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Rams' Lyght Will Probably Replace Gray : Pro football: After embarrassing loss to Falcons, it appears former all-pro cornerback will lose his job to rookie.

October 29, 1991|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although John Robinson clearly did not want to say so Monday, it is almost certain that four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jerry Gray's grip on a starting job will be the most dramatic casualty of Sunday's embarrassing 31-14 beating by Atlanta.

Barring a sudden change of heart, Gray will be replaced at left cornerback by No. 1 pick Todd Lyght.

Gray, along with Kevin Greene one of the last pillars of the Rams' old defensive guard, has been beaten for touchdown passes or long passes that set up touchdowns in five of the team's eight games, including a 55-yard scoring pass Sunday.

Lyght replaced Gray after the third-quarter touchdown by Falcon receiver Mike Haynes Sunday, and the Rams apparently believe that they must begin thinking ahead--and that a rookie could do no worse than Gray, still hampered by a knee injury he suffered last season.

Lyght has played sparingly so far this season because of a long contract holdout and minor hip and ankle injuries, but was the fifth pick overall in the draft and is being paid an average of $1.1 million a season.

Although he hasn't made an especially rapid adjustment to the pro game, and although he struggled some Sunday, the Rams see a bright future for Lyght.

"Obviously, Jerry Gray got beaten on coverage," Robinson said Monday, choosing his words carefully. "We put Todd Lyght in to . . . give him an opportunity to play, and we will make a decision. . . . We're going to increase Todd's playing time, and increase his playing time at left corner.

"Exactly what our decision is there, we're going to take a little longer to deal with that. I don't have any further comment relative to Jerry."

There is every indication that the Rams will make the move Wednesday. Lyght had a meeting with defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher Monday to discuss his situation.

After the game, Gray seemed to understand that his demotion was inevitable and said he was pained by his inability to cover some receivers he is used to shackling.

With right cornerback Darryl Henley--who was originally scheduled to go the bench once Lyght was ready--playing well, Gray has been picked on by opposing quarterbacks.

And although he has made several big plays--including an interception for a touchdown--he has had a difficult time adjusting to Fisher's man-to-man scheme.

Gray flourished in Fritz Shurmur's soft zone, able to play well off the receiver then attack quickly once the pass was thrown with help coming from all sides. In the man-to-man, Gray has often been left alone, relying solely on his own speed and reactions.

Since tearing a ligament in his left knee in the team's final exhibition game of 1990, Gray has lacked the zip he had on his way to Pro Bowl berths four times since 1986.

Gray concedes that he has lost speed, especially when he tries to make the last, crucial push to the ball. This year, when receivers get past him, he has not been able to make up ground.

Because of that loss of speed, Gray probably won't play a major role now even in nickel situations, unless it is as an extra safety. Extra cornerbacks usually play the slot receivers, which means there's an added emphasis on quickness and the ability to change directions on the run.

Gray has often suggested that his best position, given his size and experience, would be free safety.

When he was asked if he thought his problems could be cured by moving to safety, Gray could only chuckle cynically.

"Who knows? We've talked about that for six years," he said. "So I don't want to talk about that for six (more) years."

Gray has made his preference known to the Rams' new defensive staff but still is a 28-year-old defensive back on a team desperate for youth.

The Rams already have three younger, faster safeties--Pat Terrell, Anthony Newman and Michael Stewart--and have no plans to add Gray to the mix. He could be a backup, but it is unlikely the Rams will keep a player who makes $725,000 a season as a backup for long.

So, a player who has given the Rams some tremendous football over the years appears to be in limbo.

"I would like to stick with what I said," Robinson said. "We're evaluating this situation in terms of how much time Todd Lyght gets there, how we're going to structure our practices, and if we are going to have Jerry work as a safety.

"Those things we would be forthcoming (about) once we make final decisions on them."

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