December 5, 2010
Prior to the December 5, 1971 game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints, halfback Willie Ellison had largely labored in obscurity. In his fifth year out of Texas Southern, as part of a stable of good backs in LA he had only occasionally started; in his best season, 1968, he gained 616 yards, but had a combined total of 521 in the other three years. At 6’2” and 210 pounds, he had good speed but was stuck behind bigger backs more to the liking of Head Coach George Allen such as Les Josephson and Larry Smith.
1971 was a year of transition for the Rams, as Allen had been let go following the ’70 season and replaced by Tommy Prothro, a career college coach who had been at UCLA. One of the changes the new head coach made was to utilize Ellison more, and it would lead to his not only achieving a career high in rushing but a place in the record book as well.
Los Angeles was 6-4-1 coming into the game against the Saints at the Memorial Coliseum, a half-game behind the 49ers (7-4) in the NFC West. New Orleans, under Head Coach J.D. Roberts, was struggling at 4-5-2, although the Saints were coming off of a win the week before at Green Bay and had beaten the Rams in the first game of the season. However, rookie QB Archie Manning, who had starred in that opening-day contest, was injured against the Packers and out for the rematch with LA – third-year backup Edd Hargett started in his place.
There were 73,610 fans present at the huge stadium, and they didn’t have to wait long for the Rams to get on the board. On the third play from scrimmage, Ellison ran around end for an 80-yard touchdown. Sprung thanks to a block by perennial Pro Bowl guard Tom Mack on New Orleans FS D’Artagnan Martin, Ellison had clear sailing until he reached the Saints’ 20 and dodged the strong safety, Hugo Hollas, to continue on to the end zone.
The next score was set up when New Orleans punter Julian Fagan, after fielding a bad snap that had gone over his head, launched a punt that went just four yards. LA took over on the New Orleans 33 and capitalized when QB Roman Gabriel completed a 37-yard TD pass to WR Jack Snow.
The Saints then capped an eight-play drive at 9:38 into the opening period as Hargett completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to WR Dan Abramowicz. But no sooner had they cut LA’s lead to seven points when RB Travis Williams returned the ensuing kickoff 105 yards for a TD. The Rams led by 21-7 after one quarter of play.
On LA’s first series of the second quarter, Ellison broke loose for a 48-yard run to the New Orleans 12, but David Ray ended up missing a 15-yard field goal attempt to make it all for naught. However, when the Saints were forced to punt again, WR Lance Rentzel returned it 24 yards to the New Orleans 37. In a drive assisted by a roughing-the-passer penalty on DT Dave Long, Larry Smith ran the final five yards for a TD.
In the final seconds of the second quarter, Gabriel threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Rentzel that capped a drive of 69 yards in 13 plays which included three runs for 33 yards by Ellison. After one half, Los Angeles was comfortably leading 35-7 and Ellison had gained 186 yards rushing on 13 carries.
After building the big first half lead, the Rams played poorly in the third quarter. A series of penalties kept them in bad field position - one was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Prothro, who stormed onto the field after Gabriel was called for intentional grounding.
New Orleans took advantage of LA’s miscues to score twice. After a 17-yard punt by Pat Studstill from his two yard line, the Saints had excellent field position at the LA 19 and HB Bob Gresham scored from a yard out. Then Ellison fumbled after taking a hard hit and the ball was recovered by Saints LB Jim Flanigan. New Orleans drove 60 yards in seven plays that resulted in a short TD carry by Hargett.
The score was 35-21 after three quarters, putting the Saints in striking distance, but early in the fourth quarter, Gabriel connected with Rentzel for a 39-yard touchdown to cap a 10-play, 65-yard drive that got the Rams back on track. Hargett followed by throwing a desperation pass while pressured by DT Merlin Olsen that was intercepted by CB Jim Nettles at the New Orleans 45. While the Saints scored once more on a second short, one-yard run by Gresham, the outcome was essentially decided.
The only drama remaining pertained to Ellison as he closed in on the single-game rushing record. The existing NFL record had been 237, twice achieved by Cleveland’s Jim Brown, but with the adopting of the American Football League’s records following the merger in 1970, the target was now the 243 yards gained by Cookie Gilchrist of the Bills against the Jets in 1963.
A ten-yard gain put Ellison even with Gilchrist at 243 yards, but then Prothro pulled the halfback for a breather with two minutes left to play, much to the displeasure of the crowd. He returned, to cheers, and broke the record with a two-yard run off left tackle. Ellison added another two-yard run for good measure, bringing his new record total to 247 yards, and left the field to a standing ovation.
The result of the game was almost an afterthought, as Ray kicked a 12-yard field goal to make the final score 45-28.
The Rams easily outgained the Saints, by 421 yards to 263, although they gave up 119 yards as a result of 14 penalties (New Orleans was flagged six times). Willie Ellison’s 247 rushing yards came on 26 carries for a 9.5-yard average gain and included the one long touchdown.
Roman Gabriel completed 10 of 18 passes for 137 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. Lance Rentzel caught 5 passes for 65 yards and two scores to lead the receivers.
For the Saints, Edd Hargett threw 36 passes and was successful on 19 of them for 213 yards with a touchdown and one picked off. Dan Abramowicz and TE Dave Parks both caught five passes, with Abramowicz gaining 91 yards (and scoring a TD) to 46 for the veteran tight end. New Orleans gained just 56 yards on the ground, on 23 carries, and FB Jim Strong led with 33 yards on 7 attempts. While Bob Gresham scored the two short TDs, he averaged less than a yard a carry with 9 yards on 11 attempts.
“Yes, they made me aware of the records (at halftime),” said Ellison afterward. “I knew I needed something like 60 yards to break the NFL mark. But really, I didn't let it concern me. I felt whatever comes will come.”
“Willie Ellison ran like hell all day,” said Saints Coach North. “He has a little bit of everything – including blocking.”
“You need 11 guys to block,” added veteran Rams G Joe Scibelli. “But you also need a guy who knows how to hit the hole. Personally I feel honored to be a part of Willie Ellison's record.”
The record-setting performance (it was broken by Buffalo’s O.J. Simpson in the first week of the 1973 season) gave Willie Ellison 929 yards in 12 games, on his way to an even 1000 yards on 211 carries (4.7 avg.). He also caught 32 passes for 238 yards, but all four of his touchdowns came on the ground. Ellison led the team with 764 yards in ’72, but by the following year he was playing fullback in Kansas City, where his career ended in 1974 (returning to the obscurity from whence he had come).
The Rams ended up with an 8-5-1 record to again finish second to San Francisco in the NFC West; following a losing season in 1972, Prothro would be out as coach. New Orleans lost its last two games to conclude with a 4-8-2 tally, once again at the bottom of the division (the Saints would not escape the NFC West cellar until 1974).