St. Louis Rams

The most underappreciated athlete in St. Louis history

St. Louis Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax, 15, is chased by Redskins Dexter Manley, 72, during NFL action at RFK Memorial Stadium in Washington on Monday, Oct. 7, 1985.
St. Louis Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax, 15, is chased by Redskins Dexter Manley, 72, during NFL action at RFK Memorial Stadium in Washington on Monday, Oct. 7, 1985. ASSOCIATED PRESS

It was easy to be ticked off at Neil Lomax.

He not only replaced the beloved Jim Hart as quarterback of the old St. Louis Cardinals, he was the face of the franchise when it hopped the Bill Bidwell Express to Arizona.

But a whole other NFL team has come and gone since then. Enough time has passed that this great sports city can afford due respect to its most underappreciated athlete.

Right?

When Lomax arrived in 1981, the Cardiac Cards were in cardiac arrest and he gave the franchise CPR.

And by the time injury forced a premature end to his career, Lomax was the second-highest-rated passer in NFL history.

No, you’re not reading that wrong. Only Joe Montana, with five seasons yet ahead of him, had been more efficient.

Contemporaries Steve Young and Dan Marino eventually passed him by, as have 42 others who were the product of more pass-happy schemes and new rules that protect the quarterback.

Check the list for yourself, and look at some of the names below Lomax — Aikman, Manning (Eli and Archie), Elway, Moon. And others — Bradshaw, Namath, Tarkenton, Unitas, etc.

Running the newfangled offense that Portland State coach Mouse Davis called the run-and-shoot, Lomax set 90 NCAA passing records, including those seven touchdowns he tossed in one quarter. Even so, he was considered a reach when the Big Red picked in him the second round of the 1981 draft.

The PSU Vikings were not exactly a brand name, after all.

But it took him less than two seasons to displace Hart. And by 1984 — 15 years before we had any notion of Kurt Warner — Lomax had a Greatest Show on Turf kind of season.

We might better remember the year he had if not for three things:

First, it was overshadowed by Dan Marino’s superhuman, record-breaking season.

Lomax completed 62 percent of his career-high 560 attempts for 4,614 yards and 28 touchdowns. For context, Warner had just one season in which he passed for more yards, even with weapons like Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, etc.

But that same year, Marino became the first quarterback to top 5,000 yards and 40 touchdown passes in a single season and led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl.

Second, the Cardinals finished 1984 with a mediocre 9-7 record and dropped out of the playoff picture (again) with that painful 29-27 loss at Washington in Week 16.

Lomax was brilliant that day, completing 37 of 46 passes for a career-high 468 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He brought the Big Red back from a 23-7 deficit, but kicker Neil O’Donoghue — who missed 17 extra points over his eight-year career — shanked the game-winning field goal as time expired.

A win would have given the Cardinals the NFC East division championship. The loss, coupled with the Giants’ defeat of the Cowboys, knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs.

So for all Lomax had achieved individually, the net result was just another frustrating football season under the Arch.

Third, all that promise Lomax and the Big Red had built in the autumn of 1984 came crashing down amid injury and underperformance. They won just five games in 1985 and four the following season.

Along the way, Lomax was sacked 113 times, and his passing stats fell accordingly.

There were still some solid seasons, like his 3,387-yard comeback in the strike-shortened season of 1987. But all those games he played at Busch Stadium II — on that upholstered sheet of asphalt they called a football field — took a toll on Lomax, who nevertheless missed just two starts over nearly six years in St. Louis.

With the acrimony surrounding the Cardinals’ departure, it’s easy to forget that Lomax played just one season in Phoenix. An arthritic hip forced him off the field for the last time when he was just 29. He gave into hip replacement and retirement two years later, in 1991.

Lomax, 58, is living back in the Northeast, golfing, coaching local high school teams and doing some charitable work. Two sons have been Division-I quarterbacks and a daughter played college basketball.

There’s no telling when Lomax last set foot in St. Louis, but it’s about time for a happy reunion.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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