It is hot in Irvine, Calif. The sun is beating hard on John Robinson's balding head. He reaches for sunscreen on this early dog day of training camp. But Robinson, coach of the Los Angeles Rams, looks peaceful. Confident. "Best atmosphere I've had around a team," he says. "Ever."
An atmosphere that portends a conquering of the mighty 49ers? An advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since Robinson took charge of the Rams in 1983? Well, Robinson doesn't know about all of that, but he does know he has never had a team that he thought could go as far as this one. The Rams convinced him of that at the end of last season. They needed to win three straight road games—against New England and, in the playoffs, Philadelphia and the New York Giants—to keep their season alive, and they did. While the 30-3 loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game was painful, it wasn't crippling.
"I feel great," Robinson says, "because last year we proved we can overcome things. You know what San Francisco's biggest game in recent years was? They go into Chicago for the NFC championship two years ago, and everybody's talking about the revival of the Bears. Wham! They really whip Chicago. And then they win two Super Bowls. Last year, we were a young team, and we proved we can win big games on the road. You get to the point where you can't wait to try again."
His players are now at that point. The Rams have finished behind San Francisco in six of Robinson's seven seasons, but they are not feeling like bridesmaids now. "We're like the Detroit Pistons were a few years ago," defensive back Jerry Gray says. "People kept saying they were the second-best team, either to the Celtics or the Lakers, but they just kept playing and kept playing. Now they're champs."