During a 74-second span of their Aug. 15 preseason game against
the Cowboys, the Rams showed just how bad--and how good--their
passing attack can be. With 1:22 left in the first half,
second-year quarterback Tony Banks threw a ball right into the
hands of Dallas cornerback Kevin Mathis, who returned it 27
yards for a touchdown. On St. Louis's ensuing possession, Banks
drove his team 74 yards in seven plays, capping the march with a
33-yard rainbow pass to second-year wideout Eddie Kennison, who
caught the ball without breaking stride and streaked into the
end zone with eight seconds on the clock.

The Rams eventually lost 34-31 but not before providing a
glimpse of what could be one of the league's most exciting
passing games in 1997. Kennison, who won the NFL's Fastest Man
contest this summer by covering 60 yards in 6.1 seconds,
finished that game with three catches for 78 yards and two
touchdowns--to the delight of numerous family members, many of
whom had driven to the game at Texas Stadium from his hometown
of Lake Charles, La. "It always takes a quarterback and a
receiver one game like this to break through the wall," new St.
Louis offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome said afterward. "I think
we might just be seeing the start of something really big."

The 18th pick in the '96 draft, Kennison isn't even the best
wideout on the team. That honor belongs to Isaac Bruce, who last
season had 84 receptions for an NFL-high 1,338 yards and was the
only Ram to go to the Pro Bowl. He has 224 career receptions,
the most by a player after three years in the league. Bruce was
nursing a sore hamstring and didn't make the trip to Texas. "I'm
sure Isaac was happy to see this game," says Banks. "I know he's
looking for me to get better so that he can put up even better

Despite coughing up an NFL-record 21 fumbles and being sacked 48
times in '96, Banks threw for 2,544 yards and 15 touchdowns.
He'll get more protection up front from 334-pound left tackle
Orlando Pace, the No. 1 pick in the April draft. St. Louis
thought so highly of Pace that it traded the Jets four draft
choices to move up five spots and get him. Pace didn't think too
highly of the Rams' contract offer and held out until Aug. 16,
at which point he signed a seven-year, $29.4 million deal and
immediately became the highest-paid scout-team player in NFL
history. His penance served in one week, Pace began his advance
toward a starting job--which won't take long, considering that
the line was arguably the club's weakest area a year ago.

Who would have thought that a new coaching staff headed by
60-year-old Dick Vermeil, and with six assistants 55 or older,
could put its fate largely in the hands of three 24-year-olds
(Banks, Bruce and Kennison) and a 21-year-old (Pace)? During
their free time this summer Bruce and Kennison could often be
found at Banks's St. Louis house, where discussions usually
centered on the '97 season. "We talked about what we wanted to
accomplish, about putting together the kind of passing package
that strikes fear in defensive coordinators," says Kennison, who
last year set team rookie records for receptions (54) and yards
(924) while leading the Rams with 11 touchdowns.

After the Cowboys game Banks said, "Tonight was exciting because
I think we saw what could happen in every game."

We'll assume he was talking about the touchdown pass to Kennison
and not the interception. --D.F.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS After fumbling a league-high 21 times during his rookie season, Banks has to have a better handle on the St. Louis offense in 1997. [Tony Banks]