At Long Last, It's In The Cards

St. Louis has cut back on sacks of Neil Lomax and bagged a tie for first place in the NFC East
November 05, 1984

Neil Lomax heard the sound rising from the east stands of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Eagle fans can boo with the best—they're famous for it—but anyone knows you can make more noise screaming, and now, with Lomax and his St. Louis Cardinals leading 24-14 early in the fourth quarter but backed up on their own five-yard line, it was time to drown the Cards in the roar, wipe out their signals, mess up their psyches.

Lomax had three choices. He could have held up his hands for quiet; "I tried that in Indianapolis, and it just made them wilder," he said. He could have asked for help from the referee, Jerry Markbreit; "He asked me, 'You need a time-out, Neil?' I told him, 'No, we'll be out of here pretty soon.' " Which was, of course, option No. 3.

On second-and-10, Lomax broke out of the pocket and took off down the left side, dodging strong safety Ray Ellis as he went. He skipped out of bounds just ahead of linebacker Jerry Robinson and defensive end Greg Brown, who knocked each other off and bowled over a sideline photographer in the process. Now the Cardinals were 12 yards farther from those terrible east stands. Two plays later they added another 47 when Lomax hit his tight end, Doug Marsh, on a deep sideline pattern.

"Doug told me, 'That's the longest catch of my career,' " Lomax said, "and I told him, 'Stick with me and you'll get a lot longer ones.' "

Five plays later St. Louis was in the end zone—and a very quiet Vets Stadium. The 95-yard march made the score 31-14 and turned out the lights on the Eagles, who had won their previous three games. A Sunday that had begun flat and listless for St. Louis in the muggy, 78° heat ended with a 34-14 triumph and a tie with Dallas for first in the NFC East.

The Cardinals are a team with a hot young quarterback, cocky and poised, an NFC counterpart to Miami's Dan Marino. He's a guy who won't be intimidated by defenses or screaming fans, and he's operating with offensive linemen who met regularly during the off-season and dedicated themselves to keeping their quarterback upright. The Cards also have a set of terrific receivers and a big league running-back punch of O.J. Anderson and Stump Mitchell.

St. Louis is averaging 30.6 points a game. The Cards have so much offensive firepower they can come into a game on a downer, as they did against Philly, and still walk away with an easy win.

"To tell you the truth, I was emotionally, physically and mentally drained coming in here after those three great weeks we had [wins over Dallas, Chicago and Washington]," said wideout Pat Tilley. "This could have been a real letdown for us. But when Neil has time to throw the ball, we just tear people up."

Time. Last year Lomax watched most of the season from a prone position. The Cards' defense led the NFL in sacks, 59, and that's exactly how many their offense allowed, another league high. If you wanted to watch sacks, you went to Busch Stadium.

"All those sacks were an embarrassment to us," says left tackle Luis Sharpe, "so in the off-season we made a commitment. We decided to meet four times a week, every week, and lift weights and run together. Tootie Robbins, the other tackle, and Joe Bostic, our right guard, moved to the St. Louis area from North Carolina. I moved in from Culver City, California. Terry Stieve, our left guard, and Randy Clark, our center, already lived here."

"When everyone's together—when you're a fist—good things happen," says Stieve.

This season the Cardinals have cut their sack allowance to 22 after nine games. Lomax went down twice against the Eagles, but Philly came in tied as the No. 2 sacking team (27) in the NFC. For much of the time, though, Lomax stood tall in the pocket, motionless, feet planted, reading his receivers, one, two, three, while the Eagle rushers spun their wheels.

"I even had time to pick out a fourth receiver on a few patterns," he says. "When you've got that much time, and a team plays a deep zone, as the Eagles did, you can't help completing your passes. On the touchdown to Tilley [an eight-yarder that made the score 17-14 in St. Louis's favor in the second quarter], I must have had six seconds."

Last year the word on the Cardinals was that if you blitzed them, Lomax would come un-glued. "Maybe one time we wouldn't pick up the blitz," he says in his defense, "or if we did, I wouldn't read it, or if I read it, then I wouldn't hit the pass. So week after week all we saw were blitzes. This spring in the mini-camp, [offensive coordinator] Rod Dowhower charted all the sacks we suffered. He said the offensive line was 50 percent responsible. The quarterback was responsible for 20 percent, the wide receivers 20 percent, the tight ends 10, the formation 10 and the coaching 10. It didn't take a math major to figure out that that added up to 120 percent, but Rod got his point across—it was everyone's fault.

"Our scheme is better now, and so are my reads. The key to our success against blitzes is overkill in practice. In camp we worked on it probably more than any other NFL team. We still do."

Lomax's specialty is the quick dump-off to the running back filling the area vacated by the blitzer. Then it's a matter of talent. Anderson is a master at making the first tackier miss him, of bleeding yardage out of nothing situations. Mitchell is a compact bundle of dynamite—5'9", explosively fast, massive through the arms and chest. He either runs away from defenders or splatters them, a modern day Buddy Young with a 6.3-yard rushing average.

Tilley is the possession receiver. Roy Green, a Pro-Bowler last year, averages 22.2 yards per catch and ranks with James Lofton as pro football's leading long-ball threat. Green says that last year he ran back-to-back 40s in 4.26 and 4.31. "He's as fast as he needs to be," says Jim Hanifan, the Cardinals' coach.

Defensively, the Cards don't blind you with talent, which is why they're 6-3 instead of 9-0. When they've got you on the run they can put the heat on, but they can have lapses, too. A month ago Miami caught them when their secondary was crippled, and Marino threw for 429 yards. The Cardinals were relatively healthy against Philly, and Ron Jaworski still nailed them for 340 yards.

But when you've got an offense that can score 30 points a game, the defense has got to screw it up pretty badly to get you in deep trouble. In this era of aerial fireworks you seldom shut people down, you outscore them. And the Cardinals are, indeed, thoroughly modern.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOAnderson galloped for 75 yards in the Cardinals' 34-14 shellacking of Philadelphia. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERLomax gets plenty of air time—286 yards against the Eagles—thanks to a tough offensive line.