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TOP OF THE LINE : Ram Blockers Are Enjoying Productive Year

December 12, 1986|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

Dennis Harrah, the eloquent and loquacious right guard of the Rams, once tried to describe your average, everyday offensive lineman.

Harrah pondered his species and came up with "pie face."

You know, as in a big fat slab of mom's homemade apple. It fits if you think of a lineman's head as sort of a wedge, where the neck is actually wider than the cranium.

Think of former Ram tackle Bill Bain.

Pie faces seldom make their way onto freeway billboards or into underwear commercials. Reporters run to pie faces to ask them to describe holding penalties.

"We were the guys that never got to touch the football," Harrah said. "We were the last guy picked in sandlot ball, the guys they would never throw a pass to."

Pie faces stick together. Offensive linemen are the closest unit on a football field. They rely heavily on one another for help on the field and for support away from it.

"To be great," Harrah said. "You've got to like each other. Playing wide receiver is like playing baseball. You could have a bunch of jerks out there and it wouldn't affect anyone."

In the line, though, five men pay for one man's mistake.

So meet five Ram pie faces who like one another.

They are, from left along the line of scrimmage; tackle Irv Pankey, guard Tom Newberry, center Doug Smith, guard Dennis Harrah and tackle Jackie Slater.

They are the men who allow Eric Dickerson to run and Jim Everett to pass.

The Rams' line is enjoying one of its best seasons in years, which is news when you consider that four Rams made the Pro Bowl last season.

The Rams, of course, have a tradition of fielding great offensive lines, dating back to the days of Ken Iman and Charlie Cowan and Tom Mack and Joe Scibelli.

This year's unit may comfortably take a seat next to the best.

This, after the Rams traded perennial All-Pro guard Kent Hill to the Houston Oilers in the deal that brought Everett to the Rams.

The Rams gambled, thinking the rookie Newberry was ready for the National Football League. They were right. In 12 NFL starts, Newberry has allowed one-half a sack.

Harrah said Newberry has picked up the system faster than he ever dreamed.

"He's no dummy," Harrah said. "I wouldn't let him operate on me or anything, but he's smart enough to pick up the stunts."

As you can tell, Newberry has been made to feel right at home.

Others in the line have had big years, but none bigger than Slater.

"He's having the best year of any offensive tackle that I have ever seen play the game," said Harrah, a 12-year veteran. "I know, because I've seen all the film."

But although Slater may be the best, there is no question who holds the line together. It's Harrah, who can crack jokes out of one side of his mouth and bark orders out of the other.

He's the glue, and the prankster.

"He's the link," Ram line coach Hudson Houck said. "When things get bad, they all look over at Dennis to see how he reacts."

A closer look at the hands that protect the stars.

MUMBLES Irv Pankey, starting left tackle, was the only Ram lineman last season not to be named to the Pro Bowl. According to his coaches, he should have made it.

Still, Pankey felt like the one child in the family left behind on vacation.

"I'd like to get there," he said. "But it's not my choice. You just play the best you can."

Pankey is having another big year. The seventh-year Penn State veteran is big--6-5 and 267--but has thin legs and quick feet.

KNUCKLES There are a few things you don't do with left guard Tom Newberry, the rookie from Wisconsin LaCrosse. You don't make him angry and you don't compare your legs with his. Newberry's are like tree stumps.

At 6-1 and 279 pounds, Newberry has great strength and leverage. He says that he has the arm-length of a man 6-5 or 6-6.

Harrah, Newberry's mentor, says long arms are essential in becoming a great pass blocker.

"When Tom rode a bike as a kid, his knuckles would scrape on the ground," Harrah said. "There's no problem there."

Harrah also said: "He can play handball against the curb," "He's only six inches taller than a reporter."

IN THE MIDDLE Center Doug Smith cringes when reporters near, for he knows it can only mean bad news. When Smith plays well, he can dress in peace. No one cares.

But flub a few center snaps, as he did in the opener against St. Louis, and watch the traffic to his locker.

Smith, though, hasn't been bothered much since. It has been a good year.

A nine-year veteran from Bowling Green, he has recovered fully from a head injury suffered near the end of the 1985 season.

THAT'S MR. SLATER TO YOU The starting right tackle since 1979 comes to work each day as if he has this huge corporate meeting on his mind. He's as business-like a football player as you'll find. Slater would look good carrying a briefcase.

"Every second he's on the premises, he's focused on his work" Houck said. "He's a tremendous practice player and competitor."

The 11-year veteran is nearing the end of perhaps his greatest NFL season. This, coming off a season in which he was named to his second Pro Bowl.

Slater states it simply.

"I want to excel at what I do," he said.

PAPPY Harrah, from the University of Miami, can easily tell you why he's still in the game at age 33.

"I hate to get beat," he said. "That's the thing that keeps me here. It's the reason I've lasted as long as I have."

He's a fierce competitor and still one of the best talkers in the league.

Harrah, on officials: "Trying to convince one he's wrong is like trying to convince your wife you're right"

Harrah, when smelling salts couldn't revive him after being knocked out cold in a game earlier this season: "Somebody should have gave me a pair of (teammate) Duval Love's socks."

Harrah, after a game last season: "We're in first place and we stink."

Not bad for an old pie face.

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