Here's a standing headline for the 1980s: Rams Place Three Offensive Linemen in Pro Bowl.
It happened again this week, only this time it raised some eyebrows. The Rams' line, so long a faceless bureau of impressive rushing statistics, faces an identity crisis. It enters Sunday's season finale against the New England Patriots blocking for a tailback who might not reach 1,000 yards for the season.
This isn't DiMaggio's streak here, but the Rams are working on seven consecutive seasons of placing someone in the 1,000-yard club.
Greg Bell needs 73 yards against the Patriots to keep it alive. He hasn't gained that many in one game in seven weeks. Don't count him out yet, Bell insists.
Still, be advised: This is John Robinson's 14th season as a coach, his seventh with the Rams after seven years at USC. Guess how many times he hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher in his backfield?
Robinson guessed none. Actually, it happened during his last year at USC, 1982, when Todd Spencer led the Trojans with 596 yards. You remember what Robinson did next. He left USC to start another streak.
Seven years later, the Rams' running game, once the fabric of their existence, is run of the mill. The team is averaging 111 net rushing yards a game, four below the league average.
In 1984, Eric Dickerson averaged 131.5 yards on his own.
Some blame Bell for the decline--a natural choice. Yet the Rams averaged 125 yards in 1988 with him in the backfield, Bell gaining 1,212 yards to finish fourth in the league.
In fact, most of the running holes have been merely cracks this season. At times, Bell would have been better off carrying a pickax.
Yet, there has been no real panic among the Ram linemen, no calling for heads. Why? Because the Rams are 10-5 and headed for the playoffs, barring an unexpected attack of cold feet in New England.
Still, it surprised some Wednesday when tackle Jackie Slater, center Doug Smith and guard Tom Newberry were named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad.
Were the selections made on reputations alone?
"Personally, my year wasn't an outstanding year, by any means," Smith said Thursday. "But it kind of depends on how everyone else in the league performs. There's a lot of variables involved in it."
Newberry argues that the line only pleads guilty to changing with the times. Where they once built their reputations as run-blockers for the team's former star, Dickerson, they've now become more proficient pass-blockers to protect quarterback Jim Everett, the present and future star.
It seems a logical progression.
"Our pass protection has been better this year than it's ever been," Newberry said. "The big emphasis now is on pass-rushers, and a lot of emphasis is being put on them in the media. I think maybe the pass-blockers are getting more respect from the pass-rushers, by doing a good job against them."
The running game will probably never be what it was because the Rams will not likely be graced with another back the caliber of Dickerson. Besides, with Everett, who has time to run?
The Rams have become a finesse team that rarely practices in full pads, once a midweek tradition to reaffirm their physical style. Today, three of their linemen--Smith, Slater and Irv Pankey--are well into their 30s, so some preservation techniques are welcomed.
The result? The Rams aren't running as much or as well.
"The biggest adjustment is that we're not as sore on Mondays anymore," said Slater, dean of the line at 35. "So it's been real smooth. We strive to have balance on our line and we're going to constantly strive to run the football. We feel like we have to run the football to be successful. I think we kind of got back to doing some of that this past week (against the New York Jets). If we're going to be where we want to be when this is all done, we're going to have to run the football well from this point on."
Slater hasn't been able to pinpoint the problem.
"A lot of things have gone wrong," he said. "You can't put your finger on one particular thing. But I think we've got to do it. We will do it."
Smith said you can't help think \o7 pass\f7 when that's all you do.
"We kind of just started doing it, throwing the ball a lot on first down," he said. "It kind of gets a bit frustrating, but we've always been a good pass-blocking team. Now, we're just doing it more often."
Another reason could be the strategies employed by opposing defenses. Despite the undeniable success of the Rams' passing game, teams persist in stopping their running game with eight- and nine-man defensive fronts.
Meanwhile, the Rams are averaging 263 yards through the air.
Bell suggests if teams want to stop the run while surrendering that kind of yardage, he's willing to get pounded through the Super Bowl.
"They're winning the battles but we're winning the war," Bell said.
Bell said opponents have copied the nine-man fronts used against the Rams by the New Orleans Saints, the NFL's No. 1 team against the rush.