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4 - St. Louis Rams
With patience wearing thin after another sorry season, it's time for the Rams and their quixotic quarterback to say goodbye to the alibis
"This is the first timejunior college, college, prosthat I've been in the same offensive system two years in a row," says Banks as he walks off the practice field in early August. "I've never felt this relaxed or confident."
"That's good," says wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who appears to have regained his Pro Bowl form after being hobbled by a nagging hamstring injury for the first half of last season. "We'll go as far as Tony can carry us."
An acne-prone lad leaning on the fence says, "Good practice today, Tony." A stout woman shouts, "Tony, we love you!" These fans may feel differently, it is pointed out, if the Rams open with a couple of lopsided losses. "Oh, yeah," says Banks, whose performance in this, his third season, will determine whether he lands a) a monster contract or b) on another team's roster. "They'll be the first ones booing."
Few have as much cause to boo as Rams fans, whose team lost 10 games in 1996 and topped that by losing 11 last season, including six of eight at home. As the season wore on, they had more brickbats for Banks than bouquets. While throwing for a very respectable 3,254 yards, he completed just 51.7% of his passes, third worst in the league. Over the past two seasons he has fumbled 36 times and been sacked 90 times, a pair of gruesome stats for which an underachieving offensive line must take some responsibility.
"We've got to do a better job in front of him," says second-year left tackle Orlando Pace, whose long preseason holdout and knee injury (he missed three games in November) contributed to the instability of a unit that was a mess even before last season started. Center Bern Brostek suffered a career-ending back injury, and left guard Gerald Perry was cut after testing positive for steroids. As Banks points out, "Our line hasn't been very good."
Pace is doing his part to change that. In search of more explosiveness, he dropped 20 pounds in the off-seasonhe's now a twiggy 315while gaining muscle mass. He still has a ways to go when it comes to keeping veteran pass-rushers off his quarterback, but as a run-blocker, gushes coach Dick Vermeil, "he may be the finest I've seen."
A stabilized linethe rapid progress of left guard Fred Miller, a converted tackle, has particularly delighted Vermeilbodes well for an offense that rushed for just 97.7 yards per game in '97. Recidivist time bomb Lawrence Phillips is out at running back; Robert Holcombe, a second-rounder from Illinois, and preseason free-agent signee Greg Hill, the ex-Chief, are in. Even a slight improvement in the running game, coupled with more rollouts and plays run out of two-back and shotgun sets, will take some of the pressure off Banks, whose biggest problem, paradoxically, seems to be that he takes too much pressure off himself.
Until this season Rams coaches have complained that the low-key Banks seemed to treat his NFL gig more like a hobby than a career. The San Diego native has made no secret of his preference for pickup hoops to weightlifting"Basketball is good for my cutting, my jumping, my cardiovascular," he says a bit defensivelyand he caught a ton of flak late last season when he missed a practice to attend to his rottweiler, Felony, who had been hit by a car. (Felony was O.K.)
Vermeil and his coaches say they have no idea how Banks will fare. Yes, he has looked much improved in practice, says one coach. "But that's like hitting on the driving range. Let's see how he does with a sidehill lie and the wind in his face."
Banks can't wait to tee it up. "We've worked too hard to get the same results," he says. "We'll be better." Then he says it himself: "There are no excuses."
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