ANAHEIM — Vaughn Dunbar has painfully learned the reality of life as an NFL running back.
He was the first-round draft choice. The highly touted rookie. The savior of the New Orleans Saints' running game.
People talked and Dunbar listened. Then the season began.
"I definitely thought I was going to come in and make an impact," Dunbar said. "I'll admit it. I rushed things too much. I heard all the talk and it messed my game up."
Of course, it was nothing a little seasoning couldn't cure. Dunbar is cooking now, collecting yards, not accolades.
The Rams spent much of Sunday looking for Mr. Dunbar. He cut and slashed his way to 91 yards, and looked remarkably like the guy everyone was talking about before the season.
"You have to take your lumps," Dunbar said. "But once you get another chance, you have to prove that you are worthy of being back out there."
Dunbar took his lumps, now he's giving them.
He started Sunday's game No. 3 on the Saints' depth chart. But when starter Fred McAfee separated a shoulder, Dunbar was suddenly elevated.
"We had planned to use Vaughn some today," New Orleans Coach Jim Mora said. "When Freddie got hurt, it became a necessity."
Dunbar had key runs on two scoring drives. He also bulled one yard for a touchdown in the third quarter.
"That was the best he's looked," Mora said. "I knew he was capable of doing these things."
Dunbar was projected to be a starter. He had the resume for the job, having gained 1,805 yards as a senior at Indiana.
The Saints were in the market for just such a runner. After all, McAfee was the team's leading rusher in 1991 with only 494 yards.
But Dunbar found the job description a little different in the NFL.
"I had uncertainties," he said. "I didn't hit the hole as hard as I wanted because I wasn't sure I was making the right reads. I had to learn."
He did so by the seat of his pants, while sitting.
Dunbar's days as a starter came to an end Oct. 11 against the Rams. He had gained 68 yards during the game, but also fumbled in a key situation.
Dalton Hilliard started in his place the next week.
Dunbar came into Sunday's game as the Saints' leading rusher with 440 yards. But he was averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
His playing time had decreased to a point where he hardly got off the bench the past four games.
"That was kind of embarrassing," Dunbar said. "I felt like I was being punished."
But the time off helped. Dunbar watched, listened and learned, then waited.
"I wasn't in school anymore, but I hit the books," Dunbar said. "I used the time to get the offense down. I'm ready to roll now."
As the Rams found out Sunday. Dunbar had five runs of 10 or more yards, including an 18-yard gain that set up the Saints' final touchdown.
"That hole was so big, I thought I was going to faint," he said. "The line did an incredible job. The holes were definitely there."
And so was Dunbar, to fill them--just as everyone predicted.
Only, this time, he's not listening.
"I learned I'm a rookie," Dunbar said. "I'm not going to come out and be a Barry Sanders-type in my first season. But I can almost guarantee I'm going to put up the numbers for a while."
Wide receiver/punt returner Emile Harry, a graduate of Fountain Valley High School, had a 12-yard reception Sunday, his first as a Ram.
Harry, a former Kansas City Chief, was signed three weeks ago to replace return specialist Vernon Turner, who was released. Harry was activated last week, but was used only to field punts.
Jim Everett had the longest run of his career Sunday, when he scrambled 22 yards in the third quarter. His previous best was a 19-yard run against San Diego in 1988.
Everett, who is more of a loper than a runner, finished with 41 yards in four carries against the Saints. Still, he'll never be confused with the 49ers' Steve Young or the Eagles' Randall Cunningham. Sunday's total gave Everett a meager 124 yards rushing this season.
Everett paid the price on one carry. He ran for nine yards in the third quarter, but was knocked flat by Saint linebacker Vaughan Johnson.
Linebacker Pat Swilling, one of the NFL's most exciting outside pass rushers, says he's been getting a kick out of watching the Saints' offense roll up and down the field recently.
"Just seeing those guys picking up the points, knocking guys off the ball, it's great," he said. "Our offense doesn't get much credit, but they've been doing a good job of ball possession all year and now they're really scoring points.
"We're on fire offensively and that will spell trouble for a lot of teams down the road, because we know we can keep them out of our end zone."
Tailback Cleveland Gary's 58 rushing yards leaves him 19 yards short of becoming the first Ram runner since 1989 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Greg Bell gained 1,137 yards in '89 after rushing for 1,212 the previous season.
In one fell swoop, with Sunday's loss to the Saints, the Rams mathematically eliminated themselves from the NFC playoff race and clinched their third consecutive losing season.