It is indicative of the awesome strength of the Los Angeles Rams that those who root against them talk about John Hadl as though the physical condition of the 34-year-old quarterback was their one weak spot. "If Hadl gets hurt," says a wistful San Francisco 49er fan, "they might not be so tough. They lose him, they could be in trouble."
Maybe, but Hadl is tougher than a boiled combat boot; he last sat out a game with an injury when he was in the eighth grade. And he operates now behind an offensive line more protective than a housemothers' convention. Hadl aside, the Rams are glutted with enough talent to breeze to their division title with Sam Yorty playing quarterback. With Hadl on the job, the Rams are a leading contender for the NFL championship.
Chuck Knox, a businesslike technician, directed his team to a 12-2 regular-season record last year, his first as head coach, and could have been undefeated but for three points which added up to two losses. The Rams were first in the league offense and were first in defense, too. They led everybody in scoring and rushed for 2,925 yards, the third-highest total in NFL history.
Knox left himself with a tough act to follow but he says, "What we did a year ago is a thing of the past. You can't 21 dream about what you did in the past. The only things that count in this business are what you do today and what you will do tomorrow."
What the Rams did well in '73, they firmly expect to do again in '74. "I think we'll have as good or better a season than last year," says Hadl, "if we stay healthy and keep our heads. We're more mature now that we've been down the road together a little bit."
"We're a better football team at this point than a year ago," Knox says, "but our goals are still the same. We try to go out every day and have an excellent practice. We try to be a little better as a team and as individuals than we were yesterday. We constantly strive to upgrade the individual performance levels of our players. You do that and the winning takes care of itself."
The upgrading philosophy undoubtedly is sound but most Los Angeles fans would settle for mere repetition from Hadl, who was named NFC Player of the Year after he threw 22 touchdown passes and, in marked contrast to most of his seasons in San Diego, only 11 interceptions. His favorite target in 1973 was Harold Jackson, a 5'10" speedster whose receptions accounted for 874 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Rams' basic strength is a running attack that in camp looked like something out of Patton. Lawrence McCutcheon set a club record in 1973 with 1,097 yards and Jim Bertelsen had 854. Backing up that fine pair were Tony Baker, a short-yardage zealot who scored seven of the team's 18 touchdowns rushing, and Rob Scribner, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Most coaches would be ecstatic with that running talent, but Knox really had too much, what with Les Josephson, the Rams' third-leading rusher of all time, and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti, their No. 1 draft choice. Cappelletti looked remarkably impressive in the exhibition season, causing one Ram official to say, "He's good enough to play this game for the next 10 years." Knox also added a bull elephant to his corral when the poetically named William Cullen Bryant, a 227-pound body-builder, was switched from defensive back and gained 117 yards on 11 carries in his first game at his new position. For whatever it's worth, Bryant wears No. 32 on his jersey, just like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson.
Defensively, the Rams yielded but 178 points last season. Led by the front four of Jack Youngblood, Merlin Olsen, Larry Brooks and Fred Dryer, they dropped the quarterback 45 times. Los Angeles intercepted 20 passes and allowed but 10 touchdowns through the air. The secondary, led by Dave Elmendorf, should be even better after the year's experience, and Knox has almost an excess of linebackers.