ANAHEIM — The trauma of job-hunting behind him, Shane Conlan is now dealing with the stress of house-hunting. He's looking for a place in Newport Beach. The realtors keep telling him it's a great time to buy in Southern California, but they're talking to a guy who just sold a home in Buffalo.
Of course Conlan makes about $2 million a year now, so he shouldn't have much trouble finding a place to live. And now he's a Ram, so finding a role he can live with might prove more difficult.
Conlan grew up 70 miles from Buffalo and then went "away" to college--Penn State is a three-hour drive from his home. He played six years for the Buffalo Bills before riding the free-agency train of riches to the West Coast last month. He signed a $5.4-million, three-year deal with the Rams and prepared for the culture shock.
He's sure he can deal with the California weather. But can he deal with the expectations?
Chuck Knox already has labeled him the "keystone of the resurgence of the Ram defense."
He leaves a Buffalo defensive unit loaded with Pro Bowl players--Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley--whose penchant for the spectacular made Conlan's three Pro Bowl appearances a mere Bills' footnote. On April 11, he became the featured star of the Ram defense.
And those guys with the melons on their heads, not to forget a few thousand other die-hard Ram fans, have finished mourning the loss of Kevin Greene and desperately seeking a new working-class hero.
"I think a lot of fans were worried that the Rams wouldn't step up and be competitive in free agency," said Carl Borack, Rams' director of marketing. "But after Shane signed, we got a lot of calls from very happy season-ticket holders who were renewing and interest about available season tickets.
"He was absolutely the catalyst to the recognition on the part of the public that the Rams were serious this year."
At least no one mentioned the word \o7 savior\f7 .
"Sure, there's some (pressure), but then the Rams saw six years worth of film on me, so they knew exactly what they were getting," Conlan said. "I guess if I play my best, it will all work out."
Ram fans have their favorites and Conlan--a square-jawed, Dudley-Doright-lookalike--seems destined for instant popularity.
"If I play well, they'll probably like me," he said with a laugh. "That would be great, but you really can't worry about who's going to like you and who isn't. I've got a job and they're paying me a lot of money to go out and do it."
Conlan has a very simple job description: \o7 Stop the run\f7 .
Atlanta was the only team in the NFL that allowed more yards rushing than the Rams last season and that's no way to win football games. They had two talented 300-pound tackles with one year of experience and figured Conlan was the right man to put behind them. The man to stuff the run.
That's the plan. But will Conlan, 29, be able to execute it? Will he stay healthy? Are his best years behind him? Is there really such a thing as the Big A Curse?
"He's still a young player and he's still a good player," New York Jets General Manager Dick Steinberg said. "We've played against him twice a season for a long time and I've always thought he was a good player and I haven't seen anything lately to make me change my mind.
"Nothing we've seen would indicate he's started to slip. We always had to account for him every time we played him."
Conlan understands that there might be some concern about his health. He has missed parts of four of his six NFL seasons due to injuries, but he has never undergone surgery.
"You have to realize that it's a high-risk position for injuries," he said, "and, of my two most serious (a knee injury in 1989 and an ankle injury last year), neither would have happened if I was playing on grass."
As for those who wonder if he's reached his peak, Conlan knows only time and solid play can dispel those doubts.
"I certainly don't think I'm on the downside," he said. "My rookie year was good and then I went to three straight Pro Bowls. But I think my next two years were the best two of my career and last year, before I hurt my ankle, I was having my best season ever."
Conlan, an inside linebacker in Buffalo's 3-4 defense, will be playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 for the first time, but there's little doubt he can make the transition.
"He's a real instinctive player and that's what you want in a middle guy," Steinberg said. "You want a guy who gets right to the ball and he's always done that. He's always seen things and reacted quickly and I think middle linebacker will be a very good spot for him."
The chance to play the position made famous by the likes of Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary is one of the primary reasons Conlan now spends his afternoons roaming the streets of Newport Beach with a realtor in tow.