Friday, November 18, 2011
The Team That Always Let You Down
They say that the closest bond between fans and a team occurs not when the team wins a championship, but rather when it comes achingly close and falls just short. I’ve been there.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I was a fan of the Dodgers and the Rams. There was a decade, the 1970s, when the Rams tormented their fans beyond endurance. Along with Pittsburgh, Dallas, Oakland and Miami, the Rams were one of the NFL’s elite teams that decade, with a defense arguably as good as the fabled Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. The Rams were also the only team on the list not to win a Super Bowl that decade.
How did they fail? Let me count the ways.
• After the 1976 season they traveled to Minnesota to face the Vikings in the NFC Championship game. With the temperature near zero, the Rams took the opening kickoff and burned half the first quarter on a drive that took them to a fourth and goal from the Minnesota six-inch line. As they attempted a field goal, one of the linemen lost his footing on an icy patch of turf, allowing a defender to come through and block the kick, which was returned 99 yards for a touchdown. Final: 24-13, Minnesota.
• The following year the Rams hosted a much weaker Viking team in Los Angeles, where weather shouldn’t be a factor. When I turned on the TV set to watch, the first sound I heard was Dick Enberg saying, “It’s pouring rain at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.” Three and a half inches fell during the game. Final score in that slopfest: 14-7, Minnesota.
• In 1978 the Rams handily beat the Dallas Cowboys in the regular season and hosted the NFC championship game in Los Angeles. At halftime it was a 0-0 tie, but the Rams had lost their first and second-string quarterbacks and every running back on the roster to injury. In the second half, the third-string quarterback tried handing off to a defensive back who hadn’t been asked to be a ball carrier since high school. Final: Dallas 28, Rams 0.
• Finally, the 1979 team, with only a 9-7 record, made it to the Super Bowl. The Rams were 11-point underdogs to the Steelers, but led 19-17 after three quarters. Terry Bradshaw completed a long touchdown pass to John Stallworth, literally inches over the outstretched fingers of Ram defender Pat Thomas, and the Rams choked in the fourth quarter. Final, 31-19, Pittsburgh.
After that, the Rams were no longer an elite team. They were good during most of the 1980s but played in the same division as the San Francisco 49ers, who were winning four Super Bowls that decade. A wild-card berth and a quick exit were about all a fan could hope for.
In the 1990s, they ceased to be even that good. When the team moved to St. Louis in the second half of the decade, I officially terminated my fanhood. A California man, born and bred, simply can not root for a Midwestern team as his first choice.
Then in 1999, out of nowhere, lightning struck. Backup quarterback Kurt Warner paired with offensive coordinator Mike Martz to produce The Greatest Show on Turf, a passing game that shredded defenses and took the Rams, the St. Louis Rams, to a 13-3 regular season record and a Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans, 23-17.
During the season Sports Illustrated ran a cover of Warner with the headline, “Who Is This Guy?” My question was where was he in the 1970s, when the Rams were a good quarterback away from a Super Bowl win every year? Life’s a funny old dog, never more so than for the sports fan or team.