The Los Angeles Rams lost an exhibition game last weekend to the Dallas Cowboys 45-21, which one might assume would leave Ram Coach Tommy Prothro more than a shade upset. He is not accustomed to losing exhibition games. But then he is not terribly accustomed to winning them, either, since he just came over to the pros from UCLA and this was the second one he had ever been involved in. So Prothro took it all with an equanimity rare in his profession. "I don't mind losing so much, even though I like to win," he said. "Of course, I was disappointed because we didn't hit as hard as I thought we would, and the Cowboys moved the ball pretty well when our better boys were playing."
The Rams had not lost their first home exhibition game since 1963; George Allen, who now coaches the Washington Redskins, played every game for blood. Prothro, on the other hand, is playing right now for experience—his own and his team's—and therefore appears to be treating the exhibitions as, well, exhibitions. Following the game, which was played before a crowd of 87,187 in the Los Angeles Coliseum, he was quiet but not particularly downcast. While Cowboy Coach Tom Landry is tuning and polishing a proven machine, Prothro is overhauling the whole engine.
"I think Tommy is deliberately overemphasizing offense and the big play," Landry said after the game. "He has a lot of rebuilding to do, so he has to give his new people a lot of playing time. He has been in coaching long enough, though, to know the name of the game is defense."
That has been the rock on which the Cowboy success has been built, but Prothro, even with second-string Quarterback Karl Sweetan calling most of the shots, managed to bring off a couple of big plays. Roman Gabriel lofted a 67-yard scoring pass to Jack Snow in the first quarter, and Snow caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from Sweetan in the third. The teams were much more evenly matched than the score indicated, Los Angeles actually having a 383-366 edge in offensive yardage. What undid the Rams were a blocked punt and three interceptions, all of which led to Cowboy touchdowns. One of the interceptions was returned 102 yards by Mark Washington.
August 15, 1971
The huge crowd saw more Ram rookies in this game than they had seen in all the five years that Allen coached the club. Allen regards rookies as something to be traded if possible, cut if not. Prothro looks on them more kindly, much to the delight of the Ram scouting staff. Said Assistant General Manager Johnny Sanders, "Under Allen the only time we saw the rookies was in the halls at the dorm in camp."
The rookies made their share of errors, but the veterans were not putting it together, either. Lance Rentzel, whom Los Angeles acquired from the Cowboys, was open several times only to be victimized by bad passes. "We just haven't worked together enough," he said. "It will come with time. I was breaking through the zones too fast, I guess. We've had that trouble in practice."
Prothro, who had promised that Sweetan would play most of the game, left him in despite the interceptions. Prothro had a schedule of playing time for each Ram and stuck with it, regardless of what was happening on the field. "If the ball isn't tipped by a defensive lineman, interceptions are the fault of the passer," he said after the game. "There may be extenuating circumstances, like a big rush or a bad pattern, but essentially the passer threw the ball to the other fellow."
Dallas played well, with Craig Morton completing 10 of 14 passes and Roger Staubach nine of 18. Calvin Hill ran with his old speed and abandon (see cover), picking up 55 yards in 12 carries and scoring two touchdowns. Hill regained his position when the enigmatic Duane Thomas was traded to the New England Patriots (a deal that was subsequently nullified). "I feel like Hubert Humphrey when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run," Hill was quoted assaying. He doesn't look anything like HHH, though. Hill now weighs 233 pounds (up 15 from last year), stands 6'3½" (up ¾") and can run the 40 in 4.7. When Landry had his frontline troops on the field, the Cowboys looked to be the Super Bowl finalists they are. There are a few changes on this club—most notably, Lance Alworth made his debut in a Dallas uniform, pulling in three passes—and a few are all that are needed.
Prothro, on the other hand, has already lost or disposed of 16 members of the 40-man squad which finished the 1970 season, nine of them starters. Latest to go was 33-year-old Defensive Back Richie Petitbon, who was traded to Washington. "I guess George Allen has more confidence in him at this stage of his career than I do," said Prothro.
A big, slow-moving man who still speaks with the soft accent of his native Tennessee, Prothro is showing a signal disregard for many of the tenets of the pro game. He has abolished the curfew, a hallowed tradition in NFL camps, where rookies and veterans alike are expected to go beddy bye at 11 p.m. and are subject to fines if they miss periodic bed checks. "These are grown men," said Prothro. "I didn't have bed checks at UCLA, and these people are more mature than college kids. Besides, bed checks don't do any good. You could put a guard outside every door in the dorm and, if a man wanted to get out, he'd get out. I remember when I was in Tennessee, a retired coach who was an alcoholic was supposed to make a talk at a Quarterback Club meeting, and they escorted him from the plane to the hotel, unpacked his bags for him and left a guy outside his door to make sure he didn't get anything to drink. Two hours later, when they came to take him to the dinner, he was dead drunk on the floor."
So far, despite the doubts of some veteran front-office personnel, only one or two of the players have betrayed Prothro's trust. One stayed out until the wee hours of the morning and suffered through the subsequent practices with a blinding hangover; Prothro talked to him quietly about it but levied no punishment. "I just wanted to let him know I knew about it," Prothro said. "Shucks, I can't get too upset about it if it doesn't happen too often. I don't think it does that much damage, really."
Even more at variance with accepted pro football procedure is Prothro's cavalier attitude toward the game plan, a strategic formula that coaches arrive at by exhaustive, minute examination of movies of their opponent in action, and which they would no more do without than their pay checks. Before the Rams' opening exhibition with the Houston Oilers, which Los Angeles won 17-6, and before this game, Prothro ignored the films. "I want to get this ball club ready for the season," he explained. "I can't afford to spend a whole week just getting ready for Houston or Dallas. I told the players if they wanted to look at movies, the film would be available, but no member of the coaching staff would look at it with them."
When the season starts, Prothro will work up a game plan, but he is not enthusiastic about it. "I told my assistants I want them to work out as logical a plan as they can and try to figure out everything that can happen," he said. "But I told them that game plans can get messed up pretty quick and you can't depend on them that much. I mean when you're up to your butt in alligators, it doesn't do any good to remember that what you meant to do was drain the swamp."
Prothro, who is a life master at bridge, extraordinarily good at any card game and a capable chess player, is much more of a gambler than Allen, a perfectionist whose philosophy is based on avoiding mistakes. "I can play poker all night and watch one man win half the pots and wind up with more money just winning a few big ones," said Prothro.
"It's a lot different this year," said Gabriel. "George was a defensive coach. I'm not saying that to criticize him, because he was a great coach. But Coach Prothro is more interested in the offense. He spends a lot of time personally working with the receivers. His whole idea is different. For instance, say it's third and five. George would want you to hit a receiver five yards down-field. Coach Prothro would just as soon gamble on hitting one 50 yards down-field. And he doesn't mind throwing into the strength of a defense."
Gabriel, a very good long passer, looks forward to the new accent on offense. "It should be more fun," he said. "And another thing, this is a very relaxed camp. Coach Prothro has made it clear that he isn't that concerned with winning exhibitions. He wants to win when it counts. In the last few years two things have been wrong with the Rams near the end of the season. First, we were mentally dull from the tension which used to start with the first exhibition game. Second, we had injuries, and I think the injuries come when you get mentally tired."
Curiously, some of the players who complained about Allen's insistence on winning every game, including exhibitions, arc finding it hard to adjust to Prothro's philosophy. "The same guys who cried about the pressure are crying about the lack of it now," said Gabriel. "But I think it will pay off in the long run."
"I'm not worried about impressing the public in August," said Prothro. "By the time the season ends in December they'll forget about games like this one. I hope the team doesn't lose confidence while we are experimenting, and I don't think they will. They have been very cooperative. I'd like to start the season with every one figuring us for last place and the team full of confidence."
By December, it is doubtful that Prothro will have to concern himself with alligators.