December 9, 2010

1967: Blocked Punt Sets Up Winning TD as Rams Defeat Packers

The December 9, 1967 contest at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum featured the Green Bay Packers, two-time defending NFL champions, against the Rams, a team on the rise and in a tough battle for a division title. In this first season in which the Eastern and Western conferences were split into two four-team divisions apiece, Green Bay was 9-2-1 and had already clinched the Central Division, while Los Angeles had a 9-1-2 record, putting the Rams just behind the 10-0-2 Baltimore Colts in the Coastal Division.

While Head Coach Vince Lombardi’s Packers had won four titles in six seasons, the team was beginning to show its age and injuries had added to the challenge of keeping the run going. 33-year-old QB Bart Starr had been playing hurt at the beginning of the year, and running backs Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski were lost to injury, forcing the club to bring in journeymen replacements in Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein. Still, after a slow start, Green Bay was rolling and rode a four-game winning streak into LA.

The Rams had strung together seven consecutive losing seasons prior to the arrival of George Allen as head coach in 1966. His impact had been immediate, as the team went 8-6 in his first year, and now it had become a title contender. The offense played conservatively, with QB Roman Gabriel (pictured above) and a solid group of running backs led by HB Les Josephson and FB Dick Bass. The defense was outstanding, starting with the line that was known as “The Fearsome Foursome” and included ends Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy and tackles Merlin Olsen and Roger Brown (acquired from Detroit in the preseason after Roosevelt Grier was lost for the year with a knee injury).

There were 76,837 fans on hand under sunny skies for the Saturday contest. Both teams failed on field goal attempts before Green Bay scored first, late in the first quarter, on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Starr to flanker Carroll Dale. The Rams came back to tie the game early in the second quarter with a 73-yard drive that concluded with Gabriel throwing to split end Jack Snow for a 16-yard TD. Following an interception by Green Bay safety Willie Wood, the Packers scored on a 32-yard Don Chandler field goal just before the half to take a 10-7 lead into the intermission.

In the third quarter, LA regained the lead when Gabriel again tossed a scoring pass to Snow, this one covering 11 yards. It was 17-10 later in the period when Bruce Gossett kicked a 23-yard field goal. But instead of squib-kicking the ensuing kickoff, as they had been doing to keep the ball away from Green Bay’s sensational kick returner, rookie HB Travis Williams (pictured at left), Gossett kicked away. Williams fielded the kick four yards deep in his end zone and proceeded to sprint 104 yards for a touchdown – his record fourth such return of the year. From a seven-point Rams lead, the game was now tied at 17-17.

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.

Los Angeles outgained the Packers (324 yards to 218) and had more first downs (20 to 12), although they also gave up three turnovers to Green Bay’s two. Roman Gabriel completed 20 of 36 passes for 227 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Les Josephson led the ground game with 73 yards on 19 carries and also caught 5 passes for 51 yards. Bernie Casey caught 6 passes for 97 yards, including the winning TD. Jack Snow (pictured at right) had two touchdowns among his four receptions for 48 yards.

For the Packers, Bart Starr was successful on 10 of 20 passes for 138 yards with a touchdown and two picked off. Boyd Dowler led the club by catching four of those passes for 71 yards. The Rams managed to hold the normally potent Green Bay running game to 98 yards on 32 attempts, with Travis Williams the leading rusher with 26 yards on 12 attempts.

The Rams thrashed the Colts 34-10 the next week in the climactic battle for the division crown, and finished 11-1-2. For the first time in NFL history, a division title was determined by tiebreaker (as opposed to playing an extra game), and due to LA’s better point differential in head-to-head contests, they finished ahead of Baltimore. Green Bay lost its season finale to complete the regular season at 9-4-1, but in the Western Conference Championship game, won the rematch with the Rams by a convincing 28-7. The Packers went on to win a third straight NFL title by beating Dallas and capped it all with a Super Bowl triumph over the AFL champion Oakland Raiders.

Roman Gabriel threw a career-high 25 touchdown passes and his 2779 passing yards were his most with the Rams (his career high was 3219 with the Eagles in 1973). By the passer rating system in use at the time, he placed fourth in the league, although by the current rating system he was third (85.2). Gabriel was named to the Pro Bowl for the first of three straight years.

Bart Starr’s numbers dropped off significantly from 1966, when he was the NFL’s top passer (105.0 rating by current system). He threw a career-high 17 interceptions and only nine TD passes. Yet his 8.7 yards per attempt and 15.9 yards per completion were both league-leading figures and, along with the Packers finishing on top once again, attested to his continued effectiveness.

In addition to scoring four touchdowns on kickoff returns, Travis Williams set a record for kick return average of 41.1 on 18 returns. While Cecil Turner of the Bears also returned four kickoffs for TDs in 1970, the average per return still remains the best to date.