Eric Dickerson Leads The 1984 Los Angeles Rams To Another Playoff Berth

It was the second year for the tandem of head coach John Robinson and running back Eric Dickerson, as they brought power football to Hollywood. And the 1984 Los Angeles Rams continued the success, making the playoffs for a second straight year.

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Dickerson, a future Hall of Famer, won his second rushing title in as many seasons in the league, rolling up 2,105 yards and averaging 5.6 a pop. He was a workhorse, who carried 379 times and ran behind a line that had Pro Bowl talent in center Doug Smith and left guard Kent Hill. Right guard Dennis Harrah was a career six-time Pro Bowler and even though 1984 wasn’t one of those years, he had such seasons both ahead of him and behind him.

The combination of this line and Dickerson’s freak-of-nature combination of size, speed and cutback ability made the Rams’ running game almost impossible to stop. Which was a good thing, because the passing game was a problem.

Vince Ferragamo was injured in the third game of the season and replaced Jeff Kemp (son of former Buffalo Bills’ quarterback and political figure Jack Kemp). Kemp struggled to a 50% completion rate, ranking 27th among qualifying quarterbacks. His 7.1 yards-per-attempt was subpar. What Kemp did do well was avoid mistakes, throwing only seven interceptions and that sort of ball control played into the Rams’ style.

The defense was a bit above average, ranking 13th in the NFL in points allowed. There were no Pro Bowlers, but defensive ends Jack Youngblood and Reggie Doss combined for 18 sacks. They were in a 3-4 scheme, which should have created more opportunities for the outside linebackers, but the only notable stats were George Andrews getting six sacks. In the secondary, corner LeRoy Irvin had five interceptions.

Based on this, Los Angeles looks like the kind of team that will go 6-10, but play everybody close. What gave them the little bit of extra spark they needed was the return game of Henry Ellard. A 23-year-old receiver and a pretty good one—34 catches for 622 yards—Ellard was the best punt returner in the league. He averaged 13.4 yards a return, make first-team All-Pro and gave the Rams another playmaker besides Dickerson.

Los Angeles opened the season at home on Monday Night in the Coliseum. The Dallas Cowboys were in town. The Rams had upset the Cowboys in the wild-card game following the 1983 season and the teams had met in the playoffs four times in the past six years.

Dickerson rushed for 138 yards and his first-quarter touchdown helped stake Los Angeles to a 13-0 lead. But Ferragamo was awful, going 11/33 for 84 yards and four interceptions. The Rams eventually lost 20-13. They struggled again the next week in a home game against a poor Browns team, trailing 17-10 in the fourth quarter. Finally, Ferragamo threw a short touchdown pass to speedy Ron Brown to tie the game and eventually pulled out a 20-17 win.

Los Angeles traveled to Pittsburgh, where the Steelers were no longer the “Steel Curtain” who had beaten the Rams in the Super Bowl following the 1979 season, but still a team that would win a weak division this year. Dickerson, after consecutive 100-yard games, was shut down. Ferragamo, after throwing two interceptions was knocked out with a hand injury that cost him the remainder of the season. Kemp threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Drew Hill to get L.A. to within 17-14, but they eventually lost 24-14.

Another road trip to an AFC foe, this one against mediocre Cincinnati, was tied 7-7 in the third quarter. Kemp played well, going 13/23 for 205 yards and he hit Brown with a 52-yard scoring strike. The Rams offense got rolling down the stretch and won 24-14. And on the final day of September, the L.A. special teams unleashed in a home game against the Giants.

Ellard returned a punt 83 yards for a score. The Rams blocked punts for safeties not once, but twice. Doss and Youngblood combined on a sack for yet another safety. The defense as a whole held the Giants to eight rushing yards. It was a 33-12 humiliation…but Los Angeles had not seen the last of Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor and these New York Giants.

Dickerson ran for 107 yards in a home game with lowly Atlanta, but the Rams only won the rushing battle 156-147, not typically enough to win a game with the way they were built. Even though Kemp was respectable, 11/19 for 168 yards, counterpart Steve Bartkowski was better and L.A. lost 30-28 on a late field goal.

A road trip to New Orleans started slowly and Los Angeles trailed 3-0. Then Dickerson got rolling, finishing with 175 yards. Kemp heated up and threw three touchdown passes to three different receivers. Safety Nolan Cromwell had a Pick-6 and the result was an easy 28-10.

The Saints and Falcons were both NFC West rivals in the period prior to the 2002 realignment, so a Monday Night rematch with Atlanta marked the third of four straight divisional games. Ellard showcased his talent for the national audience, taking a punt 69 yards to the house and catching another TD. So did Dickerson, who rumbled for 145 yards. L.A. won 24-10. They were 5-3 and ready to take on the biggest NFC West foe, the San Francisco 49ers.

San Francisco was having a huge year, one that would end with a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl trophy. They ran away with the NFC West and on October 28 in the Coliseum, Los Angeles found out why. Dickerson was held to 38 yards, they turned the ball over five times and were shut out 33-zip.

A road game to St. Louis, the franchise’s future destination, but then home to the Cardinals, would prove to be the most pivotal of the season with the way the wild-card picture sorted itself out. In a late afternoon kick at Busch Stadium, it turned into a battle between Dickerson’s legs and the arm of St. Louis quarterback Neil Lomax.

Dickerson ran for 208 yards, Lomax threw for 341. What the Rams didn’t do was beat themselves, committing just four penalties to the Cardinals’ twelve. Two field goals from L.A. kicker Mike Lansford were enough to get a 16-13 road win. Los Angeles came home and dismantled a good Chicago Bears team. Dickerson outrushed the great Walter Payton 149-60, Kemp aired out a 63-yard TD strike to Ellard and after spotting the Bears a 10-0 lead, the Rams coasted to a 29-13 win.

At 7-4, and a chance to put themselves firmly in control in the race for one of the two wild-card spots, L.A. played horribly at mediocre Green Bay. They turned it over four times, the last of which was a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown in 31-6 loss.

Los Angeles was still tied atop the wild-card standings. San Francisco had the NFC West in hand, while Chicago was running away with the NFC Central with no wild-card contenders in pursuit.  In the three-divisional alignment that existed prior to 2002, that left the NFC East. There was currently a four-team logjam, with the Redskins, Giants and Cowboys all tied with the Rams at 7-5, and the Cardinals on 6-6. The Saints were also in L.A.’s rearview mirror in the West, with a record of 6-6. It promised to be a crazy race to the finish line and it was.

A road game to a poor Tampa Bay squad nearly proved disastrous. Los Angeles trailed 26-17 going into the fourth quarter, as Kemp only threw for 90 yards on the day while counterpart Steve DeBerg rang up 322 passing yards. But Dickerson outperformed another very good back, this time James Wilder, outrushing him 191-77. L.A. scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter to go up 34-26. With no two-point conversion allowed, it was enough to hold on to win 34-33.

All four NFC East teams also won, while New Orleans was blown out by San Francisco. With poor position in the tiebreakers, the Saints were all but finished and the Rams removed any doubt when New Orleans came to the Coliseum on December 2. Irvin’s 51-yard Pick-6 started the scoring and Los Angeles jumped out to a 24-0 second-quarter lead. When the Saints closed to 27-21, Kemp went over the top, 34 yards to Ellard to seal the 34-21 win.

But once again, all four NFC East teams won. Those four teams would all play each other on December 9…which meant the Rams had a terrific opportunity for separation if they could just beat the lowly Houston Oilers at home.

The game was a lot tougher than it should have been. Kemp threw a 57-yard scoring pass to Hill and L.A. built a 17-3 lead. But Houston closed to within 20-16 in the fourth quarter. Enter Dickerson. He finished with 215 rushing yards and his TD run closed out a 27-16 win.

When the Cardinals beat the Giants, it clinched a wild-card berth for the Rams. It meant that only Washington (who had beaten Dallas) could match L.A.’s 10-5 record and the Redskins were in position to take the division title. Los Angeles only needed to have tiebreakers on two of the three 9-6 teams—Giants, Cardinals & Cowboys to clinch. The wins over New York & St. Louis were enough to put L.A. back into the playoffs.

It’s a good thing Los Angeles clinched, because a Friday night road trip to San Francisco awaited and the 49ers would play Joe Montana, even with the #1 seed in the NFC all put to bed. Dickerson was more productive in this game than the previous meeting, gaining 98 yards. But it wasn’t going to be enough in a game where the quarterback matchup was Montana and Kemp. The Rams lost 19-16.

The loss put homefield advantage in the wild-card game at risk. On Monday Night, Dallas played a win-or-go home game with Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins, one that would elevate the Cowboys all the way to the 4-seed if they won. But they lost 28-21. It handed the last playoff spot to the Giants and homefield to the Rams.

A year ago in this game it was Los Angeles going on the road to pull an upset in Dallas. Now the Rams ended up on the other side of the coin. In spite of being a 4 ½ point favorite, they did not play well. Dickerson gained 107 yards, but there was no passing game, the defense could not force turnovers and Ellard couldn’t make anything happen on special teams.

The Rams trailed 16-10 and had the ball 1st-and-goal on the seven-yard line in the fourth quarter. After Dickerson gained three yards, he inexplicably did not see the ball again. For some reason, Dwayne Crutchfield got the biggest carry of the season and the result was a three-yard loss. Forced to throw, Kemp could not convert and L.A. had to settle for a field goal. The 16-13 score stood and the season was over.

In spite of the disappointing ending, the regime of Robinson and Dickerson was now clearly established. One year later, they would take the next step, win an NFC West title and reach the conference championship game.