He arrived in the big time late in life. Skeptics thought he was in over his head, but man, is he proving them wrong. You might say that St. Louis Ram coach Rich Brooks possesses certain Trumanesque qualities.
Give-'em-hell Rich was reminiscing last week about his days as an Oregon Duck quarterback and defensive back. "One of my coaches, Tommy Prothro, once told me, 'You don't want to give people too much too early,' " he said.
Too late, Coach. Your Rams are 4-0, and your fans—straight-faced—are spouting such imbecilities as "Bring on the 49ers!" And the rest of the world has a simple question: How on earth can a team that lost a dozen games last year now find itself swaggering in the company of the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins as the NFL's only undefeated clubs?
For starters credit the St. Louis attack, which came to life in Sunday's 34-28 win over the Chicago Bears and which clings to the ball more tightly than Leona Helmsley squeezes a nickel. Astonishingly, an offense that turned the ball over 31 times a year ago hasn't committed a single turnover this season. Injury-prone quarterback Chris Miller, who suffered his fourth concussion in two seasons on Sunday, has thrown for 810 yards and seven touchdowns, including three against the Bears.
Credit, too, the selection of the 54-year-old Brooks to coach the Rams. Brooks has proved to be an inspired and inspiring choice, as has defensive coordinator Willie Shaw, whom Brooks brought in from the San Diego Chargers. A defense that forced only 20 turnovers in 1994 had 12 after three games this season and came away with two more against the Bears.
Number 13 was a doozy. Bear quarterback Erik Kramer, pulling away from center on the game's second play from scrimmage, fumbled the ball, which was scooped up by strong safety Toby Wright, whose 73-yard return was the fourth touchdown scored by the Ram defense this season.
But perhaps the biggest reason the Rams are undefeated and the surprise of this young NFL season is their new zip code. It took 16 moving vans to haul the team's gear from Anaheim to the Show Me State in June. More important, it turns out, is the apathy the movers left behind. "Never underestimate the healing powers of a change of scenery," says Miller. "We've got a new staff, some new guys; we're off to a fresh start. The fans have been unbelievable—now if we can just teach them to do the wave when the defense is on the field."
"Back in Anaheim we'd play the L.A. Raiders or the San Francisco 49ers, and they'd have more fans in our stadium than we would," says fifth-year cornerback Todd Lyght. "It got to the point where we preferred to play our games on the road. Here we're playing in front of capacity crowds [there were 59,679 fans at Busch Memorial Stadium on Sunday] that are loving us—something I haven't experienced in my pro career. It makes a huge difference."
The Rams will get another emotional booster shot on Oct. 22, when the 49ers come to town to battle St. Louis in a game that may be for—no laughing, please—NFC West supremacy. The Niners also will help christen the Gateway City's gleaming new 66,000-seat Trans World Dome, named after the fiscally troubled airline. (Cynics have suggested that the dome include such TWA-related features as Chapter 11-yard lines and the listing of the company's creditors on the scoreboard.)
"It's like Angels in the Outfield" said Ram president John Shaw, trying desperately to disguise his giddiness after Sunday's win. It wasn't too long ago that Shaw and team owner Georgia Frontiere were pilloried by their NFL brethren for mismanaging the Rams and then having the audacity to propose moving the team because of poor fan support in Anaheim. Although they have presided over a team that entered this season with a 23-57 record in the '90s, tied with the Cincinnati Bengals for worst in the NFL, and although their misadventures in the Golden State sometimes made it seem as though they could screw up a two-car funeral, Frontiere and Shaw have yet to take a false step in St. Louis.