What a nice gift for second-year quarterback Kerry Collins, who leads an offense that's strong in the line but weak in the superstar department. So was the acquisition on Sunday of Raiders wideout Rocket Ismail. The long holdout of top draft pick and former Michigan tailback Tim Biakabutuka didn't help. But free agency brought a couple of former Pro Bowl players, Davis and sack specialist Kevin Greene of the Pitts burgh Steelers, to fortify a defense that finished seventh in the league in 1995. Let's hear it for 37-year-old inside linebacker Sam Mills, who was the leader of that defense. Oh, yes, people will be taking the Panthers seriously now.
Someday people might look at the St. Louis Rams '96 draft and say, "This is the one that turned them around." Here are some things that must happen for that statement to become reality.
Lawrence Phillips, the top pick, has to study some old Lawrence McCutcheon film clips and decide he can run and catch passes like the player who starred for the Rams from 1972 to '79. Phillips's most exciting burst to date was a 78-mph jaunt on a California highway last June with a blood-alcohol level of .15 and one flat tire.
Wideout Eddie Kennison, St. Louis's other first-round pick, has to keep people from ganging up on Isaac Bruce, who had a sensational season with 1,781 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on 119 catches, 72 more than the Rams' second-leading receiver, tight end Troy Drayton. Kennison's three-touchdown performance in a preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs gives St. Louis hope that he and Bruce will be ganging up on opponents. Plus he's a serious return man.
Second-round draft choice Ernie Conwell, a 253-pound tight end who has been converted to fullback, must police the middle in the manner of the Dallas Cowboys' Daryl Johnston. And here's the big one: Second-round pick Tony Banks has to be the quarterback, if not immediately, then sometime this season. He's 6'4", 220 pounds, and watching him cut loose in the preseason, you had to wonder how long it will be until he takes Steve Walsh's job.
Young stars haven't had an easy time of it with the Rams lately. Running back Jerome Bettis, 24, and defensive lineman Sean Gilbert, 26, both former Pro Bowl players, are gone. So St. Louis has turned to new faces. Defensive end Leslie O'Neal was brought in as a free agent from the San Diego Chargers to upgrade the pass rush. Robert Jones, whom the Cowboys kept touting as one of the game's fine young middle linebackers—right up until the time he left them as a free agent—is the new man inside.
In effect, the Rams played two seasons in 1995, going 5-1 at the start and then 2-8 as the club settled into an all-too-familiar mediocrity. Then came the draft—and what a draft it could turn out to be.