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The chemistry is just right

Neil Lomax is the catalyst that makes the St. Louis offense explode

Neil Lomax had no time to consider the fact that his world was collapsing around him. The St. Louis Cardinals' one-touchdown lead over Cincinnati might soon do the same if Lomax fell victim to the Bengal pass rush. Lomax had already taken one vicious shot to the chest on the first play of the game. And he'd fumbled. Now, in the fourth quarter, with St. Louis leading the Bengals 27-20 but facing a third-and-five at its own 16, Lomax seemed certain to be sacked again. But ever so coolly the five-year veteran stepped up to where the pocket should have been—and suddenly it materialized. Lomax found, and fired a strike to, running back Stump Mitchell, who ran for a 42-yard gain, and the Cardinals later scored the cushion touchdown in a 41-27 victory.

"I never saw it. I felt the rush," Lomax said later. "It's instinct. God-given. The eyes deceive. But I felt I could step up. You know I wanted to go to Roy Green, but they had him triple-teamed. Then I saw Stump come open."

"That play beat us," said Bengal coach Sam Wyche. "We knew he'd be sacked. We blitzed Lomax all game. We were right on him. But he moved well."

All the Cards moved well. St. Louis, 2-0 for the first time since 1976, is an aerial circus with an outstanding running game, a combination that has put 68 points on the scoreboard in two games. Green caught 78 passes for 1,555 yards last season, his sixth in the NFL, and may be the game's most dangerous receiver. Lomax says Pat Tilley, his other wideout, is "like Denny's—always open." And running back O.J. Anderson, with 7,508 yards, is close to replacing Larry Csonka as the NFL's 10th-place alltime leading rusher. But it has taken Lomax to meld all this individual talent into an unrelenting offensive force.

The Bengals are hardly offensive patsies, with such standout receivers as Cris Collinsworth, rookie Eddie Brown and 265-pound running back Larry Kinnebrew, but Lomax never let them get closer than seven points after the Cards took a 17-14 lead. His take-no-prisoners philosophy was obvious as he marched the Cards to two fourth-quarter TDs.

After Mitchell's catch, Lomax hit Green for nine. Then, with the Bengals looking for another pass, he sent running back Earl Ferrell on a sweep for 30 yards to the three. The crowd could see Lomax agonizing because Ferrell didn't get in. On the next play Lomax hit tight end Doug Marsh with a sure touchdown pass. Marsh dropped it. Lomax turned and faced the other way, raising his arms in supplication as if to ask the fans or some even higher power, "Why me?" Finally, Mitchell blasted in to make it 34-20 and Lomax made a triumphant-fist salute.

"This is a funny team," said Cardinal coach Jim Hanifan as he took a drag on a victory cigarette. "We're young but experienced. The players aren't the gray, grizzled type. Something bad happened [when Lomax fumbled in the first quarter while being sacked, and the Bengals grabbed a 7-0 lead], but they didn't go bonkers. They fought back in."

Green, for example, played the entire game on a toe he had badly bruised a week earlier in a 27-24 Cardinal win over Cleveland, but still caught six passes for 68 yards, including a 25-yarder for a touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 24-14 lead. Lomax's 17 of 31 passing for 250 yards and two TDs also belied the presence of a bursa sac the size of an apricot in his pitching elbow.

Lomax, the pride of West Linn, Ore., had a busy off-season. He was part of a three-man NFL contingent which conducted a football camp in Milan, Italy in June. "They knew me better over there than they do in St. Louis," he said. He also found time in the off-season to marry Laurie Exley, a fellow Oregonian. Now he doesn't have to count on the twice-weekly dinners he used to have at the home of Roy and Sharon Green. He and Green still have moments to share. "When I was a rookie and Roy was first becoming a receiver, we were playing Dallas," Lomax said, "and he turned it on and I threw it as far as a rookie can. He caught it for a 60-yard completion. It's been that way since."

Clearly the dividends are coming in on the young quarterback who was once thought to be a guy out of his league. When Lomax showed up in the NFL four years ago, fresh from Portland State where he had thrown for an NCAA record 106 touchdowns, some were skeptical of his credentials. If playing only Division I-AA football wasn't enough to make the big (6'3") rookie a questionable commodity, a doctor told him that he wouldn't last longer than four years in the big time because he had pronated feet. Lomax is now only 91 attempts short of the 1,500 necessary to qualify for an alltime NFL quarterback rating. (The rating is based on a formula that takes into account percentage of completions, yards per attempt, interceptions, touchdowns, satellites successfully put into orbit, etc.) When he does make it, Lomax, with an 83.7 rating, will rank third behind Joe Montana, 92.4, and retired Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach, 83.4.

Does that make him one of the top quarterbacks in the game today? Lomax thinks so, and instinctively feels it, but he's become seasoned to acting like a pro in many ways. "Ask my wife," he says. "She'll say I'm the best."

If you don't buy Laurie Lomax's evaluation, just ask the Bengals.



Against a fierce Cincinnati pass rush, Lomax stood tall and connected for two TDs.



Mitchell (30) stumped the Bengals with his rushing, receiving, and back-spinning TD.