The way it seems to be going with the Los Angeles Rams these days, it's no fun unless they scare their coach, their fans and themselves half to death before winning. Earlier this season, losing to Green Bay 14-13 with less than a minute to play, the Rams won on a Bruce Gossett field goal. The next week they let Atlanta take an early 14-0 lead before waking up. Two weeks ago they were headed for a disastrous loss to San Francisco when, with 17 seconds left, Gossett saved them again with a field goal that tied the game. Finally, last week against the New York Giants, the Rams trailed 14-0 at halftime, surged ahead 21-14, let the Giants tie it up with 42 seconds left and then won it 24-21 on still another Gossett field goal with four seconds to play.
Oddly, victory was less essential to the Rams than to the Giants, whose defeat all but killed what little chance they had to catch Dallas in the Capitol Division. Division titles are decided on a won-lost percentage, tie games not included. Since the Rams and the Baltimore Colts have lost only one game each and since they meet at the end of the season, the team that wins that game—assuming no further losses before then—will win the Coastal Division title.
The victory was essential for the Rams' ego, however, and it was a satisfying one for George Allen, the young coach who has lifted the team out of mediocrity in three years. Against the Giants, the Rams produced a flat, uninspired first half chock-full with errors of execution. The Giants scored two touchdowns and both were the results of gifts.
The first came after Eddie Meador, who usually drops a football once every two years, dropped one twice in two seconds. He fumbled a punt, recovered it, fumbled again and saw it scooped up by the Giants' McKinley Boston on the Ram six-yard line. Fran Tarkenton cashed in on that misplay with a three-yard pass to Tucker Frederickson, who sneaked out of the Giant backfield totally unnoticed and was wide open in the end zone.
Curiously, Ron Smith, the other Ram safety, duplicated Meador's miscue on the next Giant punt and again Boston recovered, this time on the Ram 27. There were only 27 seconds left in the quarter, and Smith might have considered the possibility of letting the punt alone. Given a second break, Tarkenton hit Tight End Aaron Thomas with a 22-yard touchdown pass.
Throughout the first half the Giants contained the stodgy Ram offense with superior speed and opportunistic play by their secondary defenders. They intercepted two Roman Gabriel passes, and their surprisingly good line held the Ram runners to 35 yards. But the Giants are a young team, and like most young teams they break down sooner or later under stress. They began to unravel in the second half, and the Rams took advantage of their mistakes.
The Giants lost their poise in the first minute of the second half. The Rams, playing without Bernie Casey, their best receiver, had Wendell Tucker, a Kansas City Chief dropout, playing flanker. Tucker has speed but a reputation for hands like Ping-Pong paddles.
Gabriel, obviously discarding the rather pedestrian game plan which had produced nothing but monotony, decided to gamble on Tucker's Ping-Pong paddles. He sent the youngster down on a deep post pattern against Scott Eaton, the Giant left cornerback. Tucker went straight down the sideline, broke suddenly toward the middle and was three steps in front of Eaton at the Giant 25-yard line when Gabriel's pass came down. The ball was a trifle overthrown but Tucker stretched, made a remarkable fingertip catch and raced in for a 60-yard touchdown.
That play, coupled with a rash of needless penalties that kept them in deep difficulty most of the second half, destroyed the Giants' fragile composure. The penalties were foolish ones—piling on, tripping and clipping—and after one piling-on penalty, the culprit, 25-year-old Willie Young, compounded his error by protesting so vehemently that he was kicked out of the game. Since the Giant offensive line is not deep, his loss was a serious one, and the Rams scored again the next time they got the ball. Gabriel took it in himself from 19 yards out.
"The play was a pass-run option," he said later. "I was looking for Jack Snow, but when I saw the hole open I took it." He bowled over a hapless Giant defender near the goal line, something he can do, since he stands 6'3½" and weighs 225.
Just as the fourth period started, the Rams scored a third touchdown to go ahead, and it appeared that the Giants were in full flight. But by now the Rams' massive front four—David Jones, Roger Brown, Merlin Olsen and Gregg Schumacher—were beginning to trip over their tongues after a long afternoon spent in comic pursuit of Tarkenton, who at 190 pounds seldom runs over anyone but can leave you feeling slightly silly. In a peculiar stop-and-go march in which he once gained 20 yards on a scramble, Tarkenton finally brought the Giants back even with an 11-yard pass to Thomas with 42 seconds left to play. The fans who began to leave the Coliseum should have stayed—or at least told Gabriel that the game was over.
When the Rams got the ball at their 30-yard line after the kickoff, there were 41 seconds left to play. The Giants went into a prevent defense, using a three-man rush, and Gabriel promptly picked it apart, taking the team to the New York 29. He hit Mike Dennis on a 17-yard sideline pass, and twice he called draws with Tommy Mason carrying the ball through the middle of the attenuated—and astonished—Giant line. Finally, in came Gossett and the Rams had won another laugher.
Although the victory kept the Rams virtually locked with the Colts, it could hardly have made them overconfident. Against a Giant defense which has been so completely rebuilt in the last two years that just two starters remain from 1966, the Rams could move only sporadically. Gabriel completed nine of 20 passes for 154 yards, but he had two interceptions. The Ram ground game, against a defense not notable for invulnerability to a good running team, was barely adequate. Neither Dick Bass, who has recovered from the injury which slowed him for a long time, nor Willie Ellison, who played the whole game at halfback, are game-breaking runners. They grind out small, steady gains, but neither is enough of a threat to distort a defense.
With Bernie Casey out, Gabriel's corps of receivers was unimpressive. Of the nine passes Gabriel completed, five were to his running backs, and the only really significant catch made by a spread end or a flanker was the 60-yard touchdown pass Tucker caught. It was his only catch of the day.
After the game, George Allen sipped a paper cup full of milk to soothe his ulcer and talked in a hoarse voice.
"When the season started," said the Ram coach, "I was the only milk drinker on the team. Now about half the guys on the team are drinking it. It seems like we have to come from behind almost every week to win. We call the second half the Rams' half, but it's tough. It shows a lot of character. At the half today, we figured we only had 30 minutes of life left, what with Baltimore winning. We had to win. We're not playing great football but we're getting by, and one day we'll put it all together. Each week a different guy makes the big play. Today it was Wendell Tucker, with Casey out."
Allen can draw some consolation when he remembers that in 1967 the Rams survived a flat spell in midseason which saw them lose one game and play two ties on successive weekends, then explode into violence to overwhelm their opponents in the last month of the year.
They need much the same kind of regeneration now. Their next three opponents are the Vikings at Minnesota, and the Chicago Bears and the Colts in Los Angeles. At least two of those teams—Minnesota and Baltimore—will surely be tougher than the Giants. If the Rams do not raise the level of their play for Minnesota this week, the Baltimore game on the last Sunday of the season could be meaningless. If that game does decide the Coastal Division championship, it will require a superhuman effort by the whole Ram team to win it.
As he has done several times this year, Bruce Gossett kicks a field goal in the final seconds against New York to bail the Rams out of trouble.