Biding His Time : Ex-Ram Pagel Plays Arenaball While Waiting to Return to NFL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nine months ago, the Rams gave backup quarterback Mike Pagel his severance pay and sent him on his way.

A victim of the team's cost-cutting moves last November, Pagel was sent packing when the team decided not to waive a struggling Jim Everett and his $2.5-million contract.

Since then, Pagel has waited for a call from the NFL that hasn't come.

But in the meantime, his football career has been reduced to miniature-scale--as quarterback of the Massachusetts Marauders of the Arena Football League.

Pagel, a 12-year NFL veteran with the Rams, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts, now plays on a 50-yard indoor field, faces only three pass rushers and earns a little more than $500 a game, plus a $150 bonus if the Marauders win.

"This sure isn't the NFL," Pagel said from the Centrum, the Marauders' arena in Worcester, Mass. "It's a much different game. It's a faster game, and you have to be very quick."

Pagel hopes to use the Arena league to earn another shot on an NFL roster. NFL scouts regularly scour the league looking for players, and occasional Saturday games are televised on ESPN.

"It's good timing because the latest our season goes is Sept. 2, just a couple of days before the NFL regular-season starts," Pagel said. "I'm hoping some teams will make some roster changes in the first couple weeks of the season and they'll be looking for a veteran to come in."

Pagel is among several veteran players dropped from NFL rosters who have jumped to Arenaball since the indoor league began in 1987.

Former Miami Dolphin tight end Jim Jensen is currently the quarterback of the Miami Hooters, and former New Orleans quarterback John Fourcade just signed with the Milwaukee Mustangs.

"I'm not alone," Pagel said. "For some of the younger guys, it's a chance to catch a scout's eye and make the jump to the NFL. For the older guys, it's a chance to keep playing a little more and have some fun.

"Look at a guy like Jensen. He played tight end all those years with the Dolphins, and now he's getting a shot at playing quarterback again. That's why this league is so much fun."

Especially when you're winning.

It's a new concept for Pagel, who suffered through three consecutive losing seasons with the Rams.

The Marauders are 6-2 and contending for a playoff berth. Pagel has completed 135 of 248 passes (54.4%) for 1,780 yards and 32 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.

He has thrown five or more touchdown passes in three games this season, including five to receiver Andre Langley in Saturday's 58-51 victory over Milwaukee.

And the best part about being an Arena quarterback? Pagel has been sacked only three times in eight games.

"They only rush three guys," he said.

The 11-team league is designed to be offense-oriented. Eight-player lineups play on a 50-yard-by-28-yard field with eight-yard end zones. The field is bordered by padded walls, protecting the coaches and bench.

Short passing routes control the flow of the game--teams rarely run the ball because of the narrow field. One receiver is allowed forward motion from the line of scrimmage, usually leaving defensive backs in the dust.

The result--inflated stats and a scoreboard where numbers keep spinning like they do on a pinball machine. A typical Arenaball score is 63-49.

Don Strock, the former Miami Dolphin quarterback and now Marauder coach, said Pagel's quickness and quick release when throwing the ball make him a natural for the league.

"He still has a live arm and good footwork," Strock said. "That's a must because there's no seven-step dropback for quarterbacks here, it's only five.

"And you have only 1.8 seconds to throw the ball instead of 2.3 in the NFL. That doesn't sound like much, but it's a hell of a lot of time for a quarterback."

Timing is only one adjustment for Pagel. He's a full-time starter again for the first time since 1985, his final season with Indianapolis.

With the Rams, his main duty last season was to hold for Tony Zendejas on kicks. He completed only three of nine passes for 23 yards with one interception, and even his role as backup quarterback seemed on shaky ground because the coaches were rushing the development of T.J. Rubley.

"I knew it (getting cut) was coming eventually," Pagel said. "In March of '93 the coaches told me T.J. would eventually get a chance as the No. 2 quarterback.

"But at that point of the season (November) all the talk was that Everett was going to get cut. I didn't have any idea it was going to be me."

Pagel had even joked with Everett the day before about the prospect of Everett being released. So Pagel was surprised to get a call from quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner the next day, an off-day for players.

"Tollner left a message on my answering machine to come in and talk to Coach (Chuck) Knox," Pagel said. "By then, I knew what was going on."

Pagel, who was to earn $475,000 in salary last season, received $20,000 in severance pay.

He returned to his home in Cleveland, hoping the Browns would pick him up after cutting the popular Bernie Kosar.

Although a call from the Browns never came, one from Strock did.

Strock had played with Pagel in Cleveland in 1988, two years before the Browns released Pagel and the Rams signed him as a free agent for the next season.

So when he was assembling a short list of quarterbacks for the upcoming Arena season, Strock made sure Pagel was on it. Pagel signed in early May, a week before the season started.

"I think he's doing the right thing by playing here," Strock said. "Scouts come through here all the time looking at guys. We've had the Jets, Bears, Washington and Buffalo in here in the past few weeks.

"So if the right situation comes along in the NFL, he could be the guy."

As the Rams begin two-a-day workouts today at UC Irvine, Pagel already is in midseason form. Not only has he wondered if he still has a future in the NFL, but also about the future of Everett, who was traded to the New Orleans Saints in the off-season.

"I think Jim will do well in New Orleans," Pagel said. "That's the perfect offense for him. He has a big arm and can set up and throw deep there, plus he has a very good defense to work with.

"I think everything works out hand in hand, and it has for Jim. I think he can play as well as anybody in the NFL. Although I don't know if should be telling that to an L.A. paper."

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