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SEASON PREVIEW: RAMS ’91 : Hamstrung Out : Leg Injuries Put Cox at the End of Rams’ Rope

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He’s the flip side to the Flipper Anderson Success Story, the Ram wide receiver who was supposed to grab all those passes and accolades but instead has spent much of the past two seasons clutching his sore hamstrings.

Big things were expected from little Aaron Cox, a 1988 first-round draft pick who enhanced his reputation by earning a starting job as a rookie and drawing comparisons to All-Pro receiver Henry Ellard.

Even the 5-foot-10, 178-pound Cox, a self-deprecating sort who actually thought he’d have trouble making the team after signing a four-year, $1.55-million contract in 1988, was brimming with optimism after catching 28 passes for 590 yards and five touchdowns that season.

“I thought I was on my way going into my second year,” Cox said. “I knew the offense. I was confident. I was just waiting to explode.”

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He didn’t, but his right hamstring did, in the first week of 1989 training camp. The injury caused him to miss three exhibition games, and recurring problems limited him to 20 receptions and 340 yards during the regular season.

Cox suffered a torn right hamstring in the first week of the 1990 training camp, and problems with both hamstrings hampered him throughout the season. He caught only 17 passes for 266 yards.

Meanwhile, Anderson, a second-round pick in 1988, blew past Cox, taking the starting job from his pal and rookie-year roommate.

While Anderson was busy catching 95 passes for 2,243 yards and attaining NFL star status the past two seasons, Cox was on the sideline, starring in his own version of “Stand By Me,” with Ram Coach John Robinson as supporting actor.

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Cox would rather stand and deliver.

“Words can’t describe how frustrating it is to be on the sideline,” Cox said. “I thrive on working hard, getting better, and standing around is more painful for me. (During training camp) a lot of guys look at me and say I’ve got it made (because I’m not working). I say they’ve got it made.”

This is a pivotal season for Cox, not only because he’s entering the final year of his contract. Another injury-plagued season might fry the patience of a coaching staff that is already frayed by Cox’s setbacks.

And don’t think the bottom-line Ram organization will sit around and wait for Cox to fill his potential. Consider Gaston Green, who was chosen ahead of Cox in 1988 as the No. 1 pick. Green, a running back who never lived up to the Rams’ expectations, was traded to Denver last spring.

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“It’s tough to say what will happen,” Cox said. “If things go well, this will be forgotten. If the problems continue, if I were in their shoes, I would have to seriously think about doing something. That’s just business smarts.”

Ram coaches don’t view Cox as a malingerer--if anything, Robinson said, the former standout from Los Angeles Dorsey High School and Arizona State usually overworks. But it would be nice to have Cox available on a more consistent basis, so they can work him into practices and game plans.

“When a guy’s hurt, you have a tendency to get impatient--that’s natural,” offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese said. “If you’re not sure he’s going to be there (for the game), you’re not going to waste time practicing something that you’re not going to be able to use.”

When healthy, Cox gives the Rams a third high-level receiver for third-down situations and a quality starter should Ellard or Anderson suffer injuries.

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“He’s good enough to be a starting NFL receiver and he’s been really slowed by this,” Robinson said. “He needs to get going. This is an important year because we want to spread the ball around. Without (former tight end) Pete Holohan, Aaron has the opportunity for more catches.”

Robinson has coached long enough to know hamstring injuries are almost impossible to figure.

“Only the guy with the hamstring pull and God know what’s going on, and God gets confused,” Robinson said. “I don’t mean this to be frivolous, but a hamstring is a complicated injury in that you can be deceived by it. You can go three-quarters speed and be OK, then go full speed and bang! It’s a killer when it hits you.”

Cox, hoping to avoid the big-bang theory, has taken measures this season to cure his hamstring problems.

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Three days a week in June, Cox traveled to Santa Monica to visit physical therapist Bob Forster, who applied cross-friction rubs--deep and sometimes painful massages--to Cox’s hamstrings. Forster has also worked with Laker guard Byron Scott.

Cox sat out the first week of training camp, and when the team went to two-a-day practices, Cox sat out the morning workout and participated in the afternoon workout.

Cox has spent countless hours in the Ram training room for a wide array of treatments, including icing, stretching, ultrasound and massage. He has been careful not to overextend himself during practice.

“I came to camp trying to pace myself, to not run too hard too early,” Cox said. “It’s hard because I have to adjust my routes, go a little slower. I want to stay in control. I don’t want to explode too much in practice.”

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His don’t-pay-now, pay-off-later strategy appears to have worked. Cox made it through training camp with no serious injuries and caught nine passes for 147 yards in four exhibition games.

He looked especially strong against Seattle (Aug. 17) and Houston (Aug. 22), filling in for the injured Ellard and catching three passes for 56 yards in each game.

“You have to find the right combination of warming up, training and cooling down,” Cox said. “You can never say never, but I think I have a feel for it now. Hamstrings are funny. One day you feel them, the next you don’t. You have to stay on top of them the best you can.”

Anderson said Cox looks a lot more like the Cox of old.

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“I’m sure he’s got a few more gears he can go to, but he looks like he’s back, as far as I can see,” Anderson said.

Even if Cox overcomes his hamstring problems, it would be difficult to overtake Anderson or Ellard in the starting lineup. But a healthy Cox would make a happy Robinson.

“When he’s healthy, that gives us three top-flight receivers, and that’s what we expected when we signed him,” Robinson said. “That has been delayed. Hopefully it will be delayed no more.”


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