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MIKE PENNER

Runbacks, Then Saints, Steal the Show

October 24, 1994|MIKE PENNER

NEW ORLEANS — Saints over Rams by a field goal, just the way Jim Mora and Chuck Knox always play them.

You know how it is whenever these two legendary sticks in the mud are planted on opposite sides of the same football field. Four scoring plays of 90 yards or more. A 92-yard kickoff return. A 98-yard kickoff return. A 103- yard punt return. A quarterback and an offensive line coach carted off to the hospital with concussions. Seventy-one points, almost 700 yards in kick and punt returns, three league records set by someone named Tyrone Hughes and Jim Everett leaving the Superdome with a Pearl Drops grin plastered on his face.

Been there, done that.

Knox, who walked into this building Sunday morning expecting, 13-10, 10-7, something like that, staggered into the visitors' interview room after Saints 37, Rams 34, looking as if he'd just seen a ghost.

Or a Galloping Ghost.

Tyrone Hughes has been loaned the nickname by now, hasn't he?

"I don't know if I've been in one of these, and I've been in a lot of 'em," Knox gasped as he wobbled behind the mike, in serious need of something or someone to lean on.

"I have never been in a game where we've had two kickoff returns for touchdowns against us. That is a first."

For Knox, for Knox's numbed players and for Hughes, the man who ran both of them back.

Hughes, normally a second-year Saints' cornerback by way of Nebraska, spent this day masquerading as Red Grange. Field the ball, run this way, go 92 yards. Catch the ball, veer the other way, dash 98 yards.

And those were only the second- and third-most interesting returns of the day. The Rams' Robert Bailey, another mild-mannered cornerback in real life, set a record that might never be broken--logically, it should never again be attempted--when he picked up a stray punted football going around in his end zone and carried it into the other end zone, a total trip covering 103 yards.

A 103-yard punt return?

The Saints couldn't believe it, wouldn't believe it. Eleven of them were walking off the field, assuming Tommy Barnhardt's fourth-quarter punt had nicked the back line of the Rams' end zone and done its job. Touchback. Commercial break. Make way for the defense.

Barnhardt had just reached the New Orleans sideline and unsnapped his chin strap when, out of the corner of his right eye, he caught the flash of a white jersey darting behind his back.

What in the world?

Barnhardt jerked his head around, turning in the double-take of the season. There was Bailey, running with the ball and running solo, with no player from either side within two counties of his heels.

Running, amid stunned silence, to a touchdown that pulled the Rams to within three points with 4:08 remaining.

"Everybody was walking off," Bailey said, "but I never heard a whistle. I see the ball bouncing around in the end zone and say, 'Hey, I got nothing to lose.' I can either be the hero or the goat, if I fumble it or something."

So Bailey scooped up the ball and headed down field.

"Our guys are looking at me like I'm crazy," he said.

So Bailey began looking for striped shirts. But "nobody's moving. Nobody's blowing a whistle. The ref isn't acting like the play is dead."

That's because it wasn't. Live ball, dazed Saints, amazed Rams.

Who'd have ever thought it--Ram football as performance art?

"I used to think I'd seen it all," Ram special teams coach Wayne Sevier said.

"Now, I have seen it all."

Bailey's Barnum act was headed straight for the highlights shows, but taken in the context of these demented 60 minutes off Bourbon Street, it seemed like nothing out of the ordinary.

How often does Everett go an entire quarter without throwing an incomplete pass, hitting his first eight for 111 yards and a touchdown?

How often does Miller get knocked out of a game? OK, it happens every week--but how often does a Ram assistant coach wind up in the same X-ray room with him?

Jim Erkenbeck, who coaches offensive linemen for Knox, got blindsided in the fourth quarter by a roll block of sorts and wound up riding shotgun with Miller to Baptist Hospital, where both were treated for concussions.

Erkenbeck was low-bridged on a punt return by Saints' safety J.J. McCleskey, who was shoved out of bounds by Ram Steve Israel and sent tumbling into the back of Erkenbeck's knees.

"He took a heck of a hit," Knox observed, and, yes, the veteran coach had to admit that was another career first, having to update the medical status of a line coach during the postgame injury report.

Amid all the craziness, however, it was still the same old Ram result. Loss to New Orleans, loss within the division, loss on the road, loss that drops them to 3-5 at midseason.

Ram safety Anthony Newman could barely stand it, especially when the questions about a victorious quarterback named Everett began piling up around his locker.

"Everett didn't do anything special," Newman snapped. "He had a couple nice drives at the start of the game and that's it. Two drives, that's all. How many yards did he have? 200?"

To be exact, 206.

Newman sniffed.

"Other things beat us, he didn't beat us," Newman said. "We gave them 14 points on special teams. Fourteen points are hard to come by. We got one (touchdown) back on the punt return by Bailey, but they had the extra seven.

"We were beaten by a kickoff return."

There ought to be a law, Sevier said. Or at least a new rule.

"Too bad there's no 10-point punt return," Sevier mused. "If you return a punt over 100 yards, it ought to be worth 10 points, don't you think?"

The NFL promises to consider it, the next time it happens.

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