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ANALYSIS : PRO FOOTBALL : It Takes Some Digging to Find Bright Spot

September 06, 1993|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MILWAUKEE — The Pack is back, and so, unfortunately, are the Rams.

From the same folks who brought you Buffalo 40, Rams 7 in last year's opener comes Green Bay 36, Rams 6.

Well, everybody did say the Rams' defense was going to be improved.

From the tailback who led the team in touchdowns last season comes a scoring play on his third carry from scrimmage. Pitch to Cleveland Gary, sweep left, tackle by Brian Noble in the Rams' end zone, 2-0 lead for Green Bay.

From the quarterback who failed to produce a touchdown pass or a completion longer than 24 yards during the exhibition season comes 24 misfires in 41 passes, two interceptions, no touchdowns and no completion longer than 25 yards.

From the defensive front that ranked 27th against the run in 1992 comes a trail of missed tackles and cleat-marked jerseys long enough to escort Packer fullback Edgar Bennett into the end zone for the first two touchdowns of his professional career.

From the secondary that ranked 24th against the pass comes a leap by cornerback Todd Lyght, a leap by safety Pat Terrell, a tip by Lyght, a tip by Terrell and a look-what-I-found 50-yard touchdown catch by innocent bystander Sterling Sharpe.

From the receiving corps that couldn't catch a bus with the exact change comes one bobble, two bobbles, three bobbles by tight end Travis McNeal and--pop--goes the ball into the waiting arms of Packer safety LeRoy Butler.

From the coach who had to stand there and watch it all--it's in his contract--comes this:

"We couldn't make a play. Not offensively, not defensively, not on special teams. . . . Green Bay just outplayed us every way you could."

Chuck Knox was wrong about that, however.

The Rams' free-kick-after-giving-up-a-safety team clearly outplayed the Packers, which is a promising sign, for it could be in for a lot of work. Punter Don Bracken punched the ball so high, the Packers lost it in the cloud cover, allowing it to skip into the hands of Ram Steve Israel. Israel recovered and, five plays later, Tony Zendejas kicked a field goal.

Let the record show that the Rams led after 6 1/2 minutes, 3-2.

In the NFL, there are bromides and there are bromides. Some are consumed by members of the Ram coaching staff after games such as Sunday's, others are spoken words regarded around the league as gospel.

For instance:

"The NFL exhibition season is meaningless."

Come again?

The Rams went 0-4 this exhibition season.

They looked positively terrible doing it.

Sounds like something to take to the bank to me.

Who made the worst trade of pro football's off-season? Come back, Shane Conlan. Conlan traded a roster spot with the three-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills for weekly head kicks when he signed a free-agent contract with the Rams.

All those Super Bowl disasters must wear on a man. After Pasadena last January, Anaheim sounded good to Conlan--enough, apparently, to overlook the franchise's 14 victories and 34 defeats in the 1990s.

"I wasn't blind," Conlan said after Sunday's eye-opener. "I knew what I was getting into. But did I think the first game would end up like this?

"No.

"(Stuff) happens."

Painful stuff. Conlan, the Rams' $2.4-million middle linebacker, was doing what he is paid to do, chasing a ballcarrier on the Packers' second play from scrimmage, when a troublesome groin muscle let out a yell.

"The second play, " Conlan grumbled, shaking his head. "One of those things. By the middle of last week, it was feeling pretty good in practice, but until you really unload on someone, you really don't know how strong it is."

Conlan immediately retired to the Ram sideline, returning for a couple of cameo appearances in the second and third quarters. Replacing him was one Thomas Homco, one of three Northwestern alums on the Ram roster, which might be part of the problem.

The Rams have no players from Alabama, no players from Nebraska and merely a punter from Michigan, but in Homco, wide receiver Richard Buchanan and offensive tackle Darryl Ashmore, they have three former mighty Wildcats of Northwestern, where football players major in 36-6 losses.

Conlan never won any final games with Buffalo, but he never had any opening games like this.

"I don't think I ever lost an opener," he said. And while new teammates around him chirped about this being only one game and sharing the same record with 13 other teams, Conlan took Sunday's debacle for what it was.

"Is it a setback? Absolutely," Conlan said. "Any time you lose a game it's a disappointment, but when it's as bad as this it's worse."

Knox was so depressed that the only "encouraging thing" he could think of was "the running of Jerome Bettis in the second half." That amounted to 24 yards on five bolts through the middle.

"It'll get better," Conlan promised, but then, he's new here. What does he know? Lyght has been a Ram for all of 33 regular-season games, but he has seen enough to tell Conlan a few things.

"We play the Pittsburgh Steelers next week," Lyght said. "It's not going to get any easier, that's for sure."

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