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CAMP OPTIMISM : Rams' Robinson Says That He'll Accept Nothing Less Than a World Championship

July 19, 1987|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

Perhaps for the first time since the Rams left Cleveland, their coach is about to start a training camp without being shadowed by a cloud of doubt.

For once, he will not have to praise and then pronounce the province from which his quarterback hails. No longer will he have to produce references when introducing his offensive coordinator.

No longer will he look you square in the eye and then gracefully lie about his passing game or its talent and toughness.

Starting today, John Robinson will forthrightly lean back in his chair, loosen his tie and swear on a stack of new Ram playbooks: "Anything less than a world championship would be a disappointment."

It is the message he intends to pound into the head of every wide-eyed rookie and free agent who checks into training camp tonight at Cal State Fullerton, and the sermon he will deliver July 26 when the veterans report.

"If there is a theme, that is it," Robinson said.

If this seems a dangerous departure for a coach who considers the implications of every spoken word, so be it.

Robinson, with a new five-year contract, seems as relaxed and secure and confident as ever.

And perhaps there is reason, though the most recent memory of the Rams remains the fizzle-and-dissolve manner in which they ended the 1986 season--three straight losses, including a 19-7 defeat by the Washington Redskins in the playoffs.

But poking holes in or fun at the Rams won't be so easy this season.

Robinson has taken great strides to shore up his team's weaknesses. The first step was trading for quarterback Jim Everett last September. The second was stealing offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese away from the San Diego Chargers. Zampese, the noted mastermind of the Charger passing game, is regarded with reverence in National Football League circles.

With that gaping credibility gap nicely plugged and glued, Robinson can get on with other things, namely what he does best.

"No question, the last couple of years there was a constant worry," Robinson said of his team's pass offense. "I was adjusting in an area I would like not to be as involved in. The physical parts--running, defense, special teams--those are the areas I really see myself getting back into."

The Rams finished last in the NFL in passing the last two seasons. Zampese is here to strike a happy medium with Eric Dickerson and the running game.

The Rams had far fewer problems on defense, finishing fifth overall and lacking only a strong pass rush to be ranked higher. The team had 17 fewer sacks, 39, last year than in the previous season.

Here, Robinson thinks he has found the answer with second-round draft choice Donald Evans, a defensive end with great speed and strength. Evans will be thrown into the starting lineup immediately and will be asked only to rudely acquaint himself with opposing quarterbacks.

Also, Robinson is expecting a monster year from the Rams' monster man, roving linebacker/lineman Kevin Greene, who tunes up for games by listening to old war songs.

The problem right now is that the Rams only look real good on a chalkboard.

"Of course, we're going to have to prove it," Robinson said.

There are also potential snags and distractions that stand in the way of Robinson and a possible dream season, specifically:

--Henry Ellard. The Rams' leading receiver and a crucial cog in Zampese's pass offense was an 89-day holdout last season and seems headed for another long contract dispute. This has become a battle not only of money but of personalities. Mike Blatt, Ellard's agent, and Ram Vice President John Shaw have become locked in a heated and often ugly stalemate.

Ellard agreed to a nine-game contract to finish out the 1986 season, but the free agent is essentially back in the same spot he was a year ago.

Robinson, clearly frustrated, has no doubt exerted pressure to force a resolution but apparently to no avail.

"This thing is ridiculous and it's been ridiculous," Robinson said. "This can't happen this year. If he's not here, we're going to have to do something, and I don't want to talk about it anymore than that."

--Evans. The rookie from Winston-Salem State is also unsigned, and Robinson said flatly that Evans cannot afford to miss any part of training camp.

"If he misses next week and any of the following week, it's over," Robinson said. "The first year will be history for him. Those are the inevitable realities."

It's tough talk from Robinson, but he can only refer to last year and the costly holdout of first-round choice Mike Schad, who missed the first three weeks of training camp in a contract dispute and fell so far behind at offensive tackle that he never recovered.

--Eric Dickerson. It remains to be seen whether personal problems will have any effect on last season's NFL-leading rusher (1,821 yards). In May, he filed a $12.5-million suit against former agent Jack Rodri, claiming that Rodri mishandled his money and left him with some cash-flow and liquidity problems.

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