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.' "
Soon after Baltimore's season ended, on Dec. 23, Jones filed a grievance against the Colts, saying, in effect, that Irsay had reneged on his verbal contract agreement. Irsay reportedly countered by promising, "I'll kick his ass right out [of Baltimore]. Frank Kush [whom Irsay hired on Dec. 21 to coach the Colts in '82] doesn't like him either, doesn't like his attitude." Irsay has denied he ever said that, but he did say he had sent Jones a letter proposing contract terms more than a month before, and that Jones hadn't responded. As far as he, Irsay, was concerned, that offer no longer stood. The message from management was clear—the Colts would listen to any and all offers from other NFL teams who were interested in Bert Jones.
Later, Jones filed another grievance against the Colts in which he argued that Irsay's disparaging remarks had made it impossible for him to play again in Baltimore and that therefore he should be declared a free agent with no restrictions. On April 12 an arbitrator ruled against Jones in both grievances. Two days later Jones asked to be traded. When the trade was made last week, Kush was asked what the final bone of contention was between the Rams and Colts. "We had no bone," he said. "Ours is all meat. The Rams got the bone."
For his part, Jones was asked what the Colts needed to rebuild the once-proud franchise. "A new owner," he replied.
But it was all hugs and kisses when Jones was introduced to the Los Angeles press last week, and he and Frontiere made a pretty pair indeed as details of the trade were announced. Jones spoke confidently of solving the Ram quarterbacking problems, while Malavasi made the requisite remarks about how Jones and Haden would have to fight for the starting job in training camp. Make no mistake—barring injury, Jones will start. Conspicuously absent in all of this was Ram General Manager Don Klosterman, who no longer wields the influence he did in the years when Frontiere's late husband, the late Carroll Rosenbloom, owned the team. "That 6-10 record pretty much convinced Georgia that she should start taking a more active role in things around here," says one club official. "She listens to everyone's advice, but then she makes the decisions."
"This is the first negotiating I've done from start to finish without anybody's help," Frontiere said, aglow with the triumph of landing Jones. "You see something sometimes that you feel is right for you, and the more you think about it, the more you have to have it. That's what it was like with Bert. You know, everyone likes to brag a little bit about picking up $200 at the races, or whatever. Well, we signed Bert for less than the Colts finally offered him."
Jones, well aware that he can more than make up the difference through endorsements and playoff money, says happily, "I'm here and proud of it. I'd play for a lot less money out here than I would back East." His contract, which was signed at Frontiere's Bel Air guesthouse on Wednesday, will bring Jones an estimated $2 million over five years compared with the Colts' three-year $1.3 million offer. It was negotiated by Bert's older brother, Bill, who jokingly said he got a Rams hat and a horse for his fee. Plus $1.50 in quarters which he won from Bert during the negotiations as they pitched them against a wall.
In the jubilant aftermath of the signing, Jones donned his new Ram jersey, No. 17—his old No. 7 had been worn by Ram Hall of Famer Bob Waterfield and had been retired—and prepared to pose for some pictures. He had just settled under a tree on Frontiere's lovely grounds and was uttering some hoary cliché—"...one thing we all know, you're only as good as you are today...."—when the aforementioned mockingbird unloaded his two cents' worth.
"What's that?" Jones asked, peering up suspiciously. "It wasn't.... Look here on my shoulder."
There on the shoulder of the spanking new jersey lay the dropping. "Good thing we don't believe in omens, eh Bert?" brother Bill said.
Later, as the pictures were finally being taken, Frontiere kept saying, "I want this to look dignified," when she wasn't singing a song about a St. Louis woman who has "got 44 men, I only need one more."
Jones, insisting that his arm was fine, but that he was giving it a complete rest in the off-season, refused to throw for the photographer. "Put your hands on his shoulders, Georgia," the photographer suggested.
"Are you sure this looks dignified?" she said, doing as he asked. "Oh, I just love these big little boys."
Jones grinned his boyish grin. "I definitely fall into that category," he said.
"I can just see the headlines," she said. "BOSS LEANS ON QUARTERBACK AGAIN."
As the photo session was drawing to a close, one of the team's lawyers commented that Georgia was better looking than Bert.
"It used to be I could only take a good picture if I was holding an animal," she said, holding on to Jones.
Jones handed her a football. "Here's the remains of a pig," he said.
Clearly, everyone was in pretty good humor. On the surface, the match of Bert Jones and the L.A. Rams appears to have been made, if not in heaven, at least in Hollywood, where his soap opera good looks could take him far. One longtime friend from Ruston assesses the situation this way: "There are two factors why I think he'll be happy in Los Angeles. First, I think he'll get along fine with that Mrs. Frontiere. Bert's always been a bit of a mama's boy, and with that southern charm, well, he's the type that if a girl brought him home to meet mama, he'd charm her to death. And second, the fans in L.A. are sophisticated enough that he's just another pretty face to them. They're not going to get too excited over Bert Jones, and that'll be fine with him, 'cause he doesn't like all that fuss. He'll do fine there. Why, you watch, Bert will have his footprints in cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater before the end of the year."
And perhaps the Rams will have their first Super Bowl championship and a certain cheeky mockingbird will be eating crow. Who knows? Happy endings are where it's at this year in Tinseltown.