The Los Angeles Rams have been spending most of the 1976 season looking for a quarterback. Or rather, they have spent most of the season looking at—and alternately rejecting—their three available quarterbacks. Last Sunday in Candlestick Park was to be just another afternoon in the continuing search. But as it turned out, the Rams probably settled for good, and wisely enough, on the youngster Pat Haden, and the fact that it happened in a game that was about as stimulating as a three-legged race should make no difference at all to the team that has finally taken control of the NFC's Western Division.
The much-maligned Rams of Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, General Manager Don Klosterman, Coach Chuck Knox and Quarterbacks (choose one, everybody else has) James Harris, Ron Jaworski and Haden whipped up on the 49ers by the score of 23-3, thereby avenging an earlier 16-0 Monday night embarrassment by the same club. But in what was supposed to be their most emotional day of the year, the 49ers were so ineffective that the Rams could have won on the basis of a single play—a play that certifies why Pat Haden is their man of destiny.
The six points Haden produced on his one touchdown pass of the game would have been more than enough to defeat the uncertain and tentative and altogether mysterious Jim Plunkett, who has simply not become the quarterback the 49ers thought he would when they got him from New England.
Plunkett does not throw the football the way Jim Plunkett used to, and he admits it. He wasn't even throwing it very well when the 49ers were 6-1 and looking like the kind of surprise team that his old New England Patriots have become. The 49ers are a 6-5 team now, and after Plunkett could not even hand off the ball with sufficient authority to punch the 49ers in for the touchdown that would have put them ahead of the Rams at half-time, and after he threw an awkward interception to Monte Jackson to give the Rams another courtesy touchdown, he was benched so Coach Monte Clark could take a look at two of his substitute quarterbacks, Marty Domres and Scott Bull.
But back to Pat Haden, a young man—a Rhodes Scholar, no less—who looks as though he invented breakfast cereal. He made spectacular things happen when he was at USC, and his conversation is overloaded with "yes sirs" and "thank yous." It is hardly any secret that Rosenbloom and Klosterman have wanted him to be the Rams' No. 1 quarterback since early September. The problem was, the Ram players wanted to go along with James Harris, a fine fellow and all that, but not as "electric" as Haden. And, mainly, not as adept at seeing the whole field when looking for receivers.
In the second quarter, following the first of the Rams' four interceptions, Haden drifted back from, strangely enough, the 49ers' 49-yard line in an attempt to complete his first pass of the day—he completed only three of eight all told. The pocket broke down and Haden had to improvise. When the Rams' pocket had collapsed in last month's debacle, Harris was sacked 10 times. This time Haden escaped, and suddenly he sailed the football about 60 yards to Ron Jessie in the San Francisco end zone.
The way the Rams' defense performed throughout the afternoon, that improvised Haden bomb to a "secondary" receiver was enough to send them home with a 7-3-1 record. "You can't beat good vision," said Klosterman upstairs. But with thoughts of that 16-0 rout implanted in their helmets, the Rams added 17 more points for effect in the third quarter. Compounding the 49ers' miseries, they also lost their monster defensive end, Cedric Hardman, for the rest of the season with a broken right ankle.
The quarterback situation has been touchy and difficult for everyone connected with the Rams. Even the players have been torn between sentiment (for Harris) and professionalism (for Haden). Jaworski has become all but forgotten, and he is naturally playing out his option.
"I've wanted to play," Pat Haden said last week, "but not under these circumstances. James is a super person and a good friend. He's really been helpful."
"What's wrong with the Rams" has been Topic A all year in Los Angeles. But as Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen said, if you took away just one play from a couple of games the Rams have lost, they would have won them. And with a 9-2 record (it could even be 10-1 without stretching the imagination), no one would be concerned. Another Ram, who requested anonymity, said, "It's been psychologically tough on us, not knowing who the quarterback is. If the team were to vote, Harris would get the most votes, and Coach Knox knows this. That's why he's been slow to make the change. But we all like Pat. He's a great kid. For a while there, we just wished the season would get over with. But with the playoffs in view now, I think you'll see us become the kind of football team we're capable of being."