Robert Staton Waterfield probably was the best all-round football player ever turned out in California. He could run, punt, pass and play defense, and no less an authority than Don Hutson once observed that Waterfield was the hardest safety man he ever had to evade on a pass pattern. Waterfield led the Cleveland Rams to their first and only world pro championship. He accorded the same courtesy to the Los Angeles Rams.
But for all his virtues as an athlete, Waterfield is in the unenviable position of having to prove himself. Since January, he has been coach of the Los Angeles Rams, a job he did not seek and possibly did not even want. The $25,000 he will get this year is considerably less than the income he can expect from his investments and his ventures into movie production. The criticism he can expect is considerably more than he would have had in any other job.
For the Rams are the sorriest story in pro football. Gifted with brilliant backs, strong, quick linemen and heavy ends, they have been selected annually as the team that will finally break through in the NFL race. Just as regularly, they have fallen flat.
Before the first day of practice this summer there were those who said that Waterfield could not succeed. Their chief point was Waterfield's character. He is a stoic. Indeed, his reserve is so monumental it tends at times almost to introversion. A friend of Waterfield's, one of the very few who can lay claim to that distinction, says he has never seen Waterfield slap anyone on the back. "You become a friend," the person said, "only after he has stepped around you and looked you over for years. Even then, you better live up to what he expects."
The Rams, Waterfield's preseason detractors say, are not Waterfield's friends. They are a warring, smarting pack of prima donnas who need a buddy to pat them on their sensitive heads. Waterfield has not done this, but he has realized what the team's real needs are—a quarterback and some linemen. The incumbent passer, Billy Wade, is given to dancing out of his protective pocket in pursuit of fancy long gains. Too often his blockers are not sure which way they should knock the onrushing defenders and as a result Wade often surrenders ground in generous hunks. He might give away less if the blockers were better, but many of these went to the (then) Chicago Cardinals in exchange for Ollie Matson, the superb halfback.
Despite these shortcomings, the Rams won some exhibition games and hope stirred in their old and faithful followers. An astonishing 47,448 turned out in the Coliseum last Friday night to await the old Waterfield magic in the season's opener against the (now) St. Louis Cardinals. The Rams were 6½-point favorites. Before the game ended, Waterfield looked more like Custer at Little Big Horn than a magician. His team was a shambles all around him, the field littered with their blocked bodies. The Rams were lucky to score three times. They had the ball barely long enough to do that, and the Cardinals had to use their imaginations to hold their total down as they won 43-21. The Ram defenders, notably hapless Jack Morris in the secondary, made Cardinal Halfback John Crow (Texas A&M) and End Sonny Randle (Virginia) look like All-Pros. Indeed, Randle may very well be. Wade got dragged under for a safety once, was thrown for huge losses constantly by Frank Fuller and Luke Owens. It was clear the team needed a Waterfield on the field more than it did a pat on the head.
HOPEFUL WATERFIELD AT START OF JOB