By defeating a bad team on a day when they played badly themselves, the Rams finally proved they are a good football team. This may seem paradoxical, but last season losses to New Orleans, St. Louis and Denver and a tie with Chicago deprived Los Angeles of the championship of the Western Division of the NFC, which was won by the San Francisco 49ers, whom the Rams beat twice.
So last Sunday's 31-26 victory over Houston beneath the shabby roof of the Astrodome is not to be sneered at. As veteran Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen observed, "It wasn't artistic, but we won. The game goes up under the 'W' column, and that's what counts." What really counts is that the rebuilding Rams are in the "W" column four times in four tries, which makes them one of the wonders of the season.
Coach Chuck Knox, who is largely responsible for Los Angeles' resurgence, spent the week before the Houston game trying to convince his Rams that the Oilers were not as bad as their 0-3 record. Although he did not make believers of them, it is to their credit that, playing at about half the proficiency they had displayed in drubbing their first three opponents, they managed to win.
The key to the victory was the ability of Los Angeles—both on offense and defense—to gear itself up in response to crises. When Houston's Jeff Severson returned a punt 74 yards to the Ram eight-yard line in the first quarter, Los Angeles came to life. A face mask infraction advanced Houston to the four. Then Steve Preece, a much-traveled safety, teamed with Jack Reynolds, who is in his first full season at middle linebacker, to stop Fred Willis' sweep for no gain. Next Isiah Robertson, another young linebacker, burst through a block to rack up Quarterback Dan Pastorini's roll-out at the one-yard line. On third down Reynolds and Robertson converged on Bob Gresham to stop him for no gain, so the Oilers were forced to settle for a field goal. They were forced to settle for three more before the game ended.
Meanwhile, the Ram offense, under the conservative direction of John Hadl, a changed quarterback who was known as the Mad Bomber during his years with the San Diego Chargers, played much the same kind of game. It thumped away with running plays until the need for heroics arose, whereupon Hadl loosed three passes for touchdowns.
In the first quarter, on a play fake that had the entire Oiler secondary looking for the run, he threw to Jack Snow for 38 yards and a touchdown, bringing the Rams from a 0-3 deficit lo a 7-3 lead. The Oilers threatened again after Willis carried a screen pass 50 yards to the Ram 28, and again the Ram defense awakened long enough lo blunt the threat. Fred Dryer, the transplanted Giant, teamed with the other defensive end, Jack Youngblood, to harry Pastorini into an incompletion. Then Dryer slipped a block and flattened Gresham on an attempted sweep for a five-yard loss. After the Rams were penalized five yards for being offside. Dryer, Youngblood and second-year Tackle Larry Brooks simply ran over the Houston line, forcing Pastorini to throw another incompletion. Result: another Oiler field goal, making the score 7-6.
Although Houston trailed by only 14-9 early in the second quarter, Los Angeles rallied to lead 31-12 after three periods. This surge was again a matter of performing well when the need arose. Hadl passed only 16 times, but he completed 10 and for the fourth straight game had no interceptions.
"I was never under any pressure," he said afterward. "The offensive line did a great job. Once the Oilers became run-conscious, the passes opened them up. And Jackson ran some great patterns."
Harold Jackson came to Los Angeles in what must be rated as one of the most beneficial trades in NFL history—for the Rams. They got Jackson, a good deep receiver who scored two touchdowns against the Oilers on passes of 15 and 69 yards, plus Tony Baker, a bowling-ball fullback who scored another on a strike of five yards, in exchange for Roman Gabriel. Those two would have been more than adequate recompense, but the Eagles also gave up two first-round draft choices—very choice, since Philadelphia seems likely to finish far down in the standings—and a third-round pick.
The Oilers No. 1 draft selection, John Matuszak, is a formidable man, standing 6'7", weighing 282 pounds and reputedly capable of running 40 yards in 4.8 seconds. Before the Ram game he said he was going to sack Hadl on every down. A measure of the effectiveness of the Ram offensive line, and especially of Center Ken Iman and Guard Tom Mack, was how they manhandled Matuszak. He never got within shouting distance of Hadl, and Mack and Iman shunted him aside regularly when the Ram backs ran in his direction.
'The first time he lined up on my nose I looked down at his arm and it seemed as big as my leg," Iman said after the game. "He's big all over. And quick. And strong. He'll be a good one."
The operative words are "will be." The Rams are good in the present tense—now. One indication of a good team, a disciplined team, is the avoidance of penalties. Against the Oilers, Los Angeles was penalized only three times for 14 yards (compared to Houston's six for 78), and one was an infraction it invited in order to get a better field-goal angle. A team escapes penalties when it concentrates on execution. And concentration is a fetish with Chuck Knox.
The acquisition of Knox was the most significant move made by Ram owner Carroll Rosenbloom in his rebuilding program. "We had to go with what was on hand the first year," says Rosen-bloom, who took over the club in 1972. "That was a year of evaluation, of discovery."
And of woe. The Rams finished third in the NFC West with a 6-7-1 record, and the first man to go was the easygoing head coach, Tommy Prothro. After he left, Rosenbloom and General Manager Don Klosterman interviewed a dozen hopefuls. Knox was one of three finalists.
"We had him out to Los Angeles three or four times," says Rosenbloom. "Finally, about two o'clock one morning he was in my home in Bel Air. Klosterman and I had been talking to him for a long time, and there were two more coaches waiting in hotels. I asked Knox if he thought he could win in the NFL. I don't think,' he said. 'I know.' So I shook hands with him and said, 'You're my coach.' "
In a sport in which only 22 of 47 players can be starters, it usually is not difficult to find malcontents, but this does not hold for the Rams. One team official, who has been with Los Angeles through four coaching regimes, says, "This is the happiest club we've had. Even after we lost three and tied one in preseason, the players were confident. They weren't complaining the way they would have been a year before. They were sure they were on the right track."
Knox had been an assistant coach for 14 years, coming to the Rams after six seasons with Detroit. His ability to inspire confidence stems from a concern for and an understanding of his players and a remarkable teaching talent.
"Teaching is the ability to inspire learning," he said one day last week in his office, which is situated over the pro shop of a Long Beach municipal golf course. "I guess I got that—and most of my coaching philosophy—from Blanton Collier when I was an assistant at Kentucky. He was the best teacher and the most patient man I have ever known. Sometimes I'd be ready to give up on a kid and we'd talk it over and he would suggest another approach to get through to the boy, and we'd keep at it until we succeeded.
"Communication is the key. You reduce an action to its simplest components, then hammer and hammer at it with repetition. I remember we once had a guard at Kentucky who was a fine blocker on initial contact, but who wouldn't stay with his man after he had hit. So we drummed 'hit and stick!' into him for a long time. Then we decided we didn't have to say 'hit!' because he would do that anyway. So we made him think 'stick, stick, stick' before every play and he turned into a fine blocker."
Knox got up from his desk and demonstrated a golf swing. "It's inductive reasoning," he said. "Say you learn five parts of a golf swing, one at a time. You can't think of all five of them at once, but after you have repeated the swing over and over you reach the point where you can get up on the tee and think of one part of the swing and your mind will subconsciously direct your body to put the other four into effect."
Following this theory, Knox has simplified technical instruction for the Rams. He worked with the offensive line at Detroit, so the examples that occur to him often have to do with blocking techniques. Now he crouched in a three-point stance, imitating a guard.
"When I was playing we used to practice for hours on taking just the right steps to pull out and block," he said. "We even had footprints drawn on the ground to show just where you should put your feet. Collier taught me to forget all that, and I teach my players the same thing. Blanton said to me one day, 'If you see a pretty lady walking down the street toward you and you want to go over and say hello to her, you don't say to yourself, I'm going to cross-step at a 45-degree angle and plant my foot on this spot, then pivot and plant my other foot there. You look at her and start walking. So look at the guy you're going to block and follow your eyes. They control the rest of your body.' "
The Ram blockers follow their eyes. "They have a point to block on," Knox said. "Right of the numbers, between the numbers, left of the numbers, outside the right knee, outside the left knee, depending on the kind of block we want. They have a specific spot on the man to aim at, just as the passer uses a spot on the body of the receiver as his target. The range of the receiver's arms around that spot provides the margin of error. You simplify the targets and you build the lessons in with repetition, repetition, repetition, so that it becomes a part of the subconscious. You try to do that so thoroughly that the player, under stress, won't revert to old bad habits.
"Here is an example. When I was at Kentucky we had a big game with Ole Miss. We were leading late in the game and we had to punt from near our goal. We had a fine fullback who was a great blocker, but when we lined up to punt he was on the left of the punter instead of protecting the kicking leg, and we got the punt blocked. When he came off the field I asked him about it because he had never lined up there before. 'We had a left-footed punter for four years in high school,' he told me. Under stress, he reverted. So we try to wipe out reversions like that by working hard on repetition and concentration. Concentration lets you keep your cool under pressure. That's why we tell our players to ignore cheap shots. If you're thinking about getting even with the guy who slugged you, you can't think about the play. Concentration is keeping your cool."
One of the reasons the Ram exhibition record was 2-3-1 was Knox' insistence upon giving every player on the roster a full chance to make the team. "We played everyone enough to find out honestly how well they could perform," he said. "Too many times I've seen a player cut from a squad simply because he did not have sufficient opportunity to show what he could do. I was determined this would not happen here. It's like in baseball. You have to give a batter enough times at bat to find out what his true hitting ability is. So we had a schedule of playing time for all the players—we did not let the game dictate playing time. Maybe we wanted a rookie back to carry the ball 15 times. He stayed in until he had run his quota."
This policy also served to give the players faith in their new coach, and this is translated into their desire to do things his way. A prime example is Isiah Robertson, who had a brilliant rookie season, then tailed off in 1972.
"Coach changed my whole philosophy of playing," Robertson said in Houston. "I used to be kind of a loner, looking out for myself, gambling on the big play, the big interception, that kind of thing. Now I get more satisfaction out of contributing to a shutout. It's being part of a well-designed defense that counts, not the individual play." This is a player whom coaches were calling surly and intractable a year ago.
Hadl is another key player who has accommodated himself to Knox' ways. This year the Ram offense has been keyed to the run, with the pass being used sparingly but to good effect. In four games Hadl had completed 38 of 52 for "538 yards. "We have a very flexible pass offense," he said one day last week. "The running game, of course, makes it that much more effective. I don't mind waiting for the right time to pass when we have the tools we have here. I've never been with a coaching staff so well organized or so easy to work with. Chuck is one of the rarest guys in the world—a coach with no hindsight."
Larry McCutcheon, the second-year running back who came off the taxi squad to give the Rams long-needed speed, has teamed well with another second-year man, Jim Bertelsen. Going into the Houston game, they were the fourth-and fifth-ranked rushers in the NFL.
"Everything is so right," McCutcheon says. "The line blocks perfectly, the coaches know exactly what they're doing, everything goes. It is such a good year."
Bertelsen has no comments about such matters—he just performs. He grins and nods and runs like a cue ball caroming around a pool table, but he does not talk. The only thing he was heard to utter during two days of practice came just after he had a sore leg tightly wrapped. He looked back at the trainer sadly and said, "Feels like my leg was cut off."
Bertelsen, McCutcheon and Baker have combined to provide Los Angeles with amazing ball control. In their first three games the Rams rolled up 70 first downs to their opponents' 35. More important, they converted 29 of 50 third-down plays. Against Atlanta, whom L.A. beat 31-0, the defense was only on the field about one-fourth of the time.
"That was the best defensive effort I've ever been a part of," said Olsen last week. "We've developed quickly because the defense has been made concise; we know precisely what we are supposed to do. We don't have as many options as we used to, so we have come faster than any other defensive unit I've been on. But the offense has been so good that we haven't really been tested yet."
Houston provided that test as, in a way, did a young man who shall remain unidentified. On the Rams' charter to Houston, a small notice was pasted by the rear door of the plane. It was the handiwork of the man who brought the meals on board, and it read: "Good luck, you guys. Every time you win a game, my wife is so thrilled she kisses me." He might get kissed a lot this season.