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COMMENTARY : Chandler Rings Up This Victory


It has come down to this for the Rams and their quarterback rotation:

Whoever's the least concussed gets to play.

Chris Chandler started Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos not because his arm was any stronger than Chris Miller's, or his feet quicker, but because his head was clearer. Miller had spent most of the bye week walking around Rams Park in a fog, which began rolling in some time after linebacker Ernest Dixon of the New Orleans Saints spiked Miller's brain pan on the floor of the Superdome.

"A mush head," Miller called himself as he tried to blink away the haze, and that was all Coach Chuck Knox had to hear.

Melonheads in the stands, mush heads in the offensive huddle. This was no kind of home-field advantage, not to Knox's way of thinking, so Chandler moved up the depth chart, primarily on his ability to read a depth chart, and a newspaper, and a defense.

But wasn't that Mush Head Miller on the field with 5:17 left, chinstrap buttoned tight, flinging swing passes to Jerome Bettis in a desperate attempt to keep John Elway standing on the sideline, far, far away from that six-point Ram lead?

Yes, it was, and for that, the Rams can thank Steve Atwater.

Atwater, the Broncos' Excedrin Headache No. 27, came barreling in from his strong safety position to "get the wood" on Chandler, as Chandler put it once he was again able to construct complete sentences.

Chandler was attempting to sneak through the Denver line for the required inches on third and short at the Bronco 32, early in the third quarter. Chandler got the first down and then some. The ringing in his ears didn't subside for the rest of the game, eventually forcing Chandler to the bench after he'd called the wrong play on second and goal from the Denver one.

"Atwater, he hits as hard as anybody," Chandler said. "I got the first down, I was on my way down and he clears out and catches me right above the jawbone. Just rattled my jaw. It felt like all my teeth had shattered."

Chandler staggered to his feet, took another snap and completed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Flipper Anderson. Chandler wasn't feeling altogether right, but, for the moment, he was feeling pretty good.

Then, after smelling salts were administered and Tylenol swallowed, Chandler began to act a bit strange, behave a tad eccentric.

On the Rams' next possession, Chandler fumbled a snap on second down, prompting the Rams' first punt of the afternoon.

The possession after that, Chandler called a reverse, handed the ball to Bettis--who handed it to Jessie Hester--and suddenly, without warning, threw a block at Bronco defensive end Jeff Robinson to spring Hester for a 24-yard run, the Rams' longest of the season.

This was downright bizarre, the Ram coaches agreed, and from that point on, they decided Chandler should be closely monitored.

Finally, the Rams moved the ball down to the Bronco one.

First and goal, three feet from a 31-14 lead.

First down: Bettis up the middle, no gain.

Second down: Bettis up the middle, no gain.

Third down: Bettis up the middle, no gain.

Around Knox, 45,000 Ram fans booed.

In front of Knox, tight end Troy Drayton angrily pulled off his helmet and began screaming.

All of Anaheim Stadium seemed on the brink of mutiny, so Knox sent in Tony Zendejas to kick the field goal, and got his postgame explanation prepared.

"That second-down call was a pass play," Knox wanted to assure the Ram faithful.

"We sent in a pass play but there was trouble with the communication. The quarterback went with the lead play. . . . He'd been dinged, and I think that affected him on that play."

A likely story, although by the time reporters could catch up to Chandler, his version jibed with Knox's.

"The headphone in my helmet wasn't working," Chandler said, "so I had to look to the sideline for the signal. Someone on the sideline was rolling his hand like this (Chandler twirled his right hand in a clockwise motion) and I thought that meant run the same play. What they really wanted was a pass."

Force of habit?

Or post-concussion syndrome?

Either way, Chandler was out of there. Doctor's advice and coach's orders.

"Doc told me that it wasn't that bad now," Chandler said, "but if I got hit again, it wouldn't take much for it to become a serious deal." Having played cards with Miller last week, and having watched Miller stare vacantly at hand after hand, Chandler decided to trust Doc on this one.

"I've seen what happened with Chris and I know about the deal with Merril Hoge," Chandler said, referring to the Chicago Bear running back who was driven to retirement after suffering repeated concussions.

"That kind of stuff does scare you a little bit. You don't want to jeopardize things. But another part of you says you can't say, 'My head's sore, I can't play.'

"It's a violent game, and you at least like to think you're a tough guy, that you can put up with things like that."

Chandler consoled himself with the stat sheet: 19 for 25, 223 yards, two touchdowns, 27-21 Ram victory.

"I've still got a little bit of a headache," Chandler said, a half-hour after the final gun. "I feel a little bit slow. Noise bothers me, and it was really annoying at the end of the game, as loud as the crowd got out there.

"But that's good," Chandler decided, "because that means we're winning."

He didn't need a ton of bricks--or Steve Atwater--to fall on him in order to recognize that.

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