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PRO FOOTBALL ’94 / Season Previews : RAMS : On Paper at Least, They Should Be Better

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sifting through the debris in what has become an annual ritual of despair, the Rams decided to play on this season.

A close vote, no doubt, but a month ago--before four lackluster exhibition defeats and a bellyflop by the offensive line--they had the look of a winner, or at the very least, a chance to be the most improved team in the NFL.

Chris Miller had been hired to play quarterback, and with sound legs beneath him, he has proven to be both accurate and effective. Jimmie Jones, recruited heavily by a number of teams, took the Rams’ money to play alongside defensive tackle Sean Gilbert.

The addition of linebacker Joe Kelly, safety Marquez Pope, running back Johnny Bailey and wide receiver Jessie Hester provided depth, which the Rams had sorely lacked.

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And the team already had Jerome Bettis, Flipper Anderson, Todd Lyght, Robert Young, Bern Brostek, Shane Conlan, Roman Phifer and Steve Israel on the payroll, and that’s not exactly the Tampa Buccaneers.

“On paper, it’s a better team,” said Bettis, who was the NFL’s No. 2 rusher as a rookie last season. “But after what’s happened in the preseason, the team doesn’t have an enormous amount of confidence.”

Wayne Gandy, the team’s No. 1 draft pick, failed to beat out Clarence Jones at left tackle. And the coaching staff named Bill Schultz as starting left guard, played him there for the second half of the exhibition season, then cut him as preparations began for Sunday’s opener. So, Keith Loneker, previously known mainly for having a Jayhawk tattoo on his lower leg, is now protecting Miller at left guard.

Who knows who will start opposite Anderson at wide receiver.

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“It’s still early yet,” Coach Chuck Knox said after the final exhibition game.

The Rams scored three touchdowns in four exhibitions, and their opponents completed 66% of their passes, nine for touchdowns. In the first half, when most teams match starting units, the Rams were outscored, 65-19.

It’s time to play the games that count, and history suggests it will be business as usual: The Rams have lost four consecutive openers, including the past two by a combined score of 76-13.

Now they get Buddy Ryan’s blitzing defense.

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“When you talk about opening at home against the Arizona Cardinals and Buddy Ryan, it’s a dream come true for this football team,” said Joe Vitt, Ram assistant head coach. “Everybody thinks we’re terrible--the coaches can’t coach, the players can’t play, the administration doesn’t know how to administer.

“You can’t ask for a better scenario than to have Buddy Ryan and his football team come in here for the opener. We will line up and play this game the way it’s supposed to be played. The Cardinals are going to know they have been in a football game, and we fully expect to win this football game.”

We fully expect to win this football game?

After winning only 19 of their last 64 games, how can anyone employed by the Rams say such a thing?

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“Absolutely no doubts,” Vitt said. “Let me tell you something, I feel as good about this football team right now as I did six weeks ago when we went to training camp fully expecting to be a playoff team. We still believe we’re a playoff team.

“We have to correct our mistakes, play with more poise and more confidence, and we will be. Nobody believes that. Everybody is off the bandwagon now except for these 10 coaches and the players, but that’s fine. We have upgraded our personnel, we’ve worked hard and now it’s time to step up and show it.”

QUARTERBACK

The Rams might have the best threesome in the NFL in Miller, Chris Chandler and Tommy Maddox, and it’s a good thing, looking at the offensive line they have assembled.

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Miller, who has had a history of knee problems, should complete a high percentage of his passes, and has the arm to beat defenses when they creep forward to stop Bettis. Chandler has starting experience, and Maddox is the Rams’ future.

Question: What’s the over-and-under on how many games Miller will start?

Comment: Note to T-shirt entrepreneurs in Baltimore or St. Louis--your future quarterback wears No. 8.

RUNNING BACK

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Bettis carried the ball only 20 times in the exhibition season because of Knox’s paranoia about getting him hurt, but Bettis hinted that wasn’t enough work to prepare him for the season.The Rams can’t afford a slow start by The Franchise.

Bettis wants 2,000 yards and a chance to top the Dallas Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith, but this year defenses will be gunning for him.

The team relies so much on Bettis that it made no sense to release Cleveland Gary. Who steps in for Bettis if he gets nicked? Howard Griffith and James Bostic? Wave the white flag.

Bailey provides pep on third downs much like Ronnie Harmon does with the San Diego Chargers, but someone is going to have to issue super-glue to David Lang if they try to put the ball in his hands.

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Question: Does Bettis get a chance to top Eric Dickerson’s record of 404 rushing attempts in 1986?

Comment: Smith plays for a winner, Bettis doesn’t. Smith gets the ball to run out the clock, Bettis watches from the sidelines as the Rams throw to catch up.

RECEIVER

At season’s end, everyone will know: Was it Jim Everett? Or was it Anderson’s fault? Anderson has had three consecutive forgettable seasons, and the Rams contend that it’s because Everett struggled when throwing the deep ball. Miller’s strength is the long ball, so Anderson is getting his chance.

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Unfortunately, the opposition might elect not to cover the Rams’ other starting wide receiver and to concentrate on Anderson. Best thing that can be said about Anderson’s running mate is that it will be a warm body.

Indianapolis no longer wanted Jessie Hester and the Colts do not figure to challenge the Buffalo Bills for Super Bowl consideration. Hester, however, competes for starting time with Isaac Bruce, the team’s No. 2 draft choice, who doesn’t always run to the right spot.

Tight end Troy Drayton has shown an ability to save the day, but Ram quarterbacks ignored the big target in exhibition games.

Question: How much of a difference to this team would Haywood Jefferies or Alvin Harper have meant?

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Comment: Don’t be surprised if Drayton leads the Rams in receptions.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

What do these guys have against Miller? You’d think they were conspiring to make Chandler the starting quarterback, but that’s Chandler holding his sore ribs because these guys can’t stop oncoming defenders for anybody.

The Rams used their first-round pick on Gandy. Why? The tackle looks like a guard, plays like an undrafted free agent and is sitting on the bench.

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Darryl Ashmore gets his 117th chance to replace senior citizen Jackie Slater at right tackle, and surprise, surprise, Knox says such a move is not etched in stone.

Talk about scary: Loneker starts at left guard right next to Clarence Jones at left tackle, and these two will be responsible for protecting Miller’s blindside.

Question: What’s the name, rank and serial number of the genius who allowed Gerald Perry to defect to the Raiders?

Comment: Tom Newberry has started 114 games for this team and is now deemed not good enough to play?

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DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Injuries sabotaged their performance in exhibition games, but if this group fails to unite in fearsome fashion, the Ram defense will collapse.

Gilbert, Young, Jones and Fred Stokes look like a mighty fine line, but Young, coming off knee surgery, had no impact in exhibition play, and Stokes is trying to overcome a sore knee. Gilbert suffered an ankle injury, Jones a wrist injury. It’s time for a visit to Lourdes, because there’s nobody on the bench to throw a scare into the opposition.

Question: If Knox was so concerned about getting people hurt before the season, why was Gilbert, who suffered ankle and knee injuries on the play, rushing the quarterback with less than a minute to play in the first half against the Raiders?

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Comment: The defense has a chance to keep the Rams in every game, but Young’s return is essential to that plan.

LINEBACKER

Phifer and Conlan should be dependable and successful. Phifer is ready to emerge as one of the game’s top linebackers, and Conlan still has the speed and grit to shut down an opponent’s running game.

Kelly gets the edge on Henry Rolling for left outside linebacker at present, but can the Rams afford to keep two veteran outside linebackers--Rolling and Chris Martin--on the bench?

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Question: Does anyone really realize just how good Conlan still is?

Comment: Rookie Ernest Jones’ knee injury leaves the Rams devoid of talented youngsters at all three linebacker positions.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Starting cornerbacks Lyght and Israel have produced expectations of an 0-16 season. Lyght, who played like a Pro Bowl performer before being hurt last year, had no clue in exhibition play. Israel, who has good speed, looked like he was in a different area code when covering a receiver.

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The Rams chose to keep Wymon Henderson and Dexter Davis instead of Darryl Henley, which is the plot for a new “Death Wish” sequel. Steve Young passed for 482 yards against the likes of Henderson and Davis, and Young comes to town later in September.

Strong safety will be played by committee: Pope and Toby Wright. Anthony Newman anchors the defense at free safety, and Keith Lyle offers promise down the road.

Question: After watching the Rams in exhibition games, do the coaches think the opposition might come looking for Lyght?

Comment: One would think these guys were all former soccer players with instructions not to use their hands; no one on this team had more than two interceptions last season.

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Bailey and Lang provide speed on kickoff returns, and Bailey is also a threat on punt returns.

The hiring of Wayne Sevier, one of football’s most respected special teams coaches, is a positive sign.

Kicker Tony Zendejas, otherwise known as the Ram offense, remains consistent, and punter Sean Landeta is a proven contributor.

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Question: What’s the NFL record for most penalties called on special teams in a given season?

Comment: Whatever it is, the Rams probably won’t be denied.


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