He arrived in the big time late in life. Skeptics thought he was
in over his head, but man, is he proving them wrong. You might
say that St. Louis Ram coach Rich Brooks possesses certain
Give-'em-hell Rich was reminiscing last week about his days as
an Oregon Duck quarterback and defensive back. "One of my
coaches, Tommy Prothro, once told me, 'You don't want to give
people too much too early,'" he said.
Too late, Coach. Your Rams are 4-0, and your
fans--straight-faced--are spouting such imbecilities as "Bring on
the 49ers!" And the rest of the world has a simple question: How
on earth can a team that lost a dozen games last year now find
itself swaggering in the company of the Dallas Cowboys and the
Miami Dolphins as the NFL's only undefeated clubs?
For starters credit the St. Louis attack, which came to life in
Sunday's 34-28 win over the Chicago Bears and which clings to
the ball more tightly than Leona Helmsley squeezes a nickel.
Astonishingly, an offense that turned the ball over 31 times a
year ago hasn't committed a single turnover this season.
Injury-prone quarterback Chris Miller, who suffered his fourth
concussion in two seasons on Sunday, has thrown for 810 yards
and seven touchdowns, including three against the Bears.
Credit, too, the selection of the 54-year-old Brooks to coach
the Rams. Brooks has proved to be an inspired and inspiring
choice, as has defensive coordinator Willie Shaw, whom Brooks
brought in from the San Diego Chargers. A defense that forced
only 20 turnovers in 1994 had 12 after three games this season
and came away with two more against the Bears.
Number 13 was a doozy. Bear quarterback Erik Kramer, pulling
away from center on the game's second play from scrimmage,
fumbled the ball, which was scooped up by strong safety Toby
Wright, whose 73-yard return was the fourth touchdown scored by
the Ram defense this season.
But perhaps the biggest reason the Rams are undefeated and the
surprise of this young NFL season is their new zip code. It took
16 moving vans to haul the team's gear from Anaheim to the Show
Me State in June. More important, it turns out, is the apathy
the movers left behind. "Never underestimate the healing powers
of a change of scenery," says Miller. "We've got a new staff,
some new guys; we're off to a fresh start. The fans have been
unbelievable-now if we can just teach them to do the wave when
the defense is on the field."
"Back in Anaheim we'd play the L.A. Raiders or the San Francisco
49ers, and they'd have more fans in our stadium than we would,"
says fifth-year cornerback Todd Lyght. "It got to the point
where we preferred to play our games on the road. Here we're
playing in front of capacity crowds [there were 59,679 fans at
Busch Memorial Stadium on Sunday] that are loving us-something I
haven't experienced in my pro career. It makes a huge difference."
The Rams will get another emotional booster shot on Oct. 22,
when the 49ers come to town to battle St. Louis in a game that
may be for-no laughing, please--NFC West supremacy. The Niners
also will help christen the Gateway City's gleaming new
66,000-seat Trans World Dome, named after the fiscally troubled
airline. (Cynics have suggested that the dome include such
TWA-related features as Chapter 11-yard lines and the listing of
the company's creditors on the scoreboard.)
"It's like Angels in the Outfield," said Ram president John
Shaw, trying desperately to disguise his giddiness after
Sunday's win. It wasn't too long ago that Shaw and team owner
Georgia Frontiere were pilloried by their NFL brethren for
mismanaging the Rams and then having the audacity to propose
moving the team because of poor fan support in Anaheim. Although
they have presided over a team that entered this season with a
23-57 record in the '90s, tied with the Cincinnati Bengals for
worst in the NFL, and although their misadventures in the Golden
State sometimes made it seem as though they could screw up a
two-car funeral, Frontiere and Shaw have yet to take a false
step in St. Louis.
Their peers doubted that Missourians would embrace football
again after losing the Cardinals to Arizona in 1988, but the
Rams sold 76,000 personal-seat licenses in three weeks.
Attendance during training camp was about 30,000, or 5,000 more
people than the number who bothered to go see the Rams' final
game in California.
Riskier than moving to St. Louis, though, was the hiring of
Brooks to replace Chuck Knox. Brooks may have won the Pac-10
title last year, but his record in 18 seasons at Oregon was
91-109-4. Nevertheless, Steve Ortmayer, the Rams' vice president
of football operations, steadfastly campaigned for Brooks, while
others in the front office preferred former Bear coach Mike
Ditka, Terry Donahue of UCLA or Jimmy Johnson, late of the
Cowboys. Ortmayer prevailed, and his stubbornness has paid off.
Last Friday, Brooks sat in his office berating a reporter whose
magazine had assigned what was, to Brooks, an unacceptably low
preseason ranking to his beloved Ducks. Railed Brooks, "We win
the Pac-10, we have 15 starters back, and we're not even in your
Top 25?" Say, Coach, it must be a relief not having to recruit
anymore, huh? asked the reporter, transparently attempting to
change the subject.
"Actually, one of the first things we did when we got here was
start recruiting free agents,'' said Brooks. "The difference is
at this level, you're armed with a checkbook."
One of the free agents the Rams landed was former Minnesota
Viking cornerback Anthony Parker, who used his helmet Sunday to
jackhammer the ball from Bear rookie running back Rashaan Salaam
on Chicago's third possession. Salaam's fumble--takeaway number
14--resulted in a Ram field goal and left Salaam, at 20 the NFL's
youngest player, so crestfallen that he could not bring himself
to talk to reporters. When would he have a comment? "Never,
ever," said Salaam.
The Rams ended up signing 11 free agents in the off-season, but
casting confusion on the process was the fact that team
officials could not tell coveted players where the Rams would be
playing. The NFL did not officially approve the Rams' move until
April 12. Says Brooks, "What we ended up telling guys was, 'We
think we're gonna be in St. Louis, but we're waiting for
approval.' It was kind of bizarre." Amid the uncertainty, the
team scheduled all four exhibition games on the road. Thus,
during 20 days in August the Rams traveled 10,000 miles.
When they weren't wedging themselves onto their TWA charter, the
Rams were knocking heads and sucking wind in Missouri's
debilitating summer heat. Looking at films of the 1994 Rams,
Brooks had seen a talented but soft team. In camp he let his
players know that soft was unacceptable. "He worked us like
dawgs," says tight end Troy Drayton, who cashed in some of that
sweat equity for eight catches, 106 yards and a touchdown
against Chicago. "We were saying, 'Who is this guy? What the
hell is he doing?'"
"Hundreds of people dying in Chicago, and we're 300 miles away,
going out there at 2:30 in the afternoon," recalls running back
Jerome Bettis. "What's that all about?"
What Brooks was about was transforming the Rams into one of the
NFL's best-conditioned, best second-half teams. After trailing
the Bears 21-17 at halftime, St. Louis scored on successive
possessions in the third quarter, with Miller spreading the ball
around like a bad rumor, completing eight of 10 passes for 102
yards and two TDs.
"It seemed like they wanted it just a little bit more in the
third half," said Bear linebacker Vinson Smith, whose slip of
the tongue was understandable: Chicago's defense was on the
field for all but 3:44 of the third quarter. To Smith, it must
have seemed like a half.
One indication of the Bears' frustration may have been Smith's
forearm to Miller's head just after he unloaded a pass early in
the fourth quarter. The blow knocked him out of the game and
thrust the burden of victory on the Rams' defense.
Trailing by six points, the Bears faced a fourth-and-eight at
their own 49 with 1:49 remaining. The game had come down to this
play. Wideout Curtis Conway ran a six-yard hook pattern and was
hit by two things in rapid succession: Kramer's bullet, which he
caught, and linebacker Carlos Jenkins, who freight-trained him
in the direction opposite of that which Conway needed to go.
Game over. "At that point I was so sky-high," said Jenkins, "if
a big lineman had caught the ball, I would have knocked his butt
Across the room Miller winced as he struggled to get his shirt
over his head. Originally diagnosed with a mild concussion, his
injury, he insisted, was only a bruised neck. "It feels like
someone hit me with a baseball bat," he said.
A few minutes later, out in the corridor, he introduced a
reporter to his wife, Jennifer, and then posed a question to
which there was only one correct answer: "Can you believe how
good she looks for having had a baby two months ago? I've got a
gorgeous wife, two beautiful kids, I'm playing with some great
guys in a great town. I'm truly blessed.''
Then he and Jennifer headed out to their new city, where the
feeling is decidedly mutual.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Parker knocked Keith Jennings off his pins, and the Ram defense took the ball away twice from the Bears. [Anthony Parker and Keith Jennings]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Drayton gave the Bears headaches with eight catches for 106 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown. [Troy Drayton]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Bettis was a battering Ram, with 74 yards against Chicago, but he still has just one TD this season. [Jerome Bettis]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Frontiere traded antipathy in L.A. for adulation in St. Louis, where the park is always filled. [Georgia Frontiere and security guards]