ANAHEIM — Maybe football coaches know something we don't. After nine games this year, four hair-raising plays have been the difference for the Rams, who could just as easily be 3-6 or 7-2, as 5-4.
Truth is, the Rams were never as good as advertised at 5-0 and aren't nearly as bad as they look now at 0-4. They are, uncannily so, what their coach had predicted: a young, talent-laden team with too many defensive soft spots to draw serious conclusions, a team that keeps you running for the antacids.
In retrospect, 5-4 through nine games wasn't so far-fetched, considering the strength of the Rams' schedule through the middle--Buffalo, New Orleans, Chicago, Minnesota, New York Giants. Yet the Rams, as in past seasons, remain the masters of heartstring plucking, first teasing their fans with a red-hot start, then crushing them coldly with stunning losses against the Bills and Vikings.
They've turned reality into a high-wire act, but it's reality nonetheless.
Still, the Rams are quite capable of winning five of their last seven games, and they get Dallas, the New York Jets and the New England Patriots in December.
"If you just accept for a second that we make those plays in those two games," Robinson said Thursday, "we're 7-2, we're right there, you're saying this is a Super Bowl team and that the 49ers' game (Dec. 11) is going to be the one, and all those things. I'm not willing to accept the opposite, that we've all of a sudden lost it all."
It could have been worse, like 3-6.
The four plays?
--Sept. 24, Rams vs. Green Bay Packers at Anaheim Stadium. The Rams led, 38-7, at halftime, but the Packers cut the lead to 38-31 and had a first and goal at the Rams' one-yard line with 11:23 left when Brent Fullwood fumbled just inches short of the end zone with what should have been the game-tying touchdown. The Rams hung on, 41-38.
--Oct. 1, Rams vs. San Francisco in Candlestick Park. San Francisco fullback Tom Rathman, running out the clock on a presumed 12-10 victory, fumbled at the Rams' 19-yard line with 2:59 left. The Rams drove 72 yards and won the game on Mike Lansford's 26-yard field goal with two seconds left. Rathman hadn't fumbled before that moment this season and hasn't since.
--Oct. 16, Rams vs. Buffalo in Rich Stadium. Bills quarterback Frank Reich hits Andre Reed on an eight-yard scoring pass with 16 seconds left to give the Bills a 23-20 victory. This, after the Rams seemed to pull the game out on a 78-yard Jim Everett to Flipper Anderson scoring pass with 1:22 left.
--Nov. 5, Rams vs. Minnesota at the Metrodome. With the Rams leading, 21-18, and 28 seconds remaining, Wade Wilson threw 43 yards to Hassan Jones on a desperation pass, setting up the game-tying field goal with 12 seconds remaining. The Vikings won in overtime, 23-21.
It comes down the this: If Rathman and Fullwood don't fumble, the Rams are probably 3-6 today. Then again, if the Rams make one play on the Bills' final scoring drive, and somebody knocks down Wilson's pass, they're 7-2, and all death-watch warnings are called off.
"But since we didn't make those two plays, now we're 5-4," cornerback LeRoy Irvin said. "I had a chance to make a play, to knock down the Hail Mary, I didn't knock it down, we played a good game that day, but we have to be able to make the play when we have to make it, that's the difference of winning and losing."
So what's wrong with the Rams? If they make two plays, apparently nothing. But since they didn't, everything.
ANYONE SEEN A DEFENSE?
The Rams gambled and lost by trying to tip-toe through the season with tissue-thin depth at inside linebacker. Turns out, they couldn't even make it through training camp. Fred Strickland and Larry Kelm, the projected starters to replace Carl Ekern (retired) and Jim Collins/Mark Jerue (free agent/bad knee), practiced together this week for the first time since August because of injuries. The Rams were left to reconsider some draft decisions, and then were forced to move outside linebackers Mel Owens and Frank Stams inside, which set off a chain-reaction that affected the pass rush and the secondary.
Entering Sunday's game against the New York Giants, the Ram defense ranks 26th overall and 28th against the pass. The Rams have only 17 sacks through nine games. They had 41 through nine last season. The sack total and pass defense ranking relationship cannot be divorced.
The Rams' top draft pick, defensive end Bill Hawkins, has not been the answer to Gary Jeter, who had 11 1/2 sacks in 1988.
Hawkins, who was moved from defensive end to tackle, is still looking for his first sack.
The Rams first tried playing their aggressive Eagle defense without Strickland and Kelm, but were burned unmercifully, and have rolled back into a familiar containment zone. Call it the Silver Stretch Defense. The Rams have at least managed to slow the bleeding some.