The L.A. Rams are in the Super Bowl. It’s happened only once before, 39 years ago — a drought that exceeded the longest gap between the Dodgers’ World Series appearances. I don’t count their two Super Bowls as the St. Louis Rams.
When I was a kid, the Rams were L.A.’s original showtime team. Before the Dodgers and the Lakers arrived, they thrilled crowds in the Coliseum with such players as Crazylegs Hirsch, Jaguar Jon Arnett, The Dutchman, and Tank Younger. My favorite was Bob Boyd, a speedster whose over-the-shoulder receptions my brother and I mimicked while playing catch until it was too dark to continue.
Season tickets were affordable in the early 1960s, which made us loyal fans of the Rams even as they suffered through seven straight losing seasons. As they collapsed one afternoon, the PA man announced that latest Rams yearbooks were on sale, and the crowd booed lustily. He followed up with: “It’s got nice pictures.”
Then along came the hard-driving coach George Allen, the Fearsome Foursome led by Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, and the passing combination of Roman Gabriel-to-Jack Snow. “I was in the 3rd grade, and I had a pretty good arm,” said Kiki Garibay of Carpinteria. “Somebody called me Roman Gabriel. I’ve been following the Rams ever since.”
The Rams made it to the NFL playoffs 16 times between 1967 and 1989, crashing the Super Bowl in 1980, when the Pittsburgh Steelers came from behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a 31-19 victory. They started playing in Anaheim the following season, and Garibay would make frequent trips to watch Eric Dickerson’s dazzling runs.
After the Rams made their confounding move to St. Louis in 1994, they lost a lot of their Southern California following, but not Garibay. “My wife [Nancy] and I are big-time fans,” he said. “We went to three games in St. Louis.” So they celebrated when the Rams defeated the Titans in the 2000 Super Bowl, and they were ready to shell out for season tickets when the team returned to Los Angeles three years ago.
After a mediocre homecoming season, the Rams struck gold with the hiring of dynamic coach Sean McVay and the blossoming of quarterback Jared Goff. It was off to the playoffs last year, and now this Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
Millions of football fans have jumped on L.A.’s bandwagon — because they don’t want to see the perceived Evil Empire of Coach Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots brandish another trophy. But the Garibays evince an authentic support of the Rams, going back decades. “It will be hard to take down that gunslinger [Tom] Brady,” Kiki Garibay said. “I see a last-second field goal, and I think [Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein] can do it.”
An interested observer will be Laird Hayes, a San Marcos High and Princeton grad, who retired last year after 22 years as an NFL official. Hayes was a side judge at three Super Bowls, beginning in 2002, when the Belichick–Brady era was launched by a 20-17 upset of the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf.” Hayes also worked at the Super Bowls in 2004 (Patriots 32, Carolina 29) and 2012 (New York Giants 21, Patriots 17). In the latter game, Hayes made one of the most famous calls in officiating lore. He ruled that Mario Manningham was inbounds on a bang-bang sideline catch that set up the winning touchdown. Belichick challenged the call, but the replay upheld it.
Also on the crew in that Super Bowl was Gary Cavaletto, another Santa Barbara native and one of those anonymous NFL black-hatted zebras until last week’s NFC championship game. With less than two minutes remaining, Cavaletto and two other officials were in position to call a blatant pass interference and/or helmet-to-helmet penalty against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, but they didn’t. Because of their misjudgment, not subject to review, the New Orleans Saints were deprived of a first down that would have enabled them to run down the clock and kick a winning field goal, rather than giving the Rams a chance to score an equalizer and win in overtime.
Needless to say, if Cavaletto is ever seen in New Orleans again, he’d best have somebody else taste the gumbo when it’s brought to his table. Saints fans, a more deeply passionate constituency than L.A.’s, are still enraged.
Cavaletto, a 16-year veteran in the NFL, is highly regarded among officials. But he’s human, and they all make mistakes. Hayes said, “What matters is: How big a mistake do you make, and when do you make it?”
Hayes recalled a 2013 game when he ruled that Denver’s Trindon Holliday stepped out of bounds on a punt return. Replays showed that he had fumbled while still in bounds. Because Hayes blew the play dead, Sergio Brown of the Colts, who had picked up the ball and run into the end zone, was deprived of a touchdown. “All I could think was: ‘You idiot!’” Hayes said. “Fortunately, it was in the first quarter, and Indianapolis ended up winning the game.” By contrast, the blunder of Cavaletto and crew could not have come at a worse time.
Jim Tunney, perhaps the NFL’s most trusted referee from 1960-90, writes a weekly column (tunneysideofsports.com) for the Monterey Herald. He offered an interesting explanation for what happened in New Orleans, a condition called “inattentional blindness.” Tunney wrote that “it causes us to miss something even if our eyes never look away. During a magic trick your eyes may never look away, but you still didn’t see what happened!”
Hayes said the NFL may decide to subject potential pass-interference incidents to replay reviews in the future. “It won’t be next year,” he said, because the league would not want to appear knee-jerk in doing its business. But such a provision would be consistent with the reviews that determine whether pass receptions or balls crossing the goal line were judged correctly.