Atlanta — The Rams, like the Patriots, will play in Super Bowl LIII with a monumental championship legacy.
They won their first championship because the opposing quarterback hit the goalpost with an errant pass from his own end zone. Back then, in the primitive seasons of the NFL, the goalposts were fixed on the goal.
This first Rams’ championship four months after our nation’s victory in World II. The Cleveland Rams nipped Washington, 15-14, on frostbitten Sunday in the 1945 championship game 22 years before the initial Super Bowl.
In those days, hitting the goalpost from the quarterback’s end zone was recorded as a safety and at the end
And the great Sammy Baugh was a bit wild after he took the snap from the Washington 5 and retreated to end zone to throw in the first quarter. The indomitable Harry Wismer, Port Huron born and former Lions’ broadcaster, described the decisive pass with ruffles and flourishes to an enrapt teenager on a vintage Philco radio.
The precious two points held up and, after a QB duel between Baugh and Bob Waterfield, the safety boosted the Rams their first championship.
No matter, as reigning NFL champions, the Rams fled from Cleveland to Los Angeles the next season. A new pro league, the All-America Football Conference, was forming in the 1946. And as the Rams relocated to become the first sports team on the West Coast, Paul Brown’s Browns occupied Cleveland.
With Otto Graham and Marian Motley, the Browns would win the all four of the championships of the AAFC. The new league folded after the four seasons, and the Browns joined the established NFL.
And of this flip-flopping became part of the history of another pro football franchise — the nearby Detroit Lions. Both the Rams, out of LA, would become rival teams during the Lions’ glory years in the 1950s.
The Rams, an NFL power, reached the championship game three years straight. To get there, they had to defeat the Lions in 1949, 1950 and 1951. They lost twice, to the Philadelphia Eagles and the replanted NFL Browns.
But then the Rams won the franchise’s second championship in 1951, representing LA with a 24-17 victory over the Browns.
From then on, the Lions would dominate the Rams in the NFL Western Division. From there, the Lions defeated the Browns in the 1952 and 1953 in historic duels between Bobby Layne and Graham. The Browns would defeat the Lions for the NFL championship in ’54.
The next year the Rams would push into the championship game, still in LA, and get walloped by the Browns.
Then there was the 1957 when the Lions again won the West with a two- quarterback system —Layne and the newly acquired Tobin Rote. It would be Rote — Layne had a broken leg — to win the NFL championship against the Browns, 59-14.
The Lions were marvelously dominant that December 1957 Sunday as viewed by a young Associated Press journalist in Briggs Stadium with fans building bonfires in the bleachers.
Then came the continuing barren seasons for the Lions while the Rams would manage to reach Super Bowl XIV. In 1979, they qualified for the NFC playoffs with a pedestrian 9-7 record. Once in the playoffs, they defeated Dallas and Tampa Bay to become an unexpected Super Bowl XIV team against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers were in the midst of a championship dynasty. The Rams were Super Bowl strangers. The Super Bowl was a grueling battle between two rough hewn teams.
It was Terry Bradshaw, bound for the Hall of Fame, for the Steelers —and Vince Ferragamo, bound for oblivion, at quarterback for the LA Rams. But the Rams had Jack Youngblood and Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds on defense — to compete with the Steelers’ Joe Greene and Jack Lambert and other roughnecks.
The Super Bowl was in Pasadena, outside of LA, and the Rams fought the Steelers with toughness and aplomb.
After three quarters, the Rams were in front, 19-17. But Bradshaw rallied the Steelers in the fourth quarter —John Stallworth was magnificent. And Pittsburgh won it, 31-19.
And the Rams were on the move again.
They abandoned the Los Angeles Coliseum, site of Super Bowl I in 1967, for Anaheim and a baseball park in 1980. They moved again in 1995 —forsaking California for new, supposedly fertile territory back in the Midwest.
This time it was St. Louis — vacated earlier by the Chicago/St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals. The move was denied in a vote of NFL ownership. When Georgia Frontiere threatened litigation, the NFL owners buckled.
The Cleveland/Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams would flourish in Missouri.
They won another championship — the only NFL to win three titles in three separate cities.
Kurt Warner emerged as the Rams’ quarterback — a vagabond QB for a vagabond football team. His background included stocking shelves in a supermarket and playing for Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League and the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.
He got the Rams’ starting job just like another quarterback in New England would get his — via injury to the starter. Warner took over when Trent Green was injured. And he pitched and wowed the Rams to Super Bowl XXXIV.
Peach of a game
That was a true classic Super Bowl here in Atlanta.
Warner put the Rams ahead with a sizzling 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce for a lead over the Tennessee Titans, formerly the Houston/Tennessee Oilers. Super Bowl XXXIV climaxed with Steve McNair driving the Titans toward a possible tying touchdown.
The last play started with the Titans with 0:06 left on the game clock. McNair hit Kevin Dyson with a short pass. And as Dyson headed toward the end zone he was tackled.
The game ended with one of my favorite Super Bowl memories. Dyson struggling for the end zone and the Rams’ Mike Jones dragging him back a leg.
It ended there — Rams 23, Titans 16.
Two years later, the Rams were back in the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Warner was still the Rams QB. They had a new opponent, the New England Patriots, once upon a time the Boston Patriots. The Patriots had a young quarterback who had been much passed over sixth-round NFL draft choice.
The youngster’s name: Tom Brady.
He had become the Patriots’ quarterback in the second game of the 2001 seasons after incumbent Drew Bledsoe was injured.
The Rams, with a 14-2 record, were strong favorites. But the Patriots led until Warner tied the game at 17-17 with a clutch touchdown pass of 26 yards.
But 90 seconds remained and Brady moved the Patriots forward with a drive into field-goal range. Then Adam Vinatieri won with a 48-yard field goal as time expired. Patriots 20, Rams 17.
It was the Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory. They would establish a championship legacy with five Super Bowl victories (so far) in the 21st Century and losses in three others.
Meanwhile the Rams would become tired of St. Louis.
Two seasons ago, they moved again. They returned to Los Angeles, where they had once been shunned. Waiting out construction of a new stadium, they played their games in the Los Angeles Coliseum, which they had once vacated.
And then they were awarded a NFC championship this month, with a controversial 26-23 victory in overtime over the New Orleans Saints.
So now the Cleveland/Los Angeles/ St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams are to compete against the Boston/New England Patriots and 41-year-old Tom Brady. The Rams, who won their first championship because Sammy Baugh hit a goalpost against the Patriots, who were almost moved to Montreal.
The NFL is in, Ernest Hemingway’s words, A Moveable Feast.
Jerry Green, a retired sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.