Glancing at the Los Angeles Rams as they limped around their practice field in Long Beach last week, one might have assumed the team had been involved in a bus crash or perhaps had received a bomb in the Christmas mail. As gulls cried out for directions in a dirty, rust-colored fog that crept in from the ocean, several of the more familiar Rams leaned on crutches, legs bent in the storklike positions that indicate torn knees wrapped in plaster. Other Rams trotted along with mere flesh wounds, twisted shoulders, sore ribs and bruises big enough to fill a leading man's hairnet. Injuries are not uncommon in football, of course, but for the Rams 1975 had been a nightmare. Twenty-one players were seriously hurt, including 14 who were knocked out for the season. Six of these were starters. So the Rams winning their division and moving into the NFC playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals was a story that could only have been told in Hollywood, where endings don't have to make sense.
One of the Rams playing Hospital was the quarterback, James Harris, with a pain in his throwing arm; another was the team's best running back, Lawrence McCutcheon, with a pulled leg muscle. Neither appeared in the final game of the season against Pittsburgh, when the Rams were down to only three offensive backs and had to rely almost entirely on their defense to win, 10-3.
As Saturday's playoff with the Cardinals approached, the availability of Harris remained a matter of guesswork. But McCutcheon was feeling stronger after a bit of rest, and that was a particularly good thing for Los Angeles. With the ranks of healthy players so depleted and the probability that the quarterback would be second-year man Ron Jaworski, starting the third pro game of his career, Coach Chuck Knox settled upon a scheme that sounded simple, desperate and, as they say in the movies—gosh, guys, this is so crazy it just might work.
The idea was to put McCutcheon at tailback in an I formation and then run him at the Cardinals until the game was over or his bad leg fell off. That pretty well took care of the offense. The Rams had the reputation of being dull to look at on offense anyhow, except for McCutcheon and an occasional flamboyant outburst by Wide Receiver Harold Jackson.
January 5, 1976
The defensive plan was a different matter altogether. The Rams have one of the best units in the game despite three cases of knee surgery and one broken leg among the early-season starters. What the defense would need to do would be to put a lot of hot breath in the face of St. Louis Quarterback Jim Hart, keep a couple of guardians within inches of Cardinal Running Back Terry Metcalf and Wide Receiver Mel Gray—two smallish, nifty guys who would be hard enough to catch in a closet—and limit the adventures of Tight End Jackie Smith and Running Back Jim Otis. Nobody has been able to accomplish all these things simultaneously against the Cardinals, who are often and accurately described as "explosive." But that was what the Rams were meditating on as the red fog sat down upon them on the day after Christmas and did not lift even as the Cardinals—with an 11-3 record and a second straight title in a division that includes Dallas and Washington—rolled into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before a crowd of 72,650.
The Rams got off to a start that Chuck Knox could only have invented in a dream, with McCutcheon running the ball nine times in a 13-play, 79-yard, 6½-minute drive that finished with Jaworski dashing five yards around left end for a touchdown. So far, so bueno. Now it was time to see how the other half of the plan worked, the part that called for the Cardinals to be snuffed.
One of the things St. Louis is famous for, leaving aside beer and the 1904 World's Fair, is the way the Cardinals protect their quarterback—at least this season. Hart threw 345 passes and was sacked only eight times. Three of his offensive linemen were voted into the Pro Bowl. Three Ram defensive linemen also made it, in part for knocking down quarterbacks 43 times. That set up an interesting match, maybe the most significant physical struggle of the game, and there was no more fascinating individual contest than that between the Rams' 14-year defensive tackle, Merlin Olsen, 6'5" and 270, and the Cards' right guard, Conrad Dobler, 6'3" and 255.
Before the Olsen-Dobler bout could ripen, however, Ram Defensive End Jack Youngblood, playing alongside Olsen, grabbed a Hart pass on the second St. Louis offensive play and ran it 47 yards for a touchdown that boosted L.A. into a 14-0 lead. "I got hit at the legs, which slowed down my rush, and, surprise, the ball came right to me," said Youngblood. "In practice before the game I dropped every ball I touched. We play defense with the idea of shutting everybody out, and when we got ahead by two touchdowns so quickly we knew they'd have to pass more than they wanted to, and we could try to tee off on Hart. But he's hard to reach because he gets rid of the ball fast when the rush comes close."
Hart had three important passes dropped in the first quarter, when the best offense St. Louis could offer was Metcalf running back two kickoffs for 102 yards. On the first play of the second quarter, Hart was harried by End Fred Dryer and aimed a pass that was caught by L.A. Safety Bill Simpson, who took off on a 65-yard touchdown return that put the Rams in front 21-0. Four minutes later the Cards finished off a 60-yard scoring drive with a three-yard run by Otis, but Youngblood blocked the extra-point kick. Then Jaworski, a pleasant, frizzy-haired 24-year-old who has been pasted with the peculiar nickname "the Polish Rifle," threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to the fleet Jackson, who was running so fast that he nearly stepped on two pigeons.
The Cards managed a field goal and went in at the half down 28-9—two touchdowns by the Ram offense and two by the Ram defense. By then the scoring gap was so large that many in the crowd had begun concentrating on the singular scrap between Olsen and Dobler. Dobler had said his tactics would include defending himself by such varied means as clawing at the eyes and face mask, clubbing at the throat, kicking at the shins and constantly smiling, an expression calculated to make the opponent think he is up against a dangerous wacko. Shortly before the half Olsen had been tackled and pinned to the mat by Dobler, who had yanked Olsen's jersey down so that a shoulder pad stuck out. Olsen jumped up, aimed an angry punch at Dobler's groin and followed it with a lecture on etiquette. "Conrad likes for people to talk about him, so I'm not going to mention him," Olsen said later. "But somewhere down the line somebody is going to break his neck, and I won't send flowers."
The Cards went 80 yards after the second-half kickoff, scoring on an 11-yard pass from Hart to Gray, to make it 28-16 and call forth memories of the many times in the past couple of years that St. Louis has come from behind to win close games. Cardinal Coach Don Coryell thought his team was going to do it again. But soon thereafter Youngblood reached Hart for an 11-yard loss, and a few plays later Dryer dropped him for 12. Goodby, comeback. With four minutes to go, McCutcheon broke up the middle from the St. Louis 13-yard line, fumbled on the four and teammate Ron Jessie recovered for the touchdown that gave Los Angeles a safe 35-16 lead. The Cards scored with 35 seconds left on a three-yard run by Steve Jones, but the Rams were more than satisfied with a 35-23 win that moved them into Sunday's conference final against Dallas.
McCutcheon was especially satisfied. He had carried the ball 37 times for 202 yards, breaking the NFL playoff-game record of 31 carries for 196 yards set by Steve Van Buren of Philadelphia against the Rams in 1949. Wearily stripping off his tape and baring his bruises, McCutcheon recalled that he once ran the ball 39 times for Colorado State against Brigham Young and gained 207 yards, but the feeling afterward wasn't quite as grand as this. "I like running out of the I formation, it's what I did in college," he said. "I wasn't all that tired. I could have carried at least four more times."
Jaworski said he had learned three minutes before the kickoff that he would be the starting LA quarterback in place of Harris, who had been judged lacking in "zip" during pregame passing drills. "This is the biggest game I've played since last week," said Jaworski, laughing. His only pro start other than against Pittsburgh was a preseason game against Cleveland during the 1974 NFL player strike. "After 12 games this year I had thrown 11 passes, so I had to wonder if my future was in L.A. I'd be a fool if I said I didn't want to be the starter from now on, but it's not my decision. Today I just turned my mind around and said, 'Get it together, Ron.' Then our line blew people away, and that didn't hurt anything." Which was fine for the Rams, who can hardly afford to have anything else hurt.