By Don Wanlass
A win in Super Bowl LVI could help the Los Angeles Rams regain a position of prominence on the Los Angeles sports scene they haven’t had since they moved to Anaheim for the 1980 NFL season.
When the Rams became the first major league sports franchise to move to Los Angeles in 1946, they quickly became the most prominent sports attraction in Los Angeles, usurping a position formerly held by USC football and minor league baseball teams the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars and the race tracks at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.
The Rams were the defending NFL champion when they moved from Cleveland in 1946. Soon they had hometown hero Bob Waterfield, a star at UCLA, playing quarterback. He married actress Jane Russell.
He had Hall of Fame wide receivers like Tom Fears (another former Bruin) and Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch and the bull elephant backfield of Tank Younger, Deacon Dan Towler and Dick Hoerner and they won the NFL Championship in 1951 and played for the title three other times.
A game with the San Francisco 49ers in 1957 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum drew more than 102,000 fans, still one of the top 10 all-time attendance figures in NFL history.
The Dodgers and Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and 1960, respectively, robbing the Rams of some of their fan base, particularly when the Rams won only 25 games in a seven-year stretch from 1959 to 1965.
In the 1960s, the Lakers were playing in the NBA Finals six times (losing them all to the Boston Celtics), while the Dodgers advanced to three World Series, winning two of them.
From 1967 through 1979, the Rams won their division nine times and finished second three other times, holding their own against the Dodgers and the Lakers.
But when the Rams moved to Anaheim after playing in the Super Bowl in 1980, many of their Los Angeles fans stayed away, particularly when the Raiders moved down from Oakland for the 1982 season and won the Super Bowl the following season.
By the time owner Georgia Frontiere moved the team to St. Louis for the 1995 season, the Rams were an afterthought in Los Angeles sports and they stayed that way until returning to Los Angeles in 2016.
A trip to the Super Bowl after their third season back in Los Angeles began to revive the status of the Rams in the Los Angeles sports hierarchy, and a win Feb. 13 against the Cincinnati Bengals would move them another rung up the ladder, especially with the Lakers hovering around .500 for the current season and the Dodgers stuck in the middle of a labor dispute that is threatening to delay the start of the 2022 baseball season.
This is the Rams turn to shine. The spotlight of the Super Bowl — the most-watched game in the country every year — will shine on quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Cooper Kupp, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, defensive back Jalenb Ramsey and the rest of the Rams roster.
A victory won’t make the Rams the king of Los Angeles sports again, but it certainly will improve the team’s stature among the Lakers and the Dodgers.
And just maybe it will mean their fans won’t have to be worried about being outnumbered at home games anymore.
NFL LAWSUIT: In 2003, the NFL adopted the so-called Rooney Rule —named for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who chaired the league’s diversity committee at the time.
The rule required NFL teams to interview minority candidates whenever they were searching for a new head coach or football operation opportunities in senior management positions.
In a league where about 70% of the players are Black, only 22 Black men have been head coaches since Art Shell was named the coach of the Los Angeles Raiders. And while some white coaches bounce around from team to team, few Black coaches have received second chances.
Brian Flores, who had coached the Miami Dolphins for the last three seasons, filed suit against the NFL, the Dolphins, the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, accusing the league of discriminating against Black head coaches at that the Giants and Broncos interviewed him for their head coaching jobs in 2019 with no intention of hiring him, just to meet the mandates of the Rooney Rule.
Flores was fired at the end of the 2021 season by the Dolphins, despite winning 10 games in 2020 and nine in 2021.
You have to go back to 2002 and 2003 to find 19 wins over a two-year period ion Dolphins’ history.
Yet, Flores finds himself on the outside looking in along with every other Black coach not named Mike Tomlin, who has coached the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007.
The Dolphins cited turmoil between Flores and the front office after choosing to get rid of Flores. Apparently, he was interested in replacing Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and the team’s general manager Trent Balke didn’t.
Owner Steve Ross sided with Balke.
After announcing the lawsuit, Flores said Ross had offered him bonus money to deliberately lose games at the end of the 2019 season to enhance the Dolphins’ chances of drafting Joe Burrow to be their quarterback.
The Dolphins won their last two games to finish 5-11 in Flores’ first year and the Dolphins drafted Tagovailoa with the fifth pick of the draft after Burrow went first overall to the Bengals.
Burrow will be playing in the Super Bowl Feb. 13. By drafting Tagavailoa when they did, the Dolphins passed on Justin Herbert, who the Los Angeles Chargers grabbed with the next pick.
In two years, Tagavailoa has thrown for 4,467 yards with 27 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Herbert has thrown for 9,350 yards with 69 touchdown and 25 interceptions.
But Flores ended up getting fired.
Are NFL owners racist? It’s hard to say.
For years teams resisted putting Blacks at quarterback until players like Warren Moon, Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham came along and showed the Blacks could be high-caliber quarterbacks.
In 2018, five Black coaches were fired at the end of the seasons by NFL teams. All were replaced by white coaches.
Flores and David Culler were both dismissed at the end of the 2021 season, leaving Tomlin as the only remaining Black coach.
Tomlin is often cited as a beneficiary of the Rooney Rule. After Bill Cowher retired as the Steelers coach after the 2006 season, most people expected former Washington offensive lineman Russ Grimm would be hired as Cowher’s replacement.
The Steelers chose to interview Tomlin to meet the mandates of the Rooney Rule and were so impressed by his interview that they hired him instead.
All he has done is produce 15 consecutive winning seasons — an NFL record — while averaging 10 wins a season.
Only Bill Belichick and Andy Reid have more than Tomlin’s 154 wins among active coaches and Belichick has 27 years under his belt and Reid has 23.
It was 2007 before a Black coached his team to the Super Bowl. That year, both coaches were Black as Tony Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts over the Chicago Bears coached by Lovie Smith.
Two years later, Tomlin won the Super Bowl when the Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals.
Jim Caldwell guided the Colts back to the Super Bowl in 2010 after replacing Dungy,
and Tomlin lost to Green Bay in 2011.
No other Black coach has made it that far since.
It is time the NFL does more than pay lip service to the Rooney Rule. It is time that league ownerships begin hiring team executives and coaches who look more like the players they are leading.
It’s too bad it has taken a lawsuit — and the inherent bad publicity the case has brought the league — before something is done to change the way the league operates.