Henry Ellard and Willie (Flipper) Anderson may produce more electricity than the Hoover Dam when it comes to catching a football. But off the field, these two Los Angeles Rams don't generate enough juice to jump-start a toaster. Low voltage? Anderson, who at least has a nickname, is so far out of touch with his celebrity that on the rare occasions when he indulges in nightlife he sallies forth to sleepy San Bernardino, not Los Angeles. Mostly he hangs out in Chino Hills—a development so thoroughly suburban it could be from the Nick at Nite lineup—and trades Nintendo games with the neighborhood kids. Ellard, who once had a tag (he was known as Grasshopper at Fresno State), likes to cap a perfect day with a stop at a fast-food restaurant. Actually, a perfect day for Ellard would be making a fast-food pickup without stopping, as he speeds home to Fresno, Calif., in his fast car.
Flipper and Grasshopper. Remember when players were known by their urban street names? Apparently, these are less flamboyant times in the NFL. Now our heroes are likened to helpful porpoises and athletic insects. But forgive these two guys for their astonishing ordinariness. They are, by their own admission, both mama's boys; Anderson is as likely to check with "Mom-Mom" on the relative merits of Bible translations ("Just stick with the King James, baby," she tells him) as Ellard is to surprise his mother with an Eldorado. There is not much that can be done with mama's boys. Nor, in this case, much that needs to be.
"Mama did good," says Rams quarterback Jim Everett. "Besides, they've got great hands."
They've got great hands, legs, feet, hearts—all the parts necessary for world-class pass catching. Last season, Anderson's second and Ellard's seventh with the team, they combined for 2,528 yards receiving. The idea that two Ram wide-outs could have topped 1,000 yards in the same season, first time ever on this club, ought to alarm the rest of the league, which had its hands full when L.A. coach John Robinson was doing his Woody Hayes impression. But now, Ellard and Anderson give a team long known for Eric Dickerson running off tackle—about 38 times a game—a quick-strike offense. Anderson, who caught 44 passes for 1,146 yards, led the NFL with an average of 26 yards per catch in '89. Ellard, with 70 receptions for 1,382 yards, ranked second with a 19.7 average, a career high.
These numbers do not suggest blandness to opposing cornerbacks. San Francisco 49er Ronnie Lott, one of the best at defending the likes of Anderson and Ellard, knows what he's going to do if Anderson ever appears to be duplicating his performance against the New Orleans Saints last season, when he caught 15 passes for an NFL-record 336 yards. "I'm going to call timeout, walk off the field, out of the stadium and into the parking lot," says Lott.
That Ellard and Anderson are causing such excitement in the league is not entirely their doing. Robinson, who was known as "28-sweep" when he was producing tailbacks at Southern Cal, and as "47-gap" when he was calling Dickerson's number at Anaheim, had long ago decided the Rams needed to pass in order to win. He just didn't have the passer.
So Robinson landed Everett—he was the third player chosen in the '86 draft but couldn't come to terms with the Houston Oilers—in one of the biggest trades in club history. And in '87 he hired offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese from San Diego to update the Rams' passing game. Soon the 5'11", 182-pound Ellard, who made All-Pro in '84 as a punt returner, began getting reminders from Zampese that he had entered the league as a wide receiver.
"This Coach Zampese came into the film room one day," Ellard recalls, "and said, 'Henry, you're an All-Pro receiver. You got a chance to catch 60, 70, 80 balls.' " In reply, Ellard did his Travis Bickle impersonation ("You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Cause there's no one else in the room.") and finally said, as gently as he could, "I don't know, Coach. I just don't see how that can be done."
By the '88 season—with Zampese's system in place, with Everett's beginning to flower and with Dickerson's carrying the ball for the Indianapolis Colts—Ellard caught a team-record 86 passes. The Rams were forever changed, but Robinson is not without a lingering regret. "Part of me still wants Henry returning punts," he says.
Ellard was 1988's surprise. Anderson was 1989's. Although he had caught Troy Aikman's passes at UCLA, which should have qualified him for some extra attention in the '88 draft, Anderson was not considered to be much of a pro prospect. One service that rated college players for the draft had him 16th among wide receivers, behind even Don McPherson, who was a quarterback at Syracuse. Robinson claims to have coveted Anderson all along, but the fact is, Anderson was the Rams' fourth pick—and their second at wide receiver. "We thought he'd slide," Robinson says. "We didn't think Aaron Cox would." All the same, Cox, a first-round pick out of Arizona State, started ahead of Anderson their rookie year.