During the past two decades, the Rams have built a reputation for defensive consistency. They weren't punishing or loaded with chest-pounding brutes who made running backs shudder and quarterbacks look over their shoulder before throwing the ball. But they always managed to get the job done, yielding very few yards and even fewer points.
Last season was just another footnote in the Rams' tradition of defense. They finished 1986 with the fifth-best defense in the National Football League.
The 1987 Rams came into Sunday's game against New Orleans in Anaheim Stadium ranked 22nd with a bullet, pointing down. Today, they might have dropped off the charts after giving up 443 yards in a 31-14 loss to the Saints.
There have been years in this NFC West rivalry when the Saints didn't score 31 points in a season against the Rams. The Saint offense is obviously improved. But the Ram defense has deteriorated at a rate that has everyone in the organization shaking their heads in dismay . . . and disgust.
The question is why, with lots of question marks on the end. And nobody in blue and gold--including Coach John Robinson--seems to have even a clue.
"We've played good opponents," Robinson said. "Still, I can't help but believe the problem lies with us. What's going on right now is just plain embarrassing.
"I don't have any answers. If I knew, I wouldn't hide it from you. We seem to have fallen into a pattern of early lapses, a collection of blunders, that put us behind. We're just not playing anywhere near what we're capable of."
It's not as if the Rams have been ravaged by injuries. Right end Shawn Miller missed Sunday's game with an ankle injury and disgruntled cornerback LeRoy Irvin has been suspended, but the rest of the Ram defensive starters were the same players who helped this team make the playoffs last season.
No one has concrete answers, of course, or the problem would have been alleviated long ago. Here, however, are some observations offered by the very guys who are out there missing tackles and blowing assignments:
Defensive end Gary Jeter: "Confidence is everything. We're basically the same band of guys, but we don't have the confidence anymore and we're playing like doormats.
"A lack of concentration is the only tangible thing I can come up with. There's a bunch of little things that we always did before and we're just not doing anymore. Whatever the problem is, it's like the smog in L.A. It's a clear and present danger and each one of us has to look to himself and see what he can do to find a solution."
Safety Johnnie Johnson: "I still think we're a fine defensive football team. You don't go from a contender to one of the worst teams in the league overnight. We can't get any lower than we are now, but we have the type of people who won't quit. We'll fight our way out of this.
"It's frustrating because there's nothing you can put your finger on. It's the same people doing the same things. The answer has eluded everyone involved. All I know is, you have to look a long way back in Ram history to find a play like that dump pass (that Dalton Hilliard turned into a 38-yard touchdown by breaking five tackles). That just didn't happen to this defense in the past."
Linebacker Mel Owens: "We've spent a lot of time on the field, but we have only ourselves to blame for that. We haven't done the job. It's hard to measure things like intensity, but guys are still hustling.
"It's just a combination of things. The Saints are a pretty good team, but believe me, I'm not worried about who's going to make the playoffs right now. I'm worried about the Rams. All we need now is one win in a row to get back that winning edge."
One win would make the Rams 2-7 and still bound for nowhere. But one win could go a long way toward restoring a measure of dignity to a defense that has fallen from grace and, when last spotted, was still plummeting into an abyss.