Pro Football's newest hero is a white-haired, pink-faced chap who resembles your grocer and once coached swimming at Albion College. Fritz Shurmur, the 57-year-old defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, looks as if he should be telling housewives, "Please, don't squeeze the Charmin."
In an age when defensive coaches scream "Attack!" and pound the table so hard it splinters, Shurmur rolled the clock back for Sunday's NFC wildcard playoff game in Philadelphia. He plunked the Rams into a defense that was all the rage when people were carrying anti-Vietnam War signs. Zone. Pure zone. Nothing but zone.
"Never played a single snap of man-to-man, not one," said Shurmur proudly after his lie-back-and-stop-it defense had befuddled quarterback Randall Cunningham and the rest of coach Buddy Ryan's Eagles, holding them to a single touchdown in L.A.'s 21-7 victory. "We never rushed more than four people. We didn't blitz once."
O.K., let's look at this zone thing, the object of which is not to send the quarterback running for his life but to confuse him. Zone defenses have been around since the 1950s, but no one made a big deal of them. Then in the '80s along came Ryan and his "46" defense when he was defensive coordinator in Chicago. Attack. Send everyone after the passer. Doesn't matter if you get locked into man-to-man coverage, because the quarterback won't have time to throw the ball. Attacking the quarterback became the manly way to go. The big gamble. Fans loved it.
January 8, 1990
There remained a few fuddy-duddies who mumbled into their beer and stuck to basic zones. Shurmur was one. He became the Rams' defensive coordinator in '83, and though his defense never led the league, it usually ranked fairly high, and L.A. usually made the playoffs. "Sound" was the word people used to describe the Ram defense.
After the '87 season, when L.A. slipped to 21st in defense, coach John Robinson had a little talk with Shurmur. Come up with something new, he said. Dazzle me. So Shurmur dreamed up the "Eagle," which features a rush with two down linemen and three linebackers, one playing over the nose. L.A. jumped to ninth in defense in 1988 and led the NFL in sacks.
Coming into the Philly game, the Ram defense again ranked 21st, and it was dead last against the pass. Shurmur tried to explain that two of his key performers, linebackers Fred Strickland and Larry Kelm, had been injured much of the season and that a lot of the passing yardage was given up after opponents had fallen behind and were forced to throw. Yeah, sure. Nice old guy. Let's not be too tough on him.
Last Saturday, the Rams took a look at the gray Philadelphia sky, shivered under a cold drizzle and promptly went indoors, into the Eagles' practice bubble. This gave the Philly faithful a laugh. L.A. beach boys. Robinson wasn't worried. He knew he had big-play potential in his quarterback, Jim Everett, who had enjoyed the 10th-most-prolific passing season in NFL history, and serious deep threats in his wideouts, Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson. The Eagles' gambling defense was built around a relentless front four, which piled up the sacks, knocked the ball loose and provided field position for Cunningham.
How to stop Cunningham? The Rams' defensive line was hurting, with tackles Doug Reed and Bill Hawkins on injured reserve. Only four linemen would dress Sunday. To keep the big guys fresh for Philly's ground game, which had become surprisingly effective late in the season, Shurmur thought up a new wrinkle. Pull the linemen on long-yardage passing downs and rush only linebackers. And that's what L.A. did—from left to right: Kevin Greene, rookie George Bethune, Strickland and Brett Faryniarz.
What neither Robinson nor Shurmur revealed was that the defense would be strictly zone. "First time in my coaching career I ever did that," said Shurmur.
The first half of the opening quarter couldn't have been scripted any better for L.A. The Rams' initial two possessions produced 14 points, the first score coming on a 39-yard pass to Ellard, the second set up by a 30-yarder to Ellard. Meanwhile, Cunningham was having big problems. First three possessions: three downs and out. Fourth possession: interception. Net passing yardage for the quarter: —15.
The Philadelphia defense took hold after that. Jerome Brown, the 295-pound right tackle, was just about uncontrollable, sacking Everett once and spilling running back Greg Bell twice for losses. But everyone kept waiting for Philly's offense to do something. "The thing about having four linebackers on the rush is that they're more agile and can cut off Cunningham's scrambling," said Shurmur. "And the thing about all that zone is that everyone's always facing Cunningham and seeing what he does. No one's back is turned."
The score remained 14-0 in favor of L. A. until Philly scored early in the fourth quarter. The Eagles stopped the Rams on their next two possessions, but the offense remained ineffective. Then Philly's defense cracked. The front four had come into the game weary and bruised from a pressure-filled season. "Reggie White and Mike Pitts have knee sprains," Brown had said on Saturday. "Clyde Simmons is just wore out. I've got two bad knees and a shoulder that will have to be operated on after the season. We've just got to piece it together."
With a little more than three minutes left, Bell broke a 54-yard run, down to the 10, and punched it in on two more carries. The hunt was over. Cunningham had filled the air with dink passes but never got anything going downfield. He had scrambled six times for 39 yards, but he had started to run a lot more times, only to change his mind. "He was running around, pulling up and then throwing, but that's not his game," said Ram linebacker Mel Owens. "Randall's normally a one-looker. If he doesn't see what he likes, he goes. He can't pull up and deliver the ball with a soft touch, like Joe Montana can."
"Buddy got on me all week to run more," said Cunningham, "but if I get hurt in the beginning of the game, then where are we? The way they played their zone, well, I never saw that on film. You can dink and dunk all day, but you have to make big plays, and we didn't have them. The way they played those zones, it was like they knew we couldn't go deep—and we couldn't. No excuses."
"You can't do this against everyone," said Shurmur. "Try it against the 49ers, and Montana will complete eight checkoffs in a row to Roger Craig and Tom Rathman. He'll make you change."
Still, L.A. beat the Niners once during the regular season and had them by 14 points going into the fourth quarter of their second game. The Rams also match up well with the other NFC playoff teams. They lost 23-21 to the Vikings in overtime in Week 9 and crushed the Giants 31-10 in Anaheim a week later. Now L.A. faces the Giants again, this time in the Meadowlands.
"Please say this about the Rams," said Ron Heller, the Eagles' offensive right tackle. "They have real class. No cheap shots, no talking. The two guys I played against, Greene and Shawn Miller, I have nothing but respect for. They're just a well-coached team."