It was the worst defeat in the Rams' history. The 51-7 shellacking by the Washington Redskins in the playoffs of 1983 paled by comparison. The heartbreaking losses in championship games in Minnesota were shrugs compared to it.
Ram teams were picked apart before. Terry Bradshaw did it in a Super Bowl, Travis Williams used to do it in Green Bay. They never could handle Roger Staubach. Dan Fouts gave them fits.
But nobody ever wracked up a Ram lineup the way Eric Dickerson did. He left a proud team and franchise in complete disarray, strewn all over the place. He caught them in an over-shifted defense, held them up to public obloquy, an object of scorn and embarrassment to the community.
He put some moves on the Rams no player was ever able to do before. He couldn't have routed them more throughly with 20 runs of 100 yards each. The Rams appeared destroyed for seasons to come. That sound you heard was the ripping of season tickets.
Dickerson was the Rams, everyone thought. When he abandoned them, it was as if he orphaned them, left them on the league's doorstep. He not only forced his way off the franchise but, worse, made it seem as if he was escaping football's Devil's Island, a place run by the Simon Legrees of football. He made himself seem like little Liza fleeing over the ice to freedom and Indianapolis.
He left the Rams as irresolute a band of losers as ever took a kickoff. They promptly got waxed by the San Francisco 49ers, 31-10, and then by the New Orleans Saints, 31-14.
It was embarrassing to watch. More than a team was destroyed. A tradition was going with it.
The Rams, as they say, were history. They went from Super Bowl to toilet bowl, the commentators snickered. They were underpaid, underconfident and underwhelming. Dickerson took their pride with him.
It was a new experience for a lot of people. Coach John Robinson was one of them.
Robinson is a man who looks like everybody's favorite uncle. Put white whiskers and a fur collar on him and you've got Santa Claus. You'd trust him with your life. You figure maybe St. Peter looks like John Robinson.
He's as good a football coach as there is. He understands the X's and O's as well as anybody. He motivates. Guys want to play for Uncle Robbie.
Well, most guys. Before he started to pack, Eric Dickerson, the spy who wanted to go into the cold, relieved himself of the snide observation that, if the Rams didn't want to pay him what he wanted, they could have John Robinson "run the 47 Gap."
Now, Robinson is not going to run anywhere. He can hardly make a lap when he sits down. But the signal was clear. Eric Dickerson was blaming him, the coach, not the money-changers in the front office.
John Robinson, like a lot of football coaches, thought that when he signed on as a football coach, he would get to draw the dotted lines on the blackboard, set the defenses, run the practices--and leave the payroll to the accountants.
Not today, you don't. You are coach, confessor, confidant. You are more than the team uncle, you are the father. The buck stops there. You can't just hand out play books and refer all contract issues upstairs.
Did John Robinson get the message? Well, the cornerback, LeRoy Irvin, was, if anything, more disenchanted than Dickerson was. LeRoy is, all of a sudden, back in the fold, a down-the-line team player, on the most amicable terms with his coach and management.
Football is not a game that can be played by disaffected persons. Baseball can. Individual sports can. Football calls for individual abandonment, almost reckless risk. Anything less and the chances are good that you will be the one injured. Resentful crews might work on pirate ships, not NFL teams.
But John Robinson had bigger problems than cornerback. He had a whole team that needed its hand held.
Then, suddenly, to the astonishment of everyone from Jimmy the Greek to Howard Cosell, the Rams weren't dead. Their throat wasn't even rattling.
The turning point occurred in St. Louis. The team had the ball on its own two-yard line, the score tied, 24-24, and 11:01 left to play.
The Rams took that ball and consumed the entire 11 minutes, marching to the St. Louis one-yard line, where with time running out, they kicked the winning field goal at the gun. They went 94 yards in 23 plays.
It was hardly the work of a routed army.
The next week, they marched into Washington and startled the overdog Redskins when Irvin intercepted a pass in the end zone with 24 seconds to play, preserving a 30-26 win. Last Sunday, they routed Tampa Bay, 35-3.
What happened? What took the Rams off the ledge? Did Uncle Robbie turn into John the Ripper? Did he throw chairs? Threaten to take those horns off the helmets? Did he invoke the Gipper? Cry? Beg?
"Those things only happen in movies," Robinson scoffs. "There, when you have problems, everyone gets in a room and everything gets resolved in one scene and everyone hugs and they go out and live happily ever after.
"We are more realistic. I told these guys they were a good team with Eric Dickerson and they were a good team without Eric Dickerson.
"You have to understand when you're an athlete at this level, one of the elite of your profession, you have pride. You want to succeed not for money, not even for notoriety, but for yourself."
In other words, he told them to go out and win one for old Mel Owens and Jackie Slater and Mike Wilcher and Nolan Cromwell.
It would make a lousy movie. It's not Knute Rockne at the half. There's no part for the young Ronald Reagan or the old Pat O'Brien.
But it's a sports story of the year. Sports fans like a fighter who gets up.