"The day of the crying towel is over," says Harland (Swede) Svare, the Norwegian coach of the Los Angeles Rams. "We may finish in the first three." If so the Rams will have to remedy last year's main defect and come up with some linebackers equal to Swede when he played for the New York Giants. That may not be easy. Still, the Rams have age and experience in Dan Currie, imported from Green Bay, and Cliff Livingston, beginning his 12th season of pro football. They have youth and excitement in Anthony Guillory, a rookie. They also have Ed Holler, picked up from Pittsburgh, and rookie Fred Brown. The Rams lost a linebacker when Mike Henry decided to quit the game and sign on as Tarzan in the movies.
"He wouldn't have helped us much," said a Ram coach. "No middle linebacker would be much good worrying about his profile."
If the 1965 corps of linebackers is dependable, the Rams could be the surprise of the Western Division and finish close to the leaders. Their defensive line is possibly the best. Merlin Olsen, despite an exaggerated sense of his own importance, remains the finest young defensive tackle in the league, and Roosevelt Grier, a more modest individual, is the best old defensive tackle. The arrival of Joe Krupa from Pittsburgh adds depth. Ends David Jones and Lamar Lundy apply strong pressure from the outside.
Last year the Rams defensive secondary was erroneously criticized for faults traceable to the linebackers. The team has three proven defenders and now a rookie who may be able to break precedent by moving in at once. Ed Meador is a fine defensive back playing his seventh year. Aaron Martin is a competent corner back, as is Jerry Richardson. The rookie with potential is Clancy Williams, from Washington State. Williams shackled the Cowboys' ex-sprint champion Bob Hayes in a preseason game. If he can handle Hayes, he should be able to handle anyone.
"If we started tomorrow, my quarterback would be Bill Munson," Svare said during preseason training. Munson is an exceptional young man. He drops back and sets up quickly, and he can find receivers in broken patterns. He has a strong and accurate arm and a quick mind and he is a leader. No quarterback needs more than that.
Behind him is Roman Gabriel, who has the arm but who is not as quick mentally. But if Munson should be hurt Gabriel can perform acceptably. The Ram receivers are good: Bucky Pope, Tommy McDonald, Marlin McKeever, rookie Jack Snow and second-year man Willie Brown.
In Dick Bass the Rams have one of the best running backs in the league. He is a game-breaker with more power than his weight (204 pounds) would indicate and extraordinary balance. Ben Wilson, a graduate student, is a good, strong fullback and Les Josephson is even better. The offensive linemen are beginning their third year as a unit; they may be better able to protect Munson or Gabriel than before.
The Rams have another important asset—a good coach who knows when not to coach.
"It is, of course, a matter of ego," Swede Svare says. "You have to be able to forego exercising your ego. You have to realize that once in a while—more often than not, actually—you should leave a boy alone. You should never tamper with a passer. I'm glad no one ever told Bill Munson how to throw a football. He is not an orthodox passer, but it isn't necessary to be orthodox. There is no one way to throw a football. If Munson throws off balance or off the wrong foot or sidearm, that's his style."
Next year the era of the Rams could begin. When Dan Reeves regained control of the club in a bidding duel with his ex-partners, he brought back to the team the most astute mind in profootball. Reeves has a first-class scouting system. His rookie harvest this season was excellent; the crops in the years to come should be as good or better. And the Rams, with an abundance of fine young players, will be in the enviable position at the end of the summer-training sessions of wondering which of their good players to keep, not which mediocrities they will have to endure.
The Rams, then, are the team of the near future. If three of their several linebackers can do a better than average job and if their running backs are a little better than they look and if Bill Munson fulfills his promise, they could do what Svare predicts—finish in the first three.
But championships are not won on ifs and the Rams have too many. The ifs should land them somewhere around fourth place; next year there won't be so many ifs, and then the Rams could win the Western Division championship.