Of all the indignities, the Rams found themselves officially eliminated from the playoffs Monday evening because of, well, a big toe.
Cowboy cornerback Everson Walls' right big toe, to be exact. The same big toe that apparently grazed the tips of fair territory on arguably the most important defensive play of the Ram 29-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. That toe.
Replay fans will long debate this toe thing. Was Walls in or out? A meaningless incompletion that leaves the Rams within striking distance? A devastating interception that later helps provide the Cowboys with yet another touchdown and a 19-point, third-quarter lead.
"It was definitely a big momentum change," said Ram receiver Henry Ellard, a witness to the controversy. "We're driving and then . . . It takes a lot out of you."
In this case, it quickly took the Rams out of whatever slim playoff possibilities existed. Here in this stretch drive for tiny miracles, the Rams needed a win over the Cowboys Monday night, followed by another victory next Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. The Rams also needed a loss by the Minnesota Vikings and win by the St. Louis Cardinals. Likely, it wasn't.
"It was always a longshot for us," said linebacker Mel Owens.
And this from offensive guard Tom Newberry: "We really haven't been looking at the playoffs. We knew our chances of everything falling into place weren't that good. We knew that even if we won our games, we might not be in there."
This was the company line, of course, and rightly so. To remain eligible for a wild card position, the Rams first had to beat the Cowboys, owners of a 5-8 record before Monday. Next on the Ram list of priorities was a winning season--"For John (Robinson)," said cornerback LeRoy Irvin--and then the 49ers.
But Walls put an end to all that wishful thinking with his toe routine midway through the third period. Three plays later, Cowboy quarterback Steve Pelluer lofted a gentle pass to tight end Doug Cosbie and Dallas had a 26-7 lead.
Thank you notes can be addressed to Walls, who gathered in his 41st career interception, which ties him for Charlie Waters on the Cowboy career list. But this one didn't come without scrutiny--from outraged Ram fans, from the Ram bench, from replay officials and their television monitors.
On a third-and-11 from the Ram 27, quarterback Jim Everett dropped back to pass and saw receiver Ron Brown running seemingly unguarded along the sideline. He threw and then watched as Walls stepped neatly in front of Brown and picked off the pass.
"It was a comeback (pattern)," said Brown. "(Walls) had read it earlier."
Easy reading, too, like a Dick and Jane primer. The hard part was staying in-bounds.
"I thought he was out," Brown said. "I thought it was close, but I thought he was out."
Walls thought he was in, and told the Anaheim Stadium audience so. And then he told a national television audience. And then he told his teammates.
Walls played this for all it was worth. He shrugged his shoulders in innocence. He pointed to his grass-stained cleats.
Upstairs, high above the field, were the replay officials. Game referees had ruled that Walls kept his left foot in-bounds and then dragged his right toe, too.
"He dragged his toes," said Ellard. "I did see him drag his toes."
After a lengthy delay, replay officials sent down their message: Interception.
"I did not have indisputable evidence that (Walls) did not have two feet down to reverse the call of the field officials," said Royal Cathcart, the replay official.
And that was that. Walls had his interception and the Rams had, well, nothing except a longer off-season than expected.
"It felt good at the time," said Walls. "I was pretty sure I dragged my toe. The replay looked kind of suspicious, though. But it was about time we got one to go our way. We haven't got many breaks."
This time they got one and by doing so, broke the Rams' back.
"We know we came a long way back and it was a great turnaround," said running back Charles White, "but all we can do now is get ready for San Francisco. No regrets."