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RAM NOTEBOOK / T.J. SIMERS : Surprisingly, Gary Is a Starter

September 24, 1993|T.J. SIMERS

The Rams made it obvious during the offseason that they were no longer interested in handing the ball to Cleveland Gary on a regular basis.

They used first- and third-round selections in the NFL draft on running backs, and granted Gary permission to work out a deal that would send him elsewhere.

A week ago, they started rookie Jerome Bettis against the Giants because Gary was unable to play because of a thigh bruise. Bettis leads the Rams in rushing, and appeared a lock to start against the Oilers--until Thursday when Coach Chuck Knox announced Gary's return to the starting lineup.

Why Gary and not Bettis?

"He's had the experience and he's well," Knox said.

Knox said Bettis, "is about 100%," but then indicated Bettis is still bothered by a bruised sternum suffered two weeks ago against the Steelers.

"That's a consideration," Knox said in returning Gary to the starting lineup, "but that's not the No. 1 thing . . . the other thing is Cleveland will be our nickel back."

The Rams believe they performed poorly on third down Sunday because Gary was unable to play. Gary, the team's leading receiver in 1992, provides quarterback Jim Everett with an easy target out of the backfield in obvious passing situations.

Gary, however, has averaged only 2.3 yards per carry this season, while Bettis has checked in with 4.4 yards per carry and a 29-yard touchdown--the team's longest run to date.

Gary is healthy, though, and Bettis is not ready to become the team's primary ballcarrier.

"I'm not 100%," Bettis said. "If they want to keep me going for the long haul, then I need to slow it down and not run through every snap. I can play for one or two plays at a time, but I have a breathing problem when I go longer than that."

*

Knox is the sixth-winningest coach in NFL history, a man whose autobiography is titled, "Hard Knox."

He welcomes challenges, which makes his response to the following question Thursday almost comical:

"Do you enjoy facing the run-and-shoot?" he was asked.

"I don't particularly enjoy facing any of them," Knox said. "You know, I wish there was no offense out there. Why would I enjoy it? I wish they'd come out there and play with nobody."

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Linebacker Shane Conlan, who played with Buffalo last season, considers last season's 41-38 playoff overtime victory against Houston "one of the most memorable moments of my career."

"When we came out of the locker room at the half trailing something like, 32-3, we were saying things like, 'Don't get hurt in the second half. Don't dog it out there because that's how you get hurt.'

"Then I remember talking with (safety) Mark Kelso as the touchdowns started to come and saying, 'One more score and we're in this thing.'

"I remember the looks on the faces of Oiler offensive players, too. It was like, 'Oh, my God--what the hell is happening?' Their bench quieted down and it was just incredible what happened."

The Bills came back to tie the Oilers, 38-38, in regulation, and then Steve Christie's 32-yard field goal in overtime allowed Buffalo to advance in the playoffs.

In response to that loss, the Oilers fired defensive coordinator Jim Eddy, and later hired Buddy Ryan.

"I think it's kind of unfair," Conlan said. "Their previous defensive coordinator had them in the top five, like, in every category. They played well.

"They blamed him, but he's not the one out there playing. I could never understand how they could fire a guy like that."

*

Tony Zendejas understands the concern, and the Rams' kicker is here today to reassure football fans that the game will not become a 60-minute field-goal contest.

"Eventually everybody will be scoring touchdowns and everybody will forget about the kickers," Zendejas said. "Everything will be back to normal."

There are 11 kickers in the league who have yet to miss this season while attempting a field goal. According to NFL statistics, kickers this season have connected on 123 of 153 attempts (80.4%). After the same period of time a year ago, kickers had hit 98 of 152 (64.5%).

"Kickers are getting better every year and their range is improving," Zendejas said. "Over the years, I think good athletes became aware that they could become kickers, so kickers have become bigger and stronger every year.

"When I first started the average kicker was like me: small and foreign."

Zendejas has been good on his five field-goal attempts this season, including three from 50 yards or beyond. Zendejas has now been successful on his last eight attempts from 50 yards or longer, and overall has connected on 37 of his past 42 attempts.

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The Rams' starting secondary, which has had an interception this season, must now take on Houston's run-and-shoot attack.

"I'm telling you, defensive backs love to go against the run-and-shoot," safety Anthony Newman said. "Even though it's hard, we know the ball is going to be in the air so we have a chance to make some plays."

The Rams have spent a great deal of time this week studying Houston's tendencies on offense, but Newman's not so sure it makes a difference.

"To me, it's like recess at school," Newman said. "You got these guys going into the huddle and saying, 'OK, you go over here and if he comes at you then you run over here. And you, you just get open.' That's what it is like, so as a defense, we just say, 'Go cover somebody.' "

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