Los Angeles — Life with the Los Angeles Rams last season was a series of personality explosions that affected practices, games, and team continuity. Los Angeles didn't need a head coach in 1980 as much as it needed a keeper.
Although the Rams blew their seven- year lease on the top spot in their division to the Atlanta Falcons, they did lead the league in holdouts, malcontents, and generally unhappy people.
Well, all of the above personnel problems have either moved on to other cities, been caressed with new, long-term contracts, or been unconditionally released. The word from the Ram's camp is that L.A. is ready to play some championship football.
For the record, Los Angeles finished 11- 5 in 1980 (second to Atlanta's 12-4) , then lost a wild-card playoff game to the Dallas Cowboys in which the Rams's offense acted as though it had been given the day off.
"Our main concern this year is the chief worry of all pro football teams -- major injuries," explained Head Coach Ray Malavasi. "Offensively and defensively we should be a very good football team, including our special units. But we can't afford to lose any key people."
"I don't care how much talent you have," Ray continued; "a team can always use more depth, and that's one of the areas we've tried to improve in training camp. But until we see our new people under game conditions during the exhibition season, we aren't really able to properly evaluate them."
One of the players the Rams' head coach may have been referring to is linebacker Mel Owens, the team's No. 1 draft pick from Michigan, who reported to camp late because of a contract dispute.
Although Malavasi's confidence in his team is well justified, it is not completely shared by those who think that L.A. has already been hurt by the loss of three of last year's regulars -- QB Vince Ferragamo, plus linebackers Jack Reynolds and Bob Brudzinski.
Ferragamo is now with Montreal in the Canadian Football League; Reynolds with the San Francisco 49ers; and Brudzinski with the Miami Dolphins.
"Before Ferragamo we had Pat Haden at quarterback and we won three consecutive division titles with Haden, so it's not like we're breaking in somebody new," Ray said. "Carl Ekern, who is replacing Reynolds, is experienced , along with being faster, younger, and a better pass defender than Jack. He'll also pick up opposing blockers a lot quicker than reynolds did."
"Since we didn't have Brudzinski for most of last Season anyway and since George Andrews is obviously ready to play some good football, i don't see any problems with our linebackers. Besides, no one player ever makes that much difference over an entire season."
Haden, who threw only 41 passes last year because of injuries, has been leading his receivers well in practice, including tight end Henry Childs, who had seven productive seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
"Last year the Rams changed their offense quite a bit, with a lot more emphasis on throwing deep and opening things up on the ground," Haden said. "Even though I read in the papers all the time that I can't throw for distance, that's wrong. This offense will be as good for me as it was for Ferragamo.
"I can throw the ball 70 yards in the air, if that's what the situation calls for, and still find my receivers. The chief reason I haven't thrown long more often in the past is that our system didn't call for it."
Asked if there had been anything positive about the 1980 season for him, Haden replied: "Once I got hurt and couldn't start anymore, everything just ended for me. I don't agree with people who say you can learn from sitting on the bench or putting on earphones and talking with the coaches in the press box.
"If you're a quarterback, the only way you can improve is to throw under game conditions. Although practice is a pretty good way of getting to know your receivers, you can only establish your timing when you're being pressured."
Only the San Diego Chargers had a better offense last year than Los angeles, which was also outstanding most of the time on defense. Malavasi has seven Pro Bowl players returning, including guards Dennis Harrah and Kent Kill; defensive tackle Larry Brooks; Safety Nolan Cromwell; cornerbacks Pat Thomas and Rod Perry; plus center Rich Saul.
"Pro football is so well balanced right now that there are no easy games anymore, especially on the road," Ray said. "We're concerned with Atlanta in our division because we think the Falcons have added a lot defensively since last season. But with the kind of team experience we have, I'll be very disappointed if we don't de extremely well."