The 1986 Los Angeles Rams were coming off a breakthrough year, one in which they displaced the San Francisco 49ers atop the NFC West and reached the conference championship game. They spent much of ’86 looking to build on it before a late fade left them going into the offseason with a sour taste in the mouth.
Los Angeles did something you don’t see too many teams do when they come off a big year—they made a change at quarterback. Dieter Brock had been a veteran place-holder in 1985, but the offense had no one that could open up the field for their great running back Eric Dickerson. Jim Everett, 23-years-old with a rifle arm, had been drafted third overall by the Houston Oilers, but did not come to terms. The Rams swooped in and traded for Everett.
There would still be a quarterback carousel, with Everett splitting time three ways with veterans Steve Bartkowski and Steve Dils. So Dickerson still had to take on a heavy load, but the future Hall of Famer had broad shoulders. He ran for over 1,800 yards and was a 1st-team All-Pro.
Dickerson ran behind a line that included 1st-team All-Pro guard Dennis Hannah and two more Pro Bowlers, Jackie Slater and Doug Smith. There was a rookie in Tom Newberry who eventually grew into a Pro Bowler himself. The combination of this line and Dickerson was perfect for head coach John Robinson’s power-oriented scheme.
But the quarterback instability held the offense back. Even though Henry Ellard was a terrific wide receiver he only caught 34 balls for 447 yards. The other leading receivers were Dickerson and Barry Redden out of the backfield. The one-dimensional nature of the offense resulted in a unit that only ranked 17th in the league in points scored.
The defense made up for it. The fourth-best D in the league was built on excellence in the secondary. Corner LeRoy Irvin picked off six passes and was 1st-team All-Pro. On the other corner, Jerry Gray intercepted eight balls and was a Pro Bowler. Inside linebacker Carl Ekern was another Pro Bowl player. The combination of great defense and a great running back at least gave the Rams a path to victory and they were adept at getting the most from it.
Robinson’s formula was in display in St. Louis against the Cardinals to start the year. Even though Bartkowski only threw for 91 yards, Dickerson rolled up 193 yards on the ground and Los Angeles won 16-10. They did it again in a home game with San Francisco, steering clear of turnovers, intercepting two passes and rallying from a 13-3 deficit to win 16-13 on a late field goal.
Bartkowski played well at lowly Indianapolis, going 18/26 for 162 yards and providing air support to Dickerson’s 121-yard performance on the ground. The result was a 24-17 win. But the winning streak came to an end in a bad loss against a weak Philadelphia Eagles team. Bartkowski threw a couple interceptions to dig his team a 34-zip hole on the road. Dickerson enjoyed a good game, gaining 164 yards and the Rams made the final score a respectable 34-20. But this loss was ugly.
The result was a quarterback change to Dils. He managed the game at home against Tampa Bay, going 11/22 for 118 yards. But the worst team in the NFL still managed to push Los Angeles into overtime. The Rams were again saved by Dickerson, who rolled up 207 yards and preserved a 26-20 escape. The problems with the LA offense were exposed the following week when the running back had his first tough game of the season in Atlanta. He only rushed for 73 yards while counterpart Gerald Riggs rolled up 141 and the result was a 26-14 loss.
Bartkowski returned to the lineup and threw for only 48 yards at home against a poor Detroit Lions team. The Rams might have been embarrassed, but safety Nolan Cromwell came up with an 80-yard Pick-6 early on. Combined with a Dickerson touchdown they played from ahead rather than behind and hung on to a 14-10 win.
Another Pick-6 keyed another survival home win, this one against Atlanta, who was an NFC West team prior to 2002. Mark Jerue brought one 22 yards to the house and the Rams built a 14-0 lead. This time they shut down Riggs, while Dickerson pounded out a 170-yard day in the 14-7 win.
The Rams were 6-2, but it wasn’t exactly inspiring anyone. Dils came back to the lineup for a highly anticipated Monday Night date in Chicago. It was a rematch of the previous year’s NFC Championship Game and the Bears were on their way to a 14-2 season.
Both defenses were ready and the game was only 3-3 in the third quarter. Irvin came up with a huge play, recovering a fumble and bringing it 22 yards for a touchdown. The offense stayed bogged down though and Chicago eventually took a 17-10 lead. Dils then came up big, hitting speedy Ron Brown on a 65-yard touchdown pass that tied it. When kicker Mike Lansford later drilled a 50-yard field goal the Rams were leaving the Windy City with a stunning 20-17 win.
It was another game that might not have been pretty, but they had beaten an elite team and were firmly in the mix for the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs at 7-2. But a bad letdown the following week in New Orleans resulted in an ugly 6-0 loss and ushered in the Everett era.
The young gunslinger got the call at home against New England, the defending AFC champ and eventual division champ again this season. Ellard welcomed the chance to play with a quarterback who could get him the football and he caught eight passes for 129 yards. Dickerson ran for 102 yards and Los Angeles built a 28-16 lead in the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t close, gave up two TD passes to Tony Eason and lost again 30-28.
New Orleans, another NFC West team prior to the 2002 realignment, made their return visit to Los Angeles and even though Everett only threw for 56 yards, the classic D&D combination—Dickerson & Defense—made up for it. Dickerson ran for 116 yards, Cromwell intercepted two passes and the Rams chiseled out a 28-16 win.
Los Angeles had faded from the race for the top playoff seed, but at 8-4 they still led the NFC West by a half-game over San Francisco. The Rams closed November by beating the playoff-bound Jets on the road. Everett hit Kevin House on a 60-yard touchdown pass, the defense forced four turnovers and held New York to 89 rush yards and the result was a 17-3 win. San Francisco played New York’s other team—the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants on Monday Night and lost. The Rams had firm control of the division with three weeks to go.
They kept control with a 29-10 home win over collapsing Dallas. Irvin’s 50-yard Pick-6 got it started and the Dickerson-led running game picked up where they had left off the previous January, when the Rams had overwhelmed the Cowboys on the ground in a divisional playoff game. The rushing yardage edge was 206-54 and Everett opened things up with a 14/25 for 212 yards performance. The final was 29-14.
There was an opportunity to clinch the division when Miami came to town the following week. The playoff format of the era was the same as MLB’s today—three division winners and two wild-cards, meaning that even though the NFC West champ would be the 3-seed that still meant a week off and automatic entry into the divisional playoffs. With the season finale scheduled for the following Friday night in San Francisco, the last thing Los Angeles wanted was to let this chance slip away and set up a head-to-head battle on the road.
But that’s what happened. Even though the Dolphins were a .500 team, they still had Dan Marino. And even though Everett played well, going 18/31 for 251 yards, two TDs and no interceptions, he wasn’t in Marino’s class. Even though Dickerson ran for 124 yards it couldn’t compensate for Marino’s torching of the Ram defense for 403 passing yards and five touchdowns. And even though the Rams rallied from a 31-21 deficit to tie the game, they lost in overtime 37-31. The 49ers had won earlier in the day in New England and the NFC West would come down to Friday night in Candlestick.
It was an ugly night. Dickerson only rushed for 68 yards and the young Everett was in over his head against Joe Montana. Everett finished 13/35 for 151 yards and three interceptions while Montana played efficiently. Los Angeles dug an early 10-0 hole and the 24-14 loss really wasn’t competitive.
A division title might have been gone, but the Rams had still gotten a wild-card spot. They had a chance at redemption when they traveled to play the Redskins. Dickerson would rush for 158 yards, but he also fumbled three times. It was part of a six-turnover game. Even though the defense played reasonably well and came up with some red-zone stops, the turnovers were too much to overcome in a 19-7 loss.
The three-game losing streak to end the year foreshadowed an ugly offseason. Dickerson would have a contract beef and end up traded to Indianapolis for the 1987 season. That same year also saw a players’ strike that resulted in replacement players being used for three games. The Rams had a mess of a season that ended a run of four straight playoff trips.
But the arrival of Everett was another foreshadowing element and this one meant better days. Robinson would retool the team and in 1988 and 1989 they would be back in the playoffs, including another NFC Championship Game trip in ’89.