As memories go, 12-10 games usually measure up well against dental appointments and tax audits as events better forgotten than remembered. What was so different about the Rams' Superdome victory over the Saints on Sunday was not what happened on the field but what almost happened. Not passes caught as much as passes almost caught. Not points scored as much as emotions scarred.
"It was a game of nerve," John Robinson would say later.
It was a fumble nearly returned for a score, a tailback barely turned away at the goal line. It was the best game Jim Everett never threw a touchdown pass in. It was "what ifs" and "almosts" and "could'ves" that made this game the game, all packed into 60 minutes before a sellout crowd with only a share of the NFC West lead up for grabs.
There would be the redemption of Aaron Cox, the Ram rookie who dropped 3 critical passes in the beginning but held on to the most important one in the end.
There was the psychological game within the game, Robinson selling his team all week on its general ineptitude at stopping the run after a 21-point victory, of all things. The Rams answered by holding New Orleans to 33 yards rushing.
There were kicks made, yes--4 by Mike Lansford--the eventual game-winner from 30 yards out with 8:35 left, but almost more intriguing was the field goal never attempted by Morten Andersen, who was left lurking on the sideline as time expired.
"We get the ball back with 4 minutes to go and we're up by 2 points," safety Johnnie Johnson said. "And in the backs of everyone's mind we know that Morton Andersen is sitting over there on the sidelines. You know he can hit it from 50, 55 yards."
The Rams, who managed just 6 points in 3 trips inside the Saints' 20-yard line in the first half, were almost begging Andersen to win it in the end.
But he never had the chance, and the Rams held on, thanks in great part to huge plays by 3 Ram rookies, all of whom were asked to leave their innocence at the gate.
First up was rookie free agent Brett Faryniarz, the name few would recognize or pronounce correctly (It's Fair-in-YAIRZ).
After Lansford's 4th field goal put the Rams ahead 12-7, the Saints charged down field in a fury, ready to claim the game for themselves.
On 3rd and 3 at the Rams' 10, Faryniarz stepped in, sacking Saint quarterback Bobby Hebert for a 6-yard loss with 4:01 left.
The best the Saints could do was cut the lead to 2, which they did on Andersen's 33-yard field goal.
A strong kickoff and holding penalty pinned the Rams' at their 12. To win they'd need only to run out the remaining 3:51, bothered only by a savage Saint defense and the 10,000-watt crowd surrounding them.
It was there, on second down, that Everett found rookie Robert Delpino in the right flat. Delpino broke loose for 19 yards and a first down.
But more trouble lay ahead, this time on 3rd down at their 34 and the Rams needing 7 yards to keep the ball and probably the game.
The most likely target for such a high-wire pass was veteran Henry Ellard, who had 5 catches for 64 yards in the game--all seemingly critical.
But for this pass, the game's biggest, the Rams would choose to return to the young Cox, who had probably put them in this mess in the first place.
In the 1st quarter, a sure touchdown pass fell from Cox's hands in the end zone. Late in the half, Cox dropped successive passes on 2nd and 3rd downs to kill another Ram drive.
After the last one, the veteran Everett, 25, could be found on the bench consoling Cox, 23.
"I told him 'Aaron, there will be a point in this ballgame that we need you to make a catch," Everett said. "I said 'I have all the confidence in the world you're going to make that catch. Because we're going to need it.' "
That catch came just before the 2-minute warning. It was a "dash" pattern that had Everett rolling to his right and looking for Cox all the way.
The only question on the play was whether Ellard, who was crossing in front of Cox, would deflect the ball thinking it was intended for him.
"I wasn't sure," said Ellard, who just missed tipping the pass. "I kind of knew he (Cox) was around somewhere, but I didn't know where."
Cox made the catch on the right sideline and turned it upfield for a 30-yard gain. The Saints had 2 timeouts remaining, but the Rams had the ball on the New Orleans' 39. After that, the Saints' timeouts only prolonged the inevitable. A 3-yard run for a 1st down by Charles White a few plays later made it official.
"I wanted to get at least one before the game just to show I could still catch the football," Cox said.
Of the drops, he said: "I tried to turn upfield too soon. I should have had all of them. . . . I'm sitting on the sidelines trying to figure out what's going on. I kept thinking about it in the back of my head. Soon as I figured out what it was I calmed down and got back in the groove."
Cox said Everett's pep talk did wonders to restore his confidence.
"He told me to keep my head up," Cox said. "Coach Robinson told me the same thing. He said we're not going to stop throwing it to you, so you're going to have to catch it sooner or later. . . . Everyone on the sideline was telling me it might come down to me late in the game. And that's what happened. To tell you the truth, I was kind of hoping I'd get a chance to make the catch at the end. I'd hate to have to go into next week thinking I'd dropped 3 in a row and didn't catch one."
The game also seemed to be another climb up the professional ladder for Everett, who now seems to be the calm in every Rams' storm.
Against the Saints, Everett made almost every big pass he needed to make. He completed 21 of 34 passes for 243 yards, and that's not counting the counseling sessions with Cox.
"I think Jim Everett played a great football game," Robinson said. "Maybe the best game I've seen him play in terms of the things he had to do."
In the new era of Sack-O-Rama and highlight-film passes, Robinson was afraid his team had lost some of its grit.
Sunday was a reconfirmation of attitudes lost.
"The game is who keeps fighting," he said. "It's the guy's nerve that decides it . . . the physical part of the game. Charlie White's run on 3rd down, he needed a 1st and got it. Brett Faryniarz. That's the game. Not the other stuff. That's the game. It goes both sides. I sometimes get upset when you see these kinds of games, no one talks about Brett Faryniarz or Charlie White or the surge of the line in the 4th quarter."
The Rams take victories here seriously. They hadn't won in New Orleans since 1984. They've still only scored 1 touchdowns here in 4 years.
So that's why a game with a scoring summary of Lansford field goals--37, 18, 47 and 30 yards--is a big deal. You think kickers aren't competitive?
Lansford read what they were saying about him in the local papers, more or less how he couldn't hold Morten Andersen's tee?
"In the pregame warm-up, I kicked a 57-yarder," he said. "I pick out a drunk (behind the goal posts) before every kick. I say, 'Well buddy, you're the guy I'm kicking it to, so enjoy it.' "
And such was the game played on needles and pins.