Just a little over 12 months ago at a football banquet in Los Angeles, a writer asked a coach who he thought Sid Gillman was. "A shirt salesman?" he offered hopefully.
This week every football fan in the country knows who Sid Gillman is—just about the outstanding rookie coach in the history of the National Football League. When his Los Angeles Rams ran out onto the Coliseum grass on Monday he was in the enviable position of not having to win to prove himself. Across the scrimmage line were the perennial-champion Cleveland Browns, the New York Yankees of football. The remarkable fact of the playoff was not that the Browns were on hand for the sixth straight year but that the Los Angeles Rams—8-to-1 underdogs at the start of the season—were furnishing the opposition.
When Gillman first came to the Rams, he was known to those who didn't think he sold shirts simply as the successful head coach of the University of Cincinnati. The Rams, on the other hand, were known to him as the happy-go-lucky home-run hitters of football, the team that had the best offense in the game and not much else. Thanks to a Rube Goldbergian set of pass patterns and a predilection for throwing the long, long ball, the Rams the year before had three times run up more than 40 points and had averaged four touchdowns a game. But they lost five games and finished a bad fourth.
The trouble, as Gillman quickly perceived, was that the Rams' habit of leading with crazy rights made them easy prey for the really smart counter-punchers of the league. The Detroit Lions, for example, simply loaded the defensive gun on the Rams, knowing that sooner or later Ram Quarterback Dutch Van Brocklin would start to cock his arm back and fling that ball in the general direction of the horizon. The smart teams had more receivers waiting under these towering cans of corn than the Rams had, and 21 of them were intercepted.
January 2, 1956
It occurred immediately to Gillman that the Rams' way of doing business was not football but Russian roulette, and he set about studying old Ram films to see what could be done about it.
His first task, he soon saw, was not so much shoring up a defense as instilling in the team an interest in defense at all. The Rams' explosive offense had the effect of overworking the other platoon—if the plays worked, the touchdowns were quick and sudden and if they didn't the Rams had to punt. Ball control bored the Rams and the defensive 11 barely had time to get to the bench and rip their helmets off before a decision, one way or the other, had been made on the field and they had to go back in there and hand-fight a punishing enemy which believed in a slower but surer touchdown production. Gillman made a mental note to change all that.
Gillman's study of Ram films next put him on the scent of the master trade of the year. Jim Cason of the San Francisco 49ers might not have been the greatest defensive back in the league, but in the Ram films Gillman saw he made every performance an Academy Award. Gillman dangled a No. 1 Ram draft choice before the 49ers and they bit for it. In that one stroke, Gillman exactly reversed the margin of superiority of the 49ers over his club and put two key wins in his pocket. Gillman's next concern was with the Rams' tendency to go overboard on preseason games, with an exhibition schedule so dazzling that the conference season was anticlimax. There would be no must victories in exhibition, Gillman decided. The must games would come later.
Gillman's Rams this year were as different from predecessor Rams as a boxer from a slugger. His theory was simply explained: if you contain an enemy with a massive and determined defense, you are always within hailing distance even when your offense has an off day—and you are never so far out of it that a lucky break in the closing seconds can't win for you. Twice this year, Gillman's theory paid off in last second wins, over Pittsburgh 27-26 and Philadelphia 23-21. Gillman next convinced his quarterback, Van Brocklin, that touchdowns 10 yards at a time counted just as much as touchdowns 80 yards at a time.
What really confounded students of the Rams was the fact the team took to Gillman's red-meat, un-finessed brand of football. It was as though a band of Marilyn Monroes were suddenly cast as charwomen. But the Rams did take to it. Don Paul, ex-captain of the team and a veteran linebacker with the best reactions in the game, cheerfully took the bone-crunching job of "mike" or middle-guard, the shock absorber of the defensive unit. When Elroy Hirsch failed to report in time owing to a movie commitment, Gillman slammed the door in his face, but later, when injuries hit, Gillman hurriedly forgave and took Crazy Legs back. When the press raised an eyebrow, Sid Gillman shrugged: "We're interested in winning football games, not arguments."
But, as usual, there was Paul Brown and his good right arm, Otto Graham, to reckon with. A man who got the word about exhibition games even quicker than Gillman (Brown has always treated them like dummy drills to test his rookies and has never been known even to look at the scoreboard during their play), Brown matched Gillman in stalling in this year's exhibition game, and out of the Alphonse-Gaston act that ensued, Gillman had to score just to keep the customers awake. The Rams embarrassed themselves by winning 38-21, and no one was more aware of the emptiness of their achievement than Mr. Brown, who stationed himself in-the runway at game's end as the Rams spilled off the field and jeered at them: "O.K., O.K., but what about December?"
Now it was December, and Brown as usual had the last, loud laugh—38-14. But Gillman and his Rams could hold their heads high too. To have been at Thermopylae was their glory and achievement.