Among all the jokes, there is the one that says the members of the Rams' offensive unit are the first 11 no-shows at the Los Angeles Coliseum every Sunday. This is what life is like when you work in a place where much of the population is constantly being diverted by bosoms and message license plates. It isn't easy to be a part of the Rams these days, even though they are winning pretty regularly. For example, the Rams beat Pittsburgh 10-7 Sunday night in what slowly developed into an interesting football game between interconference celebrities, but when it was over, the only fascinating statistic was that the Steelers, of all teams, had turned the Rams' John Cappelletti, of all people, into a 100-yard runner.
Indeed, it was Cappelletti, perhaps the only Heisman Trophy winner ever drafted as a blocker, who made the biggest run of the night to set up the Rams' winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Cappelletti did it with a move he doesn't possess—and speed he doesn't own. What he did was slowly spin off a traffic jam at left tackle and sprint 26 yards around end on a third-down play to get the Rams to the Steelers' 10-yard line so Pat Haden could throw a touchdown pass to Willie Miller. Apart from this brief interruption by the Rams' offense, it was the usual kind of Ram game, one which has been familiar to Los Angeles fans for years and years and years. Defense.
The outcome, which left both the Rams and Steelers with 9-2 records, meant just about nothing to either team. Pittsburgh still leads the AFC Central from here to as far as Terry Bradshaw can throw a ball. And the Rams lead the NFC West by almost as many games as there are letters in Cappelletti's name. This, of course, is as much of a dilemma for the Rams' PR as their lack of speed in the backfield. No question about it, the Rams are a problem for society.
There are those in Los Angeles—tens of thousands, as a matter of fact—who look back with affection on something as disastrous as Crazy Legs Hirsch dropping a pass. At least it was exciting. Something happened! A Ram incompletion in those days was far more dramatic than Cappelletti throwing a block for Lawrence McCutcheon. It has been about 25 years since the Ram fan has had anything to get worked up about besides a defensive lineman. And how long can Fearsome Foursomes sustain conversation? Even now L.A. fans have probably forgotten that the Rams held Franco Harris to a measly 50 yards in his 22 carries Sunday, and that they intercepted three of Bradshaw's passes.
The '78 Rams are built on defense—what else?—which is the legacy of Chuck Knox and George Allen. For years, the Rams ran on first and second down, and passed on third down. They got away with it, though, because they are in a division that demands little more than staying awake for four quarters. But they also kept losing in the playoffs.
Los Angeles is not a loser's town, and the Rams have suffered from the success of the USC Trojans in football, the UCLA Bruins in basketball and the Dodgers in baseball, not to mention the undefeated record of Charlie's Angels against the bad guys. One must go back to 1951, almost to a time when nobody even cared, for the year when the Rams won their only NFL championship. They have seen all 12 Super Bowls on TV.
Allen's teams were always competitive, but Merlin Olsen didn't make very many broken-field runs. In fact, the offensive image of the Rams was Allen discussing the intricacies of the draw play with Roman Gabriel on the sideline.
This was O.K. to a point, but the promise of a title never materialized. Allen possibly suspected it never would, particularly in a town so restless and sophisticated and in some ways so uncontrollable. So after five seasons, he left for Washington in 1970. Under Knox, L.A. won five straight divisional titles but never displayed any offensive flair. Knox moved to Buffalo last winter, and the reason Allen came back for the 20 or 30 minutes he worked for Carroll Rosenbloom last summer was easy enough to understand. He was out of work.
Rosenbloom is an owner of good intentions, but it's difficult to sell this nowadays to a great many people in Los Angeles. Rosenbloom is moving the Rams to Anaheim in 1980. Anaheim may be only 35 miles away from L.A. by helicopter, but in freeway traffic that can be light-years. Anaheim is also Orange County.
To some, this is unforgivable. The California Rams? Really? People forget, however, that a man who would go so far as to hire Joe Namath and then George Allen must be trying to win. Critics believe Rosenbloom is moving down the road because Anaheim will build suites in the stadium so he can entertain friends as elegantly as Cowboy owner Clint Murchison does in Dallas. The management of the Los Angeles Coliseum wouldn't approve the kind of facelift Rosenbloom wanted. In short, Rosenbloom appreciated that the Coliseum was a relic with a lot of history, but a relic nonetheless. When Anaheim promised to give him anything he wanted, Rosenbloom said so long.
The Rams will no doubt prosper in Anaheim, and undoubtedly another NFL team will eventually play in the Coliseum. Suites or not, L.A. is too fertile an area not to have a pro football franchise, even one that might come through expansion. Maybe, however, the Rams will leave L.A. a Super Bowl championship to remember them by. That was surely Rosenbloom's intent when he hired Allen. And it was just as much his intent when he fired Allen. "I recognized a mistake and tried to correct it," he said.
The Allen controversy flared immediately. For whatever reasons, George one day held a coaches' meeting that included only those assistants who had been with him in Washington. The other coaches were hurt and infuriated. Then came the long periods of work—five hours on the practice field each day—that the Ram players weren't used to, and the attention to details apart from football—one of Allen's first complaints was that there were crackers in only one of the two soup lines at training camp. Allen wasn't fired for losing two exhibition games. He was fired because he was creating a climate that was wrong for a certain time, place and gathering.
If new Coach Ray Malavasi, a holdover from the Knox regime, seemed to be the answer through L.A.'s first seven games—the Rams were undefeated, and had even embarrassed the Cowboys—it wasn't just because of the victories. The Rams were "thinking" differently. Haden would throw a pass on first down, for example, something neither Knox nor Allen would have done in his own front yard against aunts and uncles. Malavasi opened up the offense, creating a variety of sets and displaying an instinct for the unexpected. In one game he even ordered a fake field goal, and the call produced a touchdown against Tampa Bay.
However, the Rams then had a case of midseason blues. They practically failed to show up for games against New Orleans and Atlanta, and lost both of them as the offense produced a total of just 10 points.
It is an old truth that dull teams are not permitted to lose. Dull teams must win—or they will not be loved by the writers and broadcasters, or even the fans. In Los Angeles a popular radio man, Jim Healy, frequently entertains traffic jams with criticism of the Rams, and several members of the L.A. press are not prepared to forgive Rosenbloom for Anaheim, Namath, Allen, the lack of an exciting runner, or anything else.
None of this is very fair to the Ram players of high quality, guys who could play for just about anybody—like Tackle Doug France, Center Rich Saul and Guard Dennis Harrah in the offensive line, or defensive standouts such as Free Safety Bill Simpson, Outside Linebacker Jim Youngblood—whose hard tackles have rendered three quarterbacks hors de combat this season—and Tackle Larry Brooks. The Rams even have excellent wide receivers in Miller, Ron Jessie and Billy Waddy.
"The problem with our appeal is that we don't have a game-breaking runner," says Don Klosterman, the general manager. "That's what everybody means when they say you have an exciting team. We thought we had one with either Wendell Tyler or Elvis Peacock, but they're hurt."
Obviously, there is only one thing the Rams can do to overcome their image problems.
"Win," says Klosterman.
On Sunday night there was some question whether either team would even win. At halftime the score was 0-0. Up in a corner of the press box somebody asked Jim Hardy, the ex-Ram and ex-Trojan who is general manager of the Coliseum that Rosenbloom is leaving, if he could remember the last time he had seen a scoreless pro game.
"Isn't that always the Rams' score?" Hardy said.
As they say, L.A. is a tough room.