The Post-Journal

Playing For Rams Puts A Smile On Conlan's Face

The traffic is horrific, the cost of real estate is out of sight and the Los Angeles Rams, at 2-4, are still, well, the Rams.

Some things don't ever change on the Left Coast.

But Shane Conlan can't wipe the smile off his face these days.

For the first time in three years, the Frewsburg native is having fun playing football. As the Rams' starting middle linebacker and defensive signal-caller, Conlan is a continent removed from his often bitter-sweet six-year stint with the Buffalo Bills.

"I was getting tired of certain things about Buffalo," Conlan told The Post-Journal earlier this week from his Newport Beach, Calif., home. "It was just a fresh start. I knew I was playing well. I thought I played well my last couple years in Buffalo, but some didn't."

Among the more popular theories from Western New York's armchair quarterbacks were that he was injury-prone, that the three-time Pro Bowl selection couldn't make the big play anymore and that he'd lost a step or two. Fans calling radio sports talk shows in Buffalo regularly ripped Conlan for his play.

So when the Bills opted not to match the Rams' three-year, $5.4 million offer last April, Conlan, an unrestricted free agent, left WNY for the chance to carve out a new niche in Los Angeles.

The signing was a popular one among Rams fans.

"I think a lot of fans were worried that the Rams wouldn't step up and be competitive in free agency." said Carl Borack, the Rams' director of marking. "But after Shane signed, we got a lot of calls from very happy season-ticket holders who were renewing and interest about available season tickets.

"He was absolutely the catalyst to the recognition on the part of the public that the Rams were serious this year."

Now, Conlan will be wearing Rams horns in LA rather than goat horns in Buffalo, a fit he felt was totally unjust.

"I hear all this crap, Oh, he's too slow," Conlan said. "I may not look like I'm running fast, but it always looks that way. I came out here and I ran a 4.67 and a 4.72 (in the 40-yard dash) and I was pretty happy with that. You get these idiots (call-in critics) and they've got to blame somebody."

Conlan admitted that after signing his last contract with the Bills before the 1990 season, he didn't play up to his usual standards that season. But he still made the Pro Bowl, made the first of three straight Super Bowl starts and in 1991 turned in a banner season in which he let the Bills in tackles.

"A lot of people appreciate what I did," said Conlan, acknowledging his fondness for Buffalo coach Marv Levy and former Bills general Manager Bill Polian. "It just got out of hand. I told people after I didn't go to the Pro Bowl (following the 1991 season) that I would never go to the Pro Bowl again. Once you miss one, the next year they all say he's losing a step...It kind of got contagious. Even the (Bills) beat writers were saying, "Maybe this is true."

New York Jets general manager Dick Steinberg isn't buying it.

"He's still a young player and he's still a good player," Steinberg said. "We've played against him twice a season for a long time and I've always thought he was a good player and I haven't seen anything lately to make me change my mind.

"Nothing we've seen would indicate he's started to slip. We always had to account for him every time we played him."

Conlan, not surprisingly, agrees.

"I think I'm doing things a lot better than I did in Buffalo, maybe because of the (4-3 defensive) scheme," said Conlan, who registered 12 solo tackles and three assists in a loss to the New York Giants earlier this season. "I have more opportunities to make plays here. I think I'm playing real well. I'm happy with the way I'm playing."

It didn't happen without some growing pains, however. He hyper-extended a knee in training camp and suffered a groin injury in the last preseason game against the Los Angeles Raiders. The latter injury forced him to miss the last 2 1/2 quarters of the Rams season-opener at Green Bay. Since then, however, he's performed admirably.

"The first time (my teammates) realized I was a decent player was the first preseason game (against Phoenix)," Conlan recalled. "I got hurt and hadn't practiced before the first preseason game. Nobody really knew what I could do, (but) I played pretty well and I came back (home) and everybody was raving."

Through six games of the regular season, Conlan, despite not playing against Houston, is third on the Rams in tackles with 32, has one interception and has gained the acceptance of his teammates.

"The personalities are a lot different and it's refreshing because everybody's young," said Conlan, 29. "I think I'm one of the oldest guys on the defense and everybody's good. It's kind of like college, rah-rah kind of stuff. In the Giants game, we were losing, but we we're all together. I've never had so much fun in my life. We were getting beat, but defensively I thought we played well."

Currently, the Rams are ranked 18th in the league in total defense, but have yielded just 3.7 yards per rush and have 18 sacks, including seven by Robert Young and 6 1/2 by Sean Gilbert.

"We're just building it one by one," said Conlan, who anchors a starting linebacking corps that also includes Henry Rolling and Roman Phifer. "It's great to just be around these guys. They're just hard workers and it's fun. I'm not saying I didn't have fun (in Buffalo), but it got to be a drag."

The Bills are off to a 4-1 start and are the team to beat in the AFC once again. The Rams, meanwhile, are third in the NFC's West Division.

But Conlan isn't upset that he's not playing with a winning team.

"We could easily be 4-2," he said. "There's just no way we should have lost to Atlanta (30-24). I think we were the better team. At worst, we should be 3-3. Obviously, it's been our goal to make the playoffs, but we need consistency."

The Rams' quest for consistency may take a while, but there's little doubt that No. 56 is as happy as he's ever been since turning pro in 1987.

"I'm so happy I made the change," said Conlan, who lives in Newport Beach with his wife, Caroline, and son, Patrick. "It's pretty nice (here) other than the traffic. We live in a nice place and it's really fun. It was a good career move."

As for the Bills, who decided not to re-sign him, Conlan has no hard feelings.

"That's just the nature of the business," he said. "In 10 years or maybe in two years, they'll be saying, "Shane Who?"

Conlan's contract runs through the 1995 season. Whether he'll play beyond that, he's not sure.

"I'll wait and see," he said. "Obviously, I'd like to get to 10 years (in the league). If I can get only nine, that's fine, too."

But in the meantime, Conlan isn't thinking too much about retirement. Nor does he think a lot about his knack for landing firmly on his feet wherever he has been - from Penn State to LA - over the last decade.

"I'm not real sentimental," he admitted. "I'll probably be when it's all said and done. Right now, I'll play every play like it's my last. I'm just having fun."

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