Revived, relieved and reluctant to jinx their little run of success by recklessly predicting even greater things, the Rams Sunday settled into their first winning streak of the season calmly and without the normal chortles of victory.
Having lived through their abysmal 3-7 start, they knew better.
Everybody who has watched this team stagger into December knows better than to start plotting rosy playoff scenarios.
Are they back? Are they the poltergeist of this weird NFL season, coming back to haunt the NFC contenders? Or is playing the curiously atrocious Cleveland Browns (2-10) merely a temporary cure for all ills?
Sunday afternoon, after methodically dismantling the Browns, 38-23, all the Rams knew was that a 5-7 record is better than 4-8; and that a loss in a city that knows about wasted seasons would have been tantamount to throwing in the towel for 1990.
They knew because Coach John Robinson, in the days leading up to this game--and after the Rams’ adrenaline-high victory over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday--told them so.
If you can’t beat the Browns....
“What I was trying to say was that we’ve screwed this thing up pretty good before last Sunday,” Robinson said. “This, now, is kind of a last chance to get back to being the kind of year that we want to feel proud of ourselves. . . .
“If it’s just going to be from the San Francisco game to the end of the year, that’s what we’re trying to do. If we reverted back to being the other kind of football team today, then that would’ve been really tough for us in terms of just our self-respect.”
The Rams’ self-respect was safe almost from the outset on Sunday, but it appeared that the Browns’ might be a lost cause. The Ram offense, after tailback Cleveland Gary’s third fumble in as many games, jumped out early and hard, and the Browns’ defense did not have the talent, scheme or heart to respond. The Browns have lost seven in a row and show signs that seven might turn into 11.
Quarterback Jim Everett, who had thrown only one touchdown pass in his last five games and who declared his team out of the playoff hunt three weeks ago, threw four against the Browns--who, oddly, found no reason to cover the Ram running backs.
Everett, who was 22 for 29 for 261 yards, retired his crystal ball and threw his team’s fate into the chill Ohio wind. It was a day for that.
“I said before that I thought we were out of the playoff picture,” Everett said. “But if something happens and we’re in it, great. If not, we know that it was what we did early in the season that kept us out of it.”
If the Rams do poke their heads back into playoff contention, it was clear Sunday that the offense will have to take them there.
They stirred memories--particularly of those Everett-led shoot-'em-ups of a year ago.
“Things are starting to roll for us,” said tailback Gaston Green, who got the bulk of action after Gary’s fumble and used the opportunity to run for 57 yards on 13 carries, catch a 16-yard touchdown pass and generally impress anyone who has seen him stand on the Ram sideline his whole career.
Overall, the Rams gained 411 yards, made seven of 11 third-down tries, held the ball for 36:38 and gained an average of 6.5 yards each offensive play. They ran for 150 yards to set up the pass. They passed to score. And their defense had to hold on.
“That’s the kind of offense we think we are,” Robinson said, “or thought we were going into this season. We have been sporadic offensively, and after that first fumble, we executed things pretty darn well today. That’s kind of what we anticipated our team being. We’re pretty hard to stop when we get that kind of a thing going.”
Cleveland started the day in proper fashion when punt returner Brian Brennan muffed Keith English’s short punt right into the hands of Ram safety Pat Terrell. But Gary fumbled right after that, and thoughts of a true football Titanic were in order.
The Rams capitalized on a big Darryl Henley punt return with a 30-yard Mike Lansford field goal and a 3-0 lead. Cleveland tied it on the next possession, but then the Rams revved up the engine.
Tight end Pete Holohan scored the first touchdown on a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass from Everett inches from the goal line to culminate a 12-play, 65-yard drive. It was Everett’s first touchdown pass in four games, and after a tough goal-line stand, the play seemed to deflate an already rattled Brown defense.
Green capped the second drive with an easy 16-yard scoring reception when nobody covered him in the right flat. Ram running backs, who caught eight passes and scored on three of them, seemed to be open every time Everett wanted them to be. The Browns’ linebackers blitzed a lot to try to stir up the intensity, but that simply made it easier for the backs to get open.
“We just have to be thankful we have a chance to go play again,” Brown Interim Coach Jim Shofner said. “We have a chance to play somebody and play better than we played. That’s the only way you can look at it.”
The Rams’ defense began to find out why Cleveland offense has struggled all season long. Linebacker Kevin Greene, who had three sacks, stormed in on Brown quarterback Bernie Kosar on consecutive plays in the second quarter.
“I’ve had about four or five three-sack days,” Greene said. “When I feel right, they start to come.”
On the first one, he hit Kosar clean from the blind side, popping the ball loose. It wasn’t ruled a fumble, but it set the tone.
On the Rams’ first possession of the second half, they nearly put the game away with an eight-play, 67-yard touchdown drive straight through the Browns’ defense. Everett was four for five, and at one point hit on three consecutive passes for 15, 18 and 15 yards. The last two were to receiver Henry Ellard, pushing him past Hall of Famer Tom Fears and making him the Rams’ all-time receptor with 401 career catches. Ellard finished with six catches and 402 in his career.
As the crowd of 61,981 murmured its obvious disapproval with the 24-3 score, the Browns showed a little life by scoring a touchdown on their next drive. But the resurgence was temporary.
Everett found Robert Delpino drifting free down the left side of the field for a 21-yard touchdown and a 31-10 Ram lead a few minutes later.
That’s when the “Jump Art/2-14" balloon floated around the stadium in front of much-loathed Brown owner Art Modell’s box, and the message got the most rousing response of the windy day.
A seven-play, 70-yard drive, resulting in a three-yard dump pass from Kosar to fullback Kevin Mack, cut the lead. But The Rams came back with one last touchdown, Everett throwing his fourth of the day, 10 yards to McGee.
The Rams will play the Saints Sunday.
“I think New Orleans is a very good team, had a start something like ours and now is rolling along pretty good,” Robinson said. “I think that’s going to be a big game.”
The Rams deactivated tight end Damone Johnson and receiver Aaron Cox, both of whom have hamstring injuries. Pat Carter started in Johnson’s place and running back Robert Delpino often was used as the team’s third wideout. . . . Ram injuries listed: cornerback Bobby Humphery (lower back) and safety Michael Stewart (concussion).
COMMENTARY: Receiver Henry Ellard has learned about Ram history firsthand--by making it. C15