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Little Left of the Real Robinson

First, John Robinson’s reputation preceded him, then it retreated from him.

He came to the Rams advertised as the master motivator--and will leave behind a team unable to rouse enough emotion to win even once in the past nine weeks.

He arrived as the quintessential “players’ coach"--and will leave because his players stopped playing for him some time around Halloween.

He was the league’s foremost proponent of power football, firm in his belief that the meaning of life lay somewhere between the tackles--and will leave his successor with the next-to-worst rushing offense in the NFL.

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He was, above all else, a winner--and now he leaves with a 3-12 record so far in 1991, a 5-11 record in 1990 and an 8-24 record since qualifying for the NFC championship game in 1989.

John Robinson won’t be on the Ram sidelines next season, largely because that wasn’t John Robinson on the sidelines this season.

His resignation came Wednesday, but the resignation had settled in long before that. Robinson has been going, going, gone for nearly a month now, first staggered by the 1-2 punches New Orleans and Kansas City delivered in early November--back-to-back games the Rams should have won, but bumbled away--and then waylaid by the national embarrassment of a 33-10 defeat to San Francisco in front of ABC’s “Monday Night Football” cameras.

Some coaches survive 5-11 seasons. Robinson did, but only after agreeing to fire half his coaching staff, including longtime friend and defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur.

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Some coaches even survive 3-13 seasons, the Rams’ apparent destination after one more Sunday in Seattle.

But no coach survives a franchise-record nine-game losing streak, not even Robinson, who this season even lost his fabled knack for deflecting damage and redirecting it elsewhere.

Teflon apparently loses something after nine years.

United by their inability to win the big one, Ram coaches, once divided, tend to be remembered for their biggest failures.

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George Allen made the playoffs twice in his first three seasons with the Rams and won 11 consecutive games in 1969. He is remembered for his three firings, one of them vetoed by a player revolt, another two games into the 1978 exhibition season.

Chuck Knox won five division titles in five seasons with the Rams, went 12-2 twice and reached the conference championship game three times. He is remembered for never having made the Super Bowl.

Ray Malavasi made the Super Bowl--and nearly beat the Bradshaw-Swann-Lambert Steelers in it. He is remembered for snoring through an early-morning radio talk show in the middle of a 2-7 season.

How will Robinson be remembered?

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The dirges of 1990 and 1991 have obscured so much. The drafting of Eric Dickerson and the just-add-water turnaround of 1983. Dickerson’s 2,105-yard odyssey in 1984. The NFC final, in spite of Dieter Brock, in 1985. The NFC final, in spite of the league’s 21st-ranked defense, in 1989. Six trips to the playoffs in spite of an organizational fiscal policy diametrically opposed to on-the-field success: Don’t pay them now, don’t pay them later.

Robinson revitalized the Rams when he joined them in 1983, transforming a 2-7 punch line into a 9-7 wild card, and kept them at a high level through 1989, but now he leaves them in no better shape than when he found them, and probably worse.

So what has been accomplished, what has been learned?

When reporters’ notepads are closed and tape recorders paused, Robinson has talked about “the system” ultimately beating him down. The system--founded on no rapport between coach and general manager, no communication between coach and draft coordinator, no commitment to current Rams or potential ones--was designed to fail and so, once again, it finally has. For the record, Robinson talks of “up cycles” and “down cycles” and makes mention of the advice Al Davis once gave him, that no NFL coach can expect to last a decade in the same place anymore.

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Robinson lasted nine years, and did so with the grace of a contortionist. He survived because he adapted. Working for Georgia Frontiere and John Shaw didn’t cramp his style. Often, it left it twisted beyond recognition.

The last prototypal John Robinson team was spotted in Anaheim circa 1986. He had the tailback he wanted, he pounded the football up the middle all he wanted. But when Shaw wouldn’t pay Dickerson what he wanted, opting instead for Jim Everett’s younger (i.e. cheaper) name on the marquee, Robinson watched the best runner in the NFL go and, rather than protest, chose to go with the flow.

In came Everett, in came Air Coryell maestro Ernie Zampese, out went Robinson’s beloved brand of power football.

Philosophies began to change with the calendar. One year, the Rams’ 3-4, soft-zone defense beats Philadelphia and New York in the playoffs, leaving its designer to answer to the name St. Fritz. One year later, Fritz is in Phoenix, Jeff Fisher is in Anaheim and the 4-3 is the wave of the future.

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This year, Cleveland Gary was going to play tailback. Until he fumbled. Then it was Robert Delpino. Until he fumbled. Then it was Marcus Dupree. Then back to Delpino. Then back to Gary. Robinson changed. He changed his mind, he changed his heart. Outside forces shoved him to and fro, and you wonder how much steadier the course might have been if he worked instead for Eddie DeBartolo Jr., but he wavered. Once his players detected it, wavering spread like a virus, creating a team so indecisive it can’t even handle a center snap.

Now, one more game and Robinson will be done with it. Maybe he takes a year off. Maybe he does some broadcasting. Most likely, he takes some time and finds himself again.

The Rams, too, need to do the same. Only there, the search is never-ending.

The Rise and All of John Robinson

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John Robinson was an immediate success as coach of the Rams, but it all began to unravel in 1983: 10-8 (including playoffs), second in NFC West Rams draft Eric Dickerson and win eight more games than 1982, including an upset of Dallas in a wild-card playoff game. 1984: 10-7, second Dickerson breaks O.J. Simpson’s single-season rushing record, and Rams make playoffs again, losing to New York in the first round. 1985: 12-6, first Dickerson doesn’t make the Pro Bowl, but nine of his teammates do as Rams fall one victory short of the Super Bowl, losing to Chicago in the NFC championship game. 1986: 10-7, second Rams lose last three games, including a 19-7 defeat in Washington in first round of playoffs. 1987: 6-9, third Rams fail to make playoffs in strike-shortened season, get six draft choices in trade for Dickerson. 1988: 10-7, second Robinson becomes winningest coach in club history with 58 victories, but Rams lose to Minnesota in wild-card playoff game. 1989: 13-6, second Rams win playoff games on road against Philadelphia and New York Giants before losing NFC championship at San Francisco. 1990: 5-11, third Rams lose six of the last eight, finish with more losses (11) than any Ram team since ’62. 1991: 3-12, fourth Nine-game losing streak marks end of the John Robinson Era.

Robinson’s Nine Seasons in Anaheim* 1983: .555 1984: .588 1985: .667 1986: .588 1987: .400 1988: .625 1989: .684 1990: .313 1991: .200 Total: .520

* Includes playoffs


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