By defeating a bad team on a day when they played badly themselves, the Rams finally proved they are a good football team. This may seem paradoxical, but last season losses to New Orleans, St. Louis and Denver and a tie with Chicago deprived Los Angeles of the championship of the Western Division of the NFC, which was won by the San Francisco 49ers, whom the Rams beat twice.
So last Sunday's 31-26 victory over Houston beneath the shabby roof of the Astrodome is not to be sneered at. As veteran Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen observed, "It wasn't artistic, but we won. The game goes up under the 'W' column, and that's what counts." What really counts is that the rebuilding Rams are in the "W" column four times in four tries, which makes them one of the wonders of the season.
Coach Chuck Knox, who is largely responsible for Los Angeles' resurgence, spent the week before the Houston game trying to convince his Rams that the Oilers were not as bad as their 0-3 record. Although he did not make believers of them, it is to their credit that, playing at about half the proficiency they had displayed in drubbing their first three opponents, they managed to win.
The key to the victory was the ability of Los Angeles—both on offense and defense—to gear itself up in response to crises. When Houston's Jeff Severson returned a punt 74 yards to the Ram eight-yard line in the first quarter, Los Angeles came to life. A face mask infraction advanced Houston to the four. Then Steve Preece, a much-traveled safety, teamed with Jack Reynolds, who is in his first full season at middle linebacker, to stop Fred Willis' sweep for no gain. Next Isiah Robertson, another young linebacker, burst through a block to rack up Quarterback Dan Pastorini's roll-out at the one-yard line. On third down Reynolds and Robertson converged on Bob Gresham to stop him for no gain, so the Oilers were forced to settle for a field goal. They were forced to settle for three more before the game ended.
Meanwhile, the Ram offense, under the conservative direction of John Hadl, a changed quarterback who was known as the Mad Bomber during his years with the San Diego Chargers, played much the same kind of game. It thumped away with running plays until the need for heroics arose, whereupon Hadl loosed three passes for touchdowns.
In the first quarter, on a play fake that had the entire Oiler secondary looking for the run, he threw to Jack Snow for 38 yards and a touchdown, bringing the Rams from a 0-3 deficit lo a 7-3 lead. The Oilers threatened again after Willis carried a screen pass 50 yards to the Ram 28, and again the Ram defense awakened long enough lo blunt the threat. Fred Dryer, the transplanted Giant, teamed with the other defensive end, Jack Youngblood, to harry Pastorini into an incompletion. Then Dryer slipped a block and flattened Gresham on an attempted sweep for a five-yard loss. After the Rams were penalized five yards for being offside. Dryer, Youngblood and second-year Tackle Larry Brooks simply ran over the Houston line, forcing Pastorini to throw another incompletion. Result: another Oiler field goal, making the score 7-6.
Although Houston trailed by only 14-9 early in the second quarter, Los Angeles rallied to lead 31-12 after three periods. This surge was again a matter of performing well when the need arose. Hadl passed only 16 times, but he completed 10 and for the fourth straight game had no interceptions.
"I was never under any pressure," he said afterward. "The offensive line did a great job. Once the Oilers became run-conscious, the passes opened them up. And Jackson ran some great patterns."
Harold Jackson came to Los Angeles in what must be rated as one of the most beneficial trades in NFL history—for the Rams. They got Jackson, a good deep receiver who scored two touchdowns against the Oilers on passes of 15 and 69 yards, plus Tony Baker, a bowling-ball fullback who scored another on a strike of five yards, in exchange for Roman Gabriel. Those two would have been more than adequate recompense, but the Eagles also gave up two first-round draft choices—very choice, since Philadelphia seems likely to finish far down in the standings—and a third-round pick.
The Oilers No. 1 draft selection, John Matuszak, is a formidable man, standing 6'7", weighing 282 pounds and reputedly capable of running 40 yards in 4.8 seconds. Before the Ram game he said he was going to sack Hadl on every down. A measure of the effectiveness of the Ram offensive line, and especially of Center Ken Iman and Guard Tom Mack, was how they manhandled Matuszak. He never got within shouting distance of Hadl, and Mack and Iman shunted him aside regularly when the Ram backs ran in his direction.