HEADING THEM OFF AT THE PASS

Los Angeles intercepted four of John Brodie's aerials—three by the ubiquitous Gene Howard—to defeat the San Francisco 49ers and go into the lead in the National Conference's Western Division
November 29, 1971

The Los Angeles Rams have this profitable approach to giving and receiving—they are generous, but never to a fault, and they will take whatever is given them. The San Francisco 49ers, whom the Rams displaced last weekend as leaders of the National Football Conference's Western Division, adhere much more closely to Christian doctrine. They are givers, not receivers.

In whipping the 49ers 17-6 before a crowd of 80,050 in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Rams gave up yards—382 of them—but not touchdowns. The 49ers gave up only 173 yards, but they also gave away the football game. Not that the Rams didn't deserve it. As their canny middle linebacker, Marlin McKeever, explained afterward, "We may have bent a little, but we held when we needed to."

Bending a little, but never breaking, is the Rams' defensive philosophy; they are prepared to yield short yardage in favor of shutting off the long gainers. This is a tactic particularly useful against teams like the 49ers—and the Rams' Thanksgiving Day opponents, the Dallas Cowboys—which enjoy throwing the long ball. The Rams, with their fierce rush and intimidating zone defenses, see to it that the ball is kept in front of them, where it belongs.

"They are playing a lot more zone," said the beleagured 49er quarterback, John Brodie, who completed 23 of 40 passes for 286 yards, "and their pass rush keeps the zone from being exploited. The rush restricts the length of the pass pattern."

"The zone defense," said the 49ers' fine young receiver, Gene Washington, who caught five passes for 86 yards against it, "should be outlawed, and for the same reasons professional basketball outlawed it. It's taken all the color out of the game. There's no way you can throw long against it. And who wants to watch a 3-0 game?"

Or, for that matter, a 17-6 game, if you happen to be the loser.

Ultimately, of course, the 49ers lost because they gave up the ball four times on interceptions, and they now trail the Rams by half a game with four left to play. Of the interceptions, one was returned for a Ram touchdown and another both prevented a 49er touchdown and propelled the sputtering Ram offense on its only touchdown drive of the afternoon. The remaining two were simply freaks, each bouncing off 49er receivers into the hands of Ram Cornerback Gene Howard, whom Los Angeles acquired only this year in a trade with New Orleans. Howard had become a 49er nemesis. In the first regular-season meeting between the two teams, he scooped up a San Francisco fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. And in their exhibition game he ran a kickoff back 103 yards for another score. Sunday he had three of the four interceptions—the two rebounds and a leaping theft in the end zone of a second-quarter Brodie pass intended for Gene Washington.

"Washington just ran a deep pattern into my zone," Howard recalled. "I was playing the deep zone, so I was there. I was thinking about him going long. Anytime you play against anyone like him, you got to be thinking a lot about him."

Succumbing to the entreaties of his teammates, Howard ran the ball out of the end zone instead of taking the touchback, and he reached the Rams' 32-yard line. From there Los Angeles went 68 yards in only five plays, Roman Gabriel passing 13 yards to Jack Snow for the touchdown. It was an uncommon display of offensive brilliance on this predominantly defensive day for the Rams.

The Los Angeles defense got the other touchdown all by itself. With 40 seconds remaining in the half and the ball on his own 21, Brodie unwisely tried a sideline pass to Preston Riley, a reserve wide receiver substituting for the injured Dick Witcher. Jim Nettles, the other Ram cornerback, jumped deftly in front of Riley, snatched the ball away from him and ran 29 yards untouched into the end zone. That, essentially, was the ball game, since scoring in the second half was limited to a 49-yard field goal by the Rams' David Ray.

The 49ers, meanwhile, were advancing uselessly up and down the field. It took them 15 plays from their own 23-yard line to set up one Bruce Gossett field goal of 20 yards and nine plays for another of 26 yards. It was the first time in 11 games the 49ers have not scored a touchdown against the Rams, and the first time in four years they have not scored one against anybody.

There were other indignities, too. In addition to the interceptions, Brodie was penalized twice for intentionally grounding the ball and once for hitting an ineligible receiver, Tackle Cas Banaszek, on the back of the helmet. And though Brodie was tackled while attempting to pass only once, two of his passes were batted down at or behind the line of scrimmage—both, curiously, in the first quarter.

"Who cares if we sack him?" said an exultant Deacon Jones. "They got no touchdowns."

"Yes," said Jones' coach, Tommy Prothro, "but we'll have to do something about those field goals." This was Prothro's biggest win since he left UCLA earlier this year to replace George Allen as the Rams' head coach. He was obviously enjoying himself.

Brodie wasn't the only 49er misadventurer. Bruce Taylor fumbled one punt and returned another for minus-nine yards. His fellow kick returner, Johnny Fuller, signaled for a fair catch on yet another punt, then, having caught it fairly, ran it back, costing his team a five-yard penalty. The rules clearly state that you don't run with a fair catch, but few of the 49ers were thinking clearly. For example, San Francisco was also penalized 15 yards twice on the same play—for Brodie grounding the ball intentionally and then for Center Forrest Blue complaining about the penalty in an unsportsmanlike manner. All told, the 49ers were penalized nine times for 108 yards.

It was that kind of day, and it has been that kind of season for the 49ers. In fact, until last year, when they won the division championship—their first title of any kind in the NFL—they had had that kind of history. The quintessential 49er game is considered to be the 1957 playoff for the Western Conference championship with Detroit. The 49ers were leading 27-7 in the third quarter. They lost 31-27. This was the game that established them in the eyes of their beholders as players who could never win the big ones—not even the little big ones.

The true 49er fan has always been a kind of wistful pessimist, one who hopes for the best but knows in his withered little heart he'll get the worst. Last year it looked as if the best might happen after all. The 49ers beat Minnesota in the first playoff round—and on the Vikings' frozen turf. But, true to form, they lost to Dallas for the conference championship.

When Dick Nolan moved to San Francisco four years ago from his assistant's job at Dallas to become the 49ers' sixth head coach, he set about quietly trying to lift that old mood of despair. Nolan is a no-nonsense fellow who attends to every detail. One of these was rebuilding a winning attitude in players who were beginning to look as long-faced as the fans. Although he is withdrawn in public gatherings, Nolan does seem to have the ability to inspire his athletes.

"I'm just glad I got to play for this man," says Defensive Tackle Charlie Krueger, who has played for four 49er coaches. "In any organization it's the little things that sometimes count. And he takes care of them. I just study the way he does things."

Nolan does have a smooth organization, but he is being undone this year by little things, like turnovers. Last year he worked hard at eliminating the fumbles and interceptions that brought the 49ers to grief for so many seasons. And he succeeded. Brodie was intercepted only 10 times in 1970, and the team lost only 15 fumbles. The opposition, meanwhile, was losing the ball to the 49ers 42 times, a turnover-plus of 17 for San Francisco. Ah, but this year! In only 10 games the 49ers have been intercepted 21 times and have lost 17 fumbles. They have given the ball to the opposition 16 more times than they have taken it away.

"If we didn't have to play our offense," said San Francisco Broadcaster Lon Simmons in an off-the-air aside, "we'd have a string of 0-0 ties."

The man who must shoulder the burden of the turnaround turnabout is Brodie. His protection can scarcely be faulted. He has been sacked only nine times, and yet he has thrown all those interceptions. Nolan insists, however, that Brodie is not having a bad year. Any quarterback who throws the ball as often as Brodie does—303 times already—will have interceptions, he protests. Last season was merely an exception.

"Starr and Unitas had a lot of interceptions in their good years, too," Nolan said before last weekend's debacle. "And Starr didn't throw half as many passes as Brodie. There is no doubt about it. John is one of the best."

In 15 years as a 49er, Brodie has learned to live with criticism. As the 49er quarterback with the longest tenure, he obviously has the distinction of being the most booed man in the team's history. "They boo Brodie in grocery stores," said one fan several seasons back. "Membership in my organization has doubled," the founder and president of the John Brodie Fan Club of Northern California, James S. Todt, once boasted, "to five."

Superficially, at least, Brodie seems unmoved by derision. He seems too cool to be moved by anything short of Deacon Jones in a dark alley. Brodie is glib, charming, a 1950s-style big man on campus. He is, in the opinion of his intimates, however, a far more complex person, an introspective man who worries about his responsibilities, his confidence, his performance.

"He's the most complicated man I've ever known," says Gene Washington, who is not only Brodie's favorite receiver but his road roommate and close friend as well. "He's a very private person. He's very proud. No braggart, just proud. I like to think of myself as a competitive person, but I can do some things just for fun. John's got to win at everything. He's a good winner, but not a good loser."

The outer Brodie seemed to be a good enough loser after Sunday's game, even if the inner one was seething. "There ain't any secrets in this game," he said, waiting patiently for the team bus to remove him from the scene of the crime. "You got to get the ball in the end zone. They don't give credit for yards gained. I think we're just going to have to take a long look at ourselves. This thing isn't over yet."

What the 49ers see after their long look won't be as pleasing, surely, as what the Rams will be seeing of themselves in the game films—if, on a short work week, they have any time for narcissism.

"That's the best game we've played all year," Prothro said afterward. "I think we've progressed with each game. We really haven't had a bad one all year. And there aren't many teams who can say that."

The Rams' passing attack did improve notably in this second 49er game. In the first game, in San Francisco, with Gabriel sidelined for three quarters with a slight concussion, they completed only two of 12 passes for a net loss of 18 yards. Sunday they completed five of 16 for 49 yards. That's a total gain of 31 yards passing in two games against the 49ers, both victories. Obviously, you can win in this league without the pass.

The Rams, at any rate, are not frightening anyone with their attack. In the early season Gabriel was unable to throw with his accustomed velocity because of sore ribs. He was also working with a new wide receiver, Lance Rentzel, obtained from the Dallas Cowboys. And, finally, it took him awhile to get the hang of Prothro's pass offense. "I'm still learning it," said Gabriel. "The pass protection is different, and now I'm responsible for calling the pass routes, not just the play. There are five people to think about. Sometimes it's hard remembering everything."

With the sort of defense his team is playing, Gabriel needn't be overly distressed by an occasional memory lapse. Both the Rams and the 49ers played bruising football. "It was the hardest-hitting game I've ever been on the sidelines in," said Prothro, inimitably.

But Ram-49er games tend to be that way. And they also seem to be just a bit more than games. There is about them that familiar clash in life-styles inherent in any conflict between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There may be rivalries between teams as intense as this one, but there have been few between cities that will stand comparison. There is nothing even remotely similar about the two communities—politically, physically or meteorologically.

San Francisco is compact, cool, beautiful and very much in love with itself. Los Angeles is sprawling, warm and a little defensive. The rivalry naturally extends to the playing fields, although it may be felt more by the fans than the players. Still, even the most mercenary among them must be able to sense that there is something distinctly different about a game between teams representing these two old antagonists.

Actually, the two football organizations have much in common. When the late Dan Reeves moved his Cleveland Rams west for the 1946 season and the late Tony Morabito opened shop for the 49ers the same year in San Francisco, they pioneered major league professional sports on the West Coast. The teams did not actually meet on the field until 1950 when the 49ers were absorbed into the National Football League from the defunct All-America Conference, but in that very first decade their competition became one of the hottest in sports. In 1957 and 1958, crowds of 102,368 and 95,082 watched them play. The crowds are smaller now, but only because the Coliseum itself has shrunk from remodeling. Sunday's attendance actually exceeded the listed Coliseum capacity of 76,000.

There is also a kind of endearing folksiness to both the Ram and 49er operations. The convivial Reeves always regarded his team as an occasionally errant stepchild. The family feeling is even stronger in San Francisco, where the majority owners are the widows of the Morabito brothers, Tony and Vic. And, with Lou Spadia as president, there is a distinctly Italian flavor to the organization. Spadia, in fact, made a pilgrimage this past summer to his ancestral home in Northern Italy. There, for the first time, he met his cousins, most of whom were familiar with him only through photographs in football programs sent to the old country by Spadia's mother. American football, however, is not a major sport in the Piemonte, and the programs served only to confuse the family as to the exact nature of cousin Louis' occupation.

One day Spadia was approached by a family representative. "Looie," the man began, resting a familial hand on Spadia's shoulder, "we can see you are in excellent health, but you are also a man of more than 50 years. Now I see from these books your mother sends that the men in the pictures are all very young, very big and very strong. We are all worried about you. Looie, don't you think you should give up this game?"

The season is not over yet, but one more game like Sunday's, and cousin Louis might do just that.

PHOTOBefore the game, a jubilant Brodie manhandles his son Bill, while daughter Cammie looks on. PHOTODuring the game, a sadder Brodie is about to be manhandled by Coy Bacon, while Cas Banaszek has his hands full with Jack Youngblood. PHOTOGene Howard intercepts a pass that has popped out of the hands of Preston Riley.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)