This was supposed to be the year of the Los Angeles Rams. They were going to win their division laughing and, when things got serious, take their conference and head for Miami. Instead they have been grimly trying to keep up in the West. Last Sunday they finally pulled even and almost ruined the San Francisco 49ers' chance for the first title of any kind in that team's dolorous 25-year history.
The 30-13 Ram victory, slugged out in Kezar Stadium on a day that began with rain and ended with seagulls casting their shadows on the field, left the two clubs tied for first in their division, with three games to go. But the Rams have the better interdivisional record, and by scoring a touchdown on the last play of the game, they also have an edge over the 49ers in total score for the two games they have played, the 49ers having won in Los Angeles in October 20-6. With both teams having 7-3-1 records, these factors could have a bearing on determining the division title, according to the NFL's complex tie-breaking process, which even the league hasn't fully fathomed.
For the first half it looked as if San Francisco would repeat its earlier win. Although he was under relentless pressure from the Ram front four, John Brodie still managed to complete nine of 18 passes for 108 yards; more important, he found running room for the big 49er backs—Ken Willard and Doug Cunningham—outside the Ram flanks, and by virtue of a nine-yard Brodie to Gene Washington touchdown pass, the 49ers led 13-6 at halftime.
But, appropriately enough, as the sun broke through so did Los Angeles, and magnificently. The Rams adjusted their defense and virtually shut Brodie out. "We were playing pass defense in the first half and they were running more than we had expected," George Allen said after the game. The Ram coach was sitting on an equipment truck in the Los Angeles dressing room, sipping a soft drink. His voice was hoarse and uneven from excitement and strain. "In the second half," he said, "we used an odd line more, with a man playing over the center, and we strung the defense out wider. That contained their wide stuff and we still got pressure on Brodie. We never did sack him, but he never had a lot of time to throw, either. This was the biggest win in the five years I've been with the Rams. We beat them in their own backyard, and that means more, too."
The three Ram touchdowns were scored by Willie Ellison on bursts of one, two and eight yards. On each occasion Ellison replaced Larry Smith, and Allen was asked if Ellison was his touchdown specialist. Allen smiled and shook his head. "No," he said. "Smith did a very fine job. But he has had a bad leg, and it just happened that he was running out of gas at the end of the drives. And Willie is a fine runner, too. We gave three game balls today and he got one. Joe Scibelli got one in the offensive line, and Jim Nettles got one in the secondary."
Nettles came in to replace regular Cornerback Clancy Williams, who had injured his knee. Nettles responded to the challenge by intercepting two passes, one of which set up the second touchdown. The other came when Brodie decided, unwisely, to pass for a first down on fourth and two from the Los Angeles 44. There were two minutes left to play in the third period and the 49ers trailed by only three points, but the momentum they lost on that misplay was never regained, and from then on the Rams dominated the game.
With the outside lanes shut off to his running attack and with the rush hindering his passing game, Brodie couldn't generate a consistent attack. The 49ers had run for 100 yards in the first half, complementing their 108 yards passing; in the second half they gained but 25 yards on the ground and 52 in the air.
"Our defense was designed to keep the pressure on Brodie all the time," said Deacon Jones, Los Angeles' All-Pro defensive end, who usually did just that. "The 49ers have a very fine offensive line, and John keeps his backs in to block a lot, so sometimes it feels like you're rushing against a seven-man line, "cause they're very big backs. But we ran a million stunts on them and we kept after him and we made him throw too fast and too short and too long."
Jones sliced adhesive tape from his ankles and shook his head. "Now what are they gonna say about us getting too old?" he asked. "They're always talking about how old we are. Hell, a football player don't really reach his prime until he's 30. Take me. I didn't know what I was doing for a long time. I played flashy, made two or three big plays everybody saw, but nobody saw the times I got beat. Now I'm older and I'm a complete football player, and I don't make those foolish mistakes anymore."
Jack Pardee, who plays corner linebacker, calls the Rams' defensive signals and has three years' seniority on Jones, walked by and patted him on the shoulder. "There's a man been in this league 13 years and I wouldn't trade him for any linebacker in football," Jones said. "Like I wouldn't want any other tackle but Merlin Olsen playing next to me, neither. With guys like that, you know what they're gonna do all the time, and you know they ain't about to goof, and you can go ahead and do your thing the best way you can. We ain't old. We're mature."
Roman Gabriel (see cover), toweling himself as he talked to a knot of reporters, was having a hard time concealing his immense delight. "Our offense finally started to work today," he said. "It was a beautiful thing they did. No mistakes, except for Alvin Haymond's fumble on a kickoff, and no interceptions. We ran into lots of tough luck and we kept on coming back and coming back. I can't ever remember having back-to-back offside penalties the way we did when we had the touchdown called back."
These mishaps occurred in the first half, and they might have broken a less determined team. The 49ers were ahead 6-0, but Gabriel had brought the Rams down to the San Francisco 36-yard line on a smartly run drive. Then he completed a 23-yard pass to Tight End Billy Truax, but the play was called back for the first offside penalty. On the next play Gabriel threw a 41-yard pass to Wide Receiver Jack Snow in the end zone, but that play, too, was nullified.
"It was Truax offsides both times," Gabriel said. "He must have been lining up offsides. Then, in the second half, I've got him wide open in the end zone and miss him."
This happened in the third quarter, with the Rams operating from the San Francisco 15. It was a play-action pass, and Mel Phillips, the strong safety who should have been covering Truax, bought the run fake, leaving Truax all alone in the end zone. Gabriel overthrew him by yards.
"Billy told me he'd be open on the play," Gabriel said. "It's what we call a straight and up. He gave the safety a little head fake to the inside and broke to the outside, and I couldn't believe how open he was. In a situation like that, sometimes you try to lift the ball to the receiver instead of drilling it, and I lifted it clear up into the third row of the bleachers."
The first time the Rams gained possession of the ball in the second half, Gabriel marched them 56 yards for a touchdown, the drive being sustained by Ellison's runs. "We felt at the half we could hit them pretty good with inside running," Gabriel said. "We figured they might think we'd put the ball in the air right away, since we were behind 13-6. It worked. I think we're starting to make our way back now. And we're doing it at just the right lime. I'm still not playing as well as I can. There are a lot of reasons for that. We've had so many people out at one time or another with injuries, and we've had fumbles and interceptions because we were going with different people all the time, but now we're beginning to do everything right. I think we'll go all the way now. For two weeks in a row we've come from behind and won, and now we know we can do it. This game had to give us the lift we've needed."
Jones was nearly dressed by now and the team was slowly deserting the dressing room to board the buses that would take them to the airport. "This is the best way to do it." Jones said. "Sometimes, in the past, we've tuckered out at the end of the season, but this year we're catching fire. We're going to keep getting better and better. We caught fire at just the right time."
Someone in the back of the dressing room yelled "Only six more wins" and Deacon grinned hugely. "Hey," he said softly, "six more. That takes us right through the Super Bowl, don't it?"
The Rams play New Orleans and Detroit at home in the next two weeks, then close their season with the Giants in New York. Of those three opponents only Detroit figures to give them any trouble. The 49ers play the Atlanta Falcons in San Francisco next Sunday, then finish on the road against the Saints and the Oakland Raiders. There is very little to choose in the schedules, but Oakland would seem to be a stronger opponent than New York, especially in view of the rivalry between the Raiders and the 49ers, and Atlanta could give San Francisco a difficult game if the 49ers let down after this disheartening defeat.
Diron Talbert, who, with Olsen, applied pressure from the inside on Brodie, wasn't worried about future opponents. "Hell, it don't make no never mind," he said. "Now we got it. We been chasing all year, and we ain't about to start chasing again. All we got to do to be sure is win three ball games, and I reckon we can do that."
As Allen left the dressing room, he was asked about the stories that he will be through as the Ram coach after this season, no matter what. "I don't want to talk about that," he said. "All I want to do is think about the next game. But if I'm not here, I can guarantee I'll have a job four times as good."
It would be hard to figure out what that job would be if the Rams keep rolling.
Until Sunday it had been a year of frustration, adversity and pain for the Rams, who had to rely on their defense, and even that was weakened, principally on account of a nagging knee injury to Deacon Jones. Two weeks ago, when the Rams defeated the Falcons in Atlanta 17-7, the offense got only three points; after the game a friend suggested to Falcon Coach Norman Van Brocklin that Atlanta should have punted on first down.
The two Los Angeles touchdowns in that game came on an interception by Kermit Alexander (a former 49er) and a 14-yard fumble return by Defensive End Coy Bacon. Ninety of the 207 points scored by the Rams before they played San Francisco Sunday had come from field goals, plays by the defense or specialty teams; the Ram offense had accounted for a measly 16 touchdowns.
In defense of the offense, it must be pointed out that the Rams have not been exactly symbols of flourishing good health. No fewer than 23 of the 40-man squad have been hurt in varying degrees and out of action for varying periods.
"Every week, it seems like we lose a key player," said Allen last week. "Now we've lost Tommy Mason, and he makes a big difference to our running attack. But you can't worry about injuries. All teams have them. You have to work out a way to win in spite of them. We've had a tough time, but I think we'll put it all together for this game."
The Rams arrived in San Francisco a little after noon on Saturday and went directly to Kezar. It was an overcast day, with sprinkles of rain wetting the streets now and then, and the field at Kezar was covered by a tarpaulin. The Rams were to work out in the Golden Triangle, a pie slice of turf beyond one end of Kezar, but when Allen went to look at the Triangle, he found it less than golden—in fact, drab, muddy and slippery—and he called off the practice.
The players were not at all disturbed by not having to work out. Talbert, Maxie Baughan and Ken I man walked across the street from the stadium and ate hot dogs and drank beer or Coca-Colas as they waited for Allen to finish his inspection. A high school game had been played in the old stadium during the week, bringing to 30 the total number played there this year, and Allen was worried about the quality of the held.
Talbert, the least-sung member of the current Fearsome Foursome, played for the University of Texas, and is a notably loose man Under any circumstances. "Those bleeps are good," he said about the 49ers. "You don't lead the division Mess you're good. But when they beat us in Los Angeles, we was flat, and I mean real flat. After the game, even the 49er players said we was flat. But we ain't gonna be flat for this game. We didn't sack Brodie one time in Los Angeles, but I guarantee we're gonna knock his bleep off this time. We're gonna win this one."
In that first game, the Ram defense held the 49ers to only 243 yards of offense—but the Ram offense managed just 205. Brodie, behind redoubtable blocking, completed 13 of 20 passes for 193 yards. Gabriel, on the other hand, threw 35 times, completing only 14 for 126 yards, was dumped three times and was intercepted twice.
This series of misfortunes wasn't all Gabriel's fault. The truth is that he doesn't have first-rate receivers. Jack Snow and Wendell Tucker, the wide receivers, have difficulty getting open; Billy Truax is a sure-handed pass catcher and an exceptional blocker, but he lacks speed. Up until the game in San Francisco, Gabriel had to depend primarily on his backs to catch his passes; of the top live Ram receivers, three were running backs, and they had caught 61 passes to 52 for the flankers and ends.
In Atlanta, Gabriel only threw toward his wide receivers four times; two passes were incomplete, one intercepted and one complete for a short gain. In that game, Allen used the pass merely as a diversion. With Gabriel throwing a total of 85 times, the Rams lost to the Jets and were tied by the Falcons in Los Angeles on the two previous Sundays. Gabriel passed only 15 times in Atlanta. "When you're not executing well, you start over with basics," Allen said in explanation. "You keep it simple, and running is simple. So we ran." Indeed, against the 49ers Sunday, Gabriel completed but seven of 21 for 70 yards, but his runners compiled 155, averaging 5.2 yards a clip.
In the 49ers' earlier victory over the Rams, Brodie defeated the rush in part by calling pass patterns that allowed him to release the ball quickly. He kept his backs in for extra protection and hit his wide receivers on quick turnouts, once in a while mixing things up with hitch patterns to Gene Washington for longer gains.
Merlin Olsen, a vision in a patterned sport shirt and baby-blue stretch pants, was as loose and happy as Talbert in the parking lot outside the Kezar dressing room on Saturday. "You have to force a quarterback out of his pattern," he said. "What we'll try to do, if Brodie's throwing the quicks, is make him throw even quicker than he wants to."
Someone asked Olsen if he thought the Rams would be flat for this game, too. He shook his head. "You can't ever tell about that," he said. "But this may be the biggest game some of the veterans ever play. I've been with the club nine years now. Maxie Baughan and Eddie Meador came out of retirement to help us get to the Super Bowl. I don't think they'll play again next season, no matter whether we win it or lose it. So this is a big game."
"It's the most important game we've played since I've been coach," said Allen. "The whole year rides on it."
After Allen finished pecking under the tarpaulin, he reported to the team that the field was in reasonably good condition. The Kezar groundkeeper is, fittingly enough, a man named Wurm; after the high school game earlier in the week, he had the turf rolled and the divots replaced.
Two years ago, when the Rams played the 49ers on a slow track in Kezar and came out with a 20-20 tie, Allen said the field was a disgrace and that Commissioner Pete Rozelle should do something about it. What Rozelle did was fine Allen and tell him that if any of his players complained about playing conditions, he would hold the coach responsible.
"I hope it rains tomorrow," said Ken Iman. "We'll kick the hell out of them in any weather. Weather doesn't make the difference. It's how you feel."
Right now, the Rams feel like champions.