ANAHEIM — The Rams want to move, and quickly.
But Roman Phifer won't let them.
Phifer, an outside linebacker who has displayed star qualities while becoming one of the team's most productive performers, has ignored the team's persistent overtures to sign a new deal before he becomes a free agent at season's end.
"I don't know why the Rams didn't go ahead and pay the man when they had the chance," Ram defensive end Robert Young said. "It was probably a dumb move on their part. I just hope we don't lose him."
Before this season, both Phifer and Young were unsigned. Each player was beginning his fourth year with the team, and while they were restricted from going elsewhere, at the conclusion of 1994 they would be free to negotiate with 29 other NFL teams, including the two expansion franchises.
The Rams took Young off the market with a three-year, $3.6-million contract, but they elected to gamble with Phifer.
"I could have gotten hurt or had a down year, but I really had no option," Phifer said. "They didn't throw out any number and there wasn't really any negotiation, so I had to accept what they offered."
The Rams were required to offer Phifer at least $649,000 or lose him to another team in exchange for a third-round draft pick. Phifer had to accept the $649,000 offer or look for another line of work.
When the Rams announced his signing last summer, they suggested the one-year deal would buy them a few weeks to work out a long-term deal.
"It was clearly expressed that we wished to do something during the season," said Ram senior vice president Jay Zygmunt, who is also working to extend center Bern Brostek's contract. "Our interest remains the same."
Phifer's agent, Los Angeles-based Marvin Demoff, however, has shown an unwillingness to discuss his client's future with the Rams, and now months later with the free-agent deadline approaching, the Rams are left to wonder if they will lose one of their top defenders.
"It's clearly a possibility," Ram president John Shaw said. "We were hopeful of getting something done, but it appears we're now on his timetable."
Demoff, who did not return a phone call to discuss Phifer's situation, also represented former Ram linebacker Kevin Greene. The Rams told Greene and Demoff they wanted to re-sign him, and the Rams were told they would have the opportunity to make their best offer should Greene be courted elsewhere. Greene signed with Pittsburgh, and the Rams were the last to know.
"I'd love to be in Roman's shoes; he's going to break the bank," said Shane Conlan, who surprised the Bills two years ago by signing with the Rams. "I'm sure the team wants him back, but it's smart on his part not to sign. He should go out and test it and see what his worth is.
"It would be a blow to our defense to lose him, a big blow. He does a lot of things for our defense. He's our best cover guy, he's just a good athlete."
The Carolina Cougars and Jacksonville Jaguars will be looking to stock their rosters with good athletes, and they will have the money to boost the bidding on certain players. A personable 26-year-old outside linebacker with Carolina roots might get an offer he cannot refuse.
"I've had family members talking about Carolina all the time," said Phifer, who grew up in Pineville, N.C. "It's been kind of joke. . . . my loyalties right now are with the Rams, and that's all I'm concerned with at this time."
Phifer, a second-round draft pick from UCLA, has shown the versatility to remain on the field in all defensive situations. He led the team in tackles a year ago, and had the Rams enjoyed more success, he might have made the Pro Bowl. He has played with a hyper-extended elbow this season but continues to be one of the team's most aggressive players.
"I figured I really had to come hard last year because my contract was up, but now it's the same type scenario," Phifer said.
The difference this year, however, is that Phifer has the leverage. A year ago the Rams had it, and used it to their advantage in paying Phifer almost $1 million less than Young.
"I know what Robert got, and I looked over there a few times knowing he had the money in his pocket," Phifer said. "I was happy for him, and I'm sure he doesn't have any stress now wondering what's going to happen this year. For whatever reason my situation was different.
"Now there's a little anxiety in me. I love my teammates and the coaches here, but this thing could take so many turns, it's crazy. Will the Rams make me an offer? Will I be here? Will the Rams be here or playing in St. Louis next year? There are a lot of things going on right now, and for the time being I have no control. . . . "
In a matter of weeks, however, ultimate control swings to Phifer. And if the Rams wish to regain control of the situation, they will pay, and probably pay handsomely.