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Cromwell Hasn't Changed, Ram Defense Has : At Strong Safety, He Doesn't Make So Many Big Plays, but He's as Solid as Ever

November 28, 1986|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

You may remember Nolan Cromwell. He once was the NFL's I-can-do-anything-better-than-you athlete. He appeared in four straight Pro Bowls. He was the most feared man in the Ram secondary.

Then, he never had to sit before an interviewer and explain where exactly he has been all these years.

Then.

Cromwell may be the NFL's only active player referred to most often in the past tense.

Nolan Cromwas?

It seems that way sometimes. Somewhere on the road from Kansas to the Hall of Fame, Cromwell got caught in a time warp that came to be known as the new Ram defense. His team switched from man-to-man to a twilight zone.

Cromwell was last spotted by the general public sometime in 1983, his last Pro Bowl season.

Since, things have been quiet. Too quiet, maybe. Whispers about his age and his knees and his private life made the rounds.

His football obituary had been written and readied for use at the drop of a football.

But along came 1986, the most improbable season for a comeback by Cromwell. This was the year he would have to fight and kick to keep the starting safety spot that had been his for nearly a decade. This was the season the Rams would employ a platoon system for their four safeties, with Cromwell and partner Johnnie Johnson eventually starting only the first and third quarters.

This, seemingly, was Cromwell's year on the bubble. His playing time was down and his age was up, to 31.

So go figure how Cromwell could be on his way to his best season since 1980, when he was the NFC's defensive player of the year.

Cromwell's five interceptions through 12 games are the most he's had since 1981, when he also had five. He had a career-high eight interceptions in 1980. In a 14-10 win over the Detroit Lions in October, it was Cromwell who got the Rams on the scoreboard with an 80-yard return of an interception for touchdown.

In last Sunday's 26-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints, Cromwell had two interceptions and forced a fumble.

And Cromwell was named the NFC's defensive player of the week.

So who's been spiking his Gatorade?

"He's been solid every year that we've been here," said Fritz Shurmur, who took over as defensive coordinator in 1983. "Before, he was in a defense where it was easy for him to jump out and be the guy, as opposed to ours. Of course, everyone just assumed he wasn't playing well, and that's not true. You guys (reporters) are interested in big plays. You're not into things like 'Hey, that guy's doing his job every week.' "

According to Shurmur, it was the Ram defense that changed, not Cromwell.

In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the Ram defense was coordinated by Bud Carson (now with the New York Jets), who played a gambling, man-to-man defense that made the most of Cromwell's athletic gifts.

Cromwell was expected to make big plays.

When Shurmur took over as defensive coordinator, he moved Cromwell from free to strong safety and converted to a conservative zone defense that relied on efficiency and teamwork.

"Patience," Cromwell said, describing Shurmur's scheme. "Fritz keeps it simple."

So much for the star system.

"(Cromwell) had to lose his identity in the group, like a lot of people,' Shurmur said. "He's just part of the system."

That's not how it looked to Cromwell watchers, though. They only saw his numbers dwindling.

He had just three interceptions in 1983 and 1984, only two last season.

To many, it was "Hey, what ever happened to Cromwell?"

The talk was inevitable.

"Did it bother me?" Cromwell asked, repeating a question. "No. Everybody, of course, wants recognition. But for me, it's secondary. My main interest is the defense playing well. When you look at it, I only had two interceptions last year. The way you'd look at it, you'd have to say I had an off year."

Which makes this season's accomplishments all the more impressive. At training camp, four men--Cromwell, Johnson, Vince Newsome and Fox--found themselves fighting for only two safety spots. Cromwell felt the heat.

"Definitely," Cromwell said. "The coaches said that everything was wide open. I approached training camp differently than I ever had."

Cromwell said he put in extra hours on the fundamentals of weight work and footwork. He managed to fight off Fox and keep his starting spot.

After seven games, though, the Rams decided to rotate their safeties in shifts. Johnson and Cromwell now start the first and third quarters, Newsome and Fox the second and fourth.

Although Cromwell still plays in passing situations, the platoon system isn't very popular.

"It's tough for all of us to take," Cromwell said. "Everybody wants to play all the time. It's not greed, just being competitive and wanting to play. But it doesn't do much good to fight it. And as long as we play well, and efficiently, it's hard to argue with."

The Ram defense, which ranked No. 1 for a few weeks this season, currently is No. 3, behind the Chicago Bears and the Raiders.

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