Rams runner finds daylight but not limelight
Los Angeles — His offensive statistics this season are at least a year ahead of his publicity. By the time Super Bowl XIV, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Rams is written into the record books, the whole country is going to know about 24-year-old Wendell Tyler.
Tyler, the Rams' best running back, already deserves to be rated with people like Earl Campbell, Franco Harris, Walter Payton, and Tony Dorsett. His instincts for finding daylight at the line of scrimmage are about the same as those of the weeds that persistently pop up in sidewalk cracks.
Actually, the Rams were reluctant to go with Tyler at the beginning of the 1979 National Football League season, but once the former UCLA star moved up to the starting job, nobody was going to dislodge him. Wendell finished the campaign with 1,109 yards gained, nine touchdowns, and a league-high 5.1-yard average per carry.
Part of the reason it took a while to work Tyler in there was that Lawrence McCutcheon, until he was injured in 1978, had been one of the most consistent running backs in the league. The Rams wanted to give Lawrence, who is also an excellent pass blocker and exceptional team player, a chance to get comfortable in his old position.
Thus it was five games into the regular season before the coaching staff decided McCutcheon could no longer do the job on a regular basis and switched to Tyler.
The staff also deliberated because there were questions about Wendell's durability warranty. He had played only two weeks the previous season because of injuries. He also had a habit of carrying the ball by the string, instead of close to his body where it would be protected, and this particular style invariably led to fumbles.
"When I was given the chance to replace McCutcheon, I felt like I had a lot to prove, not only to myself but to the offensive line that would be blocking for me," Tyler said. "I'm sure they doubted me at first, or at least wanted to see how much punishment I could take as a runner.
"I don't blame them," he continued. "I had a lot of trouble reading my blockers -- like, I was always running up their backs or getting out ahead of them. But once we adjusted to each other's tempo, everything else seemed to fall into place."
While Tyler isn't exactly a will-o'-the wisp at 5 ft., 10 in. and 190 pounds, he is the kind of runner who can be surrounded by tacklers one second and standing in the end zone the next.
All year along, Wendell has been able to turn the corner on some of the best defensive ends in the league; shift speeds in the open field; break tackles; and come up with the spectacular long gainer.
Of course Tyler hasn't often come up against opponents with the size, experience, and aggressiveness of Pittsburgh's L. C. Greenwood, Mean Joe Greene, and Jack Lambert. During the Steelers' 27-13 victory over Houston in the AFC championship game, they put Earl Campbell in a bottle and mailed him back to his teammates.
But in the last six games of the regular season, Wendell rushed for 649 yards on 114 carries, including highly individual efforts of 63, 60, 37, and 32 yards. He was also a key factor in the NFC title game, twisting and darting through the rugged Tampa Bay defense of 86 tough yards as the Rams defeated the Bucs 9-0 to advance to the Super Bowl.
Tyler seems to do particularly well on sweeps when Kent Hill, the rookie left guard from Georgia Tech who became a regular midway through the season, leads the blocking in front of him.
So far Wendell has displayed one minor fault and one that's not so minor. He doesn't like to pass block (few running backs do) and he still hasn't mastered the art of carrying the ball so that it can't be knocked out of his hands.
But nobody has ever criticized Tyler's running instincts in a crowd. He has the ability to give would-be tacklers his leg and then take it away just as quickly. He has also learned that he performs better if he doesn't eat chili dogs before a game.
When Wendell appears on Pittsburgh's defensive radar screen on Jan. 20 in Pasadena, it will take more than a computer printout to stop him.