A fresh era of franchise success began with the 1983 Los Angeles Rams. The team had taken a step back the previous two years, missing the playoffs both times after a successful run from 1973-80 that included a Super Bowl trip in 1979. In 1983, the Rams got a new coach in John Robinson, a new running back in Eric Dickerson and went back to the playoffs.
Robinson had been highly successful coaching at USC, including a national championship year in 1978, so was familiar to the Los Angeles fan base. Robinson’s Trojan teams always had great running backs and he made sure to bring the approach to the NFL. In a year renowned for its rookie quarterbacks (John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly), the Rams got Dickerson.
Eric Dickerson ran for over 1,800 yards, caught 51 passes out of the backfield—second-most on the team and made 1st-team All-Pro. A physical specimen of speed and power, Dickerson belongs at or near the top of any conversation about the greatest running backs of all time, and he was at the heart of the Ram recovery in 1983.
The great back didn’t lack for blocking either, with two Pro Bowl lineman up front in Kent Hill and Jackie Slater. The Rams were a physical team that not only ran the ball, but even their passing game oriented more to the tight ends and the backs. Tight end Mike Barber was the best receiver, 55 catches for 657 yards. Fullback Mike Guman caught 34 passes.
Los Angeles’ receivers were George Farmer and Preston Dennard. They had a rookie in Henry Ellard who would eventually be great, but right now he settled for returning punts and growing his way into the league.
Vince Ferragamo was at quarterback, and could be prolific—his 3,276 passing yards were very good by the standards of the era, his 59 percent completion rate was pretty good and his 22 touchdown passes solid. But he did throw 23 interceptions. While that wasn’t the killer stat it would be today, it was still high and more important, it was out of place on a team that relied on running the ball.
The Rams finished 11th in the league in points scored. The defense was a bit lower at 15th, with only one Pro Bowler, free safety Nolan Cromwell. Jack Youngblood also registered 10 ½ sacks.
Los Angeles opened the season in the Meadowlands against the Giants, who were on their way to horrible 3-12-1 season. Expectations weren’t high for either team on September 4, to say the least, and the game lived down to those expectations. Each team turned it over five times, but the Rams came out of it with a 16-6 win.
A home game with the New Orleans Saints would loom large as the season went on. The Rams trailed 10-0 and were chasing all the way, as they again turned it over five times. Ferragamo threw for 266 yards this time and when Dickerson ran it in from three yards out, Los Angeles finally completed a 30-27 comeback win.
The Rams then dropped two straight road games by 27-24 counts. They dug a 17-0 hole at Green Bay, before Ferragamo rallied the troops. He was 20/30 for 259 yards and the Rams scored 24 straight points to get the lead, before giving it back. In a late afternoon game the following week at old Shea Stadium and the New York Jets, Dickerson had a big day, with 192 yards and an 85-yard touchdown run. But Ferragamo threw four interceptions, a field goal was blocked and returned for a touchdown and the Rams lost.
Dickerson’s big day in Shea though, represented his coming out party. He went for 199 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-10 win over Detroit, a team struggling at the time, but that would eventually make the playoffs themselves.
The next three weeks brought divisional games. Two with the San Francisco 49ers, who were two years removed from winning the Super Bowl with the young Joe Montana at quarterback. The other with the Atlanta Falcons, who had been the top team in a bad year for the old NFC West in the strike-shortened season of 1982 (the division included the Saints, in addition to these three teams).
A battle of Dickerson on the ground versus Montana through the air went down in old Candlestick Park, as Dickerson ran from 142 yards, Montana threw for 316, but the Rams recovered three fumbles and won 10-7. Then they spotted the Falcons leads of 14-0 and 21-7 before rallying to win 27-21 at home. Dickerson went for 164 yards, while Ferragamo was 23/36 for 247 yards, spreading the ball around among all his receivers.
The rematch with the 49ers was the opposite of the first game, turning into a shootout. Ferragamo went 26/35 for 327 yards, with Barber catching eight of those passes for 113 yards. Montana answered with 25/39 for 358 yards. Even though Dickerson ran for 144 yards and the Rams led 28-17 after three quarters, it was a San Francisco tempo and they exploded for four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, beating Los Angeles 45-35.
Another future Hall of Fame quarterback was next in a road trip to Miami to face the rookie Marino, who was already playing extremely well. Dickerson produced another 100-yard game and the Rams were tied 14-14 at the half against a team on its way to a 12-win season. But Ferragamo threw three interceptions and the second half went awry in a 30-14 loss.
A running back showdown between Dickerson and Chicago’s great Walter Payton was next and the rookie was the decisive winner. Dickerson outrushed Payton, a former league MVP back in 1977 by a 127-62 count—albeit on twenty extra carries, as the Rams controlled tempo. They also won the football game, 21-14.
It was time for the nation to get its first real look at this stud rookie running back. Monday Night Football was the only weekly prime-time stage in the NFL at this time and the Rams were going to Atlanta for the November 14 edition. Not only did Dickerson put on a show, but the entire Los Angeles running game did. Dickerson ran for 146 yards and #2 back Barry Redden piled up 110 in a 36-13 rout.
The Rams hosted the Redskins, who were on their way to a 14-2 season with a devastating offense and a defense that could force turnovers. Los Angeles was standing in the way of a freight train, falling behind 42-6 before getting a couple meaningless touchdowns. Even with the loss, the Rams were tied for first in the NFC West with the 49ers at 7-5, while the Saints were in close pursuit at 6-6. The Falcons had faded badly from the picture.
Los Angeles’ position only got stronger in a 41-17 rout over mediocre Buffalo. After a scoreless first quarter, they blew the game open behind a ballhawking defense that intercepted five passes, including a Pick-6 from Johnnie Johnson. Ferragamo was sharp, going 18/31 for 206 yards. San Francisco lost the same day, and the Rams were sole possession of first place.
But just when things were going good, the Rams stumbled. They went to Philadelphia to play a poor Eagles team and failed to execute in the red zone. Three drives to the 11-yard line or closer ended in field goals and when Philly found the end zone in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles lost 13-9. They lost at home to a mediocre opponent in New England, coughing up five fumbles in a 21-7 defeat.
The Rams were now a game back of the 49ers, and even worse, they did not control their playoff fate. Los Angeles and New Orleans would play in the Superdome in a game where it was win-and-in-you’re in for the Saints. If the Rams could win, they would need the Packers to lose in Chicago, a game that would be played at the same time. Or Los Angeles could take the NFC West if they won and San Francisco lost on Monday Night to the Dallas Cowboys.
The early TV window on Sunday afternoon proved to have some magic for the Rams. After falling behind 7-0, Youngblood sacked New Orleans quarterback Ken Stabler for a safety. Ellard returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown, and in the third quarter, Johnson took an interception to the house. Los Angeles led 16-7 without scoring an offensive point.
New Orleans nudged ahead 17-16 before the defense came through again, a 43-yard interception return from Cromwell for a 23-17 lead. Dickerson was not running well though, at least by his standards—80 yards on 19 carries and the Rams fell behind 24-23.
The Saints had the ball on the Los Angeles 32-yard line, facing 4th-and-less than a yard. Despite having a great kicker in Morten Andersen, they opted to punt. The punt went into the end zone for a touchback. Ferragamo, after a mediocre day, completed six straight passes, got a roughing the passer call and put the team on the 25-yard-line.
Kicker Mike Lansford finally produced some offensive points, with a 42-yard field goal as time expired. It was part of a theme for the day—a last-second field goal in Chicago sent Green Bay to a 23-21 loss and Los Angeles into the playoffs.
There was still a chance for a division title, but it was as longshot. Even though the Cowboys were a tough opponent, they were locked into the 4-seed and playing on the road. The 49ers won in a rout, 42-17. Los Angeles would go to Dallas for the NFC wild-card game.
No one had any expectations for the Rams, and they were an eight-point underdogs on the day after Christmas. Ferragamo threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to David Hill in the first quarter, and Dallas answered to tie the game at 7-7 in the second quarter.
After falling behind 10-7, Los Angeles started to again produce on special teams and defense. They recovered a muffed punt and Ferragamo immediately hit Dennard on a 16-yard touchdown pass. Then an interception set up an 8-yard touchdown pass to Farmer. Now it was 21-10 and Dickerson was running well, gaining 99 yards.
The defense came through one more time, as Dallas drove deep into Los Angeles territory. LeRoy Irving returned an interception 94 yards, completely flipped the field and the Rams got a short field goal. The Cowboys scored a touchdown, but well after the game was decided.
Los Angeles had a 24-17 win, their second playoff victory at Dallas in the past four years. It didn’t make up for NFC Championship Game losses at home to the Cowboys in 1975 and 1978, but it was a nice feather in the cap for the fan base, and this game in particular was a big statement for the Robinson/Dickerson era.
Early on New Year’s Day, the Rams had to again stand in front of the Redskin freight train and a similar result went down in a 51-7 loss. Even with this defeat though, it was a comeback year for the Rams. It was the first of six playoff appearances in a seven-year span for Robinson (though Dickerson would be traded a few years later after a contract dispute). They never got to the Super Bowl, but they did reach two NFC Championship Games and produced consistently good football. It was an era that started in 1983.