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A Comfortable Phifer Is Making Foes Uneasy : Rams: Beefed-up linebacker says he finally can play by his instincts without fearing for job.

August 25, 1993|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 there, 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 quite enough smash.

The perception that he isn't aggressive enough has haunted Phifer ever since he played on a defense at UCLA that had him covering receivers. Last summer, he lost the battle for a spot in the opening-day lineup to Paul Butcher, whose claim to fame was his disregard for his own well-being as a special-teams player.

When Butcher suffered a foot injury in the opener, Coach Chuck Knox talked about starting Scott Stephen, a player plucked off the waiver wire a week earlier. Linebacker coach Dick Selcer acknowledged that Stephen couldn't really play--"he would've blown 18 coverages"--but the message was clear.

"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 chose Phifer to start 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 has forgotten the lessons of last year.

"Roman is a very smart guy," Selcer said. "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 weightlifting and weight gain, beefing up to 240 pounds of what Selcer refers to as "all functional weight."

"I'm down to 237 right now," Phifer 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 suffered a broken leg and sat out the last five games of his rookie season and struggled at times with assignments early last season. But he's approaching his third season with confidence.

"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."

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

Around Rams Park, Phifer is known as Zubinski. It's just another of his father's legacies. Zubinski is Phifer's 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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