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COMMENTARY : Turner Fits Right In With Fumbling Rams

September 02, 1991|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Tupa, Undefeated Quarterback.

Fritz Shurmur, Defensive Genius.

Phoenix Cardinals, NFL Juggernaut.

The transformation Sunday was miraculous, at least in the uninformed view of Vernon Turner, the newest Ram on the block, who didn't know any better but will very, very soon.

"They need to get on both knees and pray," Turner said, alluding to the team that didn't fumble five times and lose by 10 points at Anaheim Stadium.

"The Cardinals had no business beating us. They are not a better football team. They do not have as much talent. . . . They got very lucky today."

This much is true.

Twenty-seven potential opening-day opponents in the league, and the Cardinals draw the Rams.

Turner wasn't around last year, when the Rams majored in losing, with a minor in turnovers. He is barely off the plane from Buffalo, being waived last week when the Bills determined that the best way to return to the Super Bowl was to try it with a punt returner who returned footballs.

So Turner became a Ram and joined right in. The first punt he fielded, he fumbled. The fourth punt he fielded, he fumbled. On his own, it was an awful way to start, but when you're a Ram, you're never alone.

Turner is still putting names and faces together, so a few introductions might help.

Over here is Tom Newberry, the all-pro guard who has been re-assigned to center. His first two snaps Sunday were crisp, right on the money, but the third left quarterback Jim Everett clutching air. Fumble No. 1, 2 minutes 1 second into the new season.

Over there is Cleveland Gary, who epitomized the old season with 12 fumbles in seven starts as the Rams' 1990 tailback. During the off-season he has been lectured until his ears numbed: Hang onto the ball, gain 1,000 yards. Don't hang onto the ball, gain a seat on the bench.

Sunday, Gary sat down in a hurry. He carried once, no gain. He carried twice, no football. It was the Rams' second fumble of the game, their second in the first five minutes, and after two more carries, Gary was done for the day.

When--and if--he returns, nobody knows for sure.

By the time tight end Pat Carter fumbled away the last pass completion of the first half Everett checked in with two interceptions, the Ram turnover total was seven, the final score read Cardinals 24, Rams 14 and Ram Coach John Robinson looked as if had just seen last season flash before his eyes.

Face ashen, voice cracking, Robinson said he "couldn't remember a more painful loss or a loss that angered me more" and swore that "this is a good football team" that is going to turn it around.

This one hurt, because this was the one September game the Rams were supposed to win. Phoenix went 5-11 last season, same as the Rams, but did it with Timm Rosenbach passing for 3,098 yards and Johnny Johnson running for 926. Sunday, injuries kept both out of the lineup--Rosenbach is gone for the season--so the Cardinals had to go with Tupa, a quarterback who didn't take a snap in 1990, and Anthony Thompson, who started three games last season.

Thompson ran for 60 yards, but had to run 29 times to get them. Two yards and a cloud of dust. Tupa completed 10 of 18 passes, but none for more than 28 yards. It was no-risk football played to the point of overkill.

"This is our team personality," Phoenix Coach Joe Bugel explained. "No turnovers. Whoever's driving the car, don't throw any interceptions. Whoever's running the ball, don't fumble."

To put it another way: Watch everything the Rams do. . . . And do just the opposite.

"You hate to self-destruct," Newberry said. "You only have 16 games to a season. You hate to give any of them away, but that's what we did today."

Now there are 15 games left and the next three for the Rams are on the road--against the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints. If 0-1 looks bad this morning, how is 0-4 going to sound?

Already, the Rams are on alert, scattering before the locker room doors were opened. Gary showered and dressed and made his getaway before the first note pad arrived. Everett dressed in the trainer's room, popping out from behind the yellow curtain only long enough for a couple of sound bites.

"The onus is on the people who touched the ball," Everett said. "We totally beat ourselves. . . . The ball was on the ground all the time. You can't play football that way."

Turner called it the "worst feeling in the world. You know you're responsible for losing a game."

All of Phoenix's points came attached to a Ram turnover, but Turner's glared the brightest. His first fumble resulted in the touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 21-7 halftime lead, enabling Phoenix to fall into its second-half stall. And his second, an ill-advised grab at a football about to dribble to a halt, set up the fourth-quarter field goal that put the game beyond the reach of one two-minute drill.

The first fumble, Turner said, wasn't his fault. "The guy hit me in the funny bone and the ball popped right out," he said. "It would have popped out no matter what." But the second, on second thought, could have been avoided.

"I was just trying to stop the ball from rolling," he said. "My first decision was to leave the football alone. I just took a chance. If I could turn the clock back, I'd have left it alone. . . . "

Just then, Robinson wandered over to Turner's locker and whispered, "You OK?"

Turner nodded.

But he was only speaking for himself. As for the group, facing road games against the past two Super Bowl champions in the next three weeks, OK seems a long way away.

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