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L.A. Gets A New Leading Man
E.M. Swift
May 10, 1982
Owner Georgia Frontiere recast her Rams by trading two high draft picks to Baltimore for superstar Quarterback Bert Jones
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May 10, 1982

L.a. Gets A New Leading Man

Owner Georgia Frontiere recast her Rams by trading two high draft picks to Baltimore for superstar Quarterback Bert Jones

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There were two possible reactions to the trade that turned Baltimore Colt Quarterback Bert Jones into a Los Angeles Ram last week, and, within 48 hours of the deal, each had been succinctly expressed by a relatively objective observer—Archie Manning, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, and a fairly large gray bird that dwells in Georgia Frontiere's backyard. The bird, thought to be a mockingbird...well, we'll get to him later. First to Manning, who was with Jones the night the trade was made.

That was Monday, April 26, the eve of the NFL draft. Jones desperately wanted out of Baltimore, where he had played for nine years, and Los Angeles desperately wanted a quarterback of Jones's stature. The snag was that the Colts were asking for the Rams' two first-round draft choices, the fourth and 14th picks overall, in exchange for Jones, a price the Rams considered too high. At around 9 p.m. (E.S.T.) Ram owner Frontiere reached Colt owner Robert Irsay at dinner—Irsay was in conversation with his front-office staff about the intractability of Madame Ram—to say she was willing to compromise. The Rams would give the Colts, who were 2-14 last season, their first pick in the first round and first pick in the second round (the 34th in the draft) in exchange for the 30-year-old Jones. After some discussion, Irsay accepted. (The next day the Colts drafted Ohio State Quarterback Art Schlichter and Florida State Punter Rohn Stark with the Rams' choices.)

The next step was to get in touch with Jones, who lives in Ruston, La. Jones had played out his option with the Colts last year and therefore wasn't under contract. According to NFL rules teams cannot trade the rights to players, they must trade the contracts of players. Therefore Jones had to be signed to a Baltimore contract before his trade to the Rams would be sanctioned by the league, and that had to be done before the draft started the next day at 10 a.m. (E.S.T), less than an hour after dawn on the West Coast. When the Rams called Jones's home to find out how soon he could get to Los Angeles, they learned that, by utter coincidence, Jones was already en route. He had to appear with a group of NFL quarterbacks for a promotional picture for a shoe company the next day. Around 10:45 p.m. Jones's plane landed, and, responding to an airport page, he called Frontiere at home. She gave the elated Jones the news and told him that Ram Assistant General Manager Jack Faulkner would meet him at his hotel with a Baltimore contract.

"He was standing in line to register when I got there," Faulkner recalls. "Bert started yelling 'Yippie!' and 'Yahoo!' and all this. He hugged me, and all these businessmen in line were looking at these two queers dancing around. It was really something. Then I saw Archie Manning, and I said to him, 'Meet the newest Ram.' 'What? Really?' Manning says. When he saw we were serious, he told Bert, 'You lucky son of a bitch.' "

Lucky, indeed, for if there was one team that Jones hoped to be traded to, it was the Rams. "The best thing that could have happened to me, did happen," said Jones. "Georgia wants a winner, and what Georgia wants, I'm going to try to get her."

The Rams have made the playoffs eight of the last nine years, but the single exception was the most recent, when they finished 6-10, mainly because of a woeful offense. The Rams did something about that on the day of the draft by trading for Houston Tight End Mike Barber and using their second first-round pick for 6', 210-pound Richmond Running Back Barry Redden. But those moves were eclipsed by the addition of Jones, who makes the Rams an instant Super Bowl contender, provided he remains healthy. Jones was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1976, and he led the Colts to three straight AFC East titles from 1975 to '77. But injuries to his throwing shoulder kept him out of 25 games in '78 and '79. Jones says he's 100% again, and the record of the past two years supports him—more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns each season and starts in 30 of Baltimore's 32 games. Detractors point to the Colts' dismal record over that span (9-23) and say that Jones cannot carry a team as he once could. Says one NFC general manager, "In the personnel files of most NFL teams, Bert Jones is listed as a player of declining skills." But critics should also examine the Colt defense, which was football's worst last year, allowing an average of 33.3 points and 424.6 yards per game.

Certainly the Rams feel Jones can carry them back to the top of the NFL. "If he stays as productive as he's been," says Coach Ray Malavasi, "there's just no way we could've passed him up. The man's got experience, he's a team man and a leader-type. This isn't like getting Namath or Pastorini."

The Rams, to be sure, have a history of trying to solve their problems by signing big-name quarterbacks who are over the hill and slightly beyond the fringe—Broadway Joe in 1977 and Dan Pastorini last year. Those men were taken aboard because of the chronically unstable status of the position in the past 10 years. In four years, 1973 through '76, for instance, the Rams made the playoffs four times and each time started a different quarterback: John Hadl, James Harris, Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden. When Vince Ferragamo took the Rams to the Super Bowl in 1979, then led them to an 11-5 record in '80 when they were the top offensive team in the NFC, second only to the San Diego Chargers in the entire league, it appeared they had found their man. Until Ferragamo jumped to the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. He was sorely missed. In 1981, with Haden, Pastorini, Jeff Rutledge and Jeff Kemp alternating at quarterback between injuries, the Rams plummeted to 24th in the league in total offense and to 26th in passing. The offensive line deserved much of the blame, certainly, as opponents' sacks rose from 29 in 1980 to 50 last year. But the top priority for the 1982 season was to find an experienced quarterback. That came down to getting Jones or re-signing Ferragamo, who had been a bust in Canada. Said Malavasi, "Vince has had some great years and Bert's had some great years, but Bert's had more of them, and in the back of your mind you have to wonder what happened to Vince last year in Montreal."

Jones was available because a yearlong dispute with Irsay had been irreconcilable. It started last fall when Irsay, according to Jones, reneged on a verbal agreement to sign him to a contract calling for $750,000 a year for four years, a sum that would have made Jones the highest-paid player in the game. As the Colts lost game after game, Jones became what one observer called Baltimore's "designated scapegoat." On Nov. 8, in a 41-14 loss to the New York Jets in Baltimore, Jones screamed at Halfback Curtis Dickey for failing to block, and the incident eventually took on racial overtones, which were fanned by the press. The implication that Jones had been racially motivated has been widely refuted. He grew up a few miles from Grambling, La., and Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson is a good friend and frequent houseguest of Dub Jones, Bert's father, the former Cleveland Brown receiver. In fact, as recently as March 29, it was Dub and Bert whom Robinson called upon to go to the Shreveport Airport to pick up Jim Brown, who was coming in for a Grambling athletic banquet.

Nonetheless, the Colt front office did nothing to refute the charges of racism. "The only people who came to my defense were my black teammates and former teammates," Jones told The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell last January. "The day after the story broke, Joe Washington [the ex-Colt running back now with the Redskins] called me and said, 'How're you doing, you ol' racist?' The thing that hurt the most was that the Colts didn't say anything to defend my reputation. Nothing's ever bothered me much more than that because it was so unfair and untrue. I really feel that the Colts promoted a negative viewpoint toward me all season. Four years ago, if I'd gotten mad at a player during a game—and I did lots of times—people would say, 'What a feisty competitor Jones is.' This year it was, 'Jones is a prima donna, a team wrecker.' "

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