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Defense Proves Rebuilding Is Halfway Done

September 20, 1993|MIKE PENNER

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Nineteen games into the massive, multi-million-dollar rehabilitation project known as Rebuild L.A. Ram Football, a philosophical question:

Is half a football team better than none?

For centuries, the great minds of civilization have debated the point, and late Sunday afternoon, while standing in the middle of what used to be a New Jersey swamp, Chuck Knox took his own stab.

"When you lose," Knox declared, "everybody loses."

That was one way to look at it.

"When we win," Knox declared, "everybody wins."

That was another.

There was more:

"It doesn't matter if one unit plays well and the other unit doesn't. Our defense played well and it played hard. It's a young unit, coming together right now. But I don't think anybody here is standing around feeling good about themselves.

"When you lose, you lose."

Put Knox down for a "no" then. He would have to concur with New York Giants cornerback Mark Collins, who waved a finger in Todd Lyght's face during the fourth quarter and then pointed at the scoreboard.

Everybody Called Giants 20, Everybody Called Rams 10.

But half a football team is more than Knox had when he signed on for this salvage job in January, 1992. Less than zero was the contents description then, so, if you're scoring at home, it has taken Knox 19 games to find a defense.

But found a defense he has. It was hard to miss Sunday, stationed on the field for 43 1/2 minutes, tackling Giants' tailback Rodney Hampton 40 times--Hampton scored once--and sacking Phil Simms five times and praying for the Ram offense to convert at least one third-down play.

The prayers of the Ram defense were answered.

The Ram offense converted one of 10 third-down attempts, a scintillating 10%, which was only slighter lower than Jim Everett's completion percentage.

If you're looking for one difference between the Rams of '89, the last time the Rams were any good, and the Rams of '93, you only had to look at one pass Sunday--Everett deep to Flipper Anderson, with Collins covering.

In '89, Anderson catches the ball in full stride and doesn't stop running until the Rams are in the NFC championship game.

In '93, Everett hangs the ball, Anderson has to break stride and Collins reaches up to bat away a sure touchdown.

But if you're looking for the difference between the '92 Rams and the '93 Rams, you look at Hampton's 134 rushing yards and Simms' 217 passing yards and note the bottom line of the Giants' offensive output: One touchdown, two field goals.

The Giant defense tied the Giant offense, one touchdown apiece. "If not for a tipped ball they intercept and run back," Ram safety Anthony Newman said, "it's a 13-10 ballgame."

Not much to brag about, but maybe, finally, something to build on.

Knox had one thing wrong. The players on his defense felt good about the effort extended, the time they spent together, considerable as it was.

"On the defensive side of the ball, our front seven was unreal," Newman said. "And our DBs didn't give Simms anywhere to throw the ball."

Linebacker Chris Martin said the Ram defense was "laughing and joking out there. Whether we had to stay out there 30 minutes or 60 minutes, it didn't matter. We were going to keep at it until we created a fumble or a turnover and created another opportunity for the offense.

"And if the offense can't score, then we have to return a fumble or an interception for a touchdown."

That, the Ram defenders maintained, was their failure Sunday. No offense from the defense. Several mentioned cornerback Darryl Henley's blown opportunity late in the second quarter--pass in the left flat by Simms, batted in the air by Henley, bobbled but not caught by Henley.

"Those are the plays you've got to make," Newman said. "Henley knows that. He was dying on that play. He had a clear field ahead of him. It was a touchdown."

Martin, who played for Kansas City during the Steve DeBerg/Dave Krieg/We Wish We Had Montana years, is familiar with the drill.

"Our offense in Kansas City sputtered most of the time," Martin said. "The defense knew it had to take charge. Take an interception back for a TD. Take a fumble back for a TD. Recover a fumble on the other guy's 18-yard line.

"We've got to do that here, too. We've got to work on our turnover-to-touchdown ratio. We didn't take anything back all the way today."

A shutout against Pittsburgh one Sunday. Going above and beyond the call of duty the next. For the first time in who knows when, Newman could exclaim, "We played some Ram defense today," and didn't have to hide his head while saying it.

"Even late in the fourth quarter, we were still smiling," Newman said. "We were saying, 'Make something happen.' We were punishing their receivers, giving Hampton some hits. We had his lip bleeding, his helmet popped off a couple times.

"We were hurting some people.

"We were having some fun."

And if the offense persists in dragging the party down?

"We can't control what our offense does," Newman noted. "Some things they had today, they were off by inches . . .

"But a team wins together and a team loses together. They can come back next week. They know we have to help each other."

The idea is to get the offense and the defense running stride for stride. To paraphrase Knox, nobody likes a half-fast rebuilding program.

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