If you have been following along with the "What Coulda Been" Tournament, the 1967 Rams are one of the four teams remaining. I said that I was going to write a little something about each of the four teams. Well, I decided to look at the origins of the Fearsome Foursome in regard to that Rams team, but then realized that I should probably just turn it into its own post.
The nickname "The Fearsome Foursome" is one of the legendary names in NFL history. The mention automatically brings visions of the Rams' defensive line of the 1960's. It is a really cool nickname, but would you believe that it was a cliched and common phrase used by writers even before it was applied to the now immortalized unit?
I went back through the Google News Archives to trace the origins of the term, as well as its origins with the Rams. The first use of the phrase "Fearsome Foursome" that I could find was in 1937, but it had nothing to do with football. The term was originally used to describe the conservative bloc on the United States Supreme Court.
There was occasional use of the term "fearsome foursome" in the 1940's. The first time I found it applied specifically to football was not in regard to a group of players, but rather a group of teams. An AP article from November of 1949 described the top ranked college teams of Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Army and California as the fearsome foursome. The following year, the name was first applied in print to a unit, but it was not a defensive line. The 1950 University of Washington offensive backfield (remember, they ran with a full backfield then of a quarterback, two halfbacks and a fullback), which featured future 49ers star Hugh McElhenny, was dubbed the "fearsome foursome" in numerous articles from that season. The name was later applied to offensive backfield players for Baylor University, West Virginia, Syracuse and Texas. The first use of the term in the NFL was in regard to the New York Giant defensive line, featuring Rosey Grier, Jim Katcavage, Andy Robustelli, and Dick Modzelewski. All told in the 1950's, there were almost 100 different articles using the term, a fair amount having nothing to do with football. It was rarely a capitalized term as a formal title for a group, and typically was just used as a descriptive phrase. By the 1960's, the phrase "fearsome foursome" had been used to describe, among others, a rugby unit, a crew team, a curling squad, a local bowling team, and a bad quartet of singers.
Two other NFL units had the nickname applied to them: the Detroit Lions in 1962 (the only team to beat Green Bay that year) and the San Diego Chargers of the AFL in 1963. A player on the original NFL fearsome foursome and one on the Detroit Lions' version would eventually become linked in the now famous Rams unit. Before the 1963 season, the New York Giants traded a 31 year old Grier to the Rams for John LoVotere and a draft pick, with papers bemoaning the demise of the fearsome foursome. There, he joined Merlin Olsen, already a pro bowler at age 23, a young promising defensive end named David Jones (you may know him as Deacon), and a solid veteran in Lamar Lundy.
I cannot determine when exactly the nickname was first applied to the Rams' unit. It is possible that it just came over with Grier, but I do not see any documented evidence in newspapers of that. I do not find any references in 1963 and the only article referring to them as a fearsome foursome in 1964 was this one in the New York Times. By the 1965 preseason, I did find references to the unit, and in fact, found one in this article from Utah, talking about a singing group named the Fearsome Foursome, featuring local hero Olsen, along with Jones, Lundy, and offensive tackle Charlie Cowan. The references to the Fearsome Foursome do pick up in 1965 and 1966, and it's fair to say that by then, they were already being called the Fearsome Foursome or at least, a fearsome foursome. I found thirty references over those two seasons, most in the local paper.
However, it was the 1967 season when the Rams' Fearsome Foursome really became the immortalized Fearsome Foursome that is now remembered today. In the preseason in 1967, Roosevelt Grier suffered an injury and retired, and in response, the Rams traded for Roger Brown of the Detroit Lions. The defense, and the team, took off. The Rams had not made the playoffs since 1955, and had their first winning season in eight years the season before. In 1967, the team led the league in both points scored and points allowed, and posted an 11-1-2 record and defeating the Colts on the season's final game to win the division. In 1967, seventy-seven newspaper articles extolled the virtues of the Fearsome Foursome, the most of any year. The Rams had the misfortune, despite their record and regular season victory over the Packers, of having to go to Milwaukee for a playoff game played in frigid conditions, and they lost.
Over the next decade, the identity of the Fearsome Foursome continued to change, with Lundy retiring a year later, and a new generation joining Olsen in the early 1970's. Still, the name Fearsome Foursome is now associated exclusively with the Rams. Once upon a time, it was not, as every notable group may have been a fearsome foursome.