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Fumbles Drop Gary Out of a Starting Job; Delpino Promoted : Rams: Robinson says decision may not be permanent, but he wants players who can handle the ball properly.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fallout from the Rams’ season-opening wipeout began Monday, when Coach John Robinson dropped tailback Cleveland Gary from the starting lineup in favor of big-game Robert Delpino, the running back who outgained the Phoenix Cardinals Sunday.

Although he warned that a permanent decision hasn’t been made about Gary’s or Delpino’s future, Robinson gave none of last year’s warm assurances that the fumble-inflicted Gary would soon be in the middle of things.

“The people that are handling the football for us--or some of the people that are handling the football for us--are killing us right now,” Robinson said Monday, a day after his team turned the ball over seven times in a 24-14 loss to Phoenix at Anaheim Stadium.

“The people that handle the football for us properly are going to play, and the people that mishandle it aren’t.”

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Delpino, who switched from his backup fullback/utility back role into Gary’s tailback spot, had 242 all-round yards against Phoenix and did not fumble. That earned him the start against the New York Giants this Sunday alongside fullback Buford McGee, Robinson said.

Gary, who lost a fumble on his third carry Sunday after leading all NFL running backs with 12 fumbles (seven lost) last season, will shift to a supplemental role. After his fumble Sunday, Gary carried only once more, then did not return to the game.

Robinson, who fiercely defended Gary for most of last season’s drop-fest, pointedly did not do so Monday.

“If it is mental (with Gary), we’ve got to go with people who aren’t going to have the mental propensity to fumble and let the others step aside until they prove to us that they are going to,” Robinson said.

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"(Gary) simply has to produce on the practice field if he’s going to play in games for us.”

Gary was sidelined off and on during the preseason with a hamstring problem in his left leg and missed the final exhibition game plus several days of practice nursing the injury.

Until Gary practices regularly and proves he is ready to step in without fumbling, Robinson said, he will not play a major part in the Rams’ offense.

But when asked if Delpino at tailback could possibly be a permanent lineup change, Robinson emphasized the possibly part.

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“I just don’t want it transferred to saying Bobby’s moved (permanently),” Robinson said. "(But) yeah, he could possibly be the tailback. I mean, we have to go on a short-term thing right now.”

Delpino made an impression against Phoenix with 15 carries for 81 yards and two touchdowns, 10 receptions for 113 yards and three kickoff returns for 48 yards.

“That’s one of the big performances that you can have at that position--all-around performances,” Robinson said.

In 1990, after playing an important role his first two seasons, Delpino got lost in the shuffle of Ram running backs, carrying the ball only 13 times and catching only 15 passes.

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With Sunday fresh in his memory, Robinson said Delpino won’t be lost any more.

Over the years, Robinson said, the Rams looked at Delpino as an all-round player, while their tailback has been asked simply to run the ball. They wanted to keep Delpino as a receiver and kick returner, and when they decided to do different things offensively, he saw less and less time.

Delpino now has a chance to take over the tailback spot, perhaps until Marcus Dupree is ready to come off the injured-reserve list or Gary escapes the shadow of his habit.

Robinson cautioned that the 6-foot, 205-pound Delpino probably isn’t the kind of back who can, week after week, carry an offense.

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“Last couple of years he’s had a problem at the end of the season, losing weight and being banged up,” Robinson said. “He certainly gives indication of (being able to carry a huge load) mentally. Physically, I don’t know.

“I would like to think that he and one of the other tailbacks will both play next week so he doesn’t have almost every play. He was the nickel back (on offense in passing situations), so he was on the field a lot.”

In another move to end the Rams’ propensity for losing the football, Robinson hinted that newly acquired punt returner Vernon Turner’s two fumbles probably will take him out of that role.

Turner, he said, looked very good when he held onto the ball and would remain in the kickoff return package. However, Robinson would not say if Turner was out as a punt returner.

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Robinson did say that he would not tolerate sloppy play from his team any longer--especially after a game in which he said the team also did so many good things. He said he thought the offense played well if you could overlook the turnovers; he thought the defense was solid and the special teams were fine, again, if you could overlook the fumbles.

“For the most part, and by no means am I trying to minimize the fumbling, but aside from the turnovers, we played hard and we played well,” Robinson said.

“The turnovers were so dramatic and so self-defeating that it denied us any chance to win.

“It was a stinging blow to us to lose a game we probably should have won or could have won.”

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