LAMBS ARE RAMS AGAIN
What better example of the vagaries of pro football than the 1990 Rams? Coming off an 11-5 season and a playoff run that ended in the NFC Championship Game, the Rams decided in the off-season that they needed to change their defense if they were ever going to win The Big One. But after a 1-4 start, they went back to their old system, and L.A.'s defensive mastermind, Fritz Shurmur, entered Sunday's must-win game against the Falcons as worried as he had been in 35 years of coaching. "We're devastated," said Shurmur before the game. "We're confused."
Not to worry, Fritz. Comfortable again in its old defense, the Rams' first unit held Atlanta's potent offense to 239 yards in the first 53 minutes of the game. Los Angeles built a 27-point lead and won 44-24. "It's funny," said Ram coach John Robinson afterward. "We were one step from the edge of oblivion. But things happen in this game you just can't figure. We went out and, except for a couple of plays, dominated a football game."
Having reached the playoffs in six of Robinson's seven seasons as coach, the Rams have made it as far as the NFC Championship Game only twice—losing 24-0 to the Bears in 1985 and 30-3 to the 49ers last season. To increase pressure on the opposing quarterback, Robinson and Shurmur had installed the imaginative Eagle defense (two defensive linemen, five linebackers) two years ago. Sack production picked up in 1988 and '89, but Super Bowl participation remained nil. "We were just a bunch of average guys playing average," Robinson says. "We had to attack the quarterback better."
In the off-season, Robinson and Shurmur switched to the Vikings' version of the 4-3, which frees linemen and linebackers to move around and match up with their strongside or weakside assignments. Linebacker Kevin Greene, one of the NFL sack leaders over the last two seasons, with 33, became the weakside end. He played next to promising tackle Bill Hawkins so that the opposition could not double-team Greene. Also, Pro Bowl cornerback Jerry Gray was moved to strong safety so Robinson would have an experienced signal caller in the deep secondary. Then the fates interceded.
The starting defensive ends, Greene and Doug Reed, were holdouts through training camp and thus missed valuable time learning the new scheme. As for the starting tackles, Hawkins still hasn't recovered from knee surgery last December and Alvin Wright missed most of camp with a knee injury. Darryl Henley, who took Gray's place at corner, suffered a hip injury early in camp and hasn't played since, so Gray had to return to his old position. But in the final preseason game, Gray collided with a teammate and injured his left knee. He had arthroscopic surgery and missed the first three games. Linebacker Larry Kelm, who calls the signals in the defensive huddle, tore a knee ligament in the final preseason game, and he just returned on Sunday. Another linebacker, Fred Strickland, broke his leg in the fifth game and is out for the year.
As a result, the Rams gave up career passing days to the Packers' Anthony Dilweg, the Bengals' Boomer Esiason and the Bears' Jim Harbaugh in three of the first five weeks. "We might have been further along now had we done nothing," Shurmur says. "But I wouldn't have felt good if we hadn't tried something, because I knew we had things to correct."
By reverting to the Eagle defense on Sunday, the Rams had a season-high four sacks, and they continually frustrated Atlanta, especially quarterback Chris Miller, with a disciplined defense; they remained in their pass-rush lanes even when the lanes were full of traffic. That way, no big holes could open. "I couldn't adjust to the new system," says Greene, who has three sacks in '90. "I still feel we can line up and play a vanilla defense, and, with our talent, beat anyone."
THE LIONS ARE RESTLESS
Detroit's 2-4 start isn't tough to figure. Just think in baseball terms: If a team is strong up the middle—catcher, shortstop, second base, centerfield—it's usually a good one. "The bottom line," says Lion coach Wayne Fontes, "is we're like baseball in that way—we lost our middle. That's why we're where we are."
Which is three games behind the Bears in the NFC Central as the Lions head into Sunday's game in New Orleans after having last weekend off. Jerry Ball, perhaps the league's best nosetackle, held out until Sept. 4, sprained an ankle in Week 2 and is probably a dozen pounds overweight. Inside linebacker Chris Spielman (shoulder injury) and free safety Bennie Blades (knee) also were hurt in Week 2 and have seen no action since. All three are expected to play against the Saints, and Pontes believes Detroit still has a shot at making the playoffs.
Spielman, who has been a caged lion while sidelined, is not sure his right shoulder—bone chips were removed—can withstand a 10-game stretch run, but he's going to give it a try. "If we [he and Blades] can't bring anything back physically, maybe we can add something emotionally," Spielman says. "It's our job to pick up this team. Anything can happen in 10 games. Look what happened to us last year." After losing 42-7 in Cincinnati to fall to 2-9, the Lions finished with five straight wins. This season could be tougher. Beginning on Nov. 18, Detroit faces the Giants, Broncos, Bears, Raiders and Bears again in successive weeks.
FROM THE BOARDROOM
Nuggets from last week's NFL owners' meeting in Chicago:
•All we heard in the preseason was what a terrible thing the league had done in instituting rules aimed at curtailing the time it takes to complete a game. Now no one's complaining about it. The facts: Plays per game are down, from an average of 154.3 in 1989 to 148.2 this year; playing time is down, from an average of 3:11:19 to 3:00:07; and scoring is up, from 41.2 points per game to 42.5.
•The league has to do a better job of scheduling. For the past three years, the Redskins and Giants have played their season series within the first seven games. The Bears and Packers finished their series by Oct. 7. More games between division rivals are needed in December.
•A popular expansion theory has the league awarding one franchise to a city that has never before had a team and one to a city that had a team and lost it. The NFL is expected to add two new teams in 1991 for play in '93, and the favorite new city appears to be Charlotte, N.C. The popularity of the NBA Hornets, who led the league in attendance in 1988-89 and ranked fourth in the sale of licensed NBA merchandise last season, has made Charlotte an even more attractive market to the NFL. Construction on a privately financed, $125 million, 70,000-seat stadium—with 8,000 club seats and 107 luxury boxes—could begin soon after word comes that a franchise has been awarded. The other expansion pick? St. Louis.
THE END ZONE
A check for $1,400 from a rival team is one of the many donations that Bengal coach Sam Wyche has received to help him pay his $27,941 fine for barring USA Today reporter Denise Tom from the Cincinnati locker room on Oct. 1 (SI, Oct. 15). Most of the contributors will remain anonymous, but according to Wyche, a man in North Carolina sent him a check for $1,000; an NFL coach sent him $500; the League of Women Voters in Portland, Ore., wants to hold a fundraiser for him; a man in Texas offered to assign a percentage of his profits from one of his oil wells to Wyche; and a former major league pitcher sent him $500. As of last weekend, Wyche says, he had received almost $6,000 in unsolicited donations. Wyche has not determined how the donated money will be used. His fine, however, has been paid to the league, and it will be split between two charities, one of which is Homemade, his Cincinnati agency for the homeless.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
DO YOU THINK BOOMER'S LICKING HIS CHOPS?
Jerry Glanville's reputation for coaching a bruising defense is taking a beating. No team in NFL history has given up as many passing yards in the first six games of a season as the Falcons have in 1990. On Sunday, Atlanta yielded 302 yards to Ram quarterback Jim Everett (24 completions in 38 attempts, three touchdowns, no interceptions) in a 44-24 loss. Next up: Boomer Esiason and the Bengals on Sunday night. Here's how the Falcons' pass defense compares with the alltime worst after six games.'
MAKE HIM SLEEP WITH THE RULE BOOK, CHUCK
Subbing for the winded Rod Woodson as a deep back on the Steelers' kick-return team, rookie Barry Foster jogged away from a kickoff in the third quarter of the Steelers' game with the 49ers, thinking the possession rules were the same as those on punts. He figured that the ball would carry into the end zone and Pittsburgh would take over on the 20. But a kickoff is a free ball, and when it rolled to the five, the Niners pounced on it. San Francisco, leading only 13-7 at the time, scored three plays later and went on to win 27-7. "I blanked out," Foster said. "I just made a rookie mistake."
AND IN THE BATTLE OF 56's...
How linebackers wearing number 56—Ken Harvey and Lawrence Taylor—fared in the Giants' 20-19 victory over the Cardinals:
A PLUS B DOES NOT EQUAL C
The Giants have beaten the Redskins in five of their last five meetings. The Redskins have beaten the Eagles in four of their last five meetings. The Eagles have beaten the Giants in four of their last five meetings.
LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE
Seahawk kicker Norm Johnson, who entered the season with a lifetime field goal percentage of .705, was verbally flogged by Seattle fans for missing five field goals in the first six games. On the eve of Sunday's game against Kansas City, a local TV comedy show, Almost Live, put together a skit with a Johnson look-alike playing a used-car salesman. The look-alike would try to kick the tires on the used cars, and he would miss. But Johnson had the last laugh when he booted field goals of 39, 27, 39 and 43 yards in Seattle's 19-7 upset of the Chiefs.
GET A JOB, AUNDRAY
It took linebacker Robert Lyles, whom the Falcons acquired on waivers from the Oilers for $100, two days of practice last week to win the starting left outside linebacker job from Aundray Bruce, the first pick in the 1988 draft.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•Bo Jackson hits the ground running. In his four midseason premieres for the Raiders, he has averaged 4.7 yards a carry (245 yards on 52 carries). In his most recent, L.A.'s 24-9 victory over the Chargers on Sunday, he ran 12 times for 53 yards and two touchdowns.
•The Eagles' 13-7 loss to the Redskins marked the first game since Dec. 1,1985, in which Philadelphia did not force a turnover.
•All nine two-game season series that have been completed this year have been sweeps.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Bears at Cardinals. There was a time when this was one of the premier rivalries in sports. Imagine the Cubs and White Sox playing twice a year, with the outcomes counting in the standings. This was the football equivalent. From 1921 to '59, the Chicago Bears, playing at Wrigley Field, and the Chicago Cardinals, playing at Comiskey Park, fought bitterly for bragging rights to the city. "They were brutal, brutal struggles," says Bears chairman of the board Ed McCaskey, 71. "In fact, there are still some Cardinals fans in Chicago, some of the South Side Irish." The rivalry cooled when the Cards moved to St. Louis in '60, and now, except to the Illinois snowbirds in Arizona, Cards-Bears is just another game.
Redskins at Giants. What an excruciating series. It's as if the two teams try' to keep the score close, and then something happens that allows New York to triumph. The Giants have won the past five games 27-20, 24-23, 27-24, 20-17 and, two weeks ago, 24-20. In the latest episode, at RFK Stadium, a Giants punt grazed the leg of Washington's Johnny Thomas and died at the Redskins' one-yard line. Reyna Thompson of New York fell on it, and the Giants got an insurance field goal four plays later. "Some of it's determination," says Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. "And some of it's having won a few and believing you can do it."
BIG BACK ATTACK
The emergence of Barry Word in Kansas City and Rod Bernstine in San Diego gives those teams unusually hefty running attacks. The Chiefs are especially blessed in this department, with Christian Okoye (260 pounds) and Word (240) at running back and Bill Jones (228) at blocking back. "We like to find backs who can run, block and catch," says K.C. coach Marty Schottenheimer. "If you get a big, strong guy with those qualities, he'll have an advantage over the smaller guy, unless the smaller guy is Barry Sanders." Marion Butts (248 pounds) and Bernstine (238), a converted tight end, give the Chargers a potent one-two punch. By averaging the weights of the top two rushers for every team in NFL history, the Elias Sports Bureau came up with this list of the five alltime heaviest backfield duos.
TOP TWO BACKS