As part of SB Nation’s theme week, all of our community sites are choosing the best team in the franchise’s history to never win a championship. The now-LA Rams have had several close calls spread over several decades.
As the Cleveland Rams, the team posted only one winning season over eight years and they won the championship. So it’s pretty clear that there was a best team and no second place.
The first inception of the Los Angeles Rams lost championship games in 1949 and 1950, but at least came back strong again and won the title in 1951 with Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy Hirsch, and Vitamin Smith. I’m posting that last one in an effort to bring back the name Vitamin.
The Rams fell into obscurity from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, but returned to prominence under head coach George Allen with Merlin Olsen on defense and Roman Gabriel on offense to go 32-7-3 from 1967-1969, but lost divisional games both years they went to the playoffs. The best of those seasons was in ‘67, when LA outscored opponents by 202, the top-ranked point differential in the NFL ahead of the Baltimore Colts in second and the Green Bay Packers in a distant third.
In the second to last week of the regular season, the Rams and Packers met in a matchup of two of the elite teams in the league at that time, as Green Bay was just coming off their win in Super Bowl I. A breakdown of the full game can be found here, but I’ll start towards the end of the game:
Early in the fourth quarter, CB Clancy Williams intercepted a pass for LA and the Rams capitalized with a 16-yard Gossett field goal to retake the lead. But the Packers took advantage of a turnover when Bass fumbled and they drove 43 yards to a four-yard touchdown run by Mercein. With 2:19 left on the clock, Green Bay led by 24-20.
It looked good for the Packers when the defense stifled the Rams, who had to punt after three plays. But Green Bay was unable to penetrate the LA defense for a game-clinching first down and was forced to kick the ball back.
With the ball at the Packers’ 27 yard line, Donny Anderson, the team’s punter as well as the heir apparent to the departed Paul Hornung at halfback, prepared to punt with 54 seconds now remaining to play. But before Anderson could get off the kick, Rams reserve LB Tony Guillory ran untouched through the line and blocked it. DB Claude Crabb picked up the loose football and ran 20 yards before being pulled down at the five by Anderson.
Gabriel had to throw the ball away on the first play, but on the second, after a play-action fake to HB Tommy Mason, he threw the ball into the end zone where it was caught by flanker Bernie Casey for a touchdown. Gossett’s conversion was good, and the Rams came away with a big 27-24 win.
The win setup a huge finale against the division-leading Colts, which the Rams won easy, 34-10. Gabriel had 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions that season. They ranked first in points scored and first in points allowed. They had 10 Pro Bowlers, including All-Pros Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones.
The Rams were most likely the best team in the NFL that season against some legendary competition, including the Packers, who beat them easily in the divisional round, 28-7. So by those accounts, Green Bay was the best team in the league after winning their second consecutive Super Bowl. But any team can lose a game and there isn’t much shame in losing to Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi.
Los Angeles was not nearly as dominant in 1969, but they managed an 11-0 start with Gabriel winning MVP until dropping their final three games of the season. The Minnesota Vikings took a lead with 8:24 remaining in the divisional playoff game and did not relinquish it.
The Rams didn’t make the playoffs again until the first season of Chuck Knox, beginning another era of consideration for “Best Rams Team to Never Win a Championship.” LA went 12-2 under Knox in 1973 with a point differential of 210, which is even better than ‘67. Now with John Hedl at QB — and making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro rosters that season — they ranked first in points scored, total yards, yards allowed, yards per attempt, turnovers, second in rushing yards, and fourth in points allowed.
They lost two games, back-to-back in the middle of the season, by a total of three points.
With nine Pro Bowlers, now including Jack Youngblood and Isiah Robertson among others, they ranked first in point differential, ahead of the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys. Again the team in third place bounced them out of the divisional round, this time the Cowboys winning 27-16.
On an unusually balmy day for December in Minnesota, the Vikings were able to hold onto the ball for the final 5:37 of the game to preserve a 14–10 victory. After a scoreless first quarter, Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton threw a 29-yard touchdown to Jim Lash. Rams kicker David Ray later added a 27-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7–3 before halftime. In the third quarter, Los Angeles advanced the ball from their own 1-yard line to the Minnesota 1-yard line.
The big play on the drive was a 73-yard pass play to Harold Jackson, who was finally pushed out of bounds at the Vikings 2 by safety Jeff Wright. With the ball inside the one-yard line, Rams guard Tom Mack was controversially called for illegal procedure (replays showed Mack did not move). Moved back to the six-yard line, the Rams were forced to pass for a touchdown on third down but the pass was deflected and Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg intercepted the ball in the end zone for a touchback.
Minnesota then went on a 15-play drive that took almost eight minutes off the clock to score on Dave Osborn’s 4-yard touchdown run. With 7:15 left to play in the game, the Rams then cut the deficit to 14–10 with Harold Jackson’s 44-yard touchdown reception. Then after forcing the Vikings to punt, Los Angeles drove to the Minnesota 45-yard line. But a third down sack forced the Rams to punt again and the Vikings kept the ball to run out the clock.
That being said, LA did return to the conference championship game two years later under Ray Malavasi, going 12-4. That was probably not the best team of the era by most other margins however. The Rams remarkably made the Super Bowl in 1979 after going 9-7 in the regular season with a point differential of only +14. They may have been one of the closest teams to win a championship that didn’t win a championship, but were they one of the best?
The Rams again reached the NFC Championship game in 1985, but lost 24-0 to that 80s defense people always talk about.
Then of course came the two modern seasons to come close to a championship with a great team: 2001 and 2018.
Two years after the first Super Bowl championships with one of the greatest and memorable seasons of all-time, the Rams rebounded from a disappointing 2000 campaign to go 14-2; one win better than the ‘99 season. St. Louis posted a +230 point differential, the best of any Rams team to never win a championship and the second-best in franchise history. Kurt Warner won his second MVP award, Marshall Faulk probably deserved MVP consideration every time he touched the ball, and the Rams ranked second in DVOA behind only the Philadelphia Eagles. They stomped the Packers and fairly easily put down the Eagles on the way back to the Super Bowl.
Many of those players did win a championship for the Rams already, though there had been a change at head coach from Dick Vermeil to Mike Martz.
In 2018, enough time had passed for a total makeover of the front office and coaching staff a few times over, plus a location back to Los Angeles. The Rams finished second in DVOA for the first time since 2001, going 13-3 and scoring almost 33 points per game. There were certainly shades of ‘99 in the way we could highlight the offense, and reminders of how the franchise has had some of the absolute greatest defensive players in history and now had Aaron Donald. Potentially the best all-around player in the league.
And that’s kind of my quick and dirty recap of the candidates that I would consider as the best Rams team to never win a championship. But I would much rather turn it over to you, the experts. Using however you want to interpret the question:
Which is the best Rams team to never win a championship?
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