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Diving Back In

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are only four words, an admission of the obvious, but they have taken Jim Everett more than eight years to utter:

“I took a dive.”

Four words that might have changed the perception of a career, and had they come earlier from the former Ram quarterback--delivered with explanation and with reflective remorse as they were this week at the San Diego Charger training camp--they might very well have reduced the infamous “phantom sack” to a forgotten trivial moment in a 1989 NFC championship game already lost.

Take away the ignominy of that one play, Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard said, and in Jim Everett, San Diego’s new backup quarterback, “you probably have the modern-day Archie Manning, a guy who didn’t have the chance to play with top people all his career, but a guy most people would admire.”

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Instead, we have had Jittery Jim and Mr. Happy Feet, last seen in Southern California four years ago throwing a wild punch--and in those days everything he threw was wild--at some radio pipsqueak for repeatedly calling him, “Chris.”

“I know what people say about Jim, but I believe you measure toughness in this league by looking at who is there every week ready to play,” said Ted Tollner, former Ram quarterbacks coach and current coach at San Diego State. “This was a guy playing on teams where he was often behind, and the opposition was throwing everything at him. That’s a lot of mental anguish and hits in the pocket, and he never wanted out.

“This guy took the whole hit for the Ram organization falling apart. The mental toughness this guy has shown in bouncing back after what he’s gone through says a hell of a lot more than maybe the one time he did go down.”

Right there with Dan Marino and John Elway with a total of 60 touchdown passes in 1988 and 1989, the end came disgracefully. The Rams nearly cut him at midseason in 1993, replacing him with T.J. Rubley, now a World League quarterback, and then shipped Everett off to the New Orleans Saints for the cheapest compensation possible--a future seventh-round pick.

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Before being traded, Everett had already pulled out of Orange County, moving and escaping to Las Vegas, worn out by his Ram experiences, and seemingly all of it spawned and nurtured by one play--the phantom sack--the defining moment in Jim Everett’s career.

“I have just never seen it that way--as a defining moment,” countered Everett, who has returned to live in Orange County. “I don’t think people should base a career on one play, and I don’t know how you can do that. You take a guy like Greg Norman, he’s six strokes up [in the 1996 Masters] and he loses, and he’s still the second-best player in the world. Is he a gagger? It’s just one tournament.”

But how did Greg Norman react after collapsing in the Masters? He went to the media tent for two hours to discuss his human frailties, thereby endearing himself to a nation.

“You have to understand where I was coming from at that time,” Everett said. “After we lost that NFC championship game I had thrown three interceptions and all I could think about was the disappointment of not going to the Super Bowl. I was believing all the Superman and quarterback-of-the-'90s hype, and I wanted to live that. I was disappointed.”

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So were Ram fans, who latched on to the phantom sack, releasing the frustration of a 30-3 playoff defeat against the San Francisco 49ers on Everett, every future twitch becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of a quivering quarterback.

But it was one play, a play that everyone wants to harp on, and while mystifying to Everett, he has yet to have been so curious as to take a second look at it on videotape.

“I suppose I don’t understand why everyone has stuck with that play,” Everett said. “Thinking about it now, I was wrong, absolutely wrong. . . . I made a mistake and there was no reason why I had to take a dive. I thought I saw Jackie Slater’s man come free. I thought I was going to get drilled. I took a dive.

“Damn, I wish I could be perfect, but I’m not.”

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Third and 10, and although the Ram offensive line had the 49ers’ three-man defensive rush under control, Everett had felt pressure and fell to the ground in a heap--untouched.

“I’ll tell you,” commentator John Madden told a national TV audience at the time, “Everett felt the bullet when there was no bullets.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a quarterback get knocked down when there was no contact. You should not feel that. I don’t care.”

Indicted for cowardice, Everett offered no defense at the time or any time thereafter. Cornered four years later, he said, “I don’t think the Rams’ all-time best passer needs to explain himself.”

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But of course he did, and had he done so in timely fashion, football fans might have been more keen to note only 11 quarterbacks in the NFL’s 77-year history have thrown for more yards, completed more passes than Everett, and that only eight have thrown for more touchdowns.

“This guy has been absolutely misjudged,” said Ernie Zampese, former Ram offensive coordinator and doing the same job now with the Dallas Cowboys. “This is a heck of a guy both on and off the field, very sensitive, likes people and probably trusts people too damn much.”

Although riddled by criticism in Anaheim, Everett stood smiling recently while being questioned once again by those who had made it so difficult on him. He has come back to California by choice, and he will push Charger starter Stan Humphries, and while ludicrous considering Humphries’ 47-26 mark as a starting quarterback, some expect him to supplant Humphries.

“You know, we really weren’t a good enough team to get where we were in 1989,” Zampese said. “But this guy made tons and tons of plays down the stretch to put us there. All this stuff about him not being tough is pure junk. You’ve got to be tough to play that position in this league, and this guy has stood in the pocket and taken millions of hits. There’s still a lot of football left in Jim Everett.”

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The Saints hired tough guy Mike Ditka as coach this season, and Everett immediately arranged a meeting.

“I’m not sure I could put up with all the bull Ditka’s put everyone through,” Everett said. “I think with what Mike wants to do he doesn’t want a veteran around, but rather his own new guys.”

Everett had heard that new offensive coordinator Danny Abramowicz was not interested in him, and so he asked to be released. Ditka refused, but later cut Everett, giving him the freedom of signing with Denver, New England or San Diego.

“I remember the phantom sack,” said Beathard, who said Everett was too special to pass up. “I know it always kind of stuck with him, and we looked into it. We had heard all the things being said about him, but when you look at the tapes, you see something else. I remember [Coach] Kevin Gilbride saying, ‘He’s pretty damn good.’

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“I didn’t talk to anybody who didn’t think he was pretty tough. In fact, they said he got the hell beaten out of him at times, and always bounced back.”

Everett begins life anew as a backup quarterback for the first time in his career, but then this won’t be his first resurrection. Nothing was really quite the same for the Rams and Everett after that NFC championship game, and both eventually left town. In moving the Rams within one victory of the Super Bowl, Everett compiled a 29-19 mark as a young starting quarterback. In the next four seasons, he went 17-40.

“Leaving Los Angeles the way I did made me respect my profession more,” Everett said. “The game was very easy in the beginning because I was surrounded by some very good people, and after the Eric Dickerson trade that wasn’t the case.

“I probably had too much success in the beginning of my career, and got all caught up into it. I began believing in some of the Superman stuff and extending myself. It was almost selfish on my part, and it took me a while to get through that.”

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The 6-foot-5 quarterback looking like someone hired right off the Hollywood lot was that close to owning Los Angeles, until his team lost the big game and the spotlight found his courage wanting. Then football fans began to pick him apart, beginning with his unorthodox footwork.

“I do throw off my back foot, and every once in a while I have [happy feet],” Everett said. “Some of it might be attributed to indecision at times, and some to style. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“Nolan Ryan was a great pitcher who had great form, and I know as a quarterback if I put myself in great position, I will be more precise with my throws. I need to work on fundamentals. That’s always a big hurdle for me and leads to problems, and here I am in my 12th year and still working on it.”

And working harder than everyone else, which also has been his style. Everett, at 34, set the pace for wind sprints in training camp this week, looking more like 25 as he left his teammates behind.

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He said it remains to be seen if he will be relegated to backup duty for the remainder of his career, but one thing has not changed: He plays scared.

“It’s not a cowardice thing,” Everett said. “It’s fear, the fear of losing and being dominated by an opponent.”

Those who have watched him dance in the pocket and forever remember the phantom sack, however, will always have doubts.

“Sure, I carry a certain label, sure, but I look at my career and I consider myself fortunate and tremendously successful,” he said. “The way I look at it, I must be doing something right to be playing 12 years.”

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