Los Angeles — Simply interviewing head coach Ray Malavasi and going over the statistics of his veteran players is not nearly enough to put a yardstick on the Los Angeles Rams, a team whose seasons do not necessarily match its talent.
This is a franchise that should never have gone 6-10 in 1981; lost six of its last seven games; or missed the National Football League playoffs for the first time since 1972. Injuries may have been the party line as to why the Rams didn't play well, but a lack of motivation and internal problems also had to be factors.
Since then, Malavasi has replaced five of his assistant coaches; traded with the Baltimore Colts for veteran quarterback Bert Jones; and gotten former Ram QB Vince Ferragamo back from the Canadian Football League. However, it seems likely that Ferragamo will be traded to an Eastern team, probably for a future first-round draft pick.
The quarterback position going into the regular season definitely belongs to Jones, whose feud with Colt mamagement last year didn't seem to affect his performance as a player. Bert completed 244 of 426 passes for 3,094 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Although Jones's 20 interceptions in 1981 were about 12 more than most head coaches prefer, LA's offensive line should give Bert a lot more protection than he had in Baltimore.
Jones's backup will be Jeff Rutledge, who played so well late last season after both Pat Haden and Dan Pastorini were hurt. Neither is around this year, Haden having solved his problems by retiring, the Rams having solved Pastorini's by giving him his unconditional release.
Room will have to be made on the squad for Jeff Kemp, son of New York Congressman and former pro QB Jack Kemp, whose leadership was good enough to win titles with San Diego and Buffalo in the old American Football League. The younger Kemp, a talent in his own right, may even have a future in pro football as a defensive back.
Asked if the Rams' offense this year would be different, maybe more wide open under Jones than it had been under Haden and his backups, Malavasi replied:
''We have an offensive system here that we feel can work against any team, and it's up to Jones to learn what it is and adjust to it. We know he's flexible, so we don't expect any problems. Bert also has nine years of pro experience, was willing to come to camp early to get ready, and will be throwing to good people. We expect to win with Jones, and we expect to win right away.''
The pass catching targets Malavasi prizes so highly are wide receivers Preston Dennard and Billy Waddy; tight ends Walt Arnold and Henry Childs, who are being pushed by new acquisition Mike Barber; and running back Wendell Tyler. Wendell, who caught 45 passes last year coming out of the backfield for 435 yards, gained another 1,074 yards on the ground.
Offensively the Rams were fifth in the NFL in rushing; 12th in passing. Defensively they were 13th against the run and second against the pass. Their secondary of Pat Thomas, Rod Perry, Johnnie Johnson, and Nolan Cromwell is among the best in the league.
Although Malavasi will have all of his starters back on defense, not all of them will be playing the same positions they did last year. For example, veteran Cody Jones has been moved from right defensive end to right defense tackle, and there have been other changes.
With 47 turnovers last year (via 32 interceptions and 15 lost fumbles), Malavasi is understandably anxious to see what Jones can do under game conditions. Ray will also be asking his running backs to carry the football more like it was a crown jewel and less like a day-old loaf of bread.
Among those expected to heed this lesson even if he doesn't initially see much action is fullback Barry Redden, the team's No. 1 draft pick out of the University of Richmond. Redden was injured in training camp and is well behind everyone else.
Defensive end Jack Youngblood, who after 11 years in pro football claims he can read training camp attitudes that are often maintained through an entire season, says that the Rams are in for a great year and will definitely make the playoffs.
''A lot of people on this team needed to learn some things about humility last season, and after our 6-10 record I think they got the message,'' Youngblood explained. ''I see this team coming together and doing all the things it needs to do. I believe we can beat anybody.''