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]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 6-10 (third in NFC West)
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 coaching ranks after a 14-year
hiatus, the third-longest interval between full-time head
coaching stints in NFL history. Only 15 players who were active
last season were in the league when Vermeil last roamed the
sideline. None played for him on his previous team, the Eagles.
Longest Layoffs Between NFL Head Coaching Jobs
Prelayoff Age* Postlayoff Age* Years
job job 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 start of tenure
In the first seven weeks of the season, St. Louis travels to
Denver and Oakland and twice faces San Francisco, which has won
the last 13 meetings between the two teams. Even though they are
tied with the Jets for the most losses in this decade and have
finished no better than 7-9 during that span, the Rams believe
they're a playoff-caliber team. By mid-October, we should have a
good idea whether they're right.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 9 (tied)
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .512
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Dick Vermeil
QB Tony Banks 368 att. 192 comp. 52.2% 2,544 yds.
15 TDs 15 int. 71.0 rtg.
RB Lawrence Phillips 193 att. 632 yds. 3.3 avg. 8 rec.
28 yds. 3.5 avg. 5 TDs
FB Craig Heyward[*] 72 att. 321 yds. 4.5 avg. 16 rec.
168 yds. 10.5 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Isaac Bruce 84 rec. 1,338 yds. 7 TDs
WR Eddie Kennison 54 rec. 924 yds. 9 TDs
WR Torrance Small[*] 50 rec. 558 yds. 2 TDs
TE Ernie Conwell 15 rec. 164 yds. 0 TDs
PK Jeff Wilkins[*] 40/40 PATs 30/34 FGs 130 pts.
KR J.T. Thomas 30 ret. 21.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR Eddie Kennison 29 ret. 14.6 avg. 2 TDs
LT Orlando Pace (R)[*]6'7" 334 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LG John Gerak[*] 6'3" 300 lbs. 14 games 10 starts
C Mike Gruttadauria 6'3" 297 lbs. 9 games 4 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
DT D'Marco Farr 52 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RT Bill Johnson[*] 18 tackles 1 sack
RE Leslie O'Neal 54 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Michael Jones[*] 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 Ryan McNeil[*] 78 tackles 5 int.
P Will Brice (R)[*]52 punts 44.7 avg.
[*] New acquisition
Rookie statistics for final college year