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Pro football: Vermeil returns to the NFL in a big way and Phillips impresses in the Rams' 38-24 rout of Ditka's Saints.

September 01, 1997|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — Dick Vermeil came across the field before Sunday's game and gave a big bear hug to Mike Ditka, obviously ever-thankful to return to coaching against the hapless likes of the New Orleans Saints after a 14-year layoff.

The lights were turned off, a laser-light show began, and with ring announcer Michael Buffer making introductions, Vermeil ran 30 yards full speed through a line of waving pompoms and leaped into the arms of Ram tackle Fred Miller.

Sixty years old and kids will be kids as Vermeil returned to the sideline for the first time since Jan. 2, 1983, butt-slapping, back-patting and doing more cheerleading than a campaigning politician.

Three hours later he was shaking Ditka's hand after a 38-24 party in the Trans World Dome before 64,575, standing at mid-field doing an interview, then hugging Brent Musberger on the field, kissing Ram owner Georgia Frontiere on the cheek once, twice, three times. Anything more and people would have begun to talk.

Doused in water by his appreciative players, he accepted congratulations from former Ram offensive lineman Jackie Slater, hugged Musberger again, and then moved into the Ram locker room, inviting a Sports Illustrated reporter to join him, and apparently not noticing others who followed to eavesdrop.

"Give me a football," Vermeil said, and then he was handing it off to Lawrence Phillips, who had rushed for a career-high 125 yards and scored three touchdowns. "I've been to jail with him, been behind closed doors with him and this is a good guy."

Three cheers went up for Phillips, and Vermeil, who had flown to Nebraska earlier this year to fetch Phillips from jail after serving 23 days for a probation violation, added, "It's all up to this guy now, on the field and off."

Another cheer followed, and Phillips moved in front of his teammates.

"I couldn't have done it without you guys," he said, and although the Rams had just overcome a 17-14 halftime deficit to beat only the lowly Saints, tell them this wasn't comparable to winning a Super Bowl.

Said Ram safety Keith Lyle, "It's going to be a hell of a year."

Down the hall, Ditka took his place in front of the microphones and he did not eat them.

"Well, I'd like to say I haven't been here before, but I'm afraid I have," said Ditka, who left the game four years ago after losing eight of his last nine games with the Bears. "That was an old fashion butt-whippin'. You all saw it. I saw it too, and there's not much else I can say about it--we just got hammered."

He will probably be saying that a lot this year given the Saints' level of talent, and if anyone chose to begin their season by watching New Orleans, they had to leave feeling cheated. No Ditka explosions. No spitting, kicking or obscene gestures.

"We were completely in a daze half the time," said Ditka, who benched starting quarterback Heath Shuler to start the fourth quarter.

The Saints had been charged with 10 penalties, turned the ball over five times and had been outgained by St. Louis, 403 yards to 241. Jim Mora-coached teams did better than that, winning 15 of 22 meetings with the Rams.

Ditka tried to be different, calling a flea-flicker on the second play from scrimmage for a 39-yard gain, and then again on the team's second possession for an interception. And he had his kickoff team run a fake reverse, allowing Eric Guliford to post a team-record 102-yard return for a score.

But then it "came down to just football," Vermeil said, and the Saints were overmatched.

"They throw a three-yard pass to a tight end who runs 60 yards over everybody in the country," said Ditka, who also had his streak of nine season-opening victories broken. "Everybody had a shot at him but nobody tackled him."

Tight end Ernie Conwell, one of the young talented players the Rams have been able to stockpile because of good drafting position after so many bad seasons, actually went 46 yards back and forth across the field shredding the Saint defense to give St. Louis a 21-17 lead midway through the third quarter.

Rookie Troy Davis fumbled the ensuing kickoff and, two plays later, Phillips went left 25 yards for his second touchdown, and the rout was on with Phillips scoring from five yards out on St. Louis' next possession.

"I think the whole team wanted to come out and perform for Coach Vermeil," said Phillips, who became downright chatty after recording the third 100-yard rushing game of his two-year career.

Phillips, while bothered by a sore knee recently, has had much more serious problems. He was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend while still at the University of Nebraska, arrested again on drunk driving and speeding charges in Los Angeles and arrested again in St. Louis in February on disorderly conduct charges.

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