This series of misfortunes wasn't all Gabriel's fault. The truth is that he doesn't have first-rate receivers. Jack Snow and Wendell Tucker, the wide receivers, have difficulty getting open; Billy Truax is a sure-handed pass catcher and an exceptional blocker, but he lacks speed. Up until the game in San Francisco, Gabriel had to depend primarily on his backs to catch his passes; of the top live Ram receivers, three were running backs, and they had caught 61 passes to 52 for the flankers and ends.
In Atlanta, Gabriel only threw toward his wide receivers four times; two passes were incomplete, one intercepted and one complete for a short gain. In that game, Allen used the pass merely as a diversion. With Gabriel throwing a total of 85 times, the Rams lost to the Jets and were tied by the Falcons in Los Angeles on the two previous Sundays. Gabriel passed only 15 times in Atlanta. "When you're not executing well, you start over with basics," Allen said in explanation. "You keep it simple, and running is simple. So we ran." Indeed, against the 49ers Sunday, Gabriel completed but seven of 21 for 70 yards, but his runners compiled 155, averaging 5.2 yards a clip.
In the 49ers' earlier victory over the Rams, Brodie defeated the rush in part by calling pass patterns that allowed him to release the ball quickly. He kept his backs in for extra protection and hit his wide receivers on quick turnouts, once in a while mixing things up with hitch patterns to Gene Washington for longer gains.
Merlin Olsen, a vision in a patterned sport shirt and baby-blue stretch pants, was as loose and happy as Talbert in the parking lot outside the Kezar dressing room on Saturday. "You have to force a quarterback out of his pattern," he said. "What we'll try to do, if Brodie's throwing the quicks, is make him throw even quicker than he wants to."
Someone asked Olsen if he thought the Rams would be flat for this game, too. He shook his head. "You can't ever tell about that," he said. "But this may be the biggest game some of the veterans ever play. I've been with the club nine years now. Maxie Baughan and Eddie Meador came out of retirement to help us get to the Super Bowl. I don't think they'll play again next season, no matter whether we win it or lose it. So this is a big game."
"It's the most important game we've played since I've been coach," said Allen. "The whole year rides on it."
After Allen finished pecking under the tarpaulin, he reported to the team that the field was in reasonably good condition. The Kezar groundkeeper is, fittingly enough, a man named Wurm; after the high school game earlier in the week, he had the turf rolled and the divots replaced.
Two years ago, when the Rams played the 49ers on a slow track in Kezar and came out with a 20-20 tie, Allen said the field was a disgrace and that Commissioner Pete Rozelle should do something about it. What Rozelle did was fine Allen and tell him that if any of his players complained about playing conditions, he would hold the coach responsible.
"I hope it rains tomorrow," said Ken Iman. "We'll kick the hell out of them in any weather. Weather doesn't make the difference. It's how you feel."
Right now, the Rams feel like champions.