Super Bowl Special — Mondays with Murray on Saturday: A Ram of Yesteryear




A Ram of Yesteryear

   COSTA MESA – So the Rams are in the Super Bowl? That’s Page 1 stuff. No way to keep it secret.

   Still, it would be nice if you could keep it private and not noise it about in certain sections of the community. I mean, I wonder if you could keep it from Merlin Olsen if at mondaysmurray2all possible? By all means, don’t talk about it in front of Deacon Jones. Lamar Lundy. Rosey Grier. Don’t even tell Charlie Cowan.

   I think Roman Gabriel, John Hadl, Ron Jaworski, even, would just as soon not know anything about it.

   Try not to let George Allen in on it, either. I think Tom Mack and Joe Scibelli would be better off in the dark. Apologize to Chuck Knox while you’re at it, Jack Pardee, Maxie Baughan. See if you can make it up to Ken Iman for all those nosebleeds he took without making it to a Super Bowl.

   All those years when the Rams were a great football team and were 12-2, 10-3-1, 11-3, 12-2, and they never made it to the Super Bowl! I mean, those were the years of the “Fearsome Foursome,” the “Secretary of Defense.” Those were days when we used to beat the Lombardi Packers on a blocked punt and still couldn’t get to the Super Bowl. Those were the days when 13 of 22 starters on the team went directly to the Pro Bowl. But they couldn’t go to the Super Bowl.

   A blocked field goal on the 30-inch line, a movement in the line when the Rams had third and a yard to go for victory, a rainstorm which turned the Coliseum into a tar pit. The Fates invented ways to keep the Rams out of the Super Bowl.

   Now, they’re going there with a bunch of kids who don’t know how tough it is. The 9-7 Rams are going to the summit of all football where 12-2 teams couldn’t tread. Guys who have been on the Rams only three years talk of the “frustration” of not going to the Super Bowl. Sure, it took Jack Youngblood eight years. But he did make it. George Allen won 49 games. Chuck Knox won 54. They always ended up in mud, snow, sleet, or zero-degree games, a touchdown or a field goal short. Ray Malavasi got there on his 21st victory. In the sunshine at Tampa Bay. Deacon Jones didn’t even know Tampa Bay was in the league. 

   It has always been considered a crime that Sam Snead never won an Open, and Ernie Banks never played in the World Series. But that’s practically a carriage of justice compared to Merlin Olsen’s never playing in a Super Bowl.

   There’ll be no No. 74 at all for the Rams in the Super Bowl. That number has been retired. But there’ll be a man in his old spot at defensive tackle.

This will be no beardless youth who thinks Super Bowls come down the chimney on Christmas night, or are hung on the fireplace, or hidden under a bush by the Easter Bunny.

   Michael LaVern Fanning knows all about Super Bowl frustrations. He hasn’t played in 208 games (108 of them consecutively) for the Rams as has Merlin Olsen. But, when Mike Fanning joined the club in 1975, a fine broth of a boy out of Notre Dame, 6-6, 248 pounds, he had a Super Bowl of his own going. All he had to beat out for a job was Merlin Olsen, or Larry Brooks, or Cody Jones, or Jack Youngblood, or Fred Dryer if he wanted to play end — which he didn’t.

   He broke his leg in preseason. And he had just as much chance of cracking that lineup after he broke it as before. 

   Although he had been all-everything at Notre Dame, including collegiate wrestling champion, Fanning was just another rookie candidate for the suicide squads. That line was harder to get into than the Kremlin. The Rams No.1 draft choice spent his afternoons blocking for field-goal kickers, breaking the wedge on kickoffs, the football equivalent of a penalty killer in hockey, or the guy with the dynamite in a bank heist.

   “I got to rush the passer some,” he recalls. But if there was to be any ambiguity in the play, any chance of other than a straight drop-back pass forming, Fanning was not to be trusted. 

   Mike felt like a 23rd vice-president who must wait for the other 22 to die or retire. His only chance of cracking the lineup was a calamity. He started no games in 1975 or ’76 or ’77 and only two in ’78.

   Mike Fanning played in every game this year (after Cody Jones ripped an Achilles tendon in a preseason game). Mike totalled 38 tackles with 13 assists, eight sacks (downing the quarterback in the act of passing) and recovered a fumble.

   Mike had always been an outstanding pass rusher. But the run in the pro game had him struggling. “I got trapped, suckered, influenced, fooled and doubled,” he admits.

   Of course, a pass rush is a good thing to have if you only have one thing. It has always been a Ram hallmark. “Ain’t nobody gonna beat us with the run,” Deacon Jones used to boast. “They got to beat our pass rush to win and they know it.” Fanning is thus in the great tradition of wily, swift Rams quarterback pass-rushers. “Anybody can throw the ball if he can sit back there all day and not worry about going down under the rush,” Fanning agrees.

   Fanning is less worried anyway by the Pittsburgh Steelers trappers than he is by their tailors. “You see, the biggest move the pass rusher has is, grab the offensive linemen. Now, what they do, is they take their jerseys and tailor ‘em down so they’re skintight. Then they take some two-carpet tape and tape them down. So there’s nothing to grab. It’s like trying to grab somebody by the tattoo.”

   If the Steelers could be persuaded to play in floppy overcoats, or the kind of oversize sweaters worn by pipe-smoking college professors, the defensive linemen could toss the blockers around like dock stevedores with cargo. “Either that or just give us hooks,” Fanning suggests.

   Football teams come out today in the kind of figure-hugging costumes Olympics swimmers or Vegas chorines favor. It’s not to show off their physiques, it’s to get the claws of 260-pound linemen to slip and slide. Soon they’ll come out greased like channel swimmers. 

   Fanning will be one of the new breed of Rams who succeeded where all the old pictures on the wall failed for 14 years, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngsters who think making the Super Bowl is a snap. I mean, all you have to do is beat Tampa Bay, right? Not Minnesota in the snow and ice, not Dallas in Texas with the shotguns and the flexes. Tampa is younger and greener than you are — and the temperature is the same as Pasadena.

   If Mike Fanning can’t get through the skin-tight uniforms to get at Terry Bradshaw, he has a safer way. He can always go back to polo. Mike keeps a string of polo ponies near his Oklahoma home and it’s the kind of sport you can play until you’re 50. The horse does all the work, including the blocking. There’s free substitution, and horses don’t resort to sucker plays or influence traps. Horses are straightforward characters, unlike Pittsburgh Steelers who are like corner pitchmen by comparison.

   The Rams will be quarterbacked Sunday by a guy starting his sixth pro game. One running back will be starting his 13th pro game ever. A rookie will start at guard. In his 10th game. 

   So, No.79, Mike Fanning is almost the only one out there who knows what Merlin Olsen looked like. But Merlin, Deacon, Cowan, Scibelli, Mack and all the old crowd must see they went about it the wrong way. It never occurred to them the way to the Super Bowl was to lose seven games. They thought you fired the coach when that happened. That’s what happened the only time they did it.

Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times

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