the best way to win.’

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“I think I’ve chosen, in terms of the teams that I’ve had, the best way to win.”

While at USC, he had the biggest, strongest, fastest athletes, so he played conservatively and won easily. In his early years with the Rams, he had Eric Dickerson and nothing else, so he ran the ball and tried to play a defense that got Dickerson as many carries as possible, content to be boring and win.

When Dickerson was banished and Jim Everett acquired, he brought in Ernie Zampese to liven the passing game and worked in a defense designed to keep the team in the game long enough to let the offense win it. When everything fell apart last season, he chucked most of it.

He goes where the victories are, and he was convinced the 1990 Rams were constructed improperly. How does a man survive in the NFL for nine seasons--never experiencing back-to-back losing years--without being adaptable?

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“He’s very willing to change, very willing to change,” Zampese says. “He’s won for a lot of years now and I think you have to be able to do that if you’ve had the amount of success he’s had.

“In the off-season, when we start talking about last year, John’s always saying, ‘We need to improve here, we need to change this, any ideas in this area, that area. . . . What we need to really think about doing really differently to improve. We’ve got to stay up with the game, sort of put our finger on the pulse of where the game is going.’

“He wants to sort of guess where the game of football is going and try to jump ahead and be the guys who start doing these new things, whatever they are, before other teams do it.”

Robinson says one of the biggest mistakes he has made was to wander into 1990 assuming the good times would continue with a slight alteration here, a new little wrinkle there.

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The Rams drafted to fill luxury spots (selecting Latin Berry in 1990’s third round with the long-range plan to switch him from running back to cornerback, for example), just trying to keep the powerful engine tuned and ready to go.

When the roof caved in, and even Robinson was in jeopardy of losing his job, there was no doubt the Rams had to switch gears. Going into the off-season, Robinson had only one sacred belief, one idea that never wavered.

“He absolutely believes that you have to run the football if you’re going to be a championship football team,” said Zampese, who isn’t known for dreaming of ways to run the ball 50 times per game. “And I agree with him. I absolutely agree with him, it’s a physical game.

“Just being dominant, beating up the other guys. He’s an absolute believer in that. And that will never change. That one thing will remain constant.”

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But in their quest to become the perfect team to beat the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams got away from that last season, and as a consequence, Everett was burdened too much, too often to repeat his 4,000-passing-yard year of 1989.

Robinson has thrown himself into remaking his offense into a power-running one that is capable of dominating a game even if Everett isn’t having a good day. To insure direct input in the play-calling, Robinson can often be seen donning a headset, something he would rarely do in the past.

After rejiggering the offense with Zampese to fit Everett, the offense is being rejiggered to work Everett and a running game into some sort of balance.

“I see him as a winner,” said special teams coach Gil Haskell, who has been with Robinson since the early-USC days. “I don’t see him as a conservative guy. I see him as a hell of a running coach now, and we’re going to run the ball better this year because he’s more involved in it.

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“One of the biggest crimes of all time is Dickerson not playing for him forever. Because he would’ve really helped Eric, and Eric would’ve really made this a hell of a running team.

“But he knows what he has and he’s smart enough to say, OK, we can win with the pass. And now he’s got a different defensive philosophy, a completely different philosophy than what he had and he won with that, and he’s going to win with this.”

The Changing Rams’ Offense Under John Robinson

The acquisition of Jim Everett in 1986, the hiring of Ernie Zampese as offensive coordinator in 1987 and the departure of Eric Dickerson the same year all contributed toward a change in offensive philosophy -- from the ground to the air.

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Passing Rushing 1990 4,016 1,612 Leader Everett: 3,989 Gary: 808 1989 4,369 1,909 Leader Everett: 4,310 Bell: 1,137 1988 4,002 2,003 Leader Everett: 3,964 Bell: 1,212 1987 2,750 2,097 Leader Everett: 2,064 White: 1,374 1986 2,380 2,457 Leader Everett: 1,018 Dickerson: 1,821 1985 2,872 2,057 Leader Brock: 2,658 Dickerson: 1,234 1984 2,382 2,864 Leader Kemp: 2,021 Dickerson: 2,105 1983 3,411 2,253 Leader Ferragamo: 3,276 Dickerson: 1,808

* Jim Everett is the only Ram quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a single season, passing for 4,310 yards in 1989. * Eric Dickerson is the all-time Ram rushing leader, running for 7,245 yards in four-plus seasons. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry.


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