The John Robinson era produced a steady string of playoff teams and also a team that could take fans on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. The 1989 Los Angeles Rams fit that to a tee—but some of the best highs came at the end and made this a season to remember.
Two years after trading the great running back Eric Dickerson to Indianapolis, the Rams were recast as a team that could throw the football. Jim Everett was in his fourth year at quarterback and emerging as a top big-play passer. He averaged a healthy 8.3 yards-per-attempt and threw 29 touchdowns.
Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson each racked up over 1,000 yards receiving, with Ellard making the Pro Bowl. Tight end Pete Holohan, along Buford McGee and Robert Delpino were pass-catching threats out of the backfield.
Robinson was known for his running backs though, first in college at USC, then with Dickerson. Greg Bell was the latest and he rolled up over 1,100 yards behind an offensive line with three Pro Bowlers in Tom Newberry, Doug Smith and 35-year-old Jackie Slater.
Defense was a problem, at least beyond outside linebacker Kevin Greene and corner Jerry Gray. They ranked 17th in the league in points allowed. But with the offense being the second-best in the NFL, Los Angeles had enough to win.
THE 5-0 START
The Rams won their first five games, with the highlight coming Week 4 in San Francisco. The 49ers were the defending Super Bowl champions, with Joe Montana behind center. Los Angeles played its best defensive game of the year.
Four times San Francisco got close and had to settle for field goals. The Rams still trailed 12-10 with three minutes to go when they forced a turnover. Everett drove his team for a 26-yard field goal stole a 13-12 win.
Other wins included a pair over the lowly Atlanta (the Falcons were in the NFC West prior to 2002) and Los Angeles also knocked off Indy and their old friend Dickerson, 31-17.
A 41-38 home win over Green Bay didn’t seem notable at the time, except the Rams nearly suffered the embarrassment of blowing a 38-7 lead. The Packers were mostly irrelevant in this time period. But the win loomed large before the season was over.
FOUR STRAIGHT LOSSES
Los Angeles traveled to Buffalo for Monday Night Football. The Bills were fresh off an AFC Championship Game appearance and made the playoffs again this year. The Rams were in position to win—Buffalo starting quarterback Jim Kelly was out and L.A. led 20-16 in the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t run the ball, with Bell held to 44 yards and backup quarterback Frank Reich beat them 23-20.
The loss started a tailspin. Bell was shut down again at home against New Orleans as the Rams lost 40-21. Everett played poorly in Chicago in a 20-10 loss. The season hit its low point in a bizarre game at Minnesota.
Los Angeles took the art of coughing up yardage between the 20-yard lines, but then stiffening to an extreme. The Vikings kicked seven field goals. The game went to overtime tied 21-21. The Rams got a punt blocked out of the end zone and managed to lose a game 23-21 without giving up a touchdown.
A home game with the New York Giants, who were en route to an NFC East title, loomed as must-win. Los Angeles dominated in the trenches, outrushing New York 150-6. Leading 10-3 in the second quarter, Everett hit Aaron Cox on a 51-yard touchdown strike and then a tossed a 21-yard scoring pass to Anderson. The rout was on and the final was 31-10.
That started a four-game win streak against a softer part of the schedule. A win in New Orleans—another team that was in the NFC West prior to 2002—was historic.
Flipper Anderson racked up 336 receiving yards, a single-game record that still stands. The Rams won 20-17 in overtime. Their record back up to 9-4 they still had an outside shot at catching the 49ers for the NFC West crown.
MONDAY NIGHT HEARTBREAK
Los Angeles was two games back, but if they could beat the 49ers on Monday Night Football, it would mean a sweep of the season series and the race would be on in the final two weeks.
The Rams jumped on top early. Bell ran three yards for an early touchdown and Everett flipped a four-yard TD pass to tight end Damone Johnson. The lead hit 17-0.
Then Montana hit John Taylor on a 92-yard touchdown pass. The 49ers were within 17-10 at the half. Not to worry—Everett hit McGee with a third-quarter touchdown pass and led another drive for a short field goal. The margin went back to 27-10.
But in the fourth quarter Montana tossed three touchdown passes. Worse, the Rams allowed another catch-and-run TD to Taylor of 90-plus yards. The result was a devastating 30-27 loss.
Los Angeles was still in a three-team dogfight for two wild-card spots, including the Eagles and Packers. The Rams needed to beat a terrible New York Jets team and they did, 38-14. L.A. still controlled their playoff destiny in the season finale.
ROAD TRIPS EAST
The finale at mediocre New England was in temperatures that were (-4) degrees with the windchill, Los Angeles’ veteran offensive front got down to business.
Bell pounded out 210 yards. The Patriots kept it close, but Bell’s four-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter sealed a 24-20 win. Los Angeles was in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years under Robinson.
Another trip to the chilly East Coast awaited for the wild-card game. The temperatures in Philadelphia weren’t as cold—34 degrees. But it was wet and the Rams again got physical. Bell rushed for 124 yards and Everett threw touchdown passes on the first two drives of the game. The defense made it stand up in 21-7 win.
Had enough of flying cross-country? The Rams hadn’t. They got back on the plane to the Meadowlands to face the Giants in the divisional round. The weather wasn’t intolerable and Everett threw for 315 yards and overcame the defense’s difficulty stopping New York rusher Ottis Anderson. The game went to overtime 13-13.
The Rams won the coin toss and Everett delivered—one pass to Anderson produced an interference penalty that got Los Angeles to the 30-yard line. Another pass to Anderson sealed the deal with a touchdown that sent Los Angeles to the NFC Championship Game.
THE END IN CANDLESTICK
John Robinson made the NFC title game twice in his tenure with the Rams. It was his misfortune to play two teams in the running for the mantle of greatest of all-time—the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 1989 San Francisco 49ers. The Rams led this game 3-0 after a quarter, but the roof fell in after that in a 30-3 loss.
This was the last hurrah for the Robinson era—in fact for the first era that the Rams franchise was in Los Angeles. They didn’t get back to the postseason until the team had moved to St. Louis. The memories of the toughness the 1989 Rams showed in consistently going across the country to the East Coast to get must-win games have had to last a long time.