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PRO FOOTBALL '86 : COACHES, PLAYERS, TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH THIS SEASON : Quarterbacks Are Crucial to Season for Raiders, Rams : Can Bartkowski Revive Career and an Offense?

September 04, 1986|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

When we last left the Rams, they were shivering en masse at Chicago's Soldier Field, bear-claw marks and egg all over their faces.

They couldn't call a time-out to save their lives and they were playing with a quarterback, Dieter Brock, who became the brunt of cocktail party jokes for weeks thereafter.

There's nothing much you can say when you lose a game, 24 to zip, and have your lunch handed to you on national television, even if the whole thing was for the NFC championship.

So the Rams could only go home and stew over the winter, curse that blasted Super Bowl Shuffle video a thousand more times and promise to return next year to the scene of the crime.

The Rams figured they were only an offense away from unseating the Chicago Bears, and they set out to build one.

They tinkered in the garage for a while, replaced a faulty Brock with Steve Bartkowski, changed the oil in their gear box and pronounced themselves fit to challenge the Bears.

Of course, Ram Coach John Robinson is the type of guy who could sound cheery about undergoing a root canal.

Not surprisingly, he says his team is better.

The Rams in April signed veteran quarterback Steve Bartkowski, a free agent who tiptoed into town and is now set to become the fifth opening-day quarterback of the decade for the Rams. The Rams hired Dick Coury as quarterback coach, and he has helped unearth in Anaheim a strange new phenomenon known as the forward pass.

The Rams were dead last in the NFL in passing, so up was pretty much the only direction to pursue.

Bartkowski, 33, and a former All-Pro, has seemingly provided needed punch to an offense that some have compared to a certain flavor of ice cream.

"This team can be as good as any team there is," Bartkowski said.

Just the type of voice and arm the Rams were looking for. Star running back Eric Dickerson will have company in the backfield this season, being joined by one-time recluse Barry Redden, a No. 1 draft choice in 1982 who is finally getting a chance to play.

"Potentially, we're better offensively if we can get some balance," Robinson said. "During the preseason, you guys (press) were all saying 'Wow' at some of the things we've been doing."

Then, of course, there is the Dickerson factor.

Robinson is expecting a huge season from his star back and has even introduced Dickerson to the world of pass routes this year.

Dickerson held out 46 days last season in a contract dispute and had an down season for him--1,234 yards in 14 games.

His rushing title was stripped from him by the Raiders' Marcus Allen, his crosstown rival--something Dickerson took exception to.

"Last year we started without Eric and had some uncertainties at quarterback," Robinson said. "I expect Eric to be better than last year. And I think we'll be more productive at quarterback and with the passing game."

But lurking in all that optimism are familiar traces of reality.

How, for instance, can the Rams possibly be improved when they lost two Pro Bowl players--cornerback Gary Green and linebacker Jim Collins--to injuries?

How can they expect to challenge anyone, much less the Bears, when their best receiver and punt returner, Henry Ellard, is mired in a contract dispute and will watch the season opener from Fresno?

And just how much help did the Rams get in the draft? Their No. 1 pick, offensive tackle Mike Schad, flopped his way through training camp and will almost assuredly open the season on injured reserve with a convenient back injury, saving the team the embarrassment of having to keep him on the 45-man roster.

Robinson is not blind, and is aware of the setbacks, but feels an improved offense even without Ellard will compensate for other problems.

"Our quarterback situation was our No. 1 problem," Robinson said. "And Brock's injury made the situation more certain. Everyone feels that Bartkowski has done well, and we have every reason to believe that if we can protect the guy, he's going to have a good season."

A closer look:

QUARTERBACK--The expected controversy between Brock and Bartkowski ended on Aug. 5, when Brock was struck in the knee during an exhibition game with Houston. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery the following Tuesday and this week was placed on injured reserve, putting him out four more weeks.

There were many who assumed that Bartkowski would start all along, but Brock's injury made the decision that much easier for Robinson, the man who brought Brock here from Canada in the first place.

Robinson claims that we have not heard the last of Brock, that the maligned quarterback will rise again.

But even Brock isn't so sure.

"If Steve plays well, it's obvious that it's going to be hard to get back in," Brock said. "I don't wish bad luck on anybody, but I just want to get back to where I was. I don't want to start any more controversies, but I'd like to play."

Brock's only hope seems to hinge on the fact that it's tough for a quarterback to make it through an NFL season these days.

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