Before his Oakland Raiders played the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday, Quarterback Ken Stabler tried to assess the importance of the matchup. "The Rams are the caliber of team we'll meet in the playoffs," Stabler said. "These final games can act as a catalyst to get you flying into the playoffs instead of limping. If you play well and beat a good team late in the season, that tells you something about your chances."
Well, what the game in the L.A. Coliseum told Stabler is that this year it is the Rams who will be flying into the playoffs, while the Raiders, particularly Stabler, will be limping—if indeed they even get there. Los Angeles clinched the NFC Western Division title by beating Oakland 20-14 on a 43-yard Pat Haden-to-Harold Jackson pass with 2:10 to play in the final quarter. By losing to the Rams, Oakland was eliminated from the AFC West title chase as Denver clinched first place with its 24-14 victory over Houston. Now the defending Super Bowl champions, who have won their divisional title nine of the last 10 years, must win their next two games to assure themselves of a place in the playoff madness. And with Stabler moving on a balky left knee, that will not be easy.
Los Angeles had ample opportunity to destroy the Raiders before the final moments. Stabler, almost immobilized by a stretched ligament, threw four interceptions, and Oakland fumbled the ball away on two other occasions. But the Rams kept inventing ways to allow the Raiders to stay alive. A second-quarter John Cappelletti fumble, for instance, gave Oakland field position at the L.A. 31 and led to a Pete Banaszak touchdown that tied the score 7-7 at the half. Rafael Septien booted the Rams to a 13-7 lead with a pair of field goals, but then, late in the fourth quarter, Oakland drove 87 yards and went ahead 14-13 on a 21-yard scoring pass from Stabler to Dave Casper.
However, Haden brought the Rams right back, moving them 40 yards to the Oakland 43 in five plays. Much of the day Jackson had been covered one-on-one by reserve Defensive Back Lester Hayes, who was forced into action by a heavy run of injuries to Raider regulars. "We called a play that we had used a number of times before, but we had never gone in Harold's direction," Haden said. "Harold kept coming back and saying he was open. I didn't think so, but this time I saw him get behind his man. I just tried to throw the ball up and bring some rain, and Harold went up and caught it."
Technically, the Raiders can afford the loss to L.A. because the Rams are not in their conference. Oakland has lost only twice in the AFC, while its rivals for the AFC wild-card spot have at least three conference losses. If the Raiders win their last two games—at home against Minnesota and Kansas City—they will qualify for the wild card regardless of what the other AFC teams do.
But the Raiders have critical problems. Their defensive backfield is crippled. Of greater concern, though, is Stabler's knee. His lack of mobility has noticeably affected Oakland's usually explosive passing game and made him an inviting target for rushers. In addition to his four interceptions, Stabler was sacked four times, and he was forced to throw in a hurry so often that he completed just 16 of his 38 passes.
Stabler suffered his injury three weeks ago in the first quarter of Oakland's 12-7 loss at San Diego. He sat out the rest of that game and watched his replacement, Mike Rae, complete just one of six passes for 16 yards. Stabler's left knee has already undergone two operations for torn cartilage. Without rest, the knee is unlikely to improve over the remainder of the season. Stabler admits that he couldn't play if he performed at a position other than quarterback.
"Someone who has to cut sharply couldn't play on this knee," he says. "I just have to drop back 10 yards. Even then, the injury disturbs my concentration because it hurts so much. It's something you can't forget, like a headache. My knee has taken all the enjoyment out of playing. It's no fun anymore."
The L.A. win, along with Atlanta's 16-10 loss to New England, gave the Rams their fifth divisional championship in Chuck Knox' five years as coach. Yet Knox is about as appreciated around Hollywood as a goal-line fumble. Ram fans, led by team owner Carroll Rosenbloom, complain that Knox' brand of football isn't entertaining. Perhaps they would prefer the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Entertainment is a big concern with Rosenbloom, who is a sizeable stockholder in Warner Communications, the parent company for Warner Bros, movies. C.R., as he is called, and his general manager. Don Klosterman, come to Ram practices in a helicopter and watch from the sidelines in directors' chairs with their names on the back.
The fact is that the Ram players are not very exciting. Efficient, but not exciting. Or, as they would say of Knox in Hollywood, the fault lies not in himself but in his stars. Not one of Knox' quarterbacks in his first four years—John Hadl, James Harris, Ron Jaworski or Haden—has been what you might call flashy. There was hope this year that Joe Namath would glitter in the Beverly Hills, but he bombed on the playing field. It was like trying to stuff Elizabeth Taylor back into a bikini.
Knox is said to be too conservative, that he runs the ball too much. Maybe so, but he doesn't run it as much as Oakland does—and no one calls the Raiders boring. Nor did anyone call Buffalo dull when O. J. Simpson carried on almost every play. At running back Knox has Lawrence McCutcheon, a model of efficiency, if not flash. In four of Knox' five years McCutcheon has rushed for more than 1,000 yards. He passed that again Sunday, picking up 97 to raise his season total to 1,061. In all that time, though, McCutcheon has never gained more than 45 on a single play.
To make matters worse for Knox, his accomplishments are belittled by the claims of his coaching peers and his owner that the Rams have pro football's best personnel, a highly questionable assertion. The coach's plight is so absurd that last week Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray was moved to write, "What Chuck Knox should do...is move the act where he'd be appreciated."
Knox' position wasn't made any more bearable when the Rams got off to a miserable start this season, losing five of six exhibitions and two of their first four regular-season games. It was after that fourth game, a Monday night 24-23 loss to Chicago, that Haden replaced Namath as the starting quarterback, and much of the credit for the team's subsequent 7-1 record has been heaped on the former USC star. Not only has Haden brought the Rams much-needed mobility at the position, but he has exhibited some stellar play-calling and a throwing arm far stronger than the Rams expected. Haden is now the NFL's top-ranked passer.
Last season at this time Haden replaced James Harris as the starter, but there seemed to be no logical reason for the move. "I felt very uncomfortable when I played," Haden says. "The other players may not have held anything against me personally, but a lot of them probably felt that another quarterback should have been there." That has not been a problem this year. Haden has clearly earned the job that Knox or C.R. awarded to Namath in September. "I was disappointed then." Haden admits. "Not getting the call was a real letdown."
When the call finally came, Haden made the most of it. Last week Ram Guard Tom Mack said at a broadcasters' luncheon, "We really have a great quarterback in Pat Haden. He's better than a lot of people realized, including some of his own teammates."
Haden feels that one reason for his improvement is the off-season weight-lifting program that helped him gain some 10 pounds—to 182—and also considerably strengthened his throwing arm. "I'm throwing with a whole lot more velocity," he says. "My passes are crisper. The ball gets there quicker. I have a lot more confidence." On Sunday he completed 13 of his 22 passes for 186 yards and, of course, the game-winning touchdown pass to Jackson. He was never intercepted.
What has particularly impressed Haden's teammates is his play-calling. Knox relinquished that duty this year in an effort to enhance the leadership potential of the quarterback position. Haden—who will complete his Rhodes scholarship studies in June with a degree in economics, philosophy and politics—admits he gets more joy from methodically picking a defense apart than he does from scoring with a single bomb. Knox, in fact, recently had to lecture Haden about not throwing enough in L.A.'s 24-6 win over Green Bay. But the quarterback drew raves and increased respect from his teammates for the style and substance of his 12-play, 86-yard touchdown drive against Cleveland that had the Browns continually off balance. "I think fans can enjoy a time-consuming drive," says Haden. "Even Cleveland fans had to appreciate the art of that drive."
If Haden takes Los Angeles to the Super Bowl, even Ram fans may learn to appreciate the art of his drives.