When Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere fired Ray Malavasi as head coach at the end of last season and gave the job to John Robinson, she closed down one of the longest-running soap operas in the history of the National Football League.
While Robinson is not a martinet like a George Allen or Frank Kush, getting the most out of people is nevertheless one of John's more visible and engaging trademarks. During his seven years at the University of Southern California, the Trojans won better than 80 percent of their games, including a national championship in 1978.
Yet the Rams have so many areas that need to be rebuilt that NFL success for Robinson isn't apt to come overnight. Even so, it is already obvious that L.A. is operating a sharp organization again (at least on the field), after two years of chaos that resulted in 6-10 and 2-7 seasons, the latter abbreviated by the player strike.
Prior to that, the Rams had made eight consecutive playoff appearances from the 1973 through 1980 seasons, climaxing the streak in 1979 when they went all the way to Super Bowl XIV the following January before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19.
Asked what it takes to win consistently in the NFL, Robinson, who had one year under John Madden as an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders in 1975, replied:
''Assuming the talent is there, the one thing you probably need more than anything else is physical strength, because football is not a game of finesse, it's a game of power. The good teams will play each other equally for maybe three and a half periods. But after that the team that has done its work physically will begin to establish a clear superiority. And that superiority will eventually lead to a win.
''I think for any organization to be successful, it must have goals that everyone in it can understand. Talent is great if it fits together. But sometimes the teams with the best talent don't win in the NFL or anywhere else. Our plans are to develop players within our own organization, and basically what we're looking at is three years of teaching, because if a kid can't make it in three years, he probably isn't going to make it at all.''
Last year under Malavasi, Los Angeles was a high-wire act that was constantly losing its footing when it came to stopping the opposition. There were just too many pratfalls. Overall, the Rams finished 27th in total defense, a figure Robinson knows he must improve right away. That's one reason why L.A., which has used a 4-3 defensive alignment up front for years, will go to a 3-4 look this season.
''I have nothing against the 4-3 defense, except that we don't have the talent right now to make it work,'' John explained. ''But by making some adjustments with the people who are already here, I think we can eventually become a dominant team defensively. We'll do the standard things, the things everybody else does, because defense is mostly execution and hard work, not gimmicks. But if we are successful in blending our talents as a unit, we'll begin to stop the opposition in key situations.
''Offensively you have to be a vertical (in terms of play diagrams) passing team to win in the NFL, so that's the way we'll go,'' he added. ''We won't just be sending people deep as a threat, we'll also be throwing to them. But if you add up our running and passing plays at the end of a game, I think you'll find we'll come out just about even.
''We'll be establishing certain offensive weapons that the opposition will pick up quickly and realize they must defend. That's part of the plan, to make them overplay us against the things we do best. And whenever that happens, it always gives you an option somewhere else.''
For the first time in a decade, there will be no multiple-quarterback controversy on the Rams this season. Robinson has given the job exclusively to Vince Ferragamo, a five-year veteran, who ended last season with super games against the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers. Included in Ferragamo's statistics against the Bears were 30 pass completions good for 509 yards (the second highest in NFL history) and three touchdowns.
''While Vince still has another level to go, in my opinion, to be ranked among the league's top quarterbacks, I think you might see him achieve that distinction this season,'' Robinson said.
John is also extremely high on running back Eric Dickerson of Southern Methodist, the Rams' No. 1 pick in this year's draft and the second player taken overall.
Dickerson, who runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds, broke Earl Campbell's Southwest Conference career rushing record with a four-year total of 4,450 yards on 790 carries. He also scored 48 touchdowns. The Rams will start Dickerson, with the expectation that even as a rookie he may have a 1,000-yard season.
Realistically, Los Angeles looks like a team that might possibly come back to the .500 mark in 1984. ''But if we play to our potential and we get a few breaks ,'' Robinson said, ''we won't have to settle for anything reasonable.''