As their coach, George Allen, keeps saying, the Los Angeles Rams are a team of emotion and enthusiasm and guys who give 110%, and they needed all of that plus a little bit of luck to beat the Dallas Cowboys 24-23 last Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. The game was much closer than the score indicates and, if the Rams and Cowboys meet again on Jan. 4 for the NFL title, that game may be decided on a safety in the fifth overtime period.
Although closely matched, the Rams and the Cowboys are as different as their coaches. Under their quiet, austere coach, Tom Landry, Dallas practices and plays with cool efficiency. The Rams in turn, emulate the emotional Allen. As Bob Brown, the offensive tackle, noted when he came to L.A. from Philadelphia earlier this year, "I'm a professional athlete and I do this thing for money, but this attitude here gets to me. I hear all these other guys clapping in practice, and then I hear myself doing it, and I say, 'Man, who is that making that noise?' "
The Rams weren't coming in loud and clear against the Cowboys. Their defense, which has been the most reliable part of their game, gave way alarmingly at times, even though Dallas was playing without Calvin Hill, the NFL's leading rusher, who has a lock on Rookie of the Year. Indeed, the Cowboys outgained the Rams 352 yards to 290. And Dallas had key players out of both lines as well. Ron East filled in for veteran Jethro Pugh at defensive tackle, and Rayfield Wright, a whilom tight end, replaced All-Pro Ralph Neely at offensive tackle, where he had to contend with Deacon Jones. The Rams, too, were hurting in the offensive line. Mike LaHood, a rookie, replaced Joe Scibelli at guard. LaHood was matched with East and lost.
Both clubs demonstrated their special talents in the first quarter. The Rams took the opening kickoff and trudged 76 yards in 12 plays to score. This Ram team rarely breaks the long gainer, since its running backs—Larry Smith and Les Josephson—are both tough, hard runners rather than speedsters. In this drive, they crunched into the Cowboy line, trying to find cracks in the center, then swinging wide for yardage.
It was thunderous football, but it wasn't very exciting to watch until Roman Gabriel, the big, oaken Ram quarterback, caught the Cowboys in a blitz at the Dallas 35-yard line. It was second down with 18 yards to go, and Gabriel had just been buried for an eight-yard loss by Ends George Andrie and Larry Cole. Dallas, aware that the Rams have to pass to generate long yardage, sent two linebackers in with the rush on the next play. Gabriel was engulfed by a wave of blue Cowboy jerseys, but suddenly he emerged, shrugged off an insecure tackle, and flicked the ball away just before East, who had snookered LaHood, crashed into him. The ball found Wendell Tucker, the 5'10", 185-pound wide receiver, free at the goal line. Tucker took the ball with no one near him and ran in for the score: Gabriel, shaken by the rush, limped off the field.
If the long march had persuaded the 79,105 fans on hand that they were going to witness an easy Ram victory, the Cowboys soon disabused them of that notion. They matched the Ram drive almost precisely, although they started from their own 14 after the kickoff and needed a roughing the kicker penalty to keep going.
Craig Morton is almost a physical replica of Gabriel. Like Gabriel he is one big, strongman. At 6'4" and 214 pounds, Morton is the same height and only six pounds lighter than the Ram quarterback, and he has the same ability to absorb the shock of a tackle and shake loose.
Counting the opening series, which ended with the penalty that gave them a first down on their own 27, Morton moved the Cowboys 75 yards in 14 plays. However, the drive stalled on the Ram 11 and Mike Clark kicked an 18-yard field goal to make the score 7-3 as the quarter ended. The two drives had used up all but two minutes of the period.
By now it had become apparent that the game was not going to be dominated by the defense, as most experts had expected. The Cowboys' Doomsday Defense had proved as vulnerable as the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, and neither team was able to prevent steady gains. The first two drives had been impressive and both scores were well earned, but for the rest of the game luck played a major part. The Cowboys intercepted a Gabriel pass on the next Ram series, the crowd booing lustily when the official decreed an interception by Lee Roy Jordan, the middle linebacker. Jordan was covering Larry Smith and the ball hit Smith on the chest just as Jordan hit him from the side. The players fell, and from the stands it looked as though the ball had fallen to the ground and Jordan had picked it up. However, the official ruled that the ball had landed on Jordan's chest.
"It hit the ground," Gabriel said after the game. "I know it did. I want to see the movies on that." If the movies show what television did, Gabe is going to have to change his mind: Jordan managed to cradle the ball with one arm as it bounced off Smith.