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PRO FOOTBALL : At Long Last, Rams Getting the Hang of Zampese's Offense

December 07, 1987|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

PONTIAC, Mich. — Remember that Ram offense of yesteryear? Of yesterweek?

Sweep left. Sweep right. Draw play on anything that resembles third down and double-digits. The Charles White Show, no matter what. And the Eric Dickerson Variety Hours, before him.

Despite the arrival of offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese from the San Diego Chargers, the in-house residence of fellow offense man, Dick Coury, of Coach John Robinson's supposed willingness to experiment with--gasp--a passing game, things still had the look of Paleozoic Era football. Watching the Ram offense was like watching a guy move with a slug in his leg.

Then came Sunday afternoon's 37-16 Ram victory over the Detroit Lions at the Silverdome. As usual, White found himself with a 100-yard day and, this time, a pair of touchdown runs. It took him 29 carries, but White managed to gain 102 yards, thanks mainly to an offensive line that wouldn't mind seeing their man finish with more than the dearly departed Dickerson.

For those keeping count, White now has 1,054 yards for the season. That includes three strike games, but who's counting--except maybe Dickerson.

But then, in a rare joint appearance, the Ram passing game arrived. Quarterback Jim Everett threw for 2 touchdowns and completed 20 of 26 attempts for 324 yards--the best of his brief pro career--and generally looked as if he'd been running this offense since Pop Warner.

It doesn't stop there. Wide receiver Henry Ellard, missing in action for much of the season, had 7 catches for 171 yards--another career best--and 1 touchdown. Ron Brown, all potential until recently, had another impressive game, this time gathering 3 receptions for 93 yards.

By the time it was over, seven Rams caught passes, including little-used running back Jon Francis. So thrilled was Francis by his second-period touchdown catch, that he convinced the referee to return the ball to him after the score. When you score once every Harmonic Convergence, you tend to save these things.

So it took 12 games for the Ram offense to catch up with Zampese. "That's our offense as we would like to see it," Robinson said. "That's what we would like to envision ourselves being."

The Rams have come close, starting with their win over the St. Louis Cardinals four games ago. Recall that 11-minute-plus drive for the victory?

Against the Washington Redskins the following week, the Rams produced 30 points, a non-strike season high . . . until the next game against Tampa Bay, when the Rams left with 35 points and a third consecutive win.

But Sunday's victory over the Lions was the closest mesh of Ram chalk-talks and reality this season. Think of it this way: Dickerson probably hadn't asked for his first renegotiation the last time a Ram quarterback passed for more than 300 yards and a Ram running back gained more than a 100.

And now, for explanations to this sudden Ram offensive surge. The favorites:

--The one big happy family philosophy.

"It's amazing how much attitude, even on the professional level, can make that much of a difference," tight end David Hill said. "Everybody was down in the dumps, wondering why it wasn't happening and then finally everyone started putting their work in, starting to get things done. They started to get their confidence. We thought we had it going into the season, but there were still some people unsure what was going on."

And this from guard Dennis Harrah: "We're playing with confidence now. Why we didn't have it early, I have no idea."

--Hark, the Rams have wide receivers.

Until last Sunday's game against the Buccaneers, Ellard hadn't caught a touchdown pass. Meanwhile, Brown took turns between brilliance and mediocrity.

No longer. In his last two games, Ellard has 12 receptions, 253 yards (about a 21-yard average) and 2 touchdowns. As for Brown, he's a near-lock to surpass his career single-season totals in receptions, touchdowns and yardage.

"Before, we were just missing (on plays)," Brown said. "Now we're successful with the plays we couldn't get."

Said Ellard: "This was what we were looking for at the beginning of the year. Nobody figured it would take this long. Now we're finally getting to that point where we're comfortable with it."

--Simple is better.

According to Hill, the Ram playbook underwent a weight reduction plan. Zampese recently streamlined the number of Ram plays, enough, said Hill, to make a difference.

"We had so many plays going into the game plan at a certain point. I think he broke it down and said, 'We're going to run these plays and make them work.' It doesn't do any good to have a lot of plays when you only run one of them well. During the first part of the year, we were trying to do so many things that people were a little confused."

Now look at the offense: For the second straight week, the Rams have gained more than 420 net yards. Compare that to the 207 yards the Rams gained against the New Orleans Saints in Week No. 3.

--Good fortune.

Ellard, the secondary receiver on a fourth-period play, puts a so-so fake on Lion cornerback Bobby Watkins and then runs upfield. For reasons unknown, Watkins freezes, tries to grab Ellard, and then stumbles.

Back in the pocket, Everett hits his hand against a helmet as he releases the pass. The ball flutters in the air until Ellard, who has come to a near stop, gathers it in and goes 81 yards for the score.

It is the longest scoring catch of Ellard's career; the longest scoring pass of Everett's. "The longest, and the ugliest," Everett said.

Doesn't matter. After enduring seven losses in their first eight games this season, the Rams will take anything presented to them, including jittery Lion cornerbacks and their once-AWOL offense.

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