For years, the Rams were hated. They were the enemy, the 49ers’ chief rival. The only other NFC West team who was actually in the west, and often the team standing between the 49ers and a playoff spot, or even a championship.
Then suddenly, it was over. The Rams were still a divisional opponent, sure, but nothing special. Not a team that made the blood boil.
Now the Rams are back in L.A., and it appears they’re back in the 49ers’ way. But it’s been so long, it’s hard to remember why they were hated in the first place. I thought a look back at how we got here might help before looking forward.
History of the rivalry
When the NFC West formed in 1970, the 49ers and Rams were rivals from the start. The 49ers won the first three division titles, twice beating out the Rams by one game. In 1973, the Rams took control for the rest of the 70’s while the 49ers were busy being terrible. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana’s arrival in 1979 changed that.
The rivalry heated back up in 1983, when L.A. hired coach John Robinson and drafted RB Eric Dickerson. Those moves transformed the Rams into a playoff team and the biggest threat to the Niners’ NFC West dominance. San Francisco had their way in 1983 and 1984, but in 1985 the Rams beat the Niners at Candlestick on a Monday night in Week 14 to take the division on a Montana pick-six. When the 49ers got beat by the Giants 17-3 in the wild card round and the Rams made it to the NFC Championship Game it was easy to wonder if the balance of power had shifted.
L.A. went for the throat in the off-season, trading for Jim Everett, the third overall pick in the 1986 draft out. A top QB was all the Rams lacked and they seemingly had filled that void. Everett, a smug, lantern-jawed frat boy, was easy to hate.
In 1986, the Rams and 49ers faced each other in primetime at Candlestick in Week 16 with the division on the line. The 49ers won, restoring their grip on the division. It tightened in 1987, when Dickerson’s contract dispute forced a trade to Indianapolis, leading to two more division titles, the second in a tie-breaker over the Rams (and Saints). But Everett had become a league-leading passer, and the Rams were primed for a serious run at the Niners in 1989, the rivalry’s defining season.
Apex of the rivalry
The teams met for yet another late season primetime game -- this time Week 14 in L.A. (technically Anaheim). In the Monday Night Football open, both Frank Gifford and Al Michaels emphasized the teams bitter rivalry. The Rams, who Michaels called “maybe the most exciting team” in the NFL, could draw with a game of the Niners (and clinch the head-to-head tie-breaker thanks to an early season heartbreaker at Candlestick) with two games to play.
They seemed poised to do that, jumping out to a 27-10 lead. The Niners cut it to 27-17 before the Rams reached a 1st-and-goal at the 49ers 2-yard line in the 4th quarter. It appeared they would put the game away, but a fumbled snap gave the 49ers a reprieve. Montana immediately hit Taylor on a quick slant, which he took 95 yards -- his second 90+ yard quick slant catch and run of the game (which are worth watching if only for Jerry Rice’s downfield blocking). A few minutes later, Roger Craig scored the winning TD in one of the most thrilling games in 49er history.
The division again belonged to the 49ers, but the Rams proved they could challenge them unlike any other team. So when they came into Candlestick for the NFC Championship Game, 49ers fans were uneasy. Even more so when the Rams looked poised to take a 10-0 lead. But a TD-saving play by Ronnie Lott kept the score at 3-0 and changed the tone of the game. The Rams wouldn’t score again, and the 49ers cruised to 30-3 win and another Super Bowl.
The Lott play was the game’s most important, but its most memorable came late, when a shell-shocked Jim Everett, fearing the wrath of Charles Haley (and who wouldn’t?), sacked himself instead. That phantom sack would dog Everett, who became a target for ridicule, even being called a woman on live television repeatedly. You can’t underrate how dramatically Everett’s confidence eroded. He was shook.
Death of the rivalry
From 1990 to 1994, Everett regressed, and the Rams posted double digit losses in five straight years while the 49ers were going to four Championship Games. The fire in the rivalry was fading. Then the Rams moved to St. Louis before the 1995 season, and it was like we suddenly didn’t even know them anymore.
When the first year St. Louis Rams started 5-1 and hosted the 4-2 49ers at Busch Stadium behind Elvis Grbac, it looked for a moment like the rivalry survived the commute. Even after the 49ers battered the Rams on the field and sideline. But it wouldn’t last. The Rams faded, going 7-9, 6-10, 5-11, and 4-12. Meanwhile, Steve Young led the Niners to the playoffs every year, under George Seifert and Steve Mariucci. The rivalry withered. The 49ers had no history with St. Louis, and once the Rams moved into their dome they were just another NFC West team playing indoors at 10am.
In 1999, the teams pulled a Freaky Friday, flip-flopping spots at the top and bottom of the division. Both were forced to play the majority of the season with backup QB’s after their starters went down, but Jeff Garcia struggled for the Niners, culminating in a shocking 4-12 season, while Rams backup Kurt Warner became the league’s breakout star and MVP on his way to a title. Suddenly, the Rams were The Greatest Show on Turf, and the 49ers were realizing Steve Young’s career was over.
Though Garcia helped the 49ers quickly return to relevance in 2001, they were not in the same class as NFC champ Rams. The next year, it was the Rams who weren’t in the 49ers class. By 2004, both teams faded from competitiveness and spent the rest of the decade at the bottom of the newly realigned NFC West. Enough of that will kill any rivalry.
While Jim Harbaugh rescued the Niners from irrelevance in 2011, the Rams had no savior. The Seahawks became the 49ers rival, challenging them for division supremacy, and the Super Bowl. They were so easy to hate -- Richard Sherman’s loud-mouth preening, Pete Carroll’s cheeseball antics, Russell Wilson’s goody-two-shoes shtick, etc. The Cardinals also provided more of a threat -- it’s hard to get too worked up about Bruce Arians or Carson Palmer in a vacuum, but it’s easy to dislike anyone who beats you.
By the time the Rams returned to L.A. in 2016, the 49ers were in a post-Harbaugh death spiral. Not only had it been awhile since there was any reason to hate the Rams, there wasn’t a lot to hate. Todd Gurley is one the league’s most exciting RB’s and seems like a good guy. Jared Goff is a Bay Area kid who wears #16 in honor of Montana. Aaron Donald might be the best defender in the NFL. Then in 2017, they finally had enough of Mustachioed Mediocrity and hired Sean McVay, a man with the 49ers in his genes. Next to Seattle, they were easy to root for. Somebody had to beat the Seahawks, and with the 49ers suffering through what looked like another lost season, it wasn’t going to be them anytime soon.
But then a
funny handsome thing happened, and suddenly it’s time to look around the division to see who’s in the 49ers way. Seattle is vulnerable, if not disarray, thanks to injury, roster transition, in-fighting (so much in-fighting), and whatever this is. Arizona has a new coach, and is looking for a new QB -- not a recipe for immediate success. That leaves the Rams as the obvious team to beat in the NFC West.
Re-birth of the rivalry?
It’s clear the 49ers were behind the Rams at the end of 2017, but they have the means to close that gap quickly -- a top-10 pick, plenty of cap room, and an off-season for Jimmy G to master Kyle Shanahan’s offense. And with a roster full of young talent, the Rams toughest obstacle might be the salary cap. The teams appear destined to compete for NFC West supremacy in the near future.
But I couldn’t help hoping the Rams could make some modern day recreation of the Everett trade, acquiring someone easily capable of inciting ill will.
Enter Marcus Peters, a man known for sideline tantrums, getting kicked off his college team, and throwing a flag into the stands. He’s annoying already, strengthening the Rams roster, and as this piece points out, actually giving them more payroll flexibility. Even if 49ers fans don’t learn to loathe Peters, he has the potential to be a cancer in the locker room, and that’s always fun.
In any case, with two great young offensive minds on the sidelines, and two talented young QB’s under center, the Rams and 49ers appear destined for some epic battles over the next few years. That should go a long way to re-ignite those rivalry fires. But you don’t have to take my word for it — judging by this fine piece, the good folks at SB Nation NFL are just as excited.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt if the Rams could hire Trent Baalke as a special adviser or something.