As their coach, George Allen, keeps saying, the Los Angeles Rams are a team of emotion and enthusiasm and guys who give 110%, and they needed all of that plus a little bit of luck to beat the Dallas Cowboys 24-23 last Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. The game was much closer than the score indicates and, if the Rams and Cowboys meet again on Jan. 4 for the NFL title, that game may be decided on a safety in the fifth overtime period.
Although closely matched, the Rams and the Cowboys are as different as their coaches. Under their quiet, austere coach, Tom Landry, Dallas practices and plays with cool efficiency. The Rams in turn, emulate the emotional Allen. As Bob Brown, the offensive tackle, noted when he came to L.A. from Philadelphia earlier this year, "I'm a professional athlete and I do this thing for money, but this attitude here gets to me. I hear all these other guys clapping in practice, and then I hear myself doing it, and I say, 'Man, who is that making that noise?' "
The Rams weren't coming in loud and clear against the Cowboys. Their defense, which has been the most reliable part of their game, gave way alarmingly at times, even though Dallas was playing without Calvin Hill, the NFL's leading rusher, who has a lock on Rookie of the Year. Indeed, the Cowboys outgained the Rams 352 yards to 290. And Dallas had key players out of both lines as well. Ron East filled in for veteran Jethro Pugh at defensive tackle, and Rayfield Wright, a whilom tight end, replaced All-Pro Ralph Neely at offensive tackle, where he had to contend with Deacon Jones. The Rams, too, were hurting in the offensive line. Mike LaHood, a rookie, replaced Joe Scibelli at guard. LaHood was matched with East and lost.
Both clubs demonstrated their special talents in the first quarter. The Rams took the opening kickoff and trudged 76 yards in 12 plays to score. This Ram team rarely breaks the long gainer, since its running backs—Larry Smith and Les Josephson—are both tough, hard runners rather than speedsters. In this drive, they crunched into the Cowboy line, trying to find cracks in the center, then swinging wide for yardage.
It was thunderous football, but it wasn't very exciting to watch until Roman Gabriel, the big, oaken Ram quarterback, caught the Cowboys in a blitz at the Dallas 35-yard line. It was second down with 18 yards to go, and Gabriel had just been buried for an eight-yard loss by Ends George Andrie and Larry Cole. Dallas, aware that the Rams have to pass to generate long yardage, sent two linebackers in with the rush on the next play. Gabriel was engulfed by a wave of blue Cowboy jerseys, but suddenly he emerged, shrugged off an insecure tackle, and flicked the ball away just before East, who had snookered LaHood, crashed into him. The ball found Wendell Tucker, the 5'10", 185-pound wide receiver, free at the goal line. Tucker took the ball with no one near him and ran in for the score: Gabriel, shaken by the rush, limped off the field.
If the long march had persuaded the 79,105 fans on hand that they were going to witness an easy Ram victory, the Cowboys soon disabused them of that notion. They matched the Ram drive almost precisely, although they started from their own 14 after the kickoff and needed a roughing the kicker penalty to keep going.
Craig Morton is almost a physical replica of Gabriel. Like Gabriel he is one big, strongman. At 6'4" and 214 pounds, Morton is the same height and only six pounds lighter than the Ram quarterback, and he has the same ability to absorb the shock of a tackle and shake loose.
Counting the opening series, which ended with the penalty that gave them a first down on their own 27, Morton moved the Cowboys 75 yards in 14 plays. However, the drive stalled on the Ram 11 and Mike Clark kicked an 18-yard field goal to make the score 7-3 as the quarter ended. The two drives had used up all but two minutes of the period.
By now it had become apparent that the game was not going to be dominated by the defense, as most experts had expected. The Cowboys' Doomsday Defense had proved as vulnerable as the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, and neither team was able to prevent steady gains. The first two drives had been impressive and both scores were well earned, but for the rest of the game luck played a major part. The Cowboys intercepted a Gabriel pass on the next Ram series, the crowd booing lustily when the official decreed an interception by Lee Roy Jordan, the middle linebacker. Jordan was covering Larry Smith and the ball hit Smith on the chest just as Jordan hit him from the side. The players fell, and from the stands it looked as though the ball had fallen to the ground and Jordan had picked it up. However, the official ruled that the ball had landed on Jordan's chest.
"It hit the ground," Gabriel said after the game. "I know it did. I want to see the movies on that." If the movies show what television did, Gabe is going to have to change his mind: Jordan managed to cradle the ball with one arm as it bounced off Smith.
At any rate, the interception stood and the Cowboys had possession on the Ram 29, following a roughness penalty. From there, Morton called four straight running plays, then rolled out far to his right, outrunning the Ram rush, and whipped an 11-yard pass to Mike Ditka, his tight end, for the touchdown.
"He really bothered us with the rollouts," said Diron Talbert, the Ram defensive end who was in futile pursuit of Morton when he released the ball. "He rolled out a lot more than we thought he would and we were giving him too much time to throw the ball all day."
Ditka was playing with a special mouthpiece. Last month, before the Cowboys beat the Eagles the second time, Ditka was in an automobile accident, and all of his teeth were loosened. After his dentist had wired the teeth, he told Ditka, "If you want to keep your front teeth together, don't play. If you get jarred, we may have to pull them." Said Ditka, "Pull them." Touched, the dentist made the mouthpiece.
Ditka's touchdown put the Cowboys ahead, 10-7. A few minutes later, however, the Rams came up with an interception of their own. Dan Reeves, playing in place of Hill, who was sidelined with a jammed big toe on his right foot, swung out wide on the halfback option pass the Cowboys use so well. They had tried it earlier and Reeves, unable to find a receiver, had been smothered by four Rams for a seven-yard loss. This time he threw the ball just as Deacon Jones, traveling at full speed, smashed into him. The ball, wobbling like a shot duck, fell into the arms of Ram Middle Linebacker Doug Woodlief, who lumbered 10 yards with it to the Dallas 32. The Doomsdayers pressured Gabriel for three downs, forcing two incompletions and stopping another pass play for a three-yard gain, and the Rams settled for a 36-yard field goal by Bruce Gossett to tie the game, 10-10, which was how the half ended.
Gabriel, whose right knee was painfully bruised when East clobbered him as he threw his first touchdown pass, was unable to scramble as much as he usually does and was much more vulnerable to the Cowboy rush. Still, early in the third period, he produced what probably was the best play of the day as well as one of the smartest calls.
The Rams had the ball on their own 42, second down, two yards to go. George Allen took Jack Snow, one of his wide receivers, out of the game and replaced him with Bob Klein, a rookie tight end, giving the Rams two tight ends, and making it look like they were going to run for the first down. On the snap, Gabriel faked a handoff to Larry Smith, pounding into the line, whirled and threw a quick pass to Tucker, who had slanted between two defensive backs. Tucker took the pass in full stride, brushed by an arm tackle and sped 58 yards for the touchdown.
"Our frequency chart showed they have a 5-to-4 tendency to bring their strong safety up close in that situation," Gabriel said after the game. "If he came up, I knew Wendell could get behind him. Of course, if he had played back, I could have audibled out of the call."
Morton came within a hair of duplicating Gabriel's feat on the next series. Bob Hayes, isolated on Defensive Back Jim Nettles, beat him on a deep pattern, which had Hayes angling to his right toward the goalpost. The Rams were in a blitz, forcing Nettles into single coverage. It was one of the few times Hayes beat Nettles cleanly, and Morton, well protected, hit him with a long pass. Hayes caught the ball and was five yards in front of Nettles, heading for the goal line, when he dropped the ball. He and Nettles scrambled for it, Hayes eventually winning a crawling race to recover his fumble on the Ram 18. It was a 43-yard gain, but it should have been a touchdown.
"I don't know what happened," Hayes said later. "I was trying to put the ball in the bank."
Raymond Berry, the old Baltimore receiver, is now the Cowboy end coach. His basic rule for receivers is to tuck the ball into their armpits as soon as they catch it. The fumble cost the Cowboys four points, as they were forced to kick a field goal from the 22, and they trailed 17-13.
Late in the third period Nettles, made wary by the long gainer against him, played Hayes too tightly on the next long pass to him and was called for interference. That put the ball on the Ram 29. The Rams threw the Cowboys back to the 36 in the next three downs, but Clark hit a 43-yard field goal, pulling the Cowboys up to 17-16.
Gabriel then produced the finest Ram football of the afternoon. He started a drive from the Ram 37 and whipsawed the Cowboy defense with alternate sweeps by Smith and Josephson. short passes to Snow and Josephson, and, finally, a nifty 17-yard run of his own, during which he put a great fake on one prospective tackier. Three plays later Gabe put his head down and went over from the one, and the Rams led 24-16.
The Cowboys, of course, got one more, too, when Morton, rolling out on nearly every play now to gain time, hit on successive passes to Rentzel, Hayes, Reeves and Rentzel again for an eight-yard touchdown. That brought it to 24-23, and the Cowboys had one more shot at winning with a minute and a half left in the game, but Eddie Meador ruined things with an interception.
"Ten in a row," said Allen after the game, savoring the Rams' 10 and 0 record. "That's a pretty good start, isn't it? We made the big plays when we had to. That's the story of this team in 1969. We've made the big plays when we needed them."
Gabriel, sitting in his dressing cubicle with an ice pack taped to his right knee, saw it somewhat differently. "If we go undefeated for the season and lose the playoff, you can forget it," he said. "When you win you're 10 and 0 Sunday night. But Monday morning, against the team you play next Sunday, you're 0 and 0.
"It wasn't an especially sharp game," he went on. "They're a good team, but this wasn't one of our best games. It was just a physical and an emotional win. They'll never admit we're a better team than they are, but as long as we win, then the next time we play, they'll remember that we beat them last time."
Gabriel is right. The Cowboys will remember. And one thing they won't forget is that they lost by only a point without Calvin Hill. "He could have played if he had to," Landry said. "But the toe is still sore, and if he played it might be sorer yet next week. We would have had him at half-speed for this game and at half-speed for the Thanksgiving Day game against the 49ers. By keeping him out of this game, he'll be at full speed for the rest of the year, and that's what we want."
Next time, with Hill, the Cowboys could give the Rams something to remember. If there is a next time.