Thursday, January 31, 2002

DAUGHERTY: Rams defense

Unheralded unit not just Lovie-dovey

By Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW ORLEANS — When you drive a Maserati, you don't brag about the brakes.

        You'd like us to say something nice about the St. Louis Rams defense? OK. It would be nice if it weren't on the field much Sunday. Just long enough to allow Football Nation a bathroom break, between acts of the Rams' offensive circus. That would be nice.

        The Rams defense is very good. Its turnaround between last year and this — worst in the league in points allowed, to sixth — is enough to make a revolving door dizzy. The defense won the Green Bay playoff game two weeks ago. It shut down Philly's Donovan McNabb in the second half of the NFC title game.

        The defense makes the Rams a near-lock to beat New England.

        It is still a condiment.

Good, yet secondary
        The Rams' defenders are 11 vice presidents. They're bass players in a guitar band. In the Rams movie, Kurt Warner gets the girl; the defense is the girl's brother. Put it this way: Nobody watches the Rams to see Grant Wistrom, unless they're related.
               The Super Bowl is three hours of football crammed into seven days of parties: Party Gras. We do not arrive here discussing Cover 2 zones. We seek entertainment, which is where the offense comes in and the defense says thanks and enjoy the Beatles.

        It's too bad, because the Rams worked hard in the offseason to revamp that side of the ball: eight new starters and a down-home coach, whose folksiness belies a grit that has made all the difference.

        Only the finesse-team Rams could have a defensive coordinator named Lovie. “How can you lead guys, being you're named Lovie?” Lovie Smith asked himself.

        Lovie's parents named him for his great aunt Lavana, when they were convinced he was going to be a she. Why didn't they change it when a boy was born? “They liked the name,” Lovie said Wednesday.

Sincere work ethic
        Lovie grew up in Big Sandy, Texas, which isn't big at all, barely 500 people, 90 miles east of Dallas. “One red light, no movie theatre, a couple convenience stores and a lot of hardworking people,” he says.
               Lovie was teaching special education in 1982 when an Arizona State head coach named John Cooper asked him to coach outside linebackers. Lovie worked at ASU, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio State. He spent five years at Tampa Bay coaching linebackersbefore the Rams hired him this season.

        He is a country guy with a country mindset: Bow your back. Work harder than the next man. “I think you can do what you put your mind to,” he says. That applied to his father, a reformed alcoholic who failed at rehab until one day he said, “Lovie, I'm not going to drink anymore.” And he didn't.

        Smith's defense is no puzzle. He puts fast men on the field and tells them to chase the ball. He counts “loafs” during a game and tolerates no more than 11, one per man. “Good things happen,” Smith says, “when fast players are playing hard.”

        Sometimes it is that simple, even in the technically elaborate NFL.

        Lovie Smith is a black man who will be a head coach in the NFL. Right now, he's a strobe in the offense's disco ball. “We live in the shadows,” acknowledged cornerback Dexter McCleon.

        On Sunday, maybe the defense can lace up the offense's track shoes.

        Contact Paul Daugherty at 768-8454; fax: 768-8550; e-mail:

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