SEASON PREVIEW: RAMS ‘91 : Coaches Experiment With Finding Right Chemistry
Kevin Greene manages to incorporate the word “violent” into every other sentence. Even normally low-key Jerry Gray says he’s “pumped up.”
The Rams began 1991 with six new assistant coaches and one radically different defensive philosophy. The players have embraced the new coaches. Of course, some have been hugging their playbooks, too.
“One thing you have to do as a player is adjust to whomever is coaching you. You have to make the adjustment,” Gray said. “But I think everyone on the defense is looking forward to the new defense and that’s made the transition easier.”
Four of the six new assistants work with the defense, including defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher, secondary coach Tom Bettis and linebackers coach Ronnie Jones, all of whom were with Philadelphia last season. Defensive line coach John Teerlinck, passing game/receivers coach Jimmy Raye and running back coach Clarence Shelmon are also new to the staff.
Former All-Pro Ram safety Nolan Cromwell is also helping. “I had separated myself from the game as a player long enough and wanted to return,” he said. “This is basically an apprenticeship year for me. When I heard about the coaching change, I called and asked if I could come in and help. It’s a chance for me to pick up some great coaching techniques and philosophies.”
Whether Fisher’s Ram version of Buddy Ryan’s attacking 4-3 defense will be any more successful than last year’s patentedly passive 3-4 remains to be seen, but clearly the players would rather go down chasing the quarterback than backpedaling. That and the motivation inherent in Fisher’s do-or-die approach has made coaching easier for the new defensive staff.
“Everyone’s working hard because it’s something new and if you’re not ready for this, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes,” Gray said. “And then teams will score a lot of points. But if you’re ready, you’re going to win a lot of ballgames with it.”
Fisher says he will give every player, every chance to be ready.
“There’s nothing tricky or scientific to it,” he said. “You just have to have a sense of responsibility to keep yourself physically ready and mentally prepared to play.”
So, have the players responded to his straight-forward approach?
“Either they respond or the alternative is obvious,” Fisher said. “That’s the nature of this business. So a player is foolish if he doesn’t take every advantage to compete and learn and be the very best he can.”
Here’s a closer look at the new Ram coaches:
JEFF FISHER, Defensive coordinator
The man looks as intimidating as a game-show host, but his style of defense has become one of the most feared in the NFL. Fisher ran Ryan’s 4-3 the past two seasons with the Eagles and was a major influence on the scheme as far back as 1986, his first year in coaching. He was then a 27-year-old defensive backs coach.
In his two years as defensive coordinator, the Eagles were eighth and 12th in total defense and averaged 54 quarterback sacks per season.
Fisher was hired by Coach John Robinson to bring some of that Philly fire to a Ram defense that was getting burned more often than it was burning last season.
“You have two things to concern yourself with when you come in,” Fisher said. “No. 1, you have to evaluate the personnel. Identify who should be playing and where and create a competitive situation.
“Now, we’re in the process of creating a new defensive personality, more aggressive, more tenacious, more enthusiastic and more emotional.”
Fisher has a wealth of first-hand knowledge when it comes to emotional defense. He played for Robinson at USC in a secondary that included Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith and Joey Browner. And he played five seasons with the Chicago Bears as a defensive back and punt returner.
He also knows that many of his players have never played for anyone but former defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. He doesn’t think past loyalties are a factor, however.
“You don’t come into this thing worrying about the players’ loyalty or lack of loyalty to past coaches,” he said. “And you don’t worry about whether they like you or whether they don’t, really.
“I think this defensive staff is just being ourselves. We’re here to help them improve.”
JIMMY RAYE, Passing/receivers coach
Raye was the Rams’ offensive coordinator in 1984 and his round-trip ticket carried him through Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New England before he returned to Anaheim.
Offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese’s offense may be somewhat complicated, but Raye, entering his 15th season as an NFL coach, has just about seen it all.
“The biggest adjustment is in terminology,” he said. “Mainly, the nomenclature is different. You have to get acclimated to saying things the way the players are used to hearing it.
“I’ve been so many places, I seldom hear something I haven’t heard before. But the little nuances can be different.”
Raye’s feeling for the passing game comes in part from all the spirals he has seen coming and going. He led Michigan State to two Big Ten titles as a quarterback and played defensive back for the Eagles in 1969.
Raye was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator last year, but doesn’t look at his new position as a step down.
“I learned long time ago to never get too impressed with titles,” he said. “Once the responsibilities are delegated, you don’t really think, ‘I’m not the coordinator, I’m not the in-charge guy.’
“If there’s a change, it’s in a lessening of the burdens of busy work and you end up spending more time teaching and coaching, helping the players get better. And that’s the reward.”
TOM BETTIS, Secondary coach
Bettis was coaching professional football players three years before Todd Lyght was born. He was Vince Lombardi’s starting linebacker with the Green Bay Packers in the late ‘50s. And he coached alongside Hank Stram en route to two Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I’ve been involved with so many coaches who have influenced me over the years,” Bettis said. “But, really, I think the worst thing you can do is try to emulate any particular one.
“Hank Stram was the one I owe the most to. He talked me into coming into coaching after my playing days. But you have to be yourself as a coach and work within the framework of your own personality.”
Bettis hasn’t had much trouble getting anyone’s attention in the Ram secondary. In 13 years with the Chiefs, Kansas City led the AFC in interceptions six times and twice led the conference in fewest passing yards allowed.
“Coach Bettis and I have a great rapport,” Gray said. “I respect him for the type of man he is and the fact that he’s coached so many All-Pro defensive backs you can’t count them.”
The new defense often leaves defensive backs in pressure, one-on-one situations and the adrenaline pumps through the Ram secondary just at the thought of it.
Bettis finds himself in an equally invigorating position.
“I think change is good for all of us,” he said. “It’s a new challenge. I think the challenge rejuvenates you. I feel strongly about being part of rebuilding this defense. And when we get to the level we should be, that’s what you get out of coaching. That’s the satisfaction.”
RONNIE JONES, Linebackers coach
Jones knew he wanted to be a coach when he was in junior high. Of course, Jones went to junior high in Texas.
“As I grew up, I had a lot of respect for every coach I ever had,” he said. “And I thought every coach I had was the greatest.”
He began his coaching career at Northeastern State in Tahlequah, Okla. By the mid ‘80s he was part of John Cooper’s staff at Tulsa and then Arizona State. The past four seasons, he was the Eagles’ strength and conditioning coach.
“My goal always was to get into pro football,” he said. “Buddy Ryan gave me that opportunity. Now, John Robinson has given me the opportunity to take it to the next level.”
Jones arrived in Anaheim and found a comfort zone. He was a full-fledged position coach in charge of a group of men he’d never met, but his immediate supervisor was the same and there were other friendly faces.
“Coming along with Jeff and Tom Bettis has made the transition easy,” he said, “but honestly, I think the biggest thing is that the players are so hungry for something new. They accepted us and responded to the scheme very readily.
“This defense has a great deal of pride. They’ve had a lot of success in the past. But they had a lot of problems last year and it wasn’t necessarily scheme, or coaching, it was injuries compounded by everything bad that could possibly happen.
“They took the abuse. Now, they want to be on top again. So when we came in, they opened up their ears and hearts and have taken everything we’ve given. It’s been a very smooth transition.”
JOHN TEERLINCK, Defensive line coach
Supposedly, Teerlinck cut his elbow knocking over a blackboard during a job interview with Cleveland Brown owner Art Modell. He’s admitted to slugging a USFL player who was mouthing off on a flight. And, as a defensive tackle with the San Diego Chargers in the mid-70s, he was known for his roundhouse hook because, “I would not be held.”
But wherever he has gone, Teerlinck’s fierce competitiveness has had a positive effect on his team. In only his second year in coaching, he was defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois and the Panthers won the NCAA Division II title.
Working with the late George Allen and the USFL’s Chicago Blitz, which later became the Arizona Outlaws, Teerlinck’s defensive line led the league in sacks and the defense was No. 1 every year in the three-year existence of the league.
And in 1989, Teerlinck’s first in the NFL, he directed the Cleveland Browns’ line that set a club record with 45 sacks. He calls his charges the “rushmen” and is convinced the defensive line is a team’s palace guard, the elite unit.
“They absolutely are,” he said. “Everything depends on what the guys do up front. We’re going to have to get off the ball and get after people, and it’s a big challenge.”
Teerlinck said his gung-ho attitude is not an approach to the game. It’s a way of life.
“Defensive guys like to cut loose, go out all wired up,” he said. “We’re in the growing stages here, but we’re building on it. This is the only defensive system I’ve ever coached or played and I truly believe in it.
“It’s easy for the players to accept because it’s a defense that showcases linemen. Michael Dean Perry had never started a game in the (Browns’) 3-4 and when we brought in the 4-3, he went to the Pro Bowl. When we get this going, these guys will be recognized and honored, too.”
CLARENCE SHELMON, Running backs coach
In the Rams’ media guide, it says Shelmon “will be assisted at the position by John Robinson.”
OK, maybe it’s really the other way around.
“I work with the backs mostly on pass protection and pass routes,” Shelmon said. “Coach Robinson handles the running game. That’s the way the job was explained to me from the beginning. Next year, I will handle it all by myself.”
Shelmon, who coached the running backs at USC the past four seasons, is a rookie NFL assistant, but he has coached 14 years of college ball, including two seasons at Arizona, three at Indiana and three at Army.
He was happy with the status quo at USC, where he had coached the Pac-10’s leading rusher twice and had the conference’s second-leading rusher once in four years. But a phone call he received at his office one day got him thinking more about the future.
“I was really surprised when Coach Robinson called and said he thought I might be what he was looking for, and then things worked out,” Shelmon said. “You always want to take the next step and see if you can do it.”
And he doesn’t mind serving as an assistant assistant coach for the time being.
“It’s an excellent situation for me,” he said. “I get to learn from the master of the running game.”