After the Los Angeles Rams had finished their Saturday afternoon workout at Baltimore's Mt. St. Joseph High School, Head Coach George Allen picked up a penny. "I always tell my players they make so much money they wouldn't stoop to pick up a cent," he said. "But this may be a lucky penny. I'll keep it."
The next afternoon, before the 38th straight full house (56,864) in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, the lucky penny worked its magic. The Rams, a team composed in large part of walking wounded, defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-20 in an early-season showdown between the two favorites in the NFL's Coastal Division.
The Rams did it against a hale John Unitas, who went all the way for Baltimore but who produced only fitfully the wizardry he performed for so many years. Allen's penny—combined with a thundering rush from a reconstituted Ram front four—made enough breaks to stop a very good Baltimore club.
It was a vastly satisfying victory for Los Angeles, a team that spent 1968 playing a futile game of catch-up with Baltimore. Last year, when the Colts jumped in front and stayed there, it created a bad case of nerves in Los Angeles. "It was the time difference that made it so bad," Offensive Tackle Charlie Cowan said. "The Colts would play in the East and win, and the score would be up by the time we took the field in Los Angeles. It created a lot of pressure and tension and led to little mistakes."
There were tension and pressure and mistakes aplenty in last Sunday's game, but finally it was Baltimore that snapped. Three very big mistakes did irreparable damage to a Colt offense that stuttered much of the afternoon and only occasionally shone with the luster Unitas usually gives to his team.
The first error came in the third quarter, with the score tied 17-17, after Roman Gabriel, an exceptionally effective passer and play-caller all afternoon, had moved his club 81 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. The key play in the drive had been a lovely, slashing run by Larry Smith, the Rams' No. 1 draft choice from Florida. Smith stands 6'3" and he weighs 220 pounds, but he is so fast that in a 40-yard race against Olympic 200-meter champion Tommie Smith in the Rams' training camp he lost by only a hair. On this play he slid wide outside the right side of the Colt line, cut on his afterburners and fled 31 yards to Baltimore's 12 before a safety angling across knocked him out of bounds. Then Gabriel, who changed his huddle call 15 times in the course of the game, called an audible that freed Running Back Willie Ellison for a pass. Ellison put a nifty move on Linebacker Dennis Gaubatz and went in for the touchdown.
The lucky penny worked its magic two plays later, with Unitas throwing from his 26. He called a pass to Willie Richardson, the very fast, very sure-handed Colt wide receiver, and drifted back quickly, the big Ram pass rush coming hard. "I saw Willie plant his foot and start his cut, and he had the cornerback beaten," Unitas said later. "I threw the ball and I didn't even see Eddie Meador. He came out of nowhere." Meador intercepted the ball on the Baltimore 35, returned it to the Colt 11, and four plays later Bruce Gossett kicked a 15-yard field goal to put the Rams ahead to stay.
Meador is the Ram free safety, and on this pass pattern he would normally be occupied covering Running Back Tom Matte, who had lined up in a slot position to occupy Meador's attention. But Matte was knocked down by a linebacker as he crossed the line of scrimmage, freeing Meador to help out on Richardson.
The Colts rallied and stopped the Rams cold early in the fourth period, but the penny got in another lick almost immediately. Pat Studstill, whose deep, towering punts played a major role in the game, kicked one that seemed to hang endlessly. Preston Pearson, on the Colt 16-yard line, unwisely chose to field the ball, although several Rams were bearing down on him. He fumbled and disappeared under half a ton of tacklers. Bob Klein, a large Ram rookie from USC, recovered.
Two plays later, Gabriel completed a 16-yard pass to Wendell Tucker for the touchdown that put Los Angeles ahead 27-17. Gabriel had Tucker isolated on Charlie Stukes, the cornerback who has replaced retired All-Pro Bobby Boyd this season. In defense of Stukes, he made a noble—and illegal—effort to stop Tucker. The Ram receiver went straight downfield, cut to the inside, and Stukes thumped him solidly as Tucker made the cut. The collision knocked Stukes backward, off-balance and shunted Tucker quickly into the second half of his pattern, in which he broke back toward the sideline. Before Stukes could recover, Gabriel had tossed an easy pass to Tucker, now completely alone and waiting for the ball. An official detected Stukes' infraction and dropped a yellow flag, but the Rams, of course, declined the penalty.
The Colts' luck turned bad again on Baltimore's next series of downs. Although Unitas had not been as sharp in this game as in some preseason contests, the crowd came alive as he began moving his club. He had more than 12 minutes left, he trailed by only 10 points and Colt fans are thoroughly familiar with his penchant for saving lost causes with fourth-quarter heroics.
To negate the rush of the Ram line, Unitas went to short passes, dinking a lateral to Pearson, who gained five yards to the Baltimore 30. Then he tossed a swing pass to Matte flaring out of the backfield, and Matte, a sturdy, industrious runner, rattled for 19 yards. Unitas snapped a look-in pass to Ray Perkins, then hit Perkins again on another quick pattern, putting the ball on the Rams' 34, and the crowd was on its feet.
Unitas, deliberate, even phlegmatic despite the uproar, took a long time calling the play. He surveyed the Ram defense briefly and took the snap on a quick count. He glanced to his left and pumped as if he were going to slip another quickie to Perkins, then turned to his right and threw the ball in a high, reaching arc toward Willie Richardson. Richardson had beaten Cornerback Clancy Williams and took the perfectly thrown pass over his shoulder as he crossed the goal line. It was a well-executed play, but it was called back for a holding penalty on John Williams, a second-year guard. Although the Colts later picked up a meaningless field goal, that was, essentially, the ball game.
"I wasn't holding," Williams said after the game. He is a big, thickset, very black man with an oddly childish face. "There had been a lot of controversy out there on the field. I was blocking on Merlin Olsen, and he was complaining a lot about holding to the official. On the play before, he went out of the game limping, and Coy Bacon came in and he was beating me to the outside and I had my elbow out trying to stop him, but I wasn't holding him. I guess maybe from where the official was standing it looked like holding, but really I wasn't holding him."
The Ram victory, of course, wasn't entirely due to George Allen's lucky penny. It was due in some larger measure to the rush of the Ram line and the heady field generalship of Gabriel, plus crisp blocking by an offensive line helped immeasurably by Bob Brown, the all-NFL tackle acquired from the Eagles in what may have been the best trade since the Giants got Y. A. Tittle from the 49ers for a lineman named Lou Cordileone.
Brown met Bubba Smith, the 295-pound defensive end, head on. In Baltimore's final preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, Smith had destroyed an All-Pro tackle, Ralph Neely, but he did not destroy Brown. Brown, too, weighs 295, and he must have the quickest charge of any man his size. Time and again he slammed into Smith and straightened him up, and Smith, who had given the Cowboys' Roger Staubach fits, never laid a hand on Gabriel.
Brown is an emotional man, which somehow doesn't go with his size. He came to the Rams in joy and thanksgiving from Philadelphia, where he had been conspicuously unhappy. "I couldn't believe it at first," he said. "I didn't think it could be so good. This is a fabulous bunch of guys. Anyone can put on a uniform and play, but this is a very emotional team."
Someone asked him the difference between playing for now-discharged Coach Joe Kuharich and playing for Allen. "It's the difference between daylight and dark," a trainer interjected, but Brown shook his head and thought a moment. "No," he said. "It's the difference between Raquel Welch and some girl off the corner."
Miss Welch was not one of Brown's problems in Baltimore. Allen has ferreted out some notably unglamorous establishments for the Rams to be sequestered in when they are on the road. The Hilltop Motor Inn, where they stayed in Baltimore, is down the street from the national headquarters for Social Security records, and the liveliest entertainment in the neighborhood is at a bowling alley once owned by Unitas. As one player said, "We're a $5 ride from a bright light."
On Saturday afternoon Allen, clad in light-blue cotton pajamas, watched the Texas-California game on television. His lucky penny was in an ashtray near him, but it didn't cheer him up much. A California back fumbled, and he shook his head sadly.
"There's one of the things you can't do," he said, "and win."
He thought for a moment, his thin face somber. Then he said, "We've got too many injuries." Indeed, the Rams did have a rash of not-quite-disabling injuries. Bob Brown's arm was so painful that he had a shot of Novocain before the game, and he had been previously hobbled with sore hamstrings. (In talking to Trainer George Menefee a couple of weeks earlier, Brown had said, "I don't care much about exhibitions, but when we play the Colts, if you got enough Novocain, I'll play.") Defensive Tackle Roger Brown had a broken hand; Diron Talbert, who replaced injured Gregg Schumacher at defensive end, played with four cracked ribs; Cornerback Clancy Williams had a pulled thigh muscle and a sore shoulder and Larry Smith had to have Novocain to ease the pain in his ankle.
"It's tough to beat the Colts even when you're healthy," said Allen. "But I guess in the end, when two teams as good as these play, the team that wants to win the most wins."
It may be that the Rams did want to win more than the Colts. At least, that was the theory of some of the Ram players. "We didn't have as good an exhibition season as they did," Gabriel said after the game. "Maybe they looked at our record and took us too lightly. I've been thinking of this game since the Super Bowl. I was down there and I saw them lose, and I didn't think they should have."
"I don't think they were emotionally ready to play a club like the Rams," Charlie Cowan said.
Merlin Olsen, the All-Pro defensive tackle, said, "When I find myself thinking too much about a game coming up, I force myself to think about something else. I think about sitting on a bank fishing, or watching ducks fly through the sky—anything to get my mind off the game. This morning, before this game, I spent a lot of time finding something else to think about."
The Colts took their loss like old pros. "I don't think I played as well as I should have," Unitas said. "They didn't show us anything new on defense. They put Deacon Jones in the middle of the line now and then, but they did that to us last year. Then they did it when they went to a five-man line, but this time they did it sometimes without substituting a lineman for a linebacker. They got a good rush and good pressure and sometimes I was hit as I was throwing, but I've been in this league 14 years and I've seen the rush before. I think I could have done better."
"That's one game," Tom Matte said. "We've got 13 more, and someone will beat them. We're too good a team to let one loss bother us. We have to think of Minnesota next week, not about losing to the Rams."
"We get them again," Billy Ray Smith said. "It may be different then." It may. The Colts are a remarkable team, and Unitas doesn't have many off days. But football is a game of luck as well as emotion, and George Allen's lucky penny wasn't the only good omen for the Rams. Consider. When the Rams worked out at Mt. St. Joseph's, it took five police cars to keep out a bunch of youngsters who surrounded the field to shout insults at the club. After practice, as the team bus drove away, one urchin raced alongside it, glaring up at the players and howling, "The Colts will win! The Colts will win!" Looking up at the bus, he didn't see a large rock and fell flat on his face.
Consider again. During the off season, Gabriel and Olsen worked in a movie with John Wayne. The name of the movie is The Undefeated, and Gabriel plays an Indian named Blue Boy—a most unusual Indian. He gets the girl.
Luck or skill, Bob Brown has faith. "When I get back to Los Angeles, I'm ordering a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud," he said as he headed for the showers. "I'll pay for it with my Super Bowl money."
And offer Raquel Welch a ride in it, no doubt.