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RETURN MAN
Peter King
December 29, 1997
SI FOLLOWED DICK VERMEIL THROUGH HIS FIRST SEASON AS THE RAMS' COACH. HERE IS AN INSIDE LOOK AT HIS NFL ENCORE
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December 29, 1997

Return Man

SI FOLLOWED DICK VERMEIL THROUGH HIS FIRST SEASON AS THE RAMS' COACH. HERE IS AN INSIDE LOOK AT HIS NFL ENCORE

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Vermeil looks at tape of all the situations in the past four games, three of them losses, in which the Rams had third down and between two and five yards to go. He seeks the best plays for this week's game against the Chiefs. Then, from 11 to noon, he meets in his office with Bruce. They declare a truce. "I need Isaac," Vermeil says later. "He needs me. I think the problem was, I should have invested more time in Isaac. Sometimes you don't spend enough time with the good guys. We've got to stop running off our stars. They've run off Jerome Bettis, Troy Drayton, Sean Gilbert—good football players. We've got to keep our good ones."

The trial in St. Louis consumes a precious two hours of Vermeil's day. On the ride back, Bruce's complaints are still bothering Vermeil. He turns to a writer in the backseat. "I'm going to give you the coaches' tape," he says. "I want you to watch all three phases of our game against Seattle, and you tell me the truth. Tell me if we dogged it."

For two hours the writer watches tape of the Seattle game. The Rams' defense is on the field for 67 snaps, and it's as hustling a group as there is in the NFL. The special teams, on 24 snaps, are unimpressive because they have no kamikaze players. But there's no lack of effort. The offense has 50 snaps. First series: On third-and-two at the Rams' 42, Banks turns to the right to hand off to Phillips. Phillips mistakenly runs left. The play dies. Punt. Second series: On third-and-five right tackle Wayne Gandy protects poorly, and Banks is harassed into an incompletion. Punt. Third series: On third-and-nine Banks fumbles a reverse. Six-yard loss. Punt. Fourth series: Bruce drops a first-down pass, and on third-and-six Banks forces a ball into double coverage, intending to hit back Amp Lee, but it falls incomplete. Punt. Fifth series: On second down Gandy is pushed back into Banks, causing the quarterback to throw a duck. On third-and-seven Banks underthrows his target. Punt. And so forth.

It isn't a lack of effort that's killing the Rams. It's their offense. It stinks. The system relies too much on the snuggling Phillips, who dives every time he hits a little traffic. Banks has consistently let them down, and they don't get enough production from their real weapons: Bruce, Heyward and Lee. But hustle? Hustle is there.

Late in the afternoon Suzette Cox absorbs a wrathful phone call from a ticked-off fan while Vermeil watches tape down the hall. She's been busy on Monday and Tuesday after each of the Rams' five losses, screening such angry calls. Cox worked for the 49ers for 12 years, then moved here to organize Vermeil's coaching life. "The callers seem angrier now than they used to be," she says. She thinks it's because the fans now consider themselves quasi-owners, having paid personal-seat license fees to help build the Trans World Dome. "They feel they have a stake in the team and ought to be able to talk to the coach. But he doesn't need to hear it."

Vermeil walks in. "How's it going?"

"Fine," Cox says. "Everything's quiet."

At night Vermeil watches more tape in the offensive film room, preparing for Kansas City. White is there. Rhome, Hanifan and receivers coach Dick Coury float in and out with ideas. As they watch the Chiefs defense, White says, "I'd love to see you go no-huddle against these guys, Dick."

"We're having enough trouble with the huddle," Vermeil says.

He finishes 10 reels of tape by 11. Then he goes to his office to organize tomorrow's practice. He could leave by 11:45, but he'll stay more than an hour longer. "I can't leave before my coaches," he says. Around midnight he ponders his day and his year. "In Philadelphia," he says, "if you'd told me I had to go testify in court for something on a Tuesday, I wouldn't have done it. But I don't fight things I can't beat anymore. I think I know myself better. When I go home on Sunday nights after a loss, I don't let it be a wake. I knew what I was in for, coming to the losingest team in the '90s, and it's been one crisis after another. But we've overcome our share of them. What we have to do is play better offensively. That's frustrating. Everybody's screaming at me to bench Banks, but these are our guys. We're married to 'em. We can't divorce 'em when they lose and remarry 'em when they win."

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