CHICAGO — It was the sort of mixed-up, shook-up, fouled-up football that the fans in the stands had come to expect at the old war memorial on Lake Shore Drive. Receivers letting passes slip through fingers. Returners letting punts skip right between them. Hurry-up offenses forgetting to beat the clock. Big gainers getting called back just when the team needed one most.
The people here had seen all this before.
Except they had seen it from the home team.
They had seen all sorts of Benny Hill-choreographed football from Chicago's Bears for nearly a quarter of a century since the organization's last championship. They had seen Jack Concannon call time, just as the snap from center sailed past him. They had seen the Detroit game of 1981, when the entire Bear offense churned out 24 yards. They had seen Bobby Douglass and Bob Avellini and Kent Nix.
How it must have startled them, then, to see another team come to Soldier Field and impersonate the Bears of yore. Oh, how Old Man Halas must have been cackling in the clouds Sunday as he looked down upon the unloved Los Angeles Rams and watched them take a 24-0 licking. No doubt he pushed Michael Young out of bounds. No doubt he ran the seconds off the clock before the Rams could run another play. Talk about a team that should have been called for interference . . .
Even when the winter's snow began to fall, when a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter made the Bears feel safe and warm, some of the visiting Californians were stunningly sunny. "Until about seven minutes to go, I really thought we had a chance because stranger things have happened in the NFL," Ram cornerback Gary Green said.
Stranger than a Super Bowl between Chicago and New England? Well, Villanova won in college basketball, and the Kansas City Royals won in baseball, and Michael Spinks took it to Larry Holmes, so the whole wide world of sports seems to be full of amazing stories. Maybe in the months to come, Pittsburgh will win the Stanley Cup, or Leon Spinks the Indy 500. Maybe even the Rams will succeed the Bears.
"A year ago the 49ers were the dominant team," Ram Coach John Robinson said after Sunday's NFC title game. "And what did they beat the Bears by--23-zip? So what did we lose by today--24-zip? The Bears went home after they got beat and got better. Clearly, that's the message here for us."
It is not going to be particularly difficult for the Rams to do better. When your quarterback flings 31 passes and checks out with 66 yards, you can do better. When your superstar running back slams into the line 17 times and strolls away with 46 yards, you can do better. When your wide receivers catch four passes in 60 minutes, when your only first down in the first quarter comes on a fumble, when your only penetration into enemy territory in the first half comes when a punt accidentally touches an enemy player, you cannot help but do better.
Adjustments must be made. No matter how windy this city is, there is no reason a professional quarterback's passes should wobble like Wiffle balls and fall to the ground 5-to-10 feet from the targets, time after time. They say Dieter Brock played in Canada before he came to the Rams, but someone may have to investigate and make sure it was football that he was playing up there. Incompletions are one thing, but 16 of 53 for 116 yards in two playoff games . . . well, this isn't passing, it's failing.
The Rams naturally rushed to their quarterback's defense when the game was over, because he is a good man and he is, of course, one of them. Young, the wide receiver whose 50-yard catch was taken away by a technicality, said later: "This loss is no more Dieter's fault than the equipment manager's."
If only a couple of connections had been made, how different the final score might have been. Then again, why oh why did Brock's most accurately thrown ball of the day have to be one to Eric Dickerson over the middle that did nothing but ruin the Rams' best chance to score? Overthrows never are around when you need one.
As the Rams bulled to the Chicago 12 with less than a half-minute left in the half, Brock had attempted 15 tosses. Four of them hit the mark. Some were too high, and others, as a baseball coach once said of a low-throwing pitcher, were busy killing worms. Brock was throwing airballs. His passes weren't bouncing off fingertips or hands. They were missing everything.
Then, just when another lousy pass or even a sideline job would have stopped the clock and arranged a field-goal attempt or even one last touchdown try, Brock turned into Y.A. Tittle. He hit Dickerson over the middle, a nice little gainer to the five. It soon became evident, though, that the Rams were going to have a damn tough time covering those final five yards in the zero seconds remaining.
Somebody should have done something. Somebody should have alerted the Rams that such a pass would not be a swell idea at that time. Even the equipment manager must have known that.