4 St. Louis Rams With patience wearing thin after another sorry season, it's time for the Rams and their quixotic quarterback to say goodbye to the alibis

August 16, 1998

His dog has made a full recovery, as has his go-to receiver. His
offensive line is stable if unspectacular, unlike a year ago,
when an injury, a steroid bust and a holdout reduced it to
patchwork; when his starting running back turned out to be more
of a threat to motorists on area freeways than to opposing
defenses. Unlike last year, Rams quarterback Tony Banks earned
his $25,000 bonus for making it to more than 80% of the team's
off-season workouts. Unlike last year, he has his own private
coach and an offense that has been tailored to his skills. What
he no longer has is excuses.

"This is the first time--junior college, college, pros--that
I've been in the same offensive system two years in a row," says
Banks as he walks off the practice field in early August. "I've
never felt this relaxed or confident."

"That's good," says wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who appears to
have regained his Pro Bowl form after being hobbled by a nagging
hamstring injury for the first half of last season. "We'll go as
far as Tony can carry us."

An acne-prone lad leaning on the fence says, "Good practice
today, Tony." A stout woman shouts, "Tony, we love you!" These
fans may feel differently, it is pointed out, if the Rams open
with a couple of lopsided losses. "Oh, yeah," says Banks, whose
performance in this, his third season, will determine whether he
lands a) a monster contract or b) on another team's roster.
"They'll be the first ones booing."

Few have as much cause to boo as Rams fans, whose team lost 10
games in 1996 and topped that by losing 11 last season,
including six of eight at home. As the season wore on, they had
more brickbats for Banks than bouquets. While throwing for a
very respectable 3,254 yards, he completed just 51.7% of his
passes, third worst in the league. Over the past two seasons he
has fumbled 36 times and been sacked 90 times, a pair of
gruesome stats for which an underachieving offensive line must
take some responsibility.

"We've got to do a better job in front of him," says second-year
left tackle Orlando Pace, whose long preseason holdout and knee
injury (he missed three games in November) contributed to the
instability of a unit that was a mess even before last season
started. Center Bern Brostek suffered a career-ending back
injury, and left guard Gerald Perry was cut after testing
positive for steroids. As Banks points out, "Our line hasn't
been very good."

Pace is doing his part to change that. In search of more
explosiveness, he dropped 20 pounds in the off-season--he's now a
twiggy 315--while gaining muscle mass. He still has a ways to go
when it comes to keeping veteran pass-rushers off his
quarterback, but as a run-blocker, gushes coach Dick Vermeil, "he
may be the finest I've seen."

A stabilized line--the rapid progress of left guard Fred Miller,
a converted tackle, has particularly delighted Vermeil--bodes
well for an offense that rushed for just 97.7 yards per game in
'97. Recidivist time bomb Lawrence Phillips is out at running
back; Robert Holcombe, a second-rounder from Illinois, and
preseason free-agent signee Greg Hill, the ex-Chief, are in.
Even a slight improvement in the running game, coupled with more
rollouts and plays run out of two-back and shotgun sets, will
take some of the pressure off Banks, whose biggest problem,
paradoxically, seems to be that he takes too much pressure off
himself.

Until this season Rams coaches have complained that the low-key
Banks seemed to treat his NFL gig more like a hobby than a
career. The San Diego native has made no secret of his
preference for pickup hoops to weightlifting--"Basketball is
good for my cutting, my jumping, my cardiovascular," he says a
bit defensively--and he caught a ton of flak late last season
when he missed a practice to attend to his rottweiler, Felony,
who had been hit by a car. (Felony was O.K.)

Newly appointed quarterbacks coach Mike White also noticed a
lack of urgency in Banks's drops. Banks worked hard in the
off-season to make his footwork more precise. "Tony's looked
good," Vermeil says, riffling through computer printouts
tabulating Banks's completions during practice. "But the jury
will be out on him until the season starts. It's a contract year
for him. [Banks will be a free agent at season's end, and his
status as the team's 33rd-highest salaried player is a sore
point with him.] He wants to get paid. Well, he'd better get
going."

Vermeil and his coaches say they have no idea how Banks will
fare. Yes, he has looked much improved in practice, says one
coach. "But that's like hitting on the driving range. Let's see
how he does with a sidehill lie and the wind in his face."

Banks can't wait to tee it up. "We've worked too hard to get the
same results," he says. "We'll be better." Then he says it
himself: "There are no excuses." --A.M.

COLOR PHOTO: MICKEY PFLEGER Money player? Banks can't hope to earn the really big bucks until he puts up some richer numbers of his own on the field. [Tony Banks in game] B/W PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Bruce [Isaac Bruce]

Schedule

Sept. 6 NEW ORLEANS
13 MINNESOTA
20 at Buffalo
27 ARIZONA
Oct. 4 OPEN DATE
11 N.Y. JETS
18 at Miami
25 SAN FRANCISCO
Nov. 1 at Atlanta
8 at Chicago
15 at New Orleans
22 CAROLINA
29 ATLANTA
Dec. 3 at Philadelphia (Thurs.)
13 NEW ENGLAND
20 at Carolina
27 at San Francisco

Fast Facts

1997 Record 5-11 (5th in NFC West) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 24/17/21; defense 9/17/17

1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 20 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .482 Games against playoff teams: 5

Get a Grip

Tony Banks has already fumbled 36 times in his first two pro
seasons. That's the most fumbles by any NFL player over a
two-year span since the league began compiling individual fumble
statistics in 1945.

Player, team First year Fumbles Second year Fumbles Total

Tony Banks, Rams 1996 21 1997 15 36
Dave Krieg, Seahawks 1989 18 1990 16 34
Warren Moon, Oilers 1990 18 1991 11 29
Warren Moon, Oilers 1989 11 1990 18 29
Randall Cunningham,
Eagles 1988 12 1989 17 29
Warren Moon, Oilers 1984 17 1985 12 29

Inside Slant

After going undrafted out of Howard, reserve safety Billy
Jenkins Jr. proved his worth last year with a team-high 23
special teams tackles. On Dec. 14, in his first start at strong
safety subbing for an injured Toby Wright, Jenkins had 17
tackles in a loss to the Bears. He added six more in the season
finale six days later against the Panthers.... Wide receiver
Isaac Bruce is the only Ram to make the Pro Bowl since the
franchise moved from Anaheim in '95.... Free safety Keith Lyle's
20 interceptions over the past three years are the most in the
NFL over that period.... Backup quarterback Steve Bono, who was
acquired in a trade with the Packers in April, will be playing
in a non-West Coast offense for the first time since he was with
the Steelers 10 years ago.... The Rams committed a club-record
and league-high 142 penalties in '97. Their 1,065 penalty yards
were the second most in the league behind the Chargers' 1,101.

Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics

Coach: Dick Vermeil
Second season with Rams (59-58 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Tony Banks 124[PVR*] 487 att. 252 comp. 51.7%
3,254 yds. 14 TDs 13 int. 71.5 rtg.

RB Robert Holcombe[N](R) 144[PVR*] 294 att. 1,253 yds.
4.3 avg. 35 rec. 277 yds. 7.9 avg. 6 TDs

FB Raymond Priester[N](R) 330[PVR*] 204 att. 894 yds.
4.4 avg. 14 rec. 113 yds. 8.1 avg. 6 TDs

RB Greg Hill[N] 147[PVR*] 157 att. 550 yds. 3.5 avg.
12 rec. 126 yds. 10.5 avg. 0 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR Isaac Bruce 36[PVR*] 56 rec. 815 yds. 5 TDs
WR Eddie Kennison 203[PVR*] 25 rec. 404 yds. 0 TDs
WR Ricky Proehl[N] 259[PVR*] 58 rec. 753 yds. 7 TDs
TE Ernie Conwell 172[PVR*] 38 rec. 404 yds. 4 TDs
K Jeff Wilkins 208[PVR*] 32/32 XPs 25/37 FGs 107 pts.
PR Eddie Kennison 203[PVR*] 34 ret. 7.3 avg. 0 TDs
KR David Thompson 385[PVR*] 49 ret. 22.7 avg. 0 TDs
LT Orlando Pace 6'7" 320 lbs. 13 games 9 starts
LG Fred Miller 6'7" 315 lbs. 15 games 7 starts
C Mike Gruttadauria 6'4" 297 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
RG Zach Wiegert 6'4" 310 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RT Wayne Gandy 6'4" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Kevin Carter 42 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
LT D'Marco Farr 36 tackles 3 sacks
RT Ray Agnew[N] 15 tackles 2 sacks
RE Grant Wistrom[N](R) 51 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB Mike Jones 89 tackles 2 sacks
MLB Eric Hill[N] 73 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Roman Phifer 75 tackles 2 sacks
CB Todd Lyght 85 tackles 4 int.
SS Toby Wright 75 tackles 0 int.
FS Keith Lyle 84 tackles 8 int.
CB Ryan McNeil 71 tackles 9 int.
P Rick Tuten[N] 48 punts 41.8 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)