Chuck Knox, who has kept his emotions to himself through the best of times, and now the worst of them, was moved to tears Sunday.
The coach’s voice shook, and in his excitement to praise his players after the Rams had shocked the Saints, 23-20, in the Superdome, the words came with unfettered joy.
“I just want to tell you--a tribute to our football team--a team that came in here a decided underdog--we’re beat up--they scrambled, they fought,” Knox said.
“This is very special. Very special. In this place, as beat up as we were, it’s special. It really, really is.”
The Rams (4-9) seriously damaged the Saints’ playoff hopes and handed New Orleans (7-6) its third consecutive loss at home, the first time that has happened since 1981. And the Rams won by following Knox’s formula for success: run the ball, make something happen on special teams, force turnovers on defense.
Running back Jerome Bettis abused the Saints’ defense, and although he sat out the second quarter with a minor injury, he finished the game with 212 yards in 28 carries, including a 71-yard touchdown run.
“He was the offense,” Saint linebacker Sam Mills said. “There was just no stopping him.”
Bettis became the first Ram rookie to rush for more than 200 yards since “Touchdown” Tommy Wilson gained 223 yards against Green Bay on Dec. 16, 1956. He also became the first Ram rookie running back since Eric Dickerson in 1983 to top the 1,000-yard mark, and now has 1,103 yards with three games remaining.
“It’s a great feeling; I never had a thousand yards at Notre Dame,” Bettis said. “I really thought I was going to play fullback in the NFL. Then to change positions (to tailback) and go for a thousand yards in my first year is just a dream come true.”
Bettis became the eighth rookie in NFL history to top the 200-yard mark, the first since Bo Jackson had 221 yards for the Raiders against Seattle on Nov. 30, 1987. Three of the eight--Bettis, Buffalo’s Terry Miller and Seattle’s Curt Warner--accomplished the feat while playing for Knox.
“Bettis is outstanding,” Knox said. “I mean the guy has been that way from day one.”
A Bettis fumble, however, allowed the Saints to establish a 7-0 lead 2:05 into the game. On first and 10 from his 30-yard line, Bettis ran into a wall of New Orleans defenders, and while trying to push forward for additional yardage, linebacker James Williams ripped the ball from his arms and into the hands of Mills.
Mills returned the ball 30 yards for a touchdown, and as Knox said later, “At that point I’m sure a lot of people were saying, ‘Well, here they go again.’ ”
The Rams had lost seven games in a row to the Saints, and were whipped, 37-6, earlier this season in Anaheim Stadium. But this time the Rams didn’t collapse.
Linebacker Chris Martin, who was playing in place of injured Shane Conlan, forced New Orleans running back Fred McAfee to fumble later in the first quarter. Linebacker Roman Phifer recovered the ball at the Rams’ 37-yard line, returned it to the 47 and 10 plays later Tony Zendejas kicked a 22-yard field goal.
After the Saints were forced to punt on their next possession, the Rams took control at their 29 and quarterback T.J. Rubley pitched the ball to Bettis. Guard Leo Goeas and fullback Tim Lester provided a big hole to the right, and after brushing off Les Miller’s attempted tackle, Bettis outran the Saints’ secondary to the end zone.
“We couldn’t tackle the guy or get him down,” defensive end Karl Dunbar said. “He had over 100 yards in the first quarter.”
Bettis had 125 yards in 12 carries after one quarter, but he also suffered a bruised abdomen, which made it difficult for him to breathe. Bettis remained on the sideline throughout the second quarter, with Cleveland Gary taking his place and running six times for 36 yards.
The Rams were unable to score after Bettis left the game, but the Saints failed to take full advantage of his absence. Twice they moved inside of the Rams’ 20-yard line, but in both instances were forced to settle for Morten Andersen field goals, and New Orleans led only 13-10 at the half.
“You got to give it to the players, they played their tails off,” said George Dyer, Ram defensive coordinator. “When we started the game on defense--before the very first play--we had already lost Wymon Henderson, our starting cornerback, with a groin injury.
“That affected a bunch of substitutions and we were already operating with a patched-up lineup. So this feels real good because of the character of our people. We’re hurting injury-wise, but when you can come in and compete like we did, then you know you’re on the right track.”
On the second-half kickoff, linebacker Leon White forced McAfee to fumble again, and rookie defensive back Deral Boykin picked up the ball at the six-yard line and ran in for a touchdown. Unhappy Saints’ fans began to pepper the hometown team with boos.
New Orleans, which has failed to score more than 20 points in any of its last eight games--since the earlier victory over the Rams--continued to flounder in the third quarter. On fourth and one at the Ram 49, Coach Jim Mora elected to punt, and the boos grew louder.
They hit their crescendo 13 plays later when Rubley faked a handoff right to Bettis and threw left to tight end Pat Carter for an 11-yard touchdown. The Saints bit on Rubley’s fake because Bettis had already carried the ball 10 times on the drive for 51 yards. The extra point was blocked.
The Saints tried to respond to the 23-13 deficit with quarterback Wade Wilson throwing the ball against a battered Ram secondary. Wilson’s pass to running back Dalton Hilliard bounced out of Hilliard’s hands, however, and into the arms of linebacker Henry Rolling.
“Everyone has to do some soul searching,” Wilson said after completing 25 of 43 passes for 267 yards. “But there are still three games left and an opportunity to go to the playoffs.”
Hilliard’s two-yard touchdown run completed a 77-yard drive to cut the Rams’ lead to 23-20 early in the fourth quarter. But the Saints’ final two possessions came to an end with a couple of little-known defenders making key plays for the Rams.
On fourth and five at the Ram 41, cornerback Dexter Davis knocked down Wilson’s pass for Quinn Early. And on fourth and four at the Ram 43 with 1:26 to play, Boykin kept Eric Martin from catching a pass that would have been a first down.
“You would need a program, even if you were one of our top followers, to find out who we had out there,” Knox said. “We were battered. . . . We had guys off the street.
“Oh, it’s just sweet to win. There ain’t anything like it, I’ll tell you that. Boy . . . I just can’t say enough about how well these guys played.”
Rams who have rushed for 200 or more yards in a regular-season game:
247 Willie Ellison 1971 vs. New Orleans 26 carries 223 Tom Wilson 1956 vs. Green Bay 23 carries 221 Greg Bell 1989 vs. Green Bay 28 carries 215 Eric Dickerson 1984 vs. Houston 27 carries 213 Charles White 1987 vs. St. Louis 34 carries 212 Jerome Bettis 1993 vs. New Orleans 28 carries 210 Greg Bell 1989 vs. New England 26 carries 208 Eric Dickerson 1984 vs. St. Louis 21 carries 207 Eric Dickerson 1986 vs. Tampa Bay 30 carries 205 Dan Towler 1953 vs. Baltimore 14 carries
Note: Eric Dickerson (248 in 1986) and Lawrence McCutcheon (202 in 1975) rushed for more than 200 yards in playoff games.
Rookie running backs who gained 200 or more yards in a game.
237 Jim Brown Cleveland vs. Rams 31 carries 223 Tom Wilson Rams vs. Green Bay 23 carries 221 Bo Jackson Raiders vs. Seattle 18 carries 212 Jerome Bettis Rams vs. New Orleans 28 carries 208 Terry Miller Buffalo vs. N.Y. Giants 21 carries 207 Curt Warner Seattle vs. Kansas City 32 carries 206 Greg Bell Buffalo vs. Dallas 27 carries 206 Tony Dorsett Dallas vs. Philadelphia 23 carries
237 Nov. 24, 1957 223 Dec. 16, 1956 221 Nov. 30, 1987 212 Dec. 12, 1993 208 Nov. 26, 1978 207 Nov. 27, 1983 206 Nov. 18, 1984 206 Dec. 4, 1977