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MIKE PENNER

Conlan Deal Belies Ram Past

April 12, 1993|MIKE PENNER

Shane Conlan is not Reggie White, and he is not Pierce Holt, and he is not Tim McDonald.

At the same time, he is not Larry Kelm, so if you're asking how the Rams are doing in the inaugural NFL free-agent standings, the answer is: Better than expected.

Five days after Green Bay outbids San Francisco, Dallas and Washington by blurting "17 million!" at the Reggie White auction, the Rams shell out $5.4 million for Conlan. You tell me which is the bigger upset.

Conlan is a real, live inside linebacker who (a) can see over the line of scrimmage without standing on Sean Gilbert's back; (b) has been known to tackle a fullback before, not after, the 40-yard dash; (c) is younger than Maxie Baughan; (d) has played in three Pro Bowls, most recently in 1991; (e) has played in three Super Bowls, most recently in 1993; and (f) was not waived, cut, released or dumped, but actually had to be wooed away from the starting lineup of the three-time defending AFC champions.

And the Rams got him.

This is a legitimate stop-and-catch-your-breath development, seeing as how the Rams, during the first five weeks of free agency, were behaving pretty much the way we all expected.

Like Rams.

Rather than stockpile Ronnie Lotts and Leonard Marshalls, as the Jets did, or rattle the foundation of the NFC, as the Packers did, the Rams sat back, tentative as ever, doing little more than reading and reacting, plugging holes as they inevitably opened.

They lost offensive tackle Gerald Perry, so they signed offensive tackle Irv Eatman.

They lost outside linebacker Kevin Greene, so they signed outside linebacker Henry Rolling.

Beaten over the head by their crying need for a defensive end, they were all but forced to sign Fred Stokes, whom they had previously let skip to Washington via Plan B. Stokes is a nice player--he had 6 1/2 sacks for the Redskins during their last Super Bowl season--but he is to Reggie White what Michael Stewart is to Tim McDonald, the All-Pro strong safety the Rams also recently failed to sign.

Meanwhile, Tour de Reggie crawled over hill and dale, through small hamlet, major metropolis and Art Modell's living room, before crossing the finish line, 37 days later, in, of all places, Green Bay.

Across the landscape, 60-year-old megamillionaires prostrated themselves at the feet of a Philadelphia Eagle defensive end. Everywhere he stopped, at the clearing of his throat, Reverend White had them kneeling.

In Cleveland, White said he wanted to build a church. Browns owner Art Modell promised to buy him one.

In New York, White said the Jets would look much "more attractive" with Boomer Esiason at quarterback. So the Jets bought Boomer Esiason.

San Francisco offered White Joe Montana's old pedestal. Dallas offered a round trip to Atlanta next January and a starring role in Super Bowl XXVIII. Atlanta offered whatever it could--next season, the Falcons proposed, let's say Jerry Glanville wears all-white.

Late in the negotiations, White announced he would sign with San Francisco if the decision were up to him, but it wasn't. God, White said, would make the final choice.

A week later, White signs with the Packers, confirming a contention Green Bay residents have made for the last 25 years:

Vince Lombardi is God.

The Rams took in all this from the sideline. Depending on one's perspective, they came away looking extremely dignified or extremely cheap.

White was worth getting dirty for. Inch by inch, the Rams had bought back pieces of their long-lost credibility in 1992. They hired Chuck Knox. They drafted--and signed--Gilbert. How about this for a teaser on the cover of the 1993 season-ticket brochure: We Just Replaced Jim Skow With Reggie White.

But the Rams never lifted a finger. They whiled away the time making their tiny little moves and whining about the Raiders tampering with Perry while the rest of the division made major splashes.

A day after losing out on White, the 49ers signed McDonald for $12.75 million.

Pierce Holt, the second-best defensive end on the board, went to Atlanta for $7.5 million.

Finally, the Rams decided to chase one Buffalo linebacker, Carlton Bailey, but the years of penny-pinching and dollar-strangling weighed them down. When told by the Rams that "money is no object," Bailey's agent nearly fainted. Later revived, the agent proceeded to direct his client to the New York Giants.

That left Conlan. The Rams flew him in for a tour of the place. Stunningly, Conlan said he liked what he saw, including the numbers after the dollar sign on the contract.

Maybe Al Smith, Houston's Pro Bowl middle linebacker, would have been the preferable fit. Conlan has never played middle linebacker as a pro, injuries limited him to 12 starts last season and, aside from the Bills, the Rams were the only team in serious competition for his services.

But unlike Smith, a restricted free agent, Conlan was affordable, attainable and--soak this in--amenable to the idea of moving from Buffalo to Orange County. Three for three and surprise, surprise.

The Rams have traded up, without a doubt, but they might not be the only ones. The team Conlan leaves lost to Dallas by 35 points. The team he joins owns the Cowboys. Whipped them good, 27-23, last year.

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