One of the players responsible for the Rams' weekly success wears the unmistakable look of rookie innocence, meets occasionally with the team psychologist and guides kicked footballs inside the 20-yard line as if he were under court order to do so.
This is the growing legend of punter Dale Hatcher.
At last look, Hatcher had 40 professional punts to his credit, including one that traveled 67 yards. His net average is 37.3, a number that won't win many punt, pass and kick contests, but is good enough to earn the appreciation of field-position enthusiasts such as Coach John Robinson.
"We truly believe we have an outstanding weapon in Dale Hatcher," he said.
Hatcher, consistent during his first four weeks, blossomed two games ago against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was in Tampa that he kicked his 67-yarder and averaged 52 yards in 8 tries. Then, of course, there is his specialty, the punt inside the 20.
Hatcher leads the NFC with 17 punts within the opponents' 20-yard line. He is second in the NFL to Raider All-Pro Ray Guy.
"I can't complain about punting it like that," Hatcher said. "I think a lot of people say that if you don't have a 45-yard average, you're not helping the team."
Against Kansas City Sunday, Hatcher forced the Chiefs to begin three of their possessions from their own 10, 12 and 12. As the Ram offense continues its search for an attack, Los Angeles finds comfort in Hatcher's foot and a stingy defense.
Hatcher said he can tell the moment the ball meets his arch if the punt will be worth watching. To ensure that it will, he has enlisted the help of team psychologist Saul Miller, who, in part, promotes positive thinking.
Said Hatcher of the process: "What I try to do, and this may sound crazy, is that I try to visualize a punt. (Miller) says to do that. You know, take a deep breath and try to visualize the ball . . . see the ball leaving off your foot . . . a high kick that turns over. I just try to step into what I see."
Hatcher is from Cheraw, S.C., which is happily a decade behind the life style of Southern California. There has been the inevitable period of transition.
"We're not outgoers," Hatcher said. "My wife and I just like to stay at home. We have a house. We're real proud of that."
It's not as if Hatcher just fell off the pumpkin truck, singing country and western songs and waving a punt-worn football, though. He did attend a reputable university--Clemson--and had the talent to make himself an attractive commodity to the NFL. But there is this question of social graces.
"Dale is a good punter," Ram placekicker Mike Lansford said. "But that's all Dale's ever done, is punt. All the time in college, he was preparing himself to punt. He hasn't been exposed to too many other things in life.
"When he came out here, it was a brand new environment. He came from a small town with limited ideas. He was almost lost when it came to money management, buying a house and the general day-to-day things."
Hatcher recently realized he wasn't pleased with his agent back in South Carolina. "He wanted 5% each time I got a paycheck," he said. "And he wasn't doing much for me."
So, after Monday's brief workout, Hatcher met with quarterback Jeff Kemp's accountant.
Predicted Lansford: "If Dale can go on and not let the outside things bother him, not affect his kicking, he'll do great."
Linebacker Norwood Vann, who distinguishes himself primarily on Ram special teams, underwent arthroscopic surgery Monday to repair an injured right knee.
Vann hurt the knee during Sunday's game against Kansas City. The Rams put Vann on injured reserve, which means he won't be available for at least four weeks. Vann's spot on the roster was taken by linebacker Jim Laughlin.
The other Ram injuries are considered less serious. Wide receiver Bobby Duckworth, who left the game because of a hip pointer, is expected to return against San Francisco, Robinson said. Linebacker Kevin Greene, a linebacker who suffered a mild shoulder injury, also should be healthy in time for the 49er game. And wide receiver Ron Brown nearly is recovered from a recent bout with pancreatitis.
The Ram offensive line appears closer to full strength. Robinson said Bill Bain, who has been absent from the starting lineup because of a variety of ailments, will return to left tackle. Irv Pankey, who was playing left tackle while Bain nursed his injuries, will move to right guard, replacing Tony Slaton. Slaton will resume his duties as a backup.
Also, guard Dennis Harrah said his injured thigh is responding well to treatment and he expects to play in the Rams' game against New Orleans Nov. 3.
Harrah has spent the last three games on the injured-reserve list. On Monday, he tested the leg during a 45-minute workout.
"Straight running, no problem," he said. "I could play against San Francisco (if he weren't ineligible because of the injured-reserve list) if I went slow during the week."