The Los Angeles Rams last Sunday fulfilled what certainly were the two best long-range prophecies of the year. Before 77,277 delirious Californians in Memorial Coliseum, the Rams demolished previously undefeated Baltimore 34-10, just as their optimistic coach, George Allen, had said they would. They would go all the way, he had predicted as the season began, and when his team's prospects grew dim after an early-season tie with Baltimore, he delivered himself of a second thought: the race would come down to the last game and the Rams would beat the Colts. The race did, and the Rams, an exceptional team all year, did. Baltimore, which would have happily accepted the gift of a Christmas tie, wound up the season, ironically, with but one loss and no glory.
The Ram victory was built on excellence in all the facets that comprise pro football: a marvelous defense which dogged John Unitas unmercifully, dropping him seven times as he attempted to pass and forcing two key interceptions; a superior offensive line which protected the Ram quarterback so effectively that he was never on his back; and, finally, special teams which twice came within a hair of blocking Colt punts.
But in assessing what brought the Rams to the title in the Coastal Division—and one step closer to the Super Bowl—most credit must be given to a strong, tall quarterback who has been criticized throughout much of his professional career for a strange indecisiveness that often cost the Rams interceptions and losses. This season Roman Gabriel, playing all the way as the No. 1 quarterback, has taken his place among the game's finest leaders. And his performance last week was easily his best of the year. Completing 18 of 22 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns, Gabriel directed the sure, controlled attack of the club with cool competence.
Roman Gabriel is a proud man with a sure sense of his own ability, and he has imparted this feeling to the Rams. Allen's game plan was not a complicated one. He had decided that the Rams could move against the Baltimore defense on short passes, draw plays and sweeps, and Gabriel mixed these ingredients to perfection. Accused in the past of being unable to find a second receiver when the primary one was covered, he threw an 80-yard scoring pass in this game to Jack Snow on a play in which Bernie Casey was the intended receiver. He threw a nine-yard pass to Fullback Dick Bass on the same pattern to keep a drive alive and, finally, on the same call to Casey, he threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Tight End Bill Truax. Unitas could not have done it better.
"His improvement over the year has been extraordinary," Casey said after the game. "We have perfect confidence in him, and he has perfect confidence in the huddle. He has gained a certain majesty during the season, and it has rubbed off on all of us."
"I'm a better quarterback now than I was last year," Gabriel said. "I learned to read defenses last year. Before that I was a one-quarter quarterback, and no one can develop without playing more than that. I took a lot of criticism, and some of it helped. But the big help is the fact that I'm playing with 39 believers. The team believes in me."
His newly won confidence only partially explains Gabriel's success. Physically he is unusually gifted. He stands 6'4", weighs 230 pounds and is one of the few quarterbacks in football who can shake a blitzing linebacker and still get a pass off. Sunday he tore away from a would-be tackle by Ordell Braase after spending what seemed endless seconds evading the strong Colt rush, then found Casey with a beautifully thrown long, flat pass for a key 25-yard gain to the Baltimore 12-yard line. A play later he fired another pass through a crowd into the arms of Truax for the touchdown that put the Rams ahead 27-10 and insured the Ram victory.
The few long passes Gabriel threw against the Colts were notably different from the sky-high balls he threw—and had intercepted—against Green Bay the week before. Sunday's deep passes traveled on such a flat trajectory that Colt defenders had no time to congregate under them when they came down.
"For three weeks," said Gabriel, "I've been working on passing in my old way. I had been lofting the ball, and against the Packers it nearly cost us the game. Now I fire anything over five yards."
The Ram defense, as usual, was superb. Designed to get to Unitas in a hurry, it worked so well that the Colt quarterback rarely had time to find other receivers when the first man was covered. In Baltimore, earlier in the season, the Rams' front four had stunted often, with the end circling in and the tackle out, but this time they played it straight. "Those stunts hurt us in Baltimore," explained Roger Brown, the massive tackle. "So we decided that we would simply depend upon brute force if necessary."
Even in the face of the unusually varied offensive sets used by the Colts, brute force paid. Baltimore came out in a double wing, in an I formation with Tight End John Mackey as the I's front man, in spreads and sometimes with a man in motion.
"They didn't bother us any," said Maxie Baughan, the linebacker who calls the Ram defensive signals. "We weren't even surprised by the cockeyed I, although the Colts haven't used that set in a long time. We like for them to go into a lot of offensive sets. It means they have more opportunities to make mistakes and more to think about. We were as well prepared for this game as a team can be. All week long the coaches worked into the night getting ready. I know George would call me nearly every night with some new idea he had worked out. It was a wonderful job of planning."
Considering the enormous importance of the game, the two teams were remarkably relaxed during the week preceding it. Working out at their plush training camp at Blair Field in Long Beach, the Rams paid strict attention to the meticulous plans of Coach Allen, but the big defensive foursome—the front line of Brown, Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones—sang a brief song before taking the field each day, as they have all through this season.
"Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we sing 'We shall gather in Miami, beautiful, beautiful Miami,' " Brown explained. "On Friday," he went on, "we change it. We sing 'Super Bowl, oh Super Bowl, how lovely is thy paycheck.' "
For the Rams, this had been the best season in club history, win or lose against Baltimore. For the Colts it had been even more rewarding. They were the first team in the NFL since 1934 to go 13 regular-season games without defeat.
"Some ways it's a shame," one Ram veteran said. "I mean if we're in any other division with this record, we win the championship two weeks ago. Here we lose only one game, and damned if we don't have to win on Sunday or get shut out of everything, even the second-place game in Miami. I figure we'll win, but something's wrong when it comes out that way."
Jones, the vicious defensive end who finished second to John Unitas—a distant second—in balloting for the league's Most Valuable Player, was deeply sensible of the honor. "You got to go with the man for No. 1," he said. "But how about me being No. 2? I never even considered I'd get a vote, because they just don't vote for defensive linemen. I guess it's a good thing I didn't win it or I'd be in a trance all week."
Brown grinned at him.
"Don't get so high, man," he said. "You ain't No. 1. You're No. 2. You got to try harder. You get your shot at No. 1 on Sunday."
"Maybe after Sunday I'll demand a recount," Jones said.
No. 1 took his nomination in stride. Unitas is not an emotional man, and the many honors and records that have come his way in his years in pro football have left him untouched. "It's nice," he said. "But I don't get excited about things like that. What counts is if I do my job and we win."
The Colts arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday night. The high school field where they were to practice was accidentally flooded by a faulty watering system, and Ram President Dan Reeves offered to arrange for another practice site, but Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom declined.
"You probably have the other field booby-trapped with land mines and barbed-wire entanglements," he said. "We'll dry this one out and work here."
The Colt game plan, of course, was designed to take advantage of football's best quarterback enjoying one of his best years. Unitas had gained 3,222 yards throwing the ball before this game, despite the fact that the Colts' two most experienced receivers—Jimmy Orr and Raymond Berry—missed most of the season with injuries.
Baltimore planned to work on the Rams' Clancy Williams, a cornerback, with short passes to the inside after setting him up with squareouts to the sideline. "Clancy's real outside conscious," one player explained. "He almost gives you the inside. If he does, we'll take it." Quick passes to John Mackey over the middle figured in the Colt game plan, too. Mackey is one of the best tight ends in football and a formidable runner once he has caught the ball. "I nearly broke a couple of big ones in the game in Baltimore," Mackey said before the game. "Just a step or two and I'm gone. Maybe I'll get the step Sunday."
Anticipating the stunts the Ram front four customarily uses, the Colts worked hard on perfecting delayed runs designed to catch the defensive line moving. And since they had enjoyed considerable success in handling the big foursome before, the Colts' offensive linemen expected to be equally effective in Los Angeles.
Like the Rams, the Colts, too, seemed obsessed with the injustice of it all. "It's a hell of a note to have an unbeaten season and come down to the last game with the whole thing riding on one Sunday," said Braase, the defensive team captain. "But we've had a lot of bad breaks during the last three seasons. I figure it's time we got a good one."
Unhappily for the Colts, they got no breaks. It is, in fact, doubtful that any kind of break could have stopped the Rams on Sunday. Lenny Lyles, the talented Baltimore defensive back, was as ungrudging as the rest of the Colts in his praise for the Rams after the game.
"Take it from me," he said. "They're going to go all the way now. They got the mental thing with the Packers whipped. They come out of the game with everything and all we get is criticism. It's hard to understand."
Unitas, his forehead red and bruised, stood before his locker with a small, crooked smile on his face and shook his head. "We lost it," he said, "but they deserved to win. I ate a yard of dirt out there today."
Someone commented on his swollen forehead, and he laughed. "That's not punishment," he said. "It's old age. The big mistake I made today was throwing the ball to Lenny Moore in the second quarter. It was an inside hook, but I thought Moore was open to the outside and I tried to lob it over Ed Meador. I was off balance. The pass was short and the ball went into Meador's hands. That was the turning point in the game." As Unitas threw the ball, Jones was twined around his legs, earnestly trying to twist them off. "That may be the only time I've ever been glad I didn't get the quarterback down," Jones said later.
From that interception the Rams marched to a touchdown which put them ahead to stay, 10-7. Jack Pardee, who intercepted one of Unitas' passes, said, "Last week, when we beat Green Bay here, we beat the bully on the block, the kid who always picks on you and hits you in the head. This week we showed we can beat anyone."
Sunday the Rams meet the bully again, only this time he is in his own backyard. If the Rams can duplicate their performance against the Colts, the bully may be in for yet another beating.