The 1985 Los Angeles Rams Get Over The Hump In The NFC West

After making the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, head coach John Robinson took the next step with the 1985 Los Angeles Rams. They overcame early adversity and displaced the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers at the top of the NFC West. Then Los Angeles advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

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The Rams did all this with a CFL journeyman at quarterback. Dieter Brock was 33-years-old and only played one season in the NFL—this was it, and he was the starter the whole way. Brock was effective, completing 60 percent of his passes in an era where few quarterbacks did that. And he still generated a respectable 7.3 yards-per-attempt. The prime targets were wide receiver Henry Ellard, who finished with 811 receiving yards and tight end Tony Hunter who accumulated 562 yards.

Running the ball and defense was ultimately what Los Angeles was all about though. Eric Dickerson was the key to the offense and he ran for over 1,200 yards in spite of a contract holdout that lasted two regular season games. Dickerson ran behind a truly great offensive line. Four lineman made the Pro Bowl, starting with Hall of Famer Jackie Slater and including Kent Hill, Doug Smith and Dennis Harrah.

The offense still ranked 15th in the NFL, so it was up to the defense to make the Rams stand out. This side of the ball didn’t bring the same amount of raw Pro Bowl talent, but they brought better results.

Los Angeles was able to pressure the quarterback with defensive end Doug Reed and outside linebackers Mel Owens and Mike Wilcher, all of whom combined for 28 ½ sacks. Inside linebacker Jim Collins was a Pro Bowler, as were corners Gary Green and LeRoy Irvin, the strength of the defense as they each intercepted six passes. The Rams defense ranked fourth in the league in points allowed.

The Dickerson contract holdout loomed over the team when they hosted Denver, the defending AFC West champ and who would end this season at 11-5. Robinson turned to an old friend in Charles White to step in for Dickerson. White had played for Robinson at USC in the late 1970s, won a Heisman Trophy and the Trojans won a national title in 1978.

All White needed to do now was provide a stopgap and that’s what he did for his old coach. White ran for 83 yards, keying a 147-63 edge in rush yardage and scored the winning touchdown in a 20-16 win. A week later in Philly, he rolled up 144 yards and Los Angeles won 17-6. Dickerson returned to the team in time for a Monday Night visit to Seattle.

This wasn’t a divisional game the way it would be today. The Seahawks were in the AFC prior to 2002. Dickerson made a big splash in his prime-time debut, rambling for 150 yards and three touchdowns, while Seattle was held to 44 rush yards. The Rams won 35-24 against a team that had made the playoffs each of the previous two years.

Los Angeles hosted lowly Atlanta to end September. After a scoreless first quarter, Brock hit Ellard on a 64-yard touchdown strike, and finished 16/20 for 215 yards on the day. He threw one more TD pass before it was over and the Rams won 17-6. They extended their record to 5-0 with a home win over mediocre Minnesota, overcoming a poor rushing output and using a key red zone stop in the fourth quarter to win 13-10.

A road trip to an awful Tampa Bay team nearly ended in disaster. Los Angeles trailed 20-17, before Carl Ekern picked off a pass and took it to the house. Then they fell behind 27-24 before Irvin got an interception and brought it back all the way to win the game 31-27. The ballhawking continued in Kansas City. The Rams intercepted six passes, two of them by Irvin and they shutout a poor Chiefs team 16-0.

Riding high at 7-0, it was time for San Francisco on the final Sunday of October. The 49ers were struggling at 3-4 and with the Rams playing at home it was time for that proverbial statement game.

It couldn’t have gone any worse. Joe Montana was brilliant and a shocked crowd in Anaheim watched Los Angeles fall behind 28-0 at halftime. Brock would have to throw 51 times. He completed 35 and got 344 yards. But there were also three interceptions and more to the point, the Rams were not going to win an air war with the great Montana. But the early deficit took Dickerson out of the game, even if the final score was a respectable 28-14.

A home game with New Orleans, then a division rival was up next (Prior to 2002, the NFC West was the Rams, 49ers, Saints & Falcons). Everything clicked against a weak opponent. Dickerson ran for over 100 yards. Brock went 15/30, and made big plays, throwing for 256 yards with no interceptions. Hunter caught six passes for over 100 yards. And the defensive front dominated, with nine sacks. It all added up to a 28-10 win.

But the next loss came at the New York Giants, the same team who had upset Los Angeles in the previous year’s wild-card game. The Rams couldn’t keep Phil Simms from making big plays in the passing game, couldn’t cash in red zone chances and despite an early 13-0 lead, lost the game 24-19. An even worse loss went down in Atlanta, when an anemic rush offense led to just nine first downs and a stunning 30-14 rout.

Los Angeles was now reeling, having lost three of four and San Francisco was nipping at their heels. The Rams needed a momentum reversal and they got it right at the beginning of a home game with Green Bay. Kick returner Ron Brown would end up being voted 1st-team All-NFL at the job and he earned it on this day.

Brown brought back the opening kickoff 98 yards. After the Packers tied it 7-7, Brown ran another one back 86. Later in the game he caught a touchdown pass from Brock. With Dickerson back in gear, with 150 yards, Los Angeles won 34-17. They stood at 9-3 and were two games ahead of San Francisco—but there was still a road trip to play the 49ers and the Rams would not win a tiebreaker. So this race was tighter than it appeared on the surface.

And then it got even tighter in a disastrous road trip to New Orleans. The normally reliable offensive line collapsed and allowed nine sacks. Four Los Angeles turnovers punctuated the 29-3 loss, and made the coming Monday Night trip to San Francisco a battle for the division lead.

To say no one believed in the Rams understates the case. In spite of their 9-4 record, they entered the game as (+10) underdogs. Los Angeles was having trouble moving the ball early, but the defense kept them in it and they only trailed 7-3 at the half.

It was time for Ron Brown to do his thing one more time. He fielded the opening kick of the second half on his own 14-yard line and ended up in the end zone.

The 49ers answered with a touchdown, but missed the extra point and it stayed 13-10. Trailing 20-13, Brock hit Ellard with a 39-yard TD pass to tie the game. In the fourth quarter, the unthinkable happened—Montana came up short in a big situation. In his own end, the legendary quarterback threw an interception to Gary Green, who bolted 41 yards for a score. The Rams had an improbable 27-20 upset at a time when their fortunes seemed at the lowest.

The win put the division title within their grasp and Los Angeles sealed it at home against a bad St. Louis Cardinals team. Brock went 13/20 for 216 yards and four touchdown passes in a 46-14 rout.

A #1 seed in the playoffs was out of reach—the dominating 15-1 season of the Chicago Bears saw to that. But the 2-seed was up for grabs. The Rams had the edge, but the Cowboys still had a chance to grab it. It put Los Angeles in the odd position of rooting for San Francisco to beat Dallas in the season finale.

The 49ers did just that, and it meant the Rams’ playoff position was locked in when they closed the year on Monday Night against fellow L.A. residents in the Raiders. It was a tight game, 6-6 after three quarters, but the Raiders had something to play for—the top seed in the AFC—and they eventually won 16-6.

After a week off, the Rams were set to host the Cowboys in a late Saturday afternoon game on divisional round weekend. These two franchises had an extensive recent history in the playoffs. Los Angeles enjoyed their moments, such as 1979, when they went to Dallas and pulled a shocking upset that ended Roger Staubach’s career in Big D.

But these visits of the Cowboys out west hadn’t ended well—twice, the Rams hosted the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game (1975 & 1978) and they lost the two games by a combined score 65-7.

Los Angeles was a (-2) favorite, but even in this you could see the skepticism—with three points being the customary advantage oddsmakers give homefield, the number suggested that the smart money saw Dallas as a narrowly better team, all things being equal. But all things weren’t equal—not when one side had Eric Dickerson.

It was a slow, grinding first half, and a 33-yard field goal from the Rams stood up into the locker room for a 3-0 lead. Then Dickerson turned it loose. He rumbled 55 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. The Rams added a quick field goal after the ensuing kickoff was fumbled and took a 13-0 lead.

The Los Angeles defense was shutting down Dallas, The Cowboys had no running game, they couldn’t get the ball downfield in the passing game and the Rams forced six turnovers. Defensive end Gary Jeter had three sacks, and defensive back Jerry Gray had an interception and in the fourth quarter he recovered a fumbled punt.

Meanwhile, Dickerson kept running. He immediately turned the Gray fumble recovery into a 40-yard touchdown run. By the time the day was done, Dickerson had rushed for an NFL playoff record 248 yards. Los Angeles won 20-0.

The Big Bad Bears awaited in the Windy City, and Los Angeles arrived for an early afternoon kick as a (+10.5) underdog. This time, there would no reprise of the Monday Night Magic they had pulled off in San Francisco as a double-digit dog. The Bears were too good.

Dickerson was held to 46 yards rushing and Brock’s deficiencies were completely exposed. He’d managed to skate in the Dallas game despite going 6/22 for 50 yards. Without Dickerson to cover for him in Chicago, Brock went 10/31 for 66 yards. The Rams only threatened to score once, at the end of the first half, trailing 10-0. But clock mismanagement cost them a field goal attempt, and they ended up losing 24-0.

It wasn’t the end of the success in Los Angeles for Robinson. They made the playoffs again in 1986 and 1988, losing in the wild-card game both times. In 1989, they reached the NFC Championship Game again, but were again routed, this time by San Francisco.

During this stretch, Dickerson moved on to Indianapolis, his contract problems never really going away. But this team’s NFC West title and its running back’s great playoff performance are a part of the 1985 NFL season that shouldn’t be forgotten.