It has taken John Robinson six seasons to break every significant coaching record in Rams' history. And this is a franchise that has been around 52 years.
He's the all-time leader in wins (58), losses (44) and games coached. Robinson led his team to the playoffs five times in that span and won the National Football Conference Western Division title in 1985.
Yet, he's also been haunted by the brilliance of coach Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, who have captured two NFL championships to Robinson's none since 1983. Robinson learned that being good wasn't good enough in the NFC West. Robinson took the Rams to the mountaintop once, in 1985, but was squashed in the NFC title game by the Chicago Bears.
Getting back hasn't been easy. The blockbuster trade of Eric Dickerson in 1987 knocked the organization off its feet, but Robinson made sure the setback was temporary. The team rebounded from that 6-9 season and returned to the playoffs in 1988.
This year, Bill Walsh has moved to the broadcasting booth. And some think Robinson has his best team. During a recent break in training camp, Robinson discussed the upcoming season. Question: What's it like going into the season with so many young players?
Answer: I think it's equally exciting and scary. I think we're a club that's definitely on the rise, we have an awful lot of pieces of the puzzle. Fitting them together seems to me to be the main issue at hand. We have a lot of young people that desperately need experience and the opportunity to play before they're really ready to contribute.
Q. Considering the 80-man roster limitations, injuries and the prolonged holdouts of Greg Bell and Damone Johnson et al, this seemed to be your most difficult training camp. I mean, how does an NFL team run out of tight ends?
A. Ironically, our injuries have come right in the same spots our holdouts are. It's the obvious things, if you got a guy missing, the people there have to take more turns and are more vulnerable to injury. But as we get closer (to the start of the season), things begin to fit in together a little bit. We either have the player who's holding out, he either settles his deal, or you have to go on without him.
Q. As the coach, though, you're stuck on the fence in negotiations between loyalty to management and loyalty to your players. How do you cope with that?
A. It's a very volatile time in pro sports, and there's no other place for the coach to be but somehow trying to be a link between those two things, or trying to hold those two parts together. It's folly to assume that management of any pro team is going to give players just what they want. It's also folly to assume that players aren't going to keep demanding more salaries. That's a constant battle that goes on now.
Q. But can you really stay loyal to both?
A. I think so. The big struggle that comes here is that the amount of money has increased, and there's always a third party in terms of an agent. Other issues become involved. And you're dealing with very young people, and you're dealing with egos. And everything is in the newspapers. You're not intimately involved with the negotiations of a major entertainer with Caesars Palace, or some casino in Las Vegas. You don't hear, 'Well, they upped the offer to $10 million.' But in pro sports, you hear it on a daily routine.
Q. But prolonged holdouts only hurt the product of the Rams, which only hurts your chances to be a successful coach. Doesn't that hit close to home?
A. The solution oftentimes for some people is 'Why doesn't management just pay them?' Well, that's not the right solution. Neither is it all the way on the other side: Why doesn't the player just come in and work? It's a normal process in our society--to bargain for work. It just so happens this happens to be public and more volatile then we're used to.
Q. Conversely, though, some would say that San Francisco 49er owner Edward DeBartolo doesn't care how much money it takes to win. And he's won three Super Bowl championships. Does it hurt the Rams to be fiscally responsible?
A. That's one of the unique things about this business. People are prepared to lose millions to win. I think we've done well, when you look at us over the last couple of years. Our players have been in. We haven't had long holdouts. I think we've provided some standards. It's my personal observation, and I don't know that much about money, that this thing becomes erratic when management and players behave erratically. And we certainly haven't behaved erratically in any of this. There's been a steady plan the Rams have been on and we haven't gone off the cliff one way or another on our behavior. And I think that's one thing this league needs to do is to behave in a steady manner.
Q. But some of your players think the 49ers do what it takes to win and the Rams don't. That has to be frustrating?