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Tough Enough : Rams' Phifer Adds Some Muscle to His Finesse Game

August 25, 1993|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Roman Phifer was born to be a Ram. At least he was named after one. His father's favorite player was Roman Gabriel.

The similarities pretty much end with the name and the helmet design, though.

Gabriel was known for his ability to stand in the pocket and take hits. He didn't move much, but he wasn't easily moved, either. Phifer's fluid athleticism sometimes seems out of place at linebacker. Lots of smooth; maybe not enough smash.

The perception that he isn't aggressive or physical has haunted Phifer since he played in a defensive scheme at UCLA that featured his considerable skills covering receivers. Last summer, he lost the battle for a spot in the opening-day starting lineup to Paul Butcher, whose claim to fame was his disregard for personal health as a special teams player.

When Butcher injured his foot in the opener, Coach Chuck Knox talked about starting Scott Stephen, who had been plucked off the waiver wire a week earlier. Linebacker coach Dick Selcer admitted Stephen couldn't really play--"He would've blown 18 coverages"--but the message was clear. Phifer was a depth charge on the depth chart.

"I tried to shake it off, but it was a blow," Phifer said. "Obviously, there was something missing. Something I wasn't showing the coaches. Something that was keeping them from wanting to play me.

"I guess maybe sometimes it looks like I'm cruising, I don't know. Maybe it makes a bad impression. But it's not the case. I consider myself a hard worker and I want to do everything I can every day to get better.

"So I just tried to stay focused and prepared so I would be ready to show what I could do if I did get the opportunity to play."

His motivational point made, Knox named Phifer the starter for the second game and Phifer responded with the best game of his career. He had seven solo tackles and a fumble recovery against New England and ended up starting 14 games in '92.

"He's made a big improvement," Knox said. "He grew up a lot last year and he really came on. He's a guy who can run and who will hit you and now he's comfortable with the defense."

These days, Phifer is almost a fixture at right linebacker, but that doesn't mean he's forgotten the lessons of last year.

"Roman is a very smart guy," Selcer said. "You're not talking to a tree. And he's sensible enough to understand what Chuck means when he says, 'Only a fool won't hear what I'm saying.' We had a couple of long discussions about it and he assimilated the message.

"He's got a better perspective on the improvements he needs to make and he's really made strides in camp this summer. He's jumped the next level up in terms of becoming the so-called complete player. He's still an excellent cover guy, but he's played the running game much more physically and more responsibly."

He will never be the biggest or strongest linebacker in the league, but Phifer dedicated his off-season to weight lifting and weight gain, beefing up to 240 pounds of what Selcer admiringly refers to as "all functional weight."

"I'm down to 237 right now," he said. "It's pretty hard not to lose a little during two-a-days, but I'm maintaining it now and I feel good at this weight.

"I'm also doing everything I can to increase my knowledge of how the run is played and I'm working hard on techniques, trying to take the right steps toward erasing that image of me as not physical enough. Sure, there's still plenty of room for improvement, but there also have been some times when I showed that I have the potential to be a good run stopper."

Phifer broke his leg and missed the last five games of his rookie season, and he struggled at times with assignments early last year. But he's approaching his third season with the confidence of a man in a comfort zone.

"Last season, there was more pressure as far as trying to fight for a position and trying to learn the scheme at the same time," Phifer said. "This year, I don't have to think as much. I can react on instincts more and that allows me to focus on other things."

If Phifer is to hold his own against the running game, he needs to master the techniques necessary for a smaller player to succeed against a larger one.

"How to bend your knees, how to uncoil to get that explosion, how to use your hands, how to see it coming and then getting your body in the right position to deal with it, those are the keys," Selcer said. "And Roman has jumped a whole level because he understands how to approach those areas where he needs to improve."

Phifer also is benefiting from the experience that free agents Shane Conlan and Henry Rolling have brought to the linebacking corps. Conlan played six years with Buffalo and Rolling three each with Tampa Bay and San Diego.

"Those are two players I can really learn from," Phifer said. "They can only make me better and it's been fun getting to know them "

Conlan and Rolling might be wondering why a lot of folks around Rams Park call Phifer "Zubinski." It's just another of his father's legacies. Zubinski is his middle name.

Don't get out any old Ram programs in search of a player named Zubinski, though. Phifer's father, searching for "something catchy to go along with Roman," got that one while flipping through the phone book.

Obviously, he started at the back.

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