Can you call someone The Great Manipulator and mean it in a nice way?
Can you quietly applaud a front man, a public relations expert who happens to dabble in coaching?
Can you respect someone who goes without socks, wears Top-Siders to work and uses the words focused and efficient a lot?
The Rams' John Robinson, bare ankles and all, makes it possible to answer yes.
Robinson is like no other National Football League head coach. He is not X's and O's stuffed into a pair of polyester pants. He is not possessed by his profession. Chalk talks are his least favorite form of conversation.
What Robinson perhaps does better than any coach in the NFL is appease and motivate, explain and inspire. Anyone can diagram a 48 Pitch; now try breathing life into it. Anyone can become a disciplinarian; now do what Robinson does: trust. And when's the last time someone asked you to tiptoe between tightwad management and a roster of 45 players?
Notice how the Rams, despite the ongoing turmoil of the day, manage to find a way into the playoffs? A nasty contract dispute causes Eric Dickerson to miss the first two regular-season games of 1985...and the Rams still defeat Denver and Philadelphia. Henry Ellard, dissatisfied with his salary, is a no-show for the first seven games of the 1986 season...and the Rams go 5-2 during his absence. Canadian import Dieter Brock, perennial backup Steve Dils, ligament-less Steve Bartkowski and newcomer Jim Everett take turns at quarterback in the last two seasons...and the Rams finish 21-11. Charles White is found incoherent on a street corner...and the Rams go on unfazed.
This can't be coincidence. You don't lose your Pro Bowl inside linebacker, Jim Collins, for an entire season and simply hope yourself into a solution. You don't stand idly by as your paycheck, Dickerson, threatens to make less of an effort if yet another salary demand is ignored. You don't chuckle when your Pro Bowl corner back, LeRoy Irvin, disrupts the team with trade demands and what-not.
At least, Robinson doesn't.
"I think he has a way to get a team to focus on those important things, to emphasize them and lay out a plan for everyone to follow," said Fritz Shurmur, Ram defensive coordinator and the lone assistant retained from Ray Malavasi's staff. "He creates an environment in which people can become successful. He does it for coaches and he does it for players. He kind of says, 'Here's the ball, here's what I want; now go to it!'
"So many times...head coachers are concerned about the way (players) dressed, the way they cut their hair, the way they held their forks at the table, how much noise they made in a locker room before and after a game. All those factors aren't really very important to the business at hand."
The business at hand is winning, but not at the cost some coaches are willing to pay. Robinson isn't the kind of guy to pull a cot into his office and spend the night staring blankly at game films while chomping on No-Doz. And it is a rare sight to see a vein bulging from his neck. The man, as Dickerson once observed, is "cool."
And this from linebacker Kevin Green: "Coach Robinson, he's a man who has got it all together and he's passing it on to us. He's regimenting us. He's disciplining us. He's a great leader and a great speaker. Everyone on this team is going to follow him like the rats followed the Pied Piper.
"That's a bad analogy, isn't it?"
Robinson can do some serious verbal tap-dancing. Depending on the situation, he can dazzle you with nonspeak--gibberish, really, that fills notebooks and videotapes but means almost nothing. Other times, his bluntness and freshness make the reams of double talk worth the wait.
Ram players attest to Robinson's oratorical skills. To them, he is Laurence Olivier in Sansabelts. The last place you want to be before a Ram game is near the locker room door. Dangerous, what with that mad rush to reach the field.
"He says things in a way that I haven't heard any other coach say them," Greene said. "He's penetrating. Players listen to him. I'd follow him into battle anywhere."
The Rams, meaning owner Georgia Frontiere, are fortunate. Not only do they employ a talented (and in some ways, underrated) head coach, but they have the perfect critic-proof shield: Robinson. warm, confident, self-assured, Robinson can diffuse nearly all situations.
Frontiere should pay him for two job, public relations and football.
Robinson isn't quite statue material, yet. He makes mistakes and, at times, is stubborn about admitting them.
He goofed on Brock, pure and simple. He asked someone weened on throwing 30 passes a game to hand off. Frustration and doubt, to say nothing of a humiliating playoff loss to the Chicago Bears in 1985, arrived shortly thereafter.
Brock is gone and the Rams are a better team because of it. If nothing else, the entire experience caused Robinson to reasses and fine tune his football philosophies. For this, he should be congratulated.