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Retooled Passing Game Fails Its First Test, and Rams Run Out of Gas

September 14, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

HOUSTON — On the very first day of their new era, you didn't expect the Rams to show off all the dazzling tricks in their revamped offense, like completed passes.

But somehow, you expected more. This wasn't a dawning, it was a yawning.

The only real flash of offensive innovation came late in the third quarter, when they unveiled a new dive play. On third and three at the Ram 34, quarterback Jim Everett took the snap, pivoted, faked a handoff to Eric Dickerson, tripped on Dickerson's left leg and dived backward for a six-yard loss.

In the playbook, this one is called "banana peel."

As the game wore on, the Rams' new offense tended to look frighteningly similar to the old one, which consisted of Eric Dickerson, up close and personal and in your face. Dickerson ran the ball 27 times, which was one time too many. On the 27th carry, in Ram desperation time, he fumbled, and that was the ballgame, the Houston Oilers winning, 20-16.

It should have been a great day for Eric Dickerson, the dawning of a new era when the Rams' air game would relieve him of the weekly duty of carrying an offense on his shoulders. Maybe next week.

Minutes after the game, Ram Coach John Robinson delivered the most stinging analysis in the history of John Robinson teams. His voice cracking with emotion, Robinson said, "I was bitterly disappointed. . . . We just completely fell apart in the second half. . . . The most disappointing thing was the lack of enthusiasm or just will to win."

Dickerson wasn't surprised at Robinson's uncharacteristic outburst.

"He couldn't defend us," Dickerson said. "We blew it. We played rotten. I could feel it. We played rotten football. We weren't coming off the ball. . . . I think we got very lackadaisical and kind of relaxed."

Perfect for a Sunday picnic. But this was opening day, the dawning of a new era, and lackadaisical and relaxed was not exactly the mood Robinson and Dickerson were looking for.

"Was I shocked?" Dickerson said, referring to the Rams' performance. "Shocked is an understatement."

Ram tackle Jackie Slater probably described the game best, saying, "It was a combination of things--a breakdown here, a breakdown there."

Everywhere a breakdown. E-yi-ee-yi-ouch.

And remember, it's not too early to panic. The Rams may already have blown the season. If the NFL players go on strike the day they have set as their negotiating deadline, the entire NFL season will consist of two games per team. In that case, the Rams are dead meat and the Oilers' magic number is one.

Dickerson is probably hoping for a longer season, and he surely was hoping for a better start. After fumbling three times in the final game last season, a playoff loss at Washington, Eric had an off-season you wouldn't wish on Tammy Bakker or Ollie North. Dickerson came into this season underpaid and over-sued, and hoping for better things.

The setting was right. The Rams opened in Eric's old back yard, in the Astrodome, 40 miles from his hometown of Sealy. Dickerson took five teammates home Saturday night for a Sealy barbecue. He got 40 tickets to the game for family and friends. Through three quarters Sunday afternoon, the homecoming was looking real solid, with Eric closing in on 150 yards rushing.

The second time he touched the ball in the new era, he zipped around right end for 57 yards. In the new, balanced offense, you had to figure Eric was holding up down his end of the scales.

Early in the fourth quarter Dickerson got off an 11-yard run on a play designed in his mind. Dickerson started right, hit a wall, cut back left and brutally straight-armed an Oiler defensive back--a Dickerson autograph.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the new era. Eric fumbled and the Rams stumbled.

Nevertheless, after the game, outside the Astrodome, in the steaming heat of late afternoon, Dickerson's family and friends and fans waited for their hero.

There was his mother, Viola, who is actually his great aunt. There was his mother, Helen, who is actually his mother. And there was another woman who identified herself as "Eric's third mother." Anyone got a scorecard? The Angels' pitching staff should be this deep.

There were Eric's two lovely sisters, a brother, a few cousins, and Eric's girlfriend, Katie Russo, who looks like Brooke Shields on stilts.

Viola Dickerson, who raised Eric and lives in the palace he built for her in Sealy, waited well outside the outskirts of the group of fans clamoring for a moment with her son. It is Viola whom Eric phones after every game, and also before every game, "So I can pray for him."

Was Viola disappointed at the way the day had turned out?

She shook her head and said, "He's still my baby."

Until the Rams' new era actually dawns, those are John Robinson's sentiments exactly.

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