Rams a Surprise at 2-2, but Respect Hard to Find

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Waiting outside the weight room for practice to begin Wednesday, a group of Ram players sang off-key and made strange noises like pigs and other barnyard animals.

Isn't it great to be 2-2?

Four weeks into the NFL season, the Rams are giddy with victory but also are suffering from the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome--nobody respects them.

Even a 16-0 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs and Joe Montana, one of the best quarterbacks to play the game, wasn't enough. And now Atlanta wide receiver Andre Rison is carping again.

Rison taunted the Rams again Wednesday--two days after Ram free safety Anthony Newman challenged him to run pass routes over the middle of the field when the teams meet Sunday in Anaheim Stadium.

"I have more important things to think about than a comment from a wanna-be," said Rison, a Pro Bowl selection the last four years.

"As far as his threats, our defensive backs weren't too fond of it. I guess there are going to be a lot of people afraid to come over the middle, if you know what I'm saying."

Rison insulted the Rams three weeks ago by guaranteeing a victory over them, then running short sideline patterns and catching two touchdown passes in a 31-13 Falcon victory.

"Yeah, he had a big game on us," Newman said Monday, "but he didn't come over the middle. I challenge Andre to come over the middle."

Newman backed off somewhat Wednesday from his original challenge, which was issued during a live local telecast after "Monday Night Football." Rison heard the comments Tuesday, and fired back a day later.

Newman's response to being called a "wanna-be?"

"I just laughed," he said. "Words never hurt me. It sounds like something from the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). And I'm not part of the WWF.

"There's nothing more to say. No more to stir up. It's not a wrestling match out there. Andre has a job to do, and I have a job to do."

That sounds as if Newman is backing down.

"There's nothing to back down on," he said. "I have my area to cover, and if anyone comes in there, I'm going to hit him.

"I challenge any receiver to come over the middle. If he doesn't, I feel I'm getting (cheated)."

The Rams' public relations department alerted the players and coaches of Rison's comments early Wednesday.

Ram Coach Chuck Knox was asked if he had spoken to Newman about toning down his comments to keep Atlanta from getting any more bulletin-board material.

"That's not our style, the Rams' style," Knox said.

Has he discussed that with Newman?

"I don't discuss with people who I have talked with and what I've said," Knox said. "I don't have to tell you, and that's what I'm trying to tell you, in a nice way.

"I've said to the whole team at various times that it's what you do that speaks so well. We don't need to hear what you say."

So did he say that to Newman on Wednesday?

"I've said that a lot of times," Knox said. "To the whole team."

Rison didn't come Newman's way much when the teams met Sept. 11 in the Georgia Dome.

Rison caught 12 passes for 123 yards, primarily in one-on-one coverage against cornerback Steve Israel. Although Israel recently returned from a left knee injury, Rison will match up against his friend, Darryl Henley, on Sunday.

"My routes aren't designed to go over the middle, they're designed to go to the end zone," Rison said.

"If he (Newman) has been in the league six or seven years, and I've been playing the Rams six or seven years, and he doesn't know that by now, I don't know when he will know it."

One theory is that Newman's challenge will entice Rison to come over the middle, where he and strong safety Marquez Pope can give the cornerbacks help on coverage.

"That was smart on their part," Newman said of the Falcons' strategy in the last game. "They put Andre on the corner with no help. One on one, it's almost impossible to cover Rison."

But Newman also may have jeopardized Ram receivers by upsetting the Falcon secondary. Based on what Rison said Wednesday, wandering over the middle against the Falcons will be like crossing the Santa Ana Freeway at rush hour.

"Now we're going to see who the chicken-hearted wide receivers are," Ram receiver Jessie Hester said. "I've been in the league nine years, and I've been over the middle lots of times. I'm not afraid."

The Rams are hoping to put more pressure on Falcon quarterback Jeff George, who completed 29 of 38 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns while avoiding sacks with a three-step drop and a quick release.

The defense is coming off one of its best games last week, shutting out Montana for the first time in his career.

"I still don't believe people respect our defense," Newman said. "Not anyone in the league, the press, anybody. We still have to prove ourselves."

They did to Montana, who finished with only 175 yards passing and was pressured by defensive linemen Fred Stokes, Robert Young, Jimmie Jones and Sean Gilbert. Pope, linebacker Roman Phifer and safety Keith Lyle each intercepted passes.

"That game was a big, big confidence builder," Pope said. "Who would have thought that Montana would get shut out last week? Who thought the Chiefs would get shut out?

"And who thought it would be the Rams who did it?"

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