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A LESSON FROM RAMS HISTORY: DEJA BLUE ALL OVER AGAIN

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By Chuck Roland

Over sixty thousand fans stood cheering as the new look Rams charged onto the field for their 1973 home opener against division rivals the Atlanta Falcons. Gone were the snow white unis of the Fearsome Foursome era, replaced by a bolder blue and yellow color scheme that harkened back to the glory years of the mid-forties and early-fifties when the Rams won their first two world championships.

Gone, too, were the seasoned veterans who for so many years had defined the Rams’ identity: MVP quarterback Roman Gabriel, sometimes referred to as the world’s biggest Filipino, was now calling signals for the Philadelphia Eagles; Deacon Jones, the man many consider the greatest Ram ever, had been shipped unceremoniously to San Diego; and the Rams line backing corps that helped terrorize opponents in the late-sixties had migrated East with George Allen and formed the nucleus of “The Over the Hill Gang,” which led the Washington Redskins to its first Super Bowl appearance in January 1973.

Carroll Rosenbloom, the former Baltimore Colts owner who had orchestrated the largest trade deal in NFL history—the entire Colts roster was swapped for the entire Rams roster—had relocated to Southern California with his general manager, Don Klosterman, and begun in earnest to rebuild his new team. One of his first acts as Rams owner was to fire second year coach Tommy Prothro after two mediocre seasons and replace him with Detroit Lions assistant Chuck Knox, a native of western Pennsylvania, where football isn’t a sport but a religion.

Under Coach Knox the Rams would set new standards for divisional dominance and playoff futility. The team he assembled won five straight division crowns and won two more under his successor, Ray Malavasi. Year after year the Rams would dominate their division with perennial all pros such as Merlin Olsen, Isaiah Robertson, and Jack Youngblood sounding the battle charge. But the Rams were habitually outplayed or outcoached by superior foes when the playoffs came around. Even though they usually fielded exciting teams stockpiled with amazing talent, the Rams were always bettered by their two strongest conference rivals, the Cowboys and Vikings. Six times the Rams lost playoff games to at least one of these teams in the seventies; not until Ray Malavasi replaced Knox as head coach and Carroll Rosenbloom had passed away did the Rams finally earn a Super Bowl berth, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19 in January 1980. A decade of frustration for Rams fans had come to an inglorious end. Heading into the 2013 season the Rams have methodically rebuilt their roster with a mixture of veterans and dynamic rookies who promise to improve on last years’ respectable 7-8-1 record. Optimism is running high at Rams Park for a team that just a few seasons ago would have gone 0-16 if not for a gallant twenty-five yard touchdown run by Steven Jackson—a run that not only sealed the Rams’ lone victory in 2009 against the Detroit Lions, but also ended a humbling seventeen game losing streak. Most pundits agree that the Rams are building something special and are on the verge of becoming a true playoff contender under Les Snead and Jeff Fisher’s guidance. The biggest obstacles in the Rams quest for the Lombardy trophy, however, actually reside within their own division: the 49ers and Seahawks. Both teams have shown no signs of complacency and have improved since last season through free agency and shrewd drafting. Most pre-season power polls rightfully place them in the top echelon, while the Rams are usually lingering in the bottom third of the ratings.

Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are leading teams that have been built properly and certainly deserve their moment(s) in the sun. The Rams may have dominated within their division last year, but they won’t catch anybody by surprise this time around. As the Rams mature and gain credibility throughout the league this season they more than likely will still finish third in their division—which is understandable considering the competition. But time has a habit of leveling the playing field. Teams don’t always age gracefully: high draft picks turn into busts, veterans lose a step, and free agents abandon ship when lured away by ridiculously high contracts; other lesser teams once fielding rosters overloaded with young draftees and a few productive veterans eventually mature and can make an unprecedented Super Bowl run.

When The Rams finally outplayed their two biggest rivals in the seventies, the Cowboys and Vikings, and reached the Super Bowl at the end of the 1979 season, they had endured almost ten years of frustration. Watching from the sidelines as the Rams provided endless footage for other teams’ highlight reels was a Los Angeles native who would eventually play on defense for the USC Trojans in the same stadium as the Rams. His name was Jeff Fisher.

Coach Fisher knows Rams history. He remembers the great players, the disappointments, the crushing defeats. Thirty years after the Rams’ heartbreaking 23-20 loss to the Vikings in the Western Conference title game in 1969, and twenty years after the Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV, the Rams were able to redeem themselves in the eyes of the fans who had followed them since the late-sixties by winning Super Bowl XXXIV. Ironically, that victory came against the Titans–coached by Jeff Fisher, who suffered the double indignity of losing a Super Bowl and not being able to fully enjoy his childhood team’s first Super Bowl victory and third world championship.

Fisher is now in his second year at the helm of the Rams and is making a run for what he hopes will be his first Super Bowl championship as head coach. The Rams organization is willing to take chances to do whatever it can to build a winner. And like Dick Vermeil before him, Fisher has the sting of a previous Super Bowl loss to help motivate him to that pivotal moment when he can hoist a championship trophy in celebration. With time and patience, we’ll experience that victory along with Fisher and the whole Rams organization.

 

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