The Los Angeles Rams last Sunday fulfilled what certainly were the two best long-range prophecies of the year. Before 77,277 delirious Californians in Memorial Coliseum, the Rams demolished previously undefeated Baltimore 34-10, just as their optimistic coach, George Allen, had said they would. They would go all the way, he had predicted as the season began, and when his team's prospects grew dim after an early-season tie with Baltimore, he delivered himself of a second thought: the race would come down to the last game and the Rams would beat the Colts. The race did, and the Rams, an exceptional team all year, did. Baltimore, which would have happily accepted the gift of a Christmas tie, wound up the season, ironically, with but one loss and no glory.
The Ram victory was built on excellence in all the facets that comprise pro football: a marvelous defense which dogged John Unitas unmercifully, dropping him seven times as he attempted to pass and forcing two key interceptions; a superior offensive line which protected the Ram quarterback so effectively that he was never on his back; and, finally, special teams which twice came within a hair of blocking Colt punts.
But in assessing what brought the Rams to the title in the Coastal Division—and one step closer to the Super Bowl—most credit must be given to a strong, tall quarterback who has been criticized throughout much of his professional career for a strange indecisiveness that often cost the Rams interceptions and losses. This season Roman Gabriel, playing all the way as the No. 1 quarterback, has taken his place among the game's finest leaders. And his performance last week was easily his best of the year. Completing 18 of 22 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns, Gabriel directed the sure, controlled attack of the club with cool competence.
Roman Gabriel is a proud man with a sure sense of his own ability, and he has imparted this feeling to the Rams. Allen's game plan was not a complicated one. He had decided that the Rams could move against the Baltimore defense on short passes, draw plays and sweeps, and Gabriel mixed these ingredients to perfection. Accused in the past of being unable to find a second receiver when the primary one was covered, he threw an 80-yard scoring pass in this game to Jack Snow on a play in which Bernie Casey was the intended receiver. He threw a nine-yard pass to Fullback Dick Bass on the same pattern to keep a drive alive and, finally, on the same call to Casey, he threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Tight End Bill Truax. Unitas could not have done it better.
"His improvement over the year has been extraordinary," Casey said after the game. "We have perfect confidence in him, and he has perfect confidence in the huddle. He has gained a certain majesty during the season, and it has rubbed off on all of us."
"I'm a better quarterback now than I was last year," Gabriel said. "I learned to read defenses last year. Before that I was a one-quarter quarterback, and no one can develop without playing more than that. I took a lot of criticism, and some of it helped. But the big help is the fact that I'm playing with 39 believers. The team believes in me."
His newly won confidence only partially explains Gabriel's success. Physically he is unusually gifted. He stands 6'4", weighs 230 pounds and is one of the few quarterbacks in football who can shake a blitzing linebacker and still get a pass off. Sunday he tore away from a would-be tackle by Ordell Braase after spending what seemed endless seconds evading the strong Colt rush, then found Casey with a beautifully thrown long, flat pass for a key 25-yard gain to the Baltimore 12-yard line. A play later he fired another pass through a crowd into the arms of Truax for the touchdown that put the Rams ahead 27-10 and insured the Ram victory.
The few long passes Gabriel threw against the Colts were notably different from the sky-high balls he threw—and had intercepted—against Green Bay the week before. Sunday's deep passes traveled on such a flat trajectory that Colt defenders had no time to congregate under them when they came down.
"For three weeks," said Gabriel, "I've been working on passing in my old way. I had been lofting the ball, and against the Packers it nearly cost us the game. Now I fire anything over five yards."
The Ram defense, as usual, was superb. Designed to get to Unitas in a hurry, it worked so well that the Colt quarterback rarely had time to find other receivers when the first man was covered. In Baltimore, earlier in the season, the Rams' front four had stunted often, with the end circling in and the tackle out, but this time they played it straight. "Those stunts hurt us in Baltimore," explained Roger Brown, the massive tackle. "So we decided that we would simply depend upon brute force if necessary."