At Southern Cal they called the play 29-pitch. The quarterback pitched the ball to Charles White and everyone pulled out to block. John Robinson's old Student Body Right. In four years USC 29-pitched White into 5,598 yards rushing—the second most ever in a collegiate career—the Heisman Trophy and a 1980 first-round draft pick by Cleveland.
The Los Angeles Rams call the play 49-pitch. Same tailback, same coach, same play. Just a higher number. With 2:07 to go Sunday, White took the ball on 49-pitch and churned his way through a sagging Denver Bronco defense for an eight-yard touchdown that gave the Rams a 20-16 victory. Sound the trumpets, send the white horse around the track and let's hear it for Tommy Trojan. After five years in the shadows and a double trip to the waiver wire, White was back where he belonged, and Robinson could say, "No man had more doubters. A lot of people in this room would have loved to have Charlie White buried. Old Trojans are hard to kill."
The coach was looking at a roomful of hard faces. Sure, White had a terrific day—18 carries, 83 yards—and as the defense got weaker he got stronger, just as it was at USC. His last TD was vintage crunch football as he bounced off one Bronco lineman and dragged another over the goal line. But let's face facts. White was keeping the job warm for Eric Dickerson, who at that very moment was on his way from Sealy, Texas to his agent's office in Los Angeles. On Dickerson's arrival, they would map the last-minute strategy for a Monday meeting with the Rams, a session that would, they hoped, get Dickerson signed for the 1985 season and end the NFL's premier holdout, which had reached its 42nd day at kickoff time.
White didn't even play in the first half. That honor went to Barry Redden, who was coming off the sprained ankle he suffered the previous week. At halftime, with Redden's right ankle stiffening, the Broncos up 16-10 and the Ram offense showing a rushing attack of only 59 yards, White got the call.
The 83 yards he picked up in nearly 19 minutes were 21 more than White had gained in the whole 1984 season with the Browns. (Cleveland had cut White before training camp this year, and Robinson picked him up.) He had a good exhibition season, a 5.3-yard rushing average and the second most yards rushing, behind Redden. But there was only one story on the Rams and that was Dickerson, who felt that his record-breaking '84 season was worth an updated contract, fully guaranteed. It got heavy. Press conferences. Accusations. Denials. He said; his agent said; the club said. No, we didn't; yes, you did. Finally, Robinson stepped in and phoned Dickerson in Texas. "Just to keep the lines of communication open," the coach said. One L.A. newspaper ran a daily Dickerson watch, listing days out and total fines accumulated—the holdout is costing Dickerson $1,000 a day.
The Ram players got sick of answering the same questions about their missing superstar. Hey, we're here, he's not. What's the difference in blocking for Eric and, uh, someone else? No difference. We block.
"The difference," said right guard Dennis Harrah, "is that now when we make our blocks, we don't get up off the ground to watch Eric still running. I mean, he's so pretty to watch."
"It's business, Eric's business," said right tackle Jackie Slater. "He's doing what he feels he has to do to take care of himself."
"Well, two years ago he gave the offensive linemen watches," Harrah said, "and last year diamond rings. This year we were looking for Porsches."
At times the Dickerson talk was light and loose, but there was an undercurrent of bitterness, too. "He should have done it differently," said left tackle Bill Bain. "Everyone's upset at him, the way he listed his priorities. There are guys here with 30-year mortgages to pay off. The club still gave him $1.6 million over two years. Hell, give me that and I'd run backward down the freeway for you."
A few days before the Bronco game, when it was already established that there would be no Dickerson in uniform on Sunday, Robinson tried to put the whole thing into some perspective. "The big thing that Eric gives you," he said, "is that if he carries 30 times, he'll have four chances to break one and score. There are only one or two backs in the league who could do that. It's a dimension you lose.
"But there are so many examples of a star not playing and a team responding—Seattle without Curt Warner last year, for instance. Or take the Rams. We lost Vince Ferragamo, our quarterback, and people were laughing at us—and we won nine of our next 13 games.
"If Eric doesn't play a down for us and Barry Redden plays all year, Barry will be one of the top six runners in the league."
Translation: The big, bruising ground game is Robinson's style, the USC style, and when a tailback graduates, you plug in the next one and go to the Rose Bowl. But it helps to have a quarterback, and when Robinson picked up 34-year-old Dieter Brock, the Canadian Football League legend, he figured he had the balance to challenge the 49ers.
Brock was the fourth quarterback in five years to open the season for the Rams. The team's recent history has been dotted with 30-year-old QBs who had left their best games on other fields—Joe Namath, Dan Pastorini, Bert Jones. And while Robinson was raving about Brock's prowess, Dieter's exhibition game statistics were telling a different story: a completion average of less than 50% and only one TD in four games.
Redden's ankle injury threw the whole picture into confusion. Then on Labor Day Robinson waived four players. It turned out that White was one of them. Robinson planned to bring White back the next day, after he had put two guys on injured reserve, but if someone had claimed White, he would have been gone. Luckily, for Robinson and the Rams, no one did.
Late in the week Robinson still didn't know who his starting tailback would be. "We could go with Barry," he said, "or we could wear them down with Charlie White."
"Wear them down with Charlie?" someone asked, fighting to keep a straight face.
"O.K., O.K., the line wears 'em down," Robinson said, "the running game itself."
Well, the Broncos did get worn down, and it was White who put the finisher on them, carrying the last four times in the Rams' final 12-play drive. "Déj√† vu. I had this tremendous feeling of déj√† vu, of coming back to Los Angeles and doing well," White said. "In the second half I was ready to go. I'd been preparing myself all week."
It had been a weird game of blown opportunities and cheap points. There were seven assorted scores in the game, and five of them were set up by penalties or turnovers. The Rams could have taken the lead in the third quarter, but with fourth-and-a-yard on the Denver four, White slipped while making a cut. And the Broncos could have put the game away in the fourth period, but they fumbled in Ram territory.
At times Bronco quarterback John Elway looked like a dream, and at times he had big problems with the highly active set of Ram linebackers and defensive backs who roughed up his receivers. In the free and easy passing days of 1978-84, when every little nudge drew an interference call, Elway would have had a big Sunday, but the rules have been modified this year to give defenders some leeway and the Rams took full advantage. Maybe it's the dawning of a new era. The two glamour quarterbacks of 1984, Miami's Dan Marino and San Francisco's Joe Montana, both lost on Sunday.
"This is going to be a dramatic change," Elway said. "You're gonna see a lot more receivers complaining, a lot of people getting mad."
In the second quarter, when Elway got hot and the Broncos scored all their points, he looked like vintage Namath. Elway had the L.A. secondary reeling, zipping a 22-yard rope through tight coverage to Steve Watson, laying the next one out to Butch Johnson with perfect touch for a 28-yard score, coming back seven plays later with another perfecto, this one a 25-yarder to Clint Sampson, for the Broncos' final TD.
Brock paled in comparison. He had no scrambling ability. He couldn't get out of the way of the Broncos' rush, which nailed him four times. His long ball died in the first quarter, when Ron Brown bobbled a pass that turned into a Bronco interception, and after that Brock's only successes were short-range passes over the middle. He made one very amateurish throw, a sidearmer down the sideline, into double coverage, and Steve Foley's interception set up a Bronco TD. Even Brock's lone touchdown pass, a two-yarder to tight end David Hill, was a misfire, an overthrow that Hill saved with a one-handed, fingertip catch.
In the final drive, though. Brock was five for five. For the first time he was hitting short sideline stuff, though he was throwing into a crippled secondary. Louie Wright, the Broncos' fine left cornerback, was out of the game with a knee injury. Steve Wilson, who started in Wright's place, left in the third quarter with a bruised knee, turning the job over to free agent Daniel Hunter. In the fourth quarter strong safety Dennis Smith separated his right shoulder on a diving deflection in the end zone, and three plays later Foley, the free safety who had intercepted two passes, went out with a bruised knee.
Well, even if they weren't very pretty Sunday, the Rams were the only winners in the NFC West. Their quarterback might have been shaky. Their blue-chip runner may have been absent. But Charlie White was back home with his old coach and his favorite old play.