The 1978 Los Angeles Rams had about as chaotic a beginning to the season as one could imagine—they fired their head coach in the preseason. The Rams had a conclusion to the season that was quite typical—for the fourth time in five years, they lost the NFC Championship Game.
Los Angeles had been a highly successful franchise in the previous eleven seasons of the Super Bowl era. They had winning seasons each year from 1966-77, and gone to the playoffs seven times. From 1974-76, they made the NFC title game each year. Whether the head coach was George Allen, Tommy Prothro or, most recently, Chuck Knox, the Rams were winning.
But they weren’t winning the biggest games and another coaching change was made after a disheartening loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the 1977 divisional playoff round. A change was made to Knox, but owner Carroll Rosenbloom went back to an old name—he re-hired George Allen, whose tenure with the Washington Redskins had ended after 1977.
Allen’s militaristic approach didn’t go over well with the players though, and there was rebellion going on within the organization. After two preseason games, Rosenbloom decided the mix wouldn’t work and he fired Allen and promoted defensive coordinator Ray Malavasi, the one holdover from the Knox staff.
Malavasi had a talented roster to work with and that talent began up front. The Rams put four of their five offensive lineman in the Pro Bowl, and three of the four defensive lineman. They had a pair of good young corners in Pat Thomas and Rod Perry, each of whom intercepted eight passes en route to the Pro Bowl.
Offensively, Los Angeles relied on a balanced rushing attack that distributed the ball among Cullen Bryant, John Cappelletti and Lawrence McCutcheon. Their quarterback, 25-year-old Pat Haden was mistake-prone, with a 13/19 TD-INT ratio, but he threw for nearly 3,000 yards and could stretch the field with receiver Ron Jessie. To top it off, the Rams drafted a rookie kicker in Frank Corral, who promptly had a Pro Bowl year.
Los Angeles opened the season at the Philadelphia Eagles and in spite of giving up a special teams touchdowns and committing ten penalties, the Rams got a field goal from Corral and won 16-14. They following week they were at home against the Atlanta Falcons and in a sloppy game—19 combined penalties and seven combined turnovers—a fourth-quarter touchdown by Bryant helped LA pull out a 10-0 win.
The defense was carrying them, but with the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys up next, Los Angeles would have to elevate its play. That’s what they did. The defense did its usual job and intercepted Roger Staubach four times. With the game tied 14-14 in the fourth quarter, Haden then delivered a 43-yard touchdown pass to Willie Miller for the lead. Perry sealed the deal with a Pick-6 to clinch the 27-14 victory.
A road trip to face the Houston Oilers and their great rookie running back, Earl Campbell, followed. The Rams held Campbell to 77 yards, while Haden played his best game of the year, completing 17/26 for 220 yards and no interceptions. It was enough for Los Angeles to escape with a 10-6 win.
The Rams were not only 4-0, but they were doing it against good teams—every one of the teams they had beaten would end up making the playoffs.
Two victories against non-playoff teams followed. Los Angeles got a blocked punt for a touchdown and another Perry Pick-6 to scoot out to a 20-0 lead in New Orleans, and then they hung on 26-20. The running game overwhelmed the lowly San Francisco 49ers, with all three backs contributing in a team effort that produced 227 yards and a 27-10 win.
Los Angeles faced another playoff perennial, the Vikings and ran their record to 7-0. Playing on the road and trailing 17-13 after three quarters, the superiority of the Rams in the trenches stood out. They held the Vikings to 42 rush yards and for 180 themselves. McCutcheon had 89 of those yards and also caught a TD pass in the fourth quarter. LA pulled away, 34-17.
After winning seven straight, with five of them against future playoff teams, it’s ironic that the win streak came to an end against the sub-.500 Saints, and at home no less. Six turnovers and thirteen penalties negated basic control of the game and Los Angeles lost 10-033. Then they lost on Monday Night in Atlanta (the Saints and Falcons were both in the old NFC West with Los Angeles and San Francisco). Haden threw three interceptions in a 15-7 defeat.
Los Angeles didn’t play well the following week, but they survived a bad Tampa Bay Buccaneers team, because the Bucs kept shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers. But after two losses and a 26-23 win over a poor team, the Rams hardly looked ready to face the Pittsburgh Steelers. And that’s who was coming to town on Sunday Night.
The prime-time kickoff on Sunday was rare at this time, and both defenses came ready to go. It was a scoreless first half and then Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw threw a third-quarter touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead.
Los Angeles was struggling to find offense, but they were controlling the running game. Cappelletti was winning a battle between former Penn State running backs, as he outrushed Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris 106-50. Haden was staying away from mistakes, and it all gave the Rams a chance in the fourth quarter. They took advantage, with Haden throwing a touchdown pass that secured a 10-7 win.
Haden then played a good game in San Francisco, going 17/25 for 267 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, saving the Rams on a day the defense didn’t stop the run. The final was 31-28. The defense continued to struggle in Cleveland the following week, being carved up by Browns’ quarterback Brian Sipe and this time Haden couldn’t save them. He threw three interceptions in a 30-19 loss. The Rams bounced back with a clean game at the New York Giants and a 20-17 win.
Los Angeles had put away the NFC West with their 7-0 start, and Atlanta’s late-season push to the wild-card never put the Rams’ hold on first place in jeopardy. It was Dallas who was coming in the rearview mirror, having found their footing after a 6-4 start. But the Rams still had a one-game lead and they had the head-to-head tiebreaker with two weeks to go.
A Monday Night home game with a terrible Cincinnati Bengals team was a perfect chance to sew up the #1 seed, especially with an early 13-0 lead. The Rams inexplicably came apart and lost the game 20-19. Now their home finale with the Green Bay Packers was a must-win.
The Packers were playing to get into the postseason themselves, so the Rams had a motivated opponent. But Los Angeles was ready and they got back to the physical, trench-controlling football that brought them here. They shut down the Green Bay ran, while Bryant got the ball 30 times and produced 121 yards. The Rams led 7-0 at half, and then broke the Packers in the second half, pulling away to a 31-14 win.
Los Angeles’ first playoff game would be against Minnesota, who was 8-7-1, the worst playoff team of the Super Bowl era, and who had needed the Packer loss in LA to back into the postseason. But given the history of the Rams-Vikings matchup in the playoffs, no one would take this lightly. Los Angeles had lost in Minnesota in 1969, 1974 and 1976. That preceded the previous year’s Viking upset in the LA Coliseum.
Minnesota came ready to play and led 3-0 after one quarter. Haden and Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton traded touchdown passes in the second quarter, sandwiched around a Corral field goal and it was 10-10 at the half.
The Rams were able to pull away with the same formula they used in their regular season meeting—simply break the Vikings late in the game with the power of the running game. Bryant plunged over from three yards to give LA the lead and the tough runner produced 100 yards. Haden and Jessie were able to connect six times and loosen things up, and one of those was a 27-yard touchdown strike. Los Angeles pulled away for a 34-10 win.
Los Angeles would host Dallas for the NFC Championship. Three years earlier the Cowboys came west for a conference championship game walked out with a 37-7 win.
This game unfolded tighter. It stayed scoreless for a half and then Dallas took a 7-0 lead in the third quarter. Would it be a rerun of the Pittsburgh game, that followed a similar script and saw Los Angeles win in the fourth quarter? Nope. It ended up close to that ’75 playoff game. On the day, the Rams committed seven turnovers. Haden threw three interceptions before breaking his thumb. Backup Vince Ferragamo came in and threw two more. The Cowboys pulled away and the last interception was brought back for a touchdown to seal a 28-0 Ram loss.
To have such a great season and have it end, once again, in a home playoff defeat was disheartening. But the 1978 Los Angeles Rams overcame a lot of turmoil from the start to get where they did, and one year later they would finally reach the Super Bowl.