Looking every bit a demoralized football team struggling to push emotional buttons that no longer are in working order, the Rams took one more sluggish step toward their only lasting, attainable goal this season: finishing it.
Only one more game to go, and the Rams can be free of their week-to-week plunge, Sunday’s version being a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, owners of a seven-game losing streak until this week.
Before an occasionally attentive Fulton County Stadium crowd of 30,021, the Rams (5-10) assured themselves of finishing with their worst record in Coach John Robinson’s eight-year tenure and cannot have strengthened team management’s desire to keep him around.
“Seems like it’s all going downhill,” cornerback Jerry Gray said. “It’s just not getting any better.”
Last week, the Rams were mathematically eliminated from the playoff race by the San Francisco 49ers. This week, they didn’t roll over and play dead against the 4-11 Falcons, but they didn’t exactly bristle with sustained fury, either.
Behind 10-0 almost before you could say “wait ‘til next season,” the Rams stayed in the contest until it was time to go home. Then they obediently packed their bags and did just that.
The Rams in 1990: The sag continues.
“The emotion wasn’t there,” defensive end Doug Reed said. “We didn’t play the game with any intensity or consistency. Seemed like we just went out hoping. We got to a point where we just didn’t work hard, like they wanted it more than we did from the beginning to the end.”
For all their coach’s talk of personal pride and duty to the idea of team, are the Rams just coasting out the season now, waiting for the inevitable changes to come?
“That’s there,” Reed said. “Everybody’s looking for the season to end, just get it over with. But we have one more game left (at New Orleans), and I think you’ve got to look at this game and go into it with a little bit more than we showed today. Or I think it turns to embarrassment.
“Yeah, I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed to go out there and not even seem like we wanted the game.”
Robinson seemed to be less upset with the Rams’ level of intensity Sunday. Perhaps numb by now, Robinson said he didn’t notice his team playing particularly uninspired.
“We got off to a slow start,” Robinson said. “They kind of stunned us. After that, I felt it was an even game, and we just didn’t do the things you have to do to win.”
Three times, the Rams drove inside the Atlanta 10-yard line, and only once were they able to push it in for a touchdown. On the last time, Robinson eschewed a potential game-tying touchdown try on fourth and goal from the one, but Mike Lansford’s short field goal was blocked.
“Their will was just stronger than ours down there today,” Ram quarterback Jim Everett said of the Falcon goal-line stands.
Atlanta’s will to rush Everett was pretty strong Sunday, too. The Falcons knocked him around almost every time he threw the ball and pressured him into his worst day of a not-exactly-banner season. Everett completed only 13 of 40 passes for 171 yards, was intercepted twice--once for a touchdown--and was clearly shaken more by the Falcon rush than their two sacks would seem to indicate.
Everett has two interceptions in each of his past three games and has 17 for the season.
In October, Everett and the Ram offense scored 44 easy points on the overmatched and confused Falcon defense. Before Sunday, Atlanta had given up a league-worst 261 net passing yards a game. Sunday, the Falcons held the Rams to 155.
This time, the Falcons overwhelmed the Ram pass protection, ruining those pretty timing routes while avoiding the big bombs a blitzing defense can surrender to the Rams.
“They did a good job of trying to knock me out of there,” Everett said. “They brought more people than they have in the past, and they were successful doing it.”
Said Robinson: “The key to the game was the offense’s inability to score when we got down there. We were in goal-line territory twice and came away with three points. We just weren’t able to come back from those things.
“It’s been frustrating for us for a period of time now that our offense just doesn’t seem to have the necessary ability to get the ball into the end zone.”
On offense the Falcons were down to their third-string quarterback, former Ram backup Hugh Millen, who followed the lead of Anthony Dilweg, Bubby Brister and Jim Harbaugh and other sub-superstar quarterbacks who have been driving the Ram defense crazy all season. Millen, in only his second NFL start, completed 13 of 21 passes for 178 yards and looked quite capable of throwing for more.
The reason he didn’t was that the Falcons decided to sit on the ball for almost the entire fourth quarter, which allowed tailback Mike Rozier to have the third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against the Rams, but also gave the Rams a couple of extra shots to try and drag the game into overtime.
The eventual game-deciding series came early in the fourth quarter with the Falcons leading, 20-13. The Rams were given excellent field position on a short punt and zipped straight up to the Atlanta four-yard line. They were denied a touchdown when officials picked up a flag for pass interference on third down, ruling that the pass to Cleveland Gary was uncatchable.
The Rams decided not to try to punch it in from the one on fourth down, but Lansford’s field goal attempt was blocked by Falcon defensive lineman Mike Gann.
Why go for the field goal there?
"(I) thought there was plenty of time (about 12 minutes),” Robinson said. “We weren’t doing anything. We didn’t have anything that we just felt was going to get us in the thing.”
Then, on their last real shot at tying the score, the Rams got as far as the Falcon 38 before Atlanta cornerback Deion Sanders tipped away an Everett pass to Henry Ellard on fourth and four.
“We gave away 10 points at the start of the game, and we could never get them back,” Robinson said. “The game pretty much settled into, I guess, a pretty even battle from then on, but we just were never able to overcome it.”
A mere three plays into the game, Everett wobbled one over the middle in the general direction of Ellard but specifically into the hands of Falcon safety Scott Case. Case ran 36 yards for a touchdown, finishing with a flying leap over Everett’s last-gasp tackle try at the goal line.
And after a failed Ram series, Millen hit receiver George Jones, who flew past the Ram secondary for a 53-yard gain. Four plays later, the Falcons were up, 10-0, on Greg Davis’ short field goal, and the Rams were in a hole they could not escape.
They came as close as 10-7 on Gary’s 15th touchdown of the season, a tough seven-yard run.
“They covered us well and they played hard,” Robinson said of the Falcons.
While the Rams are just playing out the string.
Linebacker Kevin Greene suffered a shoulder sprain in the third quarter and did not return. . . . The rest of the Rams’ injury report: Guard Tom Newberry (re-aggravated right ankle), tight end Pat Carter (right knee bruise), linebacker Mike Wilcher (dislocated finger). . . . To find a worse Ram record than this year (the best they can do is 6-10), you have to go back to 1982’s 2-7 strike-shortened season, which was Ray Malavasi’s last. John Robinson took over the next season.