This was supposed to be the year of the Los Angeles Rams. They were going to win their division laughing and, when things got serious, take their conference and head for Miami. Instead they have been grimly trying to keep up in the West. Last Sunday they finally pulled even and almost ruined the San Francisco 49ers' chance for the first title of any kind in that team's dolorous 25-year history.
The 30-13 Ram victory, slugged out in Kezar Stadium on a day that began with rain and ended with seagulls casting their shadows on the field, left the two clubs tied for first in their division, with three games to go. But the Rams have the better interdivisional record, and by scoring a touchdown on the last play of the game, they also have an edge over the 49ers in total score for the two games they have played, the 49ers having won in Los Angeles in October 20-6. With both teams having 7-3-1 records, these factors could have a bearing on determining the division title, according to the NFL's complex tie-breaking process, which even the league hasn't fully fathomed.
For the first half it looked as if San Francisco would repeat its earlier win. Although he was under relentless pressure from the Ram front four, John Brodie still managed to complete nine of 18 passes for 108 yards; more important, he found running room for the big 49er backs—Ken Willard and Doug Cunningham—outside the Ram flanks, and by virtue of a nine-yard Brodie to Gene Washington touchdown pass, the 49ers led 13-6 at halftime.
But, appropriately enough, as the sun broke through so did Los Angeles, and magnificently. The Rams adjusted their defense and virtually shut Brodie out. "We were playing pass defense in the first half and they were running more than we had expected," George Allen said after the game. The Ram coach was sitting on an equipment truck in the Los Angeles dressing room, sipping a soft drink. His voice was hoarse and uneven from excitement and strain. "In the second half," he said, "we used an odd line more, with a man playing over the center, and we strung the defense out wider. That contained their wide stuff and we still got pressure on Brodie. We never did sack him, but he never had a lot of time to throw, either. This was the biggest win in the five years I've been with the Rams. We beat them in their own backyard, and that means more, too."
The three Ram touchdowns were scored by Willie Ellison on bursts of one, two and eight yards. On each occasion Ellison replaced Larry Smith, and Allen was asked if Ellison was his touchdown specialist. Allen smiled and shook his head. "No," he said. "Smith did a very fine job. But he has had a bad leg, and it just happened that he was running out of gas at the end of the drives. And Willie is a fine runner, too. We gave three game balls today and he got one. Joe Scibelli got one in the offensive line, and Jim Nettles got one in the secondary."
Nettles came in to replace regular Cornerback Clancy Williams, who had injured his knee. Nettles responded to the challenge by intercepting two passes, one of which set up the second touchdown. The other came when Brodie decided, unwisely, to pass for a first down on fourth and two from the Los Angeles 44. There were two minutes left to play in the third period and the 49ers trailed by only three points, but the momentum they lost on that misplay was never regained, and from then on the Rams dominated the game.
With the outside lanes shut off to his running attack and with the rush hindering his passing game, Brodie couldn't generate a consistent attack. The 49ers had run for 100 yards in the first half, complementing their 108 yards passing; in the second half they gained but 25 yards on the ground and 52 in the air.
"Our defense was designed to keep the pressure on Brodie all the time," said Deacon Jones, Los Angeles' All-Pro defensive end, who usually did just that. "The 49ers have a very fine offensive line, and John keeps his backs in to block a lot, so sometimes it feels like you're rushing against a seven-man line, "cause they're very big backs. But we ran a million stunts on them and we kept after him and we made him throw too fast and too short and too long."
Jones sliced adhesive tape from his ankles and shook his head. "Now what are they gonna say about us getting too old?" he asked. "They're always talking about how old we are. Hell, a football player don't really reach his prime until he's 30. Take me. I didn't know what I was doing for a long time. I played flashy, made two or three big plays everybody saw, but nobody saw the times I got beat. Now I'm older and I'm a complete football player, and I don't make those foolish mistakes anymore."
Jack Pardee, who plays corner linebacker, calls the Rams' defensive signals and has three years' seniority on Jones, walked by and patted him on the shoulder. "There's a man been in this league 13 years and I wouldn't trade him for any linebacker in football," Jones said. "Like I wouldn't want any other tackle but Merlin Olsen playing next to me, neither. With guys like that, you know what they're gonna do all the time, and you know they ain't about to goof, and you can go ahead and do your thing the best way you can. We ain't old. We're mature."