The 1988 Los Angeles Rams put their fans on a roller-coaster ride. They began the season in that made it look like they might join a parade of champions in their home city. The Lakers won the NBA title. The Dodgers were en route to winning the World Series. USC and UCLA each stayed in serious contention for the national championship. But the Rams then went through a stretch where they looked ready to miss the postseason altogether, before ending up somewhere in the middle.
John Robinson, formerly the head man at USC and winner of the 1978 co-national championship had done a fine job at the NFL level. He made the playoffs his first four years as head coach in 1983-86 with a power running game built around future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson.
1987 had been a mess, starting with contract problems with Dickerson that led to his eventual trade to Indianapolis. A players’ strike created chaos throughout the league and the combination of everything led the Rams to miss the playoffs for the first time in Robinson’s tenure.
It was time to retool in the post-Dickerson era. At USC, Robinson excelled at producing great running backs and he kept the Rams’ running attack going strong with the emergence of Greg Bell, who ran for over 1,200 yards. The reason was one of the best offensive lines in football. Left guard Tom Newberry was one of the best in the business. Center Doug Smith was a Pro Bowler. So was Jackie Slater, a future Hall of Famer at right tackle.
Jim Everett was at quarterback and while his completion percentage was good—59.6% was near the top of the league in this era and the 7.7 yards-per-attempt more than acceptable, the mistakes were a problem. A 31-18 TD/INT ratio was tolerable in the late 1980s, but it was still a high volume of picks, particularly for a team that could run the ball well and play good defense.
Everett’s principal receiver was Henry Ellard, a first-team All-Pro who caught 86 balls for over 1,400 yards. Tight end Pete Holohan was a threat underneath. Two rookies, Aaron Cox and Flipper Anderson enhanced the deep game.
Defensively, Los Angeles made big plays in its 3-4 scheme. Kevin Greene recorded 16 ½ sacks from his outside linebacker spot while Mike Wilcher added 7 ½ more off the other edge. Cornerback Jerry Gray was a Pro Bowler.
The Rams opened the season on the road and made quick work of a terrible Green Bay Packer team. The LA defense got seven turnovers in a 34-7 win. The ground game took over in the home opener against the equally poor Detroit Lions. Bell went for 139 yards, the defense got five sacks and the final was 17-10.
An intra-city rivalry was up next with the Raiders, then domiciled in Los Angeles. Bell ran for 109 yards and Everett hit the game’s biggest throw, a 54-yard fourth-quarter touchdown strike to Cox that provided the margin in a 22-17 win.
Riding high at 3-0, Los Angeles headed east to play the New York Giants in the late Sunday afternoon TV window. The Giants were another team that became a playoff perennial from 1983-86 and also had an abnormally bad year in the strike season of 1987. They were also looking to rebound in ‘87.
Everett showed off of his big-play ability for the national TV audience. He hit Cox on a 69-yard TD pass, part of a 21-point second quarter. Later, Everett went 41 yards to Ellard for a score. The quarterback combined efficiency with explosion, going 14/24 for 236 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-31 win.
The Rams were a little sloppy coming back home to play the Cardinals, turning it over three times and allowing a defensive touchdown. LA lost their first game, 41-27. But the Cards were an average team and prior to 2002 this was not a divisional rivalry game. In 1988, Los Angeles shared the NFC West with San Francisco, New Orleans and Atlanta.
And the Rams came back with a vengeance in Atlanta the very next week. The defense got nine sacks, with five combined from Greene and Wilcher. Bell muscled his way for 155 yards, Ellard caught seven balls for 134 yards and LA coasted to a 33-zip shutout win.
The arch-rival 49ers came to Anaheim the next week and the pride and joy that was Robinson’s running game fell on its face. Bell was held to 28 yards. Counterpart Roger Craig piled up 190 yards on the ground, including a fourth-quarter TD run that sent Los Angeles to a 24-21 loss.
Everett carried the day in a 31-10 home win over playoff-bound Seattle (then in the AFC), going 20/27 for 311 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. It set up a big battle in New Orleans the following week. The Saints, 49ers and Rams were all in a close race for the NFC West title.
The LA rush defense made amends for its miserable showing two weeks earlier. They held the Saints to 33 yards on the ground, the offense played clean—zero turnovers—and it was enough to grind out a 12-10 win. The Rams were 7-2 and with every right to be thinking Super Bowl.
It was time for the roller-coaster to come rolling fast downhill. Los Angeles went to Philadelphia, a playoff contender themselves and made too many mistakes. Everett threw four interceptions, negating an otherwise big game with 377 yards. There was no running game to speak of. Ellard’s 166 receiving yards weren’t enough to prevent a 30-24 loss.
Another hard-fought game with New Orleans came up next. In the second quarter, an LA drive died on the 6-yard line and they settled for a field goal. That was the difference in a 14-10 loss. The momentum was going the wrong way, but at least Los Angeles’ two losses had been close ones to good teams.
You couldn’t say the same about the 38-24 defeat at home to subpar San Diego. The Rams failed on special teams, giving up a 93-yard kickoff return. They gave up a defensive touchdown. And they were in serious trouble.
One week later in Denver they went from “serious trouble” to “left for dead.” This was a mediocre Bronco team, but it was still a lot of the players that had gone to the previous two Super Bowls and would reach another one in 1989. Especially John Elway, who carved up the LA secondary. The Rams were down 35-10 by the third quarter before scoring a couple meaningless touchdowns to make the final cosmetically close at 35-24.
Los Angeles was now 7-6. They were two games back of New Orleans in the division. In the race for two wild-card spots they trailed Minnesota, San Francisco and the NFC East runner-up (either the Eagles or Giants). And before worrying about catching anyone else, the Rams needed to do this little thing called win a football game—and the 11-2 Chicago Bears were coming to town for Monday Night Football.
Time for the roller-coaster to turn back upward. Both the Bears and Rams turned the ball over three times, but Bell gave Los Angeles a running attack. He went for 98 yards and LA broke the game open in the second half. Leading 6-3 in the third quarter, Everett went 31 yards to Ellard for a touchdown and the Rams coasted home 23-3.
An easy home win over lowly Atlanta followed. Everett was 24/33 for 303 yards, doing a lot of his damage underneath to Holohan. LA led 22-0 in the fourth quarter before allowing a meaningless defensive touchdown. They were 9-6 and at least had a shot at the playoffs heading into the final week.
There were a lot of scenarios in play. The Rams were slated for Sunday Night in San Francisco, so their fate would have mostly unfolded by kickoff. New Orleans was fading and now tied with Los Angeles at 9-6, with San Francisco in the division lead at 10-5. The Rams could win a two-way tie with the 49ers, but not a three-way with the Saints involved. So when New Orleans edged Atlanta 10-9, it handed the NFC West title to the 49ers.
At least Los Angeles held the tiebreaker on New Orleans for second place. In the wild-card picture, Minnesota had wrapped up one spot. Los Angeles needed some help for the second one. Over in the NFC East, New York was 10-5 and leading the division while Philadelphia was 9-6. If the Eagles lost, it would open the door for the Rams to get in at 10-6. Or, if the Giants lost, it would mean Philadelphia could take the division title on a tiebreaker and drop New York into a tie with Los Angeles…which would go to the Rams based on the head-to-head win.
The fans of Los Angeles were left to wait on the results like a candidate on Election Night. Bad news came from Dallas, where the Eagles coasted past the Cowboys 23-7. But good news came out of the Meadowlands—the Jets pulled out a 27-21 upset of the Giants on a late touchdown pass. The Rams’ path to the playoffs was open—the “only” thing they had to do was win on the road in San Francisco.
That proved to be easier than it looks on the surface. The events of the day had locked the 49ers into the #2 seed in the NFC. Even though the Rams trailed 10-7 in the second quarter, they were the team with something to play for and it showed. Everett threw a TD pass to Ellard and Bell ran for another. LA had control by halftime with a 21-13 lead and they blew it open after that, winning 38-16.
There was still time for one more downward ride on the roller-coaster. Everett threw a couple early interceptions in the wild-card game at Minnesota and dug his team a 14-0 hole. They never climbed out of it, losing 28-17.
The roller-coaster ride ended up in the middle, in the playoffs but a quick exit. At the very least though, the Rams were back on the board as a contender. They got better in 1989 and reached the NFC Championship Game. They could never reach the Super Bowl, with San Francisco winning back-to-back titles to close the decade, but 1988 restored playoff football to Los Angeles.