HOUSTON — When the new Ram offense came apart at the seams Sunday, it was just about as embarrassing and widespread as some of the splits on the Astrodome's aging artificial surface.
Jokes to the effect that small children have been reported lost in the carpet's deepest caverns may be overstated, but the Rams, had they been able, would have collectively crawled into the largest crevasse after their new offense and old defense collapsed in the fourth quarter.
When that happened, the Houston Oilers rallied for 17 points to beat the Rams, 20-16, before 33,186 fans who saw the Rams simply melt away.
It was, Coach John Robinson said, "the worst performance of any team I've ever coached."
Robinson worried that a much needed facelift to the pass offense might somehow take the edge off his team's vaunted running game, which made a habit of steamrolling over people in the fourth quarter.
Sunday, his worst fears were realized. The passing attack blew fuses and circuits on all boards, and in the end the Rams found it wasn't as easy as merely flipping a switch to turn the running game back on.
"We should have put them away," Ram linebacker Jim Collins said over and over.
It used to be a Ram custom.
"I'm shocked that we blew it," Eric Dickerson said. "The fourth quarter, that's usually when we play well."
Sunday, the Rams lit up the scoreboard with three Mike Lansford field goals and a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Kevin Greene in the second quarter.
Otherwise, the new offense included:
--One draw play to Dickerson on third down and eight.
--One forgettable performance by quarterback Jim Everett, who under a heavy Oiler pass rush completed just 9 of 26 passes for 125 yards and threw 2 interceptions. "I know I did a lot of things wrong," Everett said. "They're the type of defense that wants to make big plays. We made mistakes and they forced errors."
--One play on which receiver Henry Ellard stopped because he thought he heard an official's whistle. Receivers went one way and passes went another. Some players tripped on seams, others on their own feet.
It was hardly clean.
"We were ahead, 16-3, but it should have been a lot more," Ellard said. "It's important for us to stay together, not to get down."
Robinson said he felt his team crumbling early, and not even Greene's spectacular one-handed, tip-and-catch for a touchdown would change his outlook.
"After (Greene's play) it seemed everyone thought it was going to be easy," Robinson said. "But we didn't play hard enough to make anything happen. As a group, we played horribly. The defeat was complete. There were no redeeming qualities about it."
Still, the Rams might have won.
Mike Lansford's third field goal of the game, a 47-yarder with 6:33 left in the third quarter left the Rams with a 16-3 lead over the Oilers, a team with seemingly modest goals and comeback capabilities.
But everything the Rams had going, which wasn't much, seemed to change when Oiler safety Keith Bostic intercepted a pass by Everett pass with 11:35 left at the Oilers' 38.
Houston quarterback Warren Moon, who was having his own problems (those were boos in the first quarter, not cries of "Moooon," ) started the comeback. First, he connected with Ernest Givins on a 19-yard pass play. Later in the drive, on a key third down play, rookie Haywood Jeffires turned an overthrown pass into a one-handed, 12-yard catch and a first down at the Ram 30.
Tailback Mike Rozier, who has had problems even showing up on time to practice recently, went through the Ram defense on the next play for 27 yards down to the 3.
Then it was Moon throwing three yards to Jamie Williams, who beat linebacker Mel Owens, for the touchdown that cut the lead to 16-10 with 7:28 left.
Still, it seemed no problem. These were the Rams, right? Those were the Oilers.
On the next drive, the Rams faced a crucial third-and-eight situation.
A new offensive philosophy faced its first real test. The old Ram motto says you run Dickerson. The new age suggests a pass.
The Rams ran Dickerson on a draw, and he was tripped up short of a first down by Oiler end Richard Byrd.
"The play was there," Dickerson said. "He just reached up and tripped me."
Offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese said: "Obviously, we thought it was going to work or we wouldn't have called it."
The Rams were forced to punt the ball back to Houston with 5:48 left, at just the time the Rams wanted to keep the ball away from Moon.
From his own 16-yard line, Moon made his move.
At the Ram 27, he threw six yards to Givins, who was taunted by cornerback Jerry Gray after the play.
"He was talking to me a lot," Givins said. "It took me out of my game a little bit. I didn't let it get to me."
Two plays later, Givins took a short hook pass from Moon on the right side and blew by Gray as he headed toward the middle of the field.