As the Beverly Hills Rams move with-in a starlet's eyelash of becoming one of the first National Football League teams to clinch a playoff spot, the need arises to discuss one of their serious old problems, which is mainly that there is always a wise guy around to type up a sentence like this one, calling them the Beverly Hills Rams. ("But you promised they would love us," Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner, will now complain to his general manager, Don Klosterman, and his coach, Chuck Knox.)
The thing of it is, pro football started in a lot of factory towns, not Los Angeles, and there are millions of people out there who know why the Rams haven't won the championship in 24 years—not since that Sunday when either Norm Van Brocklin or Bob Waterfield threw the touchdown pass to either Tom Fears or Jane Russell, the one that beat Cleveland in 1951. Which must have been the year after Pat O'Brien quit coaching.
People know about the Rams because they know about Southern California, and all of the fabled distractions that can bother a football team. Oceans and beaches and racetracks and mozzarella marinara and bosoms, and probably having your hip pads done by Giorgio. Having to study script dialogue during timeouts, and getting your pregame pep talks from Jonathan Winters. Worrying that the angry fans in the Coliseum will throw too much caviar at the bench. And just naturally and unavoidably being the hero of so many evenly tanned guys who don't wear socks with their Mediterranean loafers and stand around outside restaurants worrying about missing the kick-off as they remark to their vacant-eyed blondes in $1,500 rhinestone-denim outfits, "I don't know why it's taking the creep so long to find the car, it's the only purple Mercedes in the parking lot with a white dog in the back seat."
Has the point been made that the image problem of the Rams has been at least partly geographic?
To understand this new era of Ramdom under Carroll Rosenbloom, Don Klosterman and Chuck Knox, and their struggle for a normal, solid, almost quiet kind of excellence, you also have to be reminded of some things having to do with the theatrical past of the Rams.
One must never forget any of the following facts, as devilishly selective as they are:
1) The team arrived in L.A. as a winner, having captured the 1945 NFL championship as the Cleveland Rams. Too much was expected.
2) As the Los Angeles Rams, they have lost four of the five championship games they have played in. The Big One slips away.
3) Tom Harmon was once a Ram.
4) Bob Hope was once a Ram part-owner.
5) Pete Rozelle was once a Ram press agent.
6) Pat Summerall was once a Ram assistant coach.
7) Just as there were people who never knew a President other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, there are 14-year-olds today in Los Angeles who have never known a defensive tackle other than Merlin Olsen.
8) A Ram team that once had George Allen for a coach, Roman Gabriel for a quarterback and Jim Nabors for a fan, almost went the distance.
9) Some weird guy who probably hates private tennis courts traded the Los Angeles Rams to Carroll Rosenbloom in exchange for autumn in Baltimore.
And all of this leaves out some wonderful Ram history. It makes no mention of what a superb fellow Dan Reeves was, of how the Coliseum was truly introduced to pro football by names that appealed to the show-biz hearts of the audience—Deacon Dan, Tank, Crazy-legs, Vitamin T., Jaguar—and it skips gently over all of the broken-field running Jon Arnett did to keep from bumping into Bob Waterfield, Sid Gillman, Harland Svare, Bill Wade and the rest of the cast. What all of this does is illuminate today's Rams as a dizzying paradox.
According to everything that is in their past, today's Rams should be unpredictable, overpraised, unreliable, big-pay conscious, headline-seeking, gaudy, glamorous, shocking, celebrity-haunted and mystery-coached. There is even some recent evidence, and current proof, that they could achieve these character traits if they really tried.
After all, the Rams have in Carroll Rosenbloom an immensely wealthy and charming owner who has, among his minor holdings, the major stock interest in Warner Bros., a man who has been a confidant to Presidents, a legitimate friend of great and un-great entertainers, a sober and likable prince among the more muscular financial wizards.
They have in Don Klosterman the most visible, capable and popular of general managers, who seems to have been born to speak fluent Grambling, to date lovely ladies, to know most of the world's ma√Ætre d's and to build football winners for rich guys, inasmuch as he had worked for Barron Hilton, Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams before Rosenbloom. Or, as Klosterman might put it, "Three kids and the heavyweight."
The Rams have an authentic character in Fred Dryer, the defensive end who used to live in a van around Long Beach and who enjoys discussing the recipe for quarterback casserole. At last year's Super Bowl, Freddie also enjoyed dressing up like a 1920s ace reporter, going to Viking press conferences and asking such questions as, "Fran, is the zone defense here to stay, and if not, where is it going?"
When Dryer scored his first touchdown a few weeks ago against the Eagles, the thought crossed his mind as he carried the fumble into the end zone, "Do I spike it, roll six, do the hucklebuck? My God, it's a media problem."
For most of the last two seasons now the Rams have also had in James Harris the only black athlete who ever consistently started as an NFL quarterback. More of that presently.
In terms of the shock value it was worth then—five games deep into last season—these Rams also have something known as "the John Hadl trade." MVP Dumped, Football World Stunned.
Totaling all of this up, you might well be tempted to guess that the 1975 Rams are not all that different from the rococo Rams of the past. But that is wrong. Basically, these Rams belong to Chuck Knox, not to Rosenbloom or Klosterman or Billboard or Variety, and they mostly hang around Long Beach, where they practice daily, and not Beverly Hills, and they generally play defense now as well as offense. And they are, compared to everything surrounding them—their history, their sociology, the other teams that are likely to join them in the playoffs—profoundly dull.
That doesn't bother Knox for a minute. He says, "I'll tell you what's dull—losing."
Meanwhile, think of the Rams as the team specializing in the four-yard gain by Lawrence McCutcheon, Jim Bertelsen, Cullen Bryant or John Cappelletti, and the 50-yard incompletion, intended for Harold Jackson. And then think of the other playoff candidates by comparison.
Minnesota: Still undefeated, Tarkenton breaking records, Chuck Foreman running and catching.
St. Louis: Terry Metcalf doing everything, Hart-to-Gray, no time left.
Washington: Kilmer the Indomitable. Charley Taylor. A Rookie of the Year in Mike Thomas. Round up the usual suspects—McDole, Hanburger, Fischer and Ken Houston.
Dallas: Staubach to Drew Pearson and Golden Richards. The genius of Landry in a "transitional" year.
Pittsburgh: Bradshaw, Franco, Mean Joe, Lynn Swann and the dynasty.
Oakland: Stabler, his gifted outfielders, the team that's supposed to be and Al Davis.
Miami: Hanging in there with Shula's mystifying patchwork.
Cincinnati: Paul Brown to Isaac Curtis, and the most underrated mechanic in town, Ken Anderson.
Houston: Pastorini and Billy White Shoes and all those Bum jokes.
Baltimore: Bert Jones comes of age.
In rebuttal for the Rams there is much to be said for simply winning football games. Throw out 1972, the first year that the new regime got to L.A. That was the get-to-know-the-community year, the get-rid-of-Tommy Prothro year, the how-far-can-Roman Gabriel-take-us year.
The good numbers begin with Knox, who may have seemed a surprising choice for head coach (he was an assistant four years with the Jets and six with the Lions), but Rosenbloom had picked Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula and John McCafferty, and they had not turned out so badly. In Knox' first year he went 12-2, and last year 10-4, and now the Rams are 8-2 and more than likely headed for another 12-2 season, 11-3 at the worst. Chuck Knox must do something right.
O.K., so the NFC West is a burger, a shake and some fries for the Rams, and Knox is 13-3 so far against his division rivals, the 49ers, Saints and Falcons. But their outside opponents have not been so shabby—they catch a Minnesota here, a Dallas there—and Knox is 18-7 against them. While, overall, the Rams' schedule has not been fierce in these three years, Merlin Olsen still likes to point out, "Everybody blocks and tackles and leaves you sore, and everybody has at least one guy you can't catch up with till you get him in the locker room."
It might even be more important to what the Rams are trying to achieve that a soft schedule can work in a sinister way against them, apart from the boredom it may create among the fans. Soft schedules don't help a team develop.
"We're not trying to win a Super Bowl and then quit," Rosenbloom was saying not long ago, "although I keep telling Chuck and Don that I seriously need another trophy for balance."
He was standing in the room of his Bel Air home where the pool table and all the football memories are. The Super Bowl artifact which the Colts won in 1970—and which Rosenbloom and Klosterman spirited away when they left two years later—stood at the end of a table. There was obvious room for another.
Rosenbloom, who has meant so much to all of his players in terms of caring about them and advising them on financial matters, was asked where the trophies were from the Johnny Unitas championships at Baltimore. He looked around the den and finally said, "You know, they didn't give any then."
Back to the purpose of now.
"What we want out here is a team everybody can believe in and rely on," he said. "Always competitive, always up there challenging, sometimes winning it all. An organization like we had at Baltimore, the kind they had at Green Bay. I think we're getting there slowly. We have a lot of fine, solid young football players. We have the draft choices and trading ability to keep growing. You may think we lack some verve at times, but we're a tough, hard-hitting football team, and that's a tribute to Chuck."
Rosenbloom enjoys the occasional joke. "A big step was keeping the design of the new uniforms out of the hands of Klosterman," he said. "He'd have put neon lights on them."
On another day in Bel Air there was tennis going on down the hill, past the pool and the gardens surrounding the antique brick terraces. Klosterman strolled with a cocktail. He frequently speaks in rhyme, and talks into the Super Bowl ring on his hand. "I'll take it on line two," he says to the ring.
What about replacing Larry Brooks, the best defensive lineman in North America, but lost for the season with torn ligaments and cartilage in the knee?
"Hold your bones, here comes Cody Jones," said Klosterman. "Six-five, two-forty. One of our good young ones."
You like Dennis Harrah?
"Don't I? Six-five, two-fifty. Take him in any barroom in the country and get a moment of silence. Hello."
And you're convinced James Harris is doing the job?
"Who's the fairest? Jimmy Harris."
Klosterman then refers you to Chuck Knox.
It is now the night before a home game, of which Knox has thus far lost only two of 20. A family ritual for the Rams is for the squad to move into a hotel on Saturday evening, have their meetings and then sit around in a private dining room, players and brass together, enjoying a beer-and-hamburger buffet. The Rams do it at the Beverly Hilton.
James Harris is saying, "I have the ability to throw the football and lead the team. I won't be hot every day, but nobody is. How far you can throw doesn't matter, you want to hit the receiver. But Harold Jackson and Ron Jessie can't run as far as I can throw it, if I want to. The most important thing a quarterback can do is be on a good team. This one is."
Harris has quarterbacked the Rams through 21 games now and he has won 16 of them, and a year ago in Minnesota they came within one play of going to the Super Bowl. Maybe Harris didn't see a receiver he should have seen—and maybe his release was still a bit too slow—but a touchdown was denied on a questionable penalty, and the Rams never got the best of the officiating that day. Harris may be all right.
Normally, Knox talks like one of his idols, Bear Bryant. "Aw," Chuck says, "we just go out there and put on that old Ri-dell and try to get it together."
But to get specific. Chuck Knox says, "We have more balance. More speed, I think. The pass offense is improved. We have some athletes on defense, and they're playing together. We're disciplined. We work hard. We hit people. Your hear that Pittsburgh and the Rams hit the hardest. I like to hear that."
Two weeks ago Rosenbloom never mentioned to anyone that he was going into the hospital for a cardiac bypass, a "Black & Decker," as Klosterman later called it. Rosenbloom seemed far more concerned about Larry Brooks' knee than his own innards. The surgery was termed successful, and apparently the man who has been called the "best owner in sports" is going to be healthier than ever—another edge on his NFL pals.
Think of it. It is now technically impossible for Carroll Rosenbloom to have a heart attack when, coming from behind in a playoff game—or perhaps even the Super Bowl—on fourth down James Harris launches a 60-yarder toward Harold Jackson, and where it comes down will decide if it's the Beverly Hills or the Los Angeles Rams.