November 26, 2011

1989: Anderson Gains 336 Receiving Yards as Rams Beat Saints

The Los Angeles Rams had started off the 1989 NFL season with five wins, lost four straight, but were back on track with two consecutive wins for a 7-4 overall record as they faced the New Orleans Saints on November 26. The Rams had been known as more of a running team in six prior seasons under Head Coach John Robinson, and while they still could run the ball with RB Greg Bell, the passing game was especially effective. QB Jim Everett had the solid veteran WR Henry Ellard to throw to, although he was not available for the game in New Orleans due to a strained calf muscle. However, he also had fleet second-year WR Willie “Flipper” Anderson (pictured above), who had the ability to stretch the field – and would do so in record fashion against the Saints.

New Orleans, coached by Jim Mora, had gotten off to a slow start at 1-4 due to cracks in the outstanding defense – most notably the absence of linebackers Pat Swilling (holdout) and Rickey Jackson (auto accident) at the beginning of the season. However, they then won five of their next six, including a big 40-21 win at LA, and were 6-5 as they hosted the Rams. RB Dalton Hilliard was the featured player on offense, while QB Bobby Hebert was suffering through a difficult season.

There were 64,274 fans in attendance for the Sunday night game at the Louisiana Superdome. The Rams had the first possession and immediately came out throwing as Everett connected with Anderson for gains of 14 and 11 yards. But after penetrating to the New Orleans 26 yard line, a holding penalty backed them up to the 36 and the drive stalled, forcing a punt.

Starting at their nine, it was the turn of the Saints to move the ball down the field, and it yielded results. Hilliard ran the ball six times in the 13-play, 91-yard drive and gained 26 yards while Hebert scrambled for a first down in a third-and-three situation and completed four passes, the last for a 19-yard touchdown to WR Eric Martin. The score stood at 7-0 after one quarter of play.

New Orleans started off the second quarter with Hebert passing to TE Greg Scales for a 17-yard gain and an eight-play possession ended up with Morten Andersen kicking a 36-yard field goal to extend the Saints’ lead to 10-0. The Rams responded with a scoring drive as Everett threw to Willie Anderson for a 43-yard gain on a third-and-13 play from their own 17 yard line and then converted another third down on another Everett-to-Anderson pass that gained 17 yards. Mike Lansford kicked a 32-yard field goal and it was a 10-3 game.

There was no further scoring during the remainder of the half as neither offense was able to effectively move the ball. Los Angeles had been held to 10 net rushing yards, but Anderson had already gained 85 yards on his four catches. There was much more to come.

On the first play following the second half kickoff, Hebert’s deflected pass was intercepted by DT Shawn Miller, giving the Rams the ball at the New Orleans 16. However, after driving down to the five, Lansford’s 22-yard field goal attempt was partially blocked by NT Jim Wilks and was no good.

The Saints moved the ball to their 44, largely due to a 29-yard gain on a Hebert throw to Martin, but New Orleans again had to punt. Anderson caught a six-yard pass on LA’s possession, but the Rams had to punt from midfield. Once again starting deep in their own territory, the Saints got a big gain when Hilliard broke through the line for a 40-yard pickup to the Los Angeles 47. Two plays later, Hilliard reached the hundred-yard rushing mark with a seven-yard carry and two plays after that he took a handoff, headed to his right, and then threw an option pass that Martin gathered in at the three yard line for a 35-yard touchdown. With less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, New Orleans was up by 17-3.

The Rams took possession at their 20 after the resulting kickoff was downed in the end zone, and needing a big play, they got it when Everett connected with Anderson for a 50-yard gain. The period ended two plays later with the ball on the New Orleans 29, but on a third-and-nine play, Everett was sacked by LB Vaughan Johnson for a 10-yard loss and once again the Rams had to punt. The ensuing kick was muffed by WR Rod Harris and LA recovered at the New Orleans 8. But still the Rams’ offense failed to take advantage of an opportunity and found itself with a fourth-and-goal situation at the 11. Everett suffered his fifth sack of the game, this time by Swilling, and the Saints took over on downs.

Following a short possession that resulted in a punt, the Rams got the ball back at their 40. Anderson caught a pass for a 16-yard gain and Everett completed two more short throws before he was intercepted by CB Robert Massey. The play withstood a review and the Saints again had the ball, only to punt it back shortly thereafter. Again Everett came out throwing, hitting WR Aaron Cox for 23 yards down the middle and then Anderson for 14 and RB Robert Delpino for six to the New Orleans 20. However, a pass to Anderson in the end zone fell incomplete and on the next play RB Greg Bell fumbled and DE James Geathers recovered for the Saints.

With time running out for the Rams, the two-touchdown New Orleans lead looked increasingly safe, but the Saints couldn’t get out from deep inside their own territory and had to punt once more. Los Angeles took over at its 39 yard line and Everett, following an incompletion, threw to RB Buford McGee for 11 yards. He went to the air again on the next play, and it resulted in a completion to Anderson for a 46-yard gain to the New Orleans four. Despite two penalties, the Rams were not denied this time as McGee ran for a five-yard touchdown and, with the successful extra point, it was now a 17-10 score.

The Saints took possession with 2:36 left in regulation, but once more the offense moved backward rather than forward and they had to punt from their 11 yard line. Tommy Barnhardt’s kick went 32 yards and, following a three-yard return, LA had the ball at the New Orleans 40.

It appeared that the Rams were still snake bitten, however, as Everett was sacked for the sixth time and then had a completion wiped out by a holding penalty. With second-and-32 at his own 38, Everett completed a pass to Anderson for 26 yards and followed up with a seven-yard completion to TE Pete Holohan for a first down at the New Orleans 29. The next two passes went to Anderson, for 14 yards and then a 15-yard touchdown. The clock was now down to a minute and Lansford tied the game at 17-17 with the successful conversion.

The Saints went three-and-out and punted, and Everett fired a pass down the middle to Anderson for a 24-yard gain to the New Orleans 35. However, Lansford missed a 52-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the fourth quarter and the game went into overtime.

New Orleans won the toss to receive the kickoff for the OT period, but once more the offense couldn’t move the ball and punted. The Rams took over at their 15 and, as had been their pattern, were penalized half the distance on their first play. However, they got a break when a long pass by Everett that was nearly intercepted drew an interference call for a gain of 35 yards. Everett had to throw the ball away under pressure on the next play and Bell ran for four yards, setting up a third-and-six situation at the LA 47. Not surprisingly, Everett looked to Anderson and connected for a 14-yard pickup and first down in Saints territory. Again a holding penalty backed the Rams up, but Everett threw to Holohan for eight yards and, for the climactic time, to Anderson for a 26-yard gain to the New Orleans 14. At 6:38 into the extra period, Lansford kicked a 31-yard field goal and the Rams came away with a hard-fought 20-17 win.

Los Angeles outgained the Saints (472 yards to 301), although only 57 of those yards came on the ground, and had more first downs (23 to 14). They also turned the ball over three times, to two turnovers by New Orleans, suffered six sacks while getting to Hebert four times, and repeatedly hurt themselves with penalties, accumulating a total of 10 (the Saints were flagged nearly as often, with 8).

Willie Anderson set a single-game NFL record with 336 yards on his 15 pass receptions and scored a touchdown (the previous record of 309 had been set by Kansas City’s Stephone Paige in 1985). Jim Everett (pictured at right) completed 29 of 51 passes for 454 yards with a TD and two intercepted. Robert Delpino led what there was of a running game as he gained 28 yards on 7 carries; he also accumulated 33 yards on his 5 pass receptions.

Dalton Hilliard was the star for New Orleans as he rushed for 112 yards on 24 carries. Bobby Hebert, continuing to have difficulties, completed 12 of his 26 throws for 155 yards with a TD and an interception. Eric Martin caught 5 passes for 107 yards and two TDs while, defensively, Robert Massey accounted for two of the team’s interceptions and Frank Warren was credited with two sacks.

“It was the most exciting and the happiest, yet also the most frustrating football game, I've ever been in,” said John Robinson afterward. “I don't know how many times we had the ball inside the 40 and came away with nothing repeatedly. I wasn't sure we'd score another touchdown as long as I lived. Willie Anderson put on the greatest performance I've ever seen by a wide receiver.”

The Rams went on to win three of their last four games to finish at 11-5, good enough for second place in the NFC West and a wild card berth in the playoffs. They easily defeated the Eagles in the first round and beat the Giants in the second, but lost decisively to their powerful division rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, in the NFC Championship game. New Orleans, with John Fourcade eventually supplanting Bobby Hebert at quarterback, finished third in the division at 9-7.

“Flipper” Anderson led the NFL in yards per catch with a gaudy 26.0 figure (over six yards higher than his teammate and league runner-up, Henry Ellard, at 19.7). He had 44 receptions for 1146 yards and five touchdowns. Anderson again led the league with 21.5 yards per catch in ’90, but his productivity dropped off after that.

Jim Everett ranked third in the league in passing (90.6 rating) while leading in touchdown passes (29) and placed second (by just eight yards) in passing yardage with 4310. While he went to the Pro Bowl following the 1990 season, like Anderson, his early promise would give way to declining performance as his career moved forward.