The pass hung in the cloudy California sky and with it hung the lead in the NFC West. That's what it came down to on Sunday, after 59 minutes and five seconds of a typically nasty game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints.
Both teams came in with 7-3 records and a share of the division lead, and now, with :55 showing on the clock and New Orleans leading 14-10, Los Angeles was deep into its final drive of the day. The play began on the Saints' 26, first-and-20. As it unfolded, L.A. quarterback Jim Everett looked hard toward Henry Ellard, who was operating out of the slotback position.
Ellard, coming down the seam, was the logical receiver, and that's just what Everett, the NFL's top-rated quarterback, wanted Saints strong safety Gene Atkins to think. Atkins had deep responsibility in the double-zone—check the middle, check the outside and make a choice. Everett pumped once and then threw a fade pass to wideout Flipper Anderson, who was heading down the right side toward the end zone. It was a timed pattern: Everett was to lay the ball up; Anderson was to run under it.
Saints cornerback Dave Waymer had the coverage underneath. Anderson got behind him, and for a moment it looked as if the Rams would pull out a game in which their offense had been contained. "He tried to look me off to the seam guy," said Atkins, a second-year pro out of Florida A & M. "He tried to get me hung up with the pump fake. I didn't bite. I just tried to get enough depth so I could get a good break on the ball."
November 21, 1988
And there it was, hanging, hanging for what seemed like an hour. Atkins streaked across the end zone and took the ball out of Anderson's hands for an interception. An afternoon of football had come down to one play.
New Orleans coach Jim Mora found the victory particularly satisfying because a defensive play had clinched it. Defense is his baby—his whole career as a college and pro assistant coach was on the defensive side—but in the Saints' two previous games, his defense had failed down the stretch. On Oct. 30 in New Orleans, the Rams had held the ball for the last 4:01 to preserve a two-point win. A week later in Washington, the Redskins drove 94 and 64 yards to score 10 fourth-quarter points for a three-point win over New Orleans. "We just couldn't find a way to get off the field," said Saints inside linebacker Vaughan Johnson last week.
Coming into last week's game, New Orleans, the only NFC team that hasn't lost by two touchdowns or more in at least one game this season, had dropped three games by a total of six points. And in the Rams, New Orleans would face a multifaceted attack, thanks to Everett's improvement, the result of understanding L.A.'s system better and of reading defenses more clearly. Mora knew he had to come up with some things to upset Everett's timing.
Mora isn't a devotee of the blitz, but last week he had free safety Brett Maxie rush up the middle, and he occasionally used Johnson on the blitz. At 6'3", 245 pounds, Johnson is an unusual athlete who is agile enough to stay on the field in most of the nickel-and-dime defenses. To pick up speed on the outside rush, Mora positioned outside linebacker Rickey Jackson as a down lineman on the left side. Another linebacker, Pat Swilling, was down on the right flank.
Los Angeles, which will stick with the run until an opponent stops it, doesn't usually hurt the Saints on the ground. In their first meeting of 1986—Mora's first year in New Orleans—L.A. got a mere 53 yards rushing in a 6-0 defeat. It was the only game that season in which the Rams failed to run for at least 100 yards. Last year, in the lone nonstrike meeting between the teams, Los Angeles rushed for 102 yards. In their first matchup of this season, L.A. gained 96 on the ground. Those are anemic numbers for a John Robinson-coached team.
But Everett had scared New Orleans in that Oct. 30 game by going long often and accurately. Several dropped passes kept Los Angeles from scoring more points than they did. Something had to be done to shake up the young quarterback.
New Orleans sacked Everett once on Sunday—on a safety blitz by Antonio Gibson—but he was under constant pressure. His statistics were unimpressive: 18 completions in 35 attempts for 198 yards, two interceptions and no TDs. The Saints controlled the early going—at one point in the second quarter they had run 30 plays to L.A.'s nine and led in time of possession, 17:05-4:31. Only a weird succession of breaks kept the Rams in the game.
On their first possession, the Saints drove 81 yards to the Los Angeles two, but the march ended with an interception in the end zone. Their next possession ended with an interception as well. The third was an 87-yard touchdown drive. Then came a fumble on the Rams' 27, a 52-yard field goal at the end of the first half that was nullified by a holding penalty and a 52-yard field goal try in the third quarter that hit the crossbar and bounced away. "We dominated the game, but we only had seven points," said New Orleans quarterback Bobby Herbert afterward. "It was a frustrating thing."
After the missed field goal, the Rams, who had three points on the Anaheim Stadium scoreboard, took over on their own 34. When Everett dropped back to pass on first down, Maxie blitzed clean up the middle, forcing him to overthrow fullback Buford McGee. Johnson intercepted the pass on the L.A. 41 and, in a remarkable display of broken-field running, hurdled McGee, sidestepped guard Tom Newberry, put a matador move on Everett and reached the seven-yard line before tackle Irv Pankey brought him down. Two sweeps by Rueben Mayes made the score 14-3.
The Rams mounted two more meaningful drives. The first one, which covered 80 yards, featured three trick plays: a hook-and-ladder, with Pete Holohan catching a short pass and lateraling to Ellard, that went for 21 yards; a reverse by wideout Ron Brown for two yards; and a one-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal off a veer option play in which Everett handed off to McGee, who was running wide. McGee then pitched to tailback Greg Bell. Very un-Ramlike football.
That made the score 14-10 in the Saints' favor. New Orleans stopped L.A. on the Rams' two subsequent possessions before Los Angeles got the ball on its own 30 for one last shot with 2:12 remaining. Four plays, a penalty against the Saints and one against the Rams put the ball on the New Orleans 26, where Everett threw that last pass.
"We were anticipating that play, where Everett pump-fakes to the inside receiver and then goes sideline," said Atkins. "We worked on it all week."
"This win was much bigger than big," said Mora. "This was a gigantic win for the Saints."
Beyond that, he had given the offensive coordinators of the teams that New Orleans will face down the road something to think about. In molding the Saints, who were the laughingstock of the league when he took over, into a contender, Mora has earned a reputation as a fundamentally sound coach who relies on execution rather than gimmicks. But this time his defense showed new wrinkles. More important, it held the Rams to 60 yards rushing and shut down Everett.
Johnson, who has been described by New Orleans coaches as one of football's most underrated linebackers, had a magnificent game. He was on the field for every defensive play. His interception set up the clinching TD. He put pressure on Everett, made the primary hit on two straight goal-line plays and was the first man downfield on punts. "I'm a coverage linebacker," he says, "and those aren't the guys who make All-Pro or get the Pro Bowl votes. Sacks are what people look at. I've taken pride in my coverage, being able to run downfield with a Gary Anderson or a Herschel Walker. When I was with Jacksonville, I made All-USFL, but who remembers something like that?
"The important thing today was that we showed we could play defense in the finesse situations, third-and-long. When we were struggling, we would stuff a team on the first two downs and then something would happen—a missed tackle, a mistake—and we'd have to start all over again."
The remainder of the Saints' schedule is rough but not impossible—the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants at home, followed by the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers on the road and the Atlanta Falcons in New Orleans. Now that the Saints have a one-game lead in the NFC West, you get the feeling that they'll be tough to dislodge. Maybe that's what Mora meant when he talked about Sunday's "gigantic" victory.
"We dominated the game, but we only had seven points. It was a frustrating thing."