NEW ORLEANS — Despite a 29-3 loss Sunday to the New Orleans Saints--there will be an attempt to explain that later--a glance at the standings in the NFC West shows the Rams one game in front with three to play.
It's an optical illusion. They are in control of their own destiny like Little Red Riding Hood on her way to Grandma's house. They are masters of their fate like a Christmas goose.
Guard and captain Dennis Harrah summed it up perfectly: "We're in first place, and we stink."
Barring a dramatic turnaround, rack of Ram will be the bill of fare at Candlestick Park a week from tonight.
The San Francisco 49ers have smelled blood since they started nibbling at the Rams' four-game lead five weeks ago, and now they're sharpening their utensils to return to first place on national television. What were they thinking, waiting to whip the Redskins later Sunday, as they watched the Saints set a club record by sacking Dieter Brock six times and Jeff Kemp three?
What's the NFL bag limit on quarterbacks, anyway? Those who thought Joe Theismann's broken leg was gruesome should be warned.
And don't turn to Coach John Robinson for reasons why the Rams have fallen from orbit by losing four of their last six games after a 7-0 start. He's as puzzled as anyone. All he could do was state the obvious.
"We're really inept as a football team," he said after Sunday's spectacle made the day--and maybe the season--for the Saints (5-8) and 44,122 of their faithful in the Superdome. "I was genuinely shocked by it. We're a team headed in the wrong direction. For some reason, the dynamic freedom we played with earlier has abandoned us. There aren't any reasons."
Maybe the Saints' stunning performance was the product of only one week under their interim coach, Wade Phillips, who did what his father Bum could never do in five tries: beat the Robinson-coached Rams.
Maybe the Rams were unsettled by the unexplained disappearance of wide receiver Bobby Duckworth, who missed the team plane Saturday and turned up, instead, in San Diego.
Or maybe the Rams were rusty because they hadn't been able to practice in two days because of rain at home Friday and a 1 1/2-hour plane delay in flying to Louisiana the following day.
"None of those things are significant," Robinson said. "We just got the hell kicked out of us."
But why should a team on its way into the tank for the 19th successive season suddenly turn killer behind a lame-duck coach and a quarterback, Bobby Hebert, making his third NFL start after three years in the United States Football League?
The Saints played defense like demons, committed no turnovers and Hebert completed 13 of 22 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown.
The Saints took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on the first two of five field goals by Morten Andersen. The Rams made that stand up by fumbling the ball away three times and throwing it away once--the interception that got Brock yanked early in the final period.
Rescued might be a better word. It must have been a relief for Brock's parents, who drove all the way from Birmingham for the game.
"It's not easy playing with your butt pasted to the ground," Brock said.
The 34-year-old veteran from the Canadian Football League took more sacks than pass completions (5 for 10), and he couldn't recall the last time he failed to finish a game when he was physically able to play.
Eric Dickerson rushed 16 times for 80 yards but was unable to break a big one. It was the first time the Rams had failed to cross the goal line since a 33-0 loss to the 49ers at Anaheim last season.
The Rams' offense didn't see the Saints' side of the 50-yard line until the game was 26 minutes 20 seconds old and they trailed, 9-0, and that was only because of a 54-yard punt by rookie Dale Hatcher that Vince Newsome downed at the three to put the Saints in a hole.
The Rams' defense kept them there, and after the punt, the Rams' offense took possession at the Saint 41. Brock dumped off to Barry Redden for a 15-yard gain to the 20 and Dickerson swept right end for two, but then the wheels fell off again.
Brock failed to see Henry Ellard open in the right side of the end zone so threw left to Tony Hunter, who was unable to hang onto the pass at the five. On third down Brock was sacked by end Frank Warren, his second, leaving Mike Lansford to kick a 41-yard field goal and avert, as it turned out, a shutout.
A comeback from 9-3 wasn't out of the question as the second half started, but that hope was jarred when Brock was stuffed trying to sneak for a first down on fourth-and-a-foot at the Saints' 33.
Andersen kicked the score up to 12-3 early in the fourth quarter, and then the Rams' collapse became complete.
Ron Brown, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Green Bay a week earlier, set the Rams up at their 38 but, on first down, Brock, under pressure, missed Brown over the middle and cornerback Johnnie Poe intercepted.