"Can we be a playoff team this year?" St. Louis Rams quarterback
Tony Banks asks rhetorically. "We were a playoff team last year."
Well, actually they were a 6-10 team last year. But Banks has a
point. The Rams have the players, and in new hire Dick Vermeil
(page 58) they seem to have the coach. All they need now are
"There has been talk around here before about potential, but
that doesn't mean a thing," says fourth-year defensive tackle
D'Marco Farr. "All that matters now is winning football games."
The development of Banks, who as a rookie started the final 13
games last season, will be the key. Though his rating of 71.0
was better than the first-year marks of Troy Aikman, John Elway
or Steve Young, St. Louis finished 27th in the NFL in total
offense. "I learned a lot of things the hard way last year,"
says Banks, who set a league record with 21 fumbles. "Now I'm
ready to apply those lessons." In 1996, Banks, a former
outfielder in the Minnesota Twins organization, displayed a
rocket right arm, fearless (some say ill-advised) scrambling and
the brashness of a successful leader. "If I have a good year,"
he says, "the team's going to have a good year."
If only it were that simple. To be sure, Banks has a terrific
trio to throw to. Isaac Bruce led the NFL in receiving yards,
with 1,338, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. On the other side
is Eddie Kennison, who scored a team-leading 11 touchdowns as a
rookie and was sensational on punt returns. The third wideout is
free-agent signee Torrance Small, who had 50 catches in '96 for
the Saints. The rest of the offense is up in the air, beginning
with the melodrama that is running back Lawrence Phillips.
After a mediocre rookie year, Phillips crammed one arrest (for
disorderly conduct--he is to enter a plea on June 26), two civil
suits, one 23-day jail term and minor knee surgery into his
off-season. Taking the long view of his turbulent first year,
Phillips says, "There's a lot of pressure on me to perform now.
I like that because I know I'm going to get it done." Last year
he showed up at training camp weighing a pudgy 230 pounds, but
at minicamp in May he was down to 218 (perhaps the result of the
bad chow in Nebraska's Lancaster County Correctional Facility,
where he did time for violating probation) and wowed the Rams.
Says running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, "I have no doubt
that Lawrence is going to emerge this year as one of the best
backs in the league, if not the best."
For that to happen the Rams will need improvement from the
offensive line, which was the most porous unit in football,
allowing 57 sacks. Orlando Pace, the first pick in the draft,
figures to help immediately at left tackle. The line will be
bolstered by the return of 32-year-old left guard Gerald Perry,
who says he's rejuvenated after a year's retirement, and the
arrival of Ryan Tucker. The Rams rated Tucker as the third-best
lineman in the draft but were able to nab him in the fourth
round; it seems other teams were scared off by the three barroom
brawls Tucker got into at TCU.
On defense the Rams would do well to show a little fight; they
finished 26th in the league in total defense. "We didn't make
the most of our talent," understates right end Leslie O'Neal,
who was disappointing in his first season in St. Louis after
nine in San Diego. "There were many times when we needed someone
to step up and make a play, and no one did. And I deserve some
of the blame." The defensive line is counting on both O'Neal and
Farr, who slumped from 11 1/2 sacks in '95 to 4 1/2 last year,
to get after opposing quarterbacks, because left end Kevin
Carter and right tackle Jon Kirksey specialize in stopping the
The linebacking corps is anchored by the underrated Roman
Phifer, who had a team-high 122 tackles last season despite
missing the better part of the final two games. A key player in
new defensive coordinator Bud Carson's scheme will be middle
linebacker Robert Jones, who didn't show much spunk last season
after coming over from Dallas as a free agent.
The defensive backfield is strong with All-Pro-to-be Todd Lyght
at left corner, body-rocking Toby Wright at strong safety and
sticky-fingered Keith Lyle at free safety. Lyle led the NFC in
interceptions last season, with nine.
"People who don't know the league, they're like, Oh, your team
is a joke," says Carter. "Puh-leeze. We got horses in the
stable." Banks is just as confident. "Remember," he says, "when
we get to the playoffs, you heard it here first." --A.S.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO COVER [REGIONAL] Thinking Big No. 1 pick Orlando Pace brings huge help to the Rams
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON The emerging Banks is butterfingered (21 fumbles in '96) but rifle-armed. [Tony Banks in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 6-10 (third in NFC West)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 100.4 (20) 172.8 (28) 273.3 (27)
DEFENSE 115.9 (20) 229.7 (26) 345.6 (26)
Dick Vermeil returns to the NFL coaching ranks after a 14-year
sabbatical, the third-longest interval between full-time head
coaching stints in league history. Only 15 players were active
last season who were in the league when Vermeil last roamed the
sidelines, but none played for him on his old team, the
Longest Layoffs Between NFL Head Coaching Jobs
Prelayoff job Age* Postlayoff job Age* away
Paddy Driscoll Cardinals 1920-22 24 Bears 1956-57 60 33
Joe Bach Pirates 1935-36 34 Steelers 1952-53 51 15
Dick Vermeil Eagles 1976-82 39 Rams 1997 60 14
Ted Marchibroda Colts 1975-79 44 Colts 1992-95 61 12
Ray Malavasi Broncos 1966 35 Rams 1978-82 47 11
*At beginning of tenure
PLAYER TO WATCH
Defensive tackle Jon Kirksey has a grand total of four tackles
in his NFL career, but big things are expected of him this year.
Very big. "Kirksey is big with a capital B," says coach Dick
Vermeil. "He's so big he could clog up the entire interior of
the defense all by himself." Though he saw limited action last
year as a rookie, the 6'4", 350-pound Kirksey should start in
1997 for the Rams, who were 20th in the NFL in rushing defense.
"It's like the Packers and Gilbert Brown," Kirksey says,
referring to the league's premier wide-body. "From hash to hash,
he's got it. That's what they're looking for here."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Dick Vermeil
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Tony Banks 109[*] 368 att. 192 comp. 52.2%
2,544 yds. 15 TDs 15 int.
RB Lawrence Phillips 59[*] 193 att. 632 yds. 3.3 avg.
8 rec. 28 yds. 3.5 avg. 5 TDs
FB Craig Heyward[A] 151[*] 72 att. 321 yds. 4.5 avg.
16 rec. 168 yds. 10.5 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Isaac Bruce 15[*] 84 rec. 1,338 yds. 7 TDs
WR Eddie Kennison 46[*] 54 rec. 924 yds. 9 TDs
WR Torrance Small[A] 177[*] 50 rec. 558 yds. 2 TDs
TE Ernie Conwell 200[*] 15 rec. 164 yds. 0 TDs
PK Jeff Wilkins[A] 179[*] 40/40 XPs 30/34 FGs 130 pts.
KR J.T. Thomas 327[*] 30 ret. 21.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR Eddie Kennison 46[*] 29 ret. 14.6 avg. 2 TDs
LT Orlando Pace(R)[A] 6'7" 334 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LG Gerald Perry**[A] 6'6" 305 lbs. 3 games 3 starts
C Bern Brostek 6'3" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Zach Wiegert 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Wayne Gandy 6'4" 292 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Kevin Carter 55 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
LT D'Marco Farr 52 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RT Jon Kirksey 4 tackles 0 sacks
RE Leslie O'Neal 54 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Michael Jones[A] 97 tackles 1 sack
MLB Robert Jones 98 tackles 1 int.
OLB Roman Phifer 122 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
CB Todd Lyght 82 tackles 5 int.
SS Toby Wright 55 tackles 1 int.
FS Keith Lyle 79 tackles 9 int.
CB Dexter McCleon(R)[A] 42 tackles 0 int.
P Will Brice (R)[A] 52 punts 44.7 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*]*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)
**1995 Statistics (he sat out '96)