St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri on December 25, 1997 · Page 52
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St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri · Page 52

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Thursday, December 25, 1997
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Page 52
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D8 ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH SPORTS THURSDAY, DECEMBER 25, 1997 http:www.stlnet.com Rams Report card for the season reflects drop to 5-11 mark Continuedfrom Page Dl cause of injury. After a brutal six-game stretch between the first San Francisco game and the Oct 19 Seattle contest, Banks played reasonably well in eight of the Rams' final nine games. He flashed his considerable potential with a 401-yard game Nov. 2 in Atlanta, the second-best passing day in the National Football League this season. Only Troy Aikman, Brett Favre and Scott Mitchell threw for more yards than Banks (3,254) among NFC quarterbacks. Banks cut down on his fumbles by about one-third: 15 fumbles (eight lost), compared to a 21 fumbles (12 lost) as a rookie in "96. But that's still too many. No one can question his toughness, and he showed late-season signs of leadership despite missing practice because his dog was injured in an accident Banks will be in the third year of a three-year contract, so '98 is a make or break season in more ways than one. Offensive fine (Grade: C-) Late-season stinkers against New Orleans and Chicago made the line's performance appear worse than it was. After leading the league in sacks allowed a year ago (57), the Rams were more respectable this season: tied for the llth-highest total (44). The run-blocking was spotty, but the unit seemed to perform better with Jerald Moore as the feature back instead of Lawrence Phillips. The interior needs work. Guards Zach Wiegert and John Gerak, and center Mike Gruttadauria, spent too much time on the ground. But all three battled their way through nagging injuries. Orlando Pace, the No. 1 overall draft choice, was hurt by his holdout, missed three late-season games with a knee injury, and had occasional problems with speed rushers at left tackle. Despite bouncing from left to right tackle due to Pace's holdout and injury, Wayne Gandy was the most consistent blocker. The year of experience can only help. The five starters entered the '97 season with a mere 81 career NFL starts between them. Pace and Ryan Tucker will benefit from their first NFL training camps next summer. Don't be surprised if the Rams to pursue a guard, such as Washington's Joe Patton, in free agency. Running Backs (Grade: C) Never mind the off-the-field problems, Phillips was no more than an average running back in St. Louis. He never showed much burst, perhaps because he was 10 pounds overweight for most of his Rams experience. For a runner his size, he went down too easily with arm tackles, and was slowed by one nagging injury or another. In his five-game stint as a starter, Moore showed more ability to get the tough yards than Phillips. The Rams will look for another back in the offseason, but Moore has worked his way into the mix for '98. His durability remains a concern, and he must do better on ball security. At fullback, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward was one of the season's biggest disappointments. The coaching staff deserves some blame for not integrating him into the offense. But Heyward has only himself to blame for showing up at training camp 30 pounds overweight. No back in the NFL caught as many passes as team MPV Amp Lee this season. His 61 catches also set a franchise record for a running back. He's a good fit for this offense, and the Rams should make every effort to re-sign him if the price doesn't get too far out of whack. -" i- If 'f: 1 V! if 211 J.B. FORBESPOST-DISPATCH Bill Johnson came from obscurity to lead Rams linemen in tackles. Wide receiver (Grade: D) Because of hamstring and groin injuries, Isaac Bruce, Eddie Kenni-son and Torrance Small were available at the same time for only nine plays in the first eight games. Once his hamstring healed, Bruce coped with bothersome wrist and ankle injuries the rest of the year. The wrist injury contributed to many of Bruce's drops. Small was bothered by nagging groin and knee, injuries, and his future with the team is uncertain. For the amount of throws he got, Small dropped an inordinate number of passes. How disappointing was Kenni-son's season? Wiegert, a 310-pound offensive guard, scored more touchdowns this season (one) than Kennison (zero). That's after Kennison scored 11 TDs as a rookie last season nine on receptions and two on punt returns. Kennison was slowed by hamstring, groin and shoulder injuries early on. Nonetheless, his fall from grace was astounding: From 54 catches for 924 yards, to 25 for 404 yards this season. The coaching staff wants him to work harder at his craft. Much harder. Tight ends (Grade: C) Ernie Conwell showed he can be a force when thrown the short pass in the open field. But this human block of granite lacks the flexibility to make the downfield catch or the difficult catch with any consistency. An above-average blocker, Con-well needs to cut down way down on his dropped passes to become an elite tight end. In an offense that uses two tight ends a lot, the Rams never got much out of Aaron Laing or Mitch Jacoby, and may look for another tight end in the offseason. Defensive line (Grade: C-) Only five teams had fewer sacks than the Rams (38) this season. Sack leader Leslie O'Neal, who turns 34 in May, may not be back next season. So the Rams need major pass-rush help. A stouter presence against the run wouldn't hurt, either. After a sluggish first half of the season, Kevin Carter came on strong in the second half although his sack total (7V2) was inflated by two in the final 33 seconds against Carolina. At tackle, D'Marco Fair registered career lows as a starter in tackles (34) and sacks (3). He has just 7V2 sacks in two seasons after registering IIV2 in 1995. His undersized frame may be better used in a situational pass-rush role. At the other tackle, Bill Johnson was the ; iff defensive surprise of the season, leading Rams linemen in tackles (48) despite taking on frequent double teams. He did a credible job against the run, and provided some inside push as a pass rusher. Linebackers (Grade: C-) From Game 1 through Game 16, free-agent pickup Michael Jones was the Rams' most consistent line backer. He also proved to be the best coverage linebacker with 11 pass breakups and an interception. In the middle, Robert Jones topped 100 tackles once again, but made only IV2 stops behind the line of scrimmage, with no forced fumbles, no interceptions and only one sack. Although R. Jones stepped up his play late in the season, this might be a position the Rams will seek to upgrade this offseason. At the other outside linebacker spot, Roman Phifer played like a Pro Bowler the first month of the season, then tailed off noticeably. All told, this was his quietest season in St Louis. Phifer was given less freedom to roam and frequently played over the tight end, something he had rarely done in previous seasons. Secondary (Grade: C) Yes, the Rams tied for second in the NFL in interceptions (25). But they also gave up 26 touchdown passes, the fourth-highest total in the league. Ryan McNeil led the NFL in interceptions (nine), but got beat deep a lot and flagged for several pass interference penalties. Is he worth the $2 million to $3 million a year he is likely to command in free agency? At the other corner, Todd Lyght showed flashes of Pro Bowl play, but was beaten more this season than in his first two seasons in St. Louis combined. Strong safety was a trouble spot. Toby Wright missed five games because of injuries. His run-support skills were as good as ever, but he struggled on pass coverage. Opposing tight ends had a Pro Bowl year against the Rams. If Wright's injury problems continue, Billy Jenkins Jr. could challenge for the job next season. Free safety Keith Lyle was the most consistent performer in the secondary. He finished tied for second in the NFL with eight intercep tions, and was a solid run defender as well. Special teams (Grade D) The year literally got off on the wrong foot when a.) veteran punter Sean Landeta was released, and b.) it took the Rams six games to figure out that Will Brice wasn't the answer as Landeta's replacement. Mike Horan did a credible job, but was no better than Landeta and was three years older. Go figure. Coverage units improved over the second half of the season. But the Rams gave up the longest punt return in the NFL this year (94 yards); and tied for the longest kickoff return allowed (102). After a miserable start, they finished tied for 19th in kickoff returns thanks to a late-season spark by rookie David Thompson. The Rams finished last in punt return average, and Kennison puzzled fans and coaches alike with his occasional decisions to run out of bounds. If he doesn't want to get hit, why is he playing football? Kicker Jeff Wilkins endured a nasty six-game slump in which he missed on nine of 16 field-goal tries. Misses proved costly in 6-point losses to Atlanta and Carolina, and a 3-point lost to Chicago. Despite Frank Gansz's reputation, this unit performed much better last season under Nick Aliotti. Coaching (Grade D) Vermeil said it best, long before the Rams had played a game: The Magnificent Seven will only be magnificent if they win more than seven. Vermeil, Bud Carson, Dick Coury, Gansz, Jim Hanifan, Jerry Rhome and Mike White figured to squeeze a couple of victories out of the Rams on expertise alone. Instead, they didn't even win as many games as Rich Brooks' staff did a year ago. Rams begin retooling their roster Their 1997 season ended less than a week ago, but already the Rams are working on 1998. Eight players have agreed to terms on contracts for the "98 season as the Rams begin the task of building up their roster toward the offseason and preseason limit of 80 players. Four of the eight were members of the team's practice squad in 1997: wide receiver Donnell Baker, running back June Henley, center David Kempfert and defensive tackle Ced-ric White. White was a seventh-round draft by the team last spring. Practice squad players become free agents once a team completes its season. So in quickly moving to sign these four to the active roster, the Rams want to take them to framing camp next summer. Also agreeing to terms were four street" free agents: fullback Kevin Bouie; offensive lineman Wendall Gaines; defensive tackle James Man-ley; and quarterback Kurt Warner. Bouie, 26, is 6 feet, 230 pounds. A seventh-round draft choice by Philadelphia out of Mississippi State in 1995, Bouie has had brief stints on the Eagles, San Diego and Arizona rosters. Gaines, 6-2, 290, was in Rams camp for three weeks in 1996, and worked out for the club two weeks ago at Rams Park. Manley, 6-3, 330, was a second-round draft choice by the Minnesota Vikings out of Vanderbilt in 1996. , Warner is from Northern Arizona, the same college program that produced Denver backup Jeff Lewis. Jim Thomas J.B. FORBSPOST-DISPATCH Eddie Kennison had trouble catching even one pass at a time this year. ffTOTOmH'iw'iiwr ! 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