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Remembering Super XIV: Steelers 31, Rams 19

February 1st, 2019 · No Comments · Football, Los Angeles Rams, NFL

For those of you who have little or no recollection of this game, which was played in January of 1980, there is something you need to know:

Despite the final score, this was one of the two best Super Bowls of the first 15 played. (Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17, in 1976, was the other.)

It remained one of three best Super Bowls, in my opinion, of the first 25 played.

Here’s why:

–Despite a 9-7 regular-season record, and coming in as 10.5/11-point underdogs, the Rams led at the end of the first, second and third quarters.

–The lead changed hands six times: Rams 7-3, Steelers 10-7, Rams 13-10, Steelers 17-13, Rams 19-17, Steelers 24-19. This has never been repeated.

–The game was shot through with great and/or popular players. For the Rams: Jack Youngblood (who played in the championship game with a broken leg), Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, Larry Brooks, Nolan Cromwell, Fred Dryer, Lawrence McCutcheon, Dennis Harrah, Doug France and Jackie Slater; for Pittsburgh, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount.

Those were household names, for NFL fans.

–Super XIV concluded a season of high drama, for the Rams, who were making their first Super Bowl appearance while based in the greater Los Angeles area. Their owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, had drowned off the coast of Florida before the 1979 season started, and the whole of the season was fraught as Rosenbloom’s widow, Georgia, successfully fought to keep control of the franchise from Rosenbloom’s eldest son, Steve, and became the first woman to own and operate an NFL team.

The run-up to the game was straightforward: The Rams were a fluky team who reached the Super Bowl only because the National Conference was extremely weak (SI wrote that the NFC championship would be “a game for losers, played by losers.” The Rams beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-0) … and they would be steamrolled by the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

The last time the football world had been so sure about how a game would turn out was in Super Bowl IV, when the underdog Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings.

This one, however, showed the Rams still to be the team that had been an NFC power throughout the 1970s, one with accomplished veterans who were not going to be anyone’s punching bag.

OK, here are four moments I distinctly remember in what was a hell of a game, played before a Super Bowl-record 103,000 fans at the Rose Bowl.

1. Wendell Tyler’s 39-yard run in the first quarter. The UCLA alumnus, often dogged by a reputation for fumbling, reeled off the longest run of the season against Pittsburgh. It demonstrated the Rams could run the ball against the “Steel Curtain”, further demonstrated when Cullen Bryant capped a 59-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run giving the Rams an early 7-3 lead.

2. The Rams took a 19-17 lead in the third quarter on a 24-yard halfback pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith. Lots of stuff to consider here. McCutcheon, before the 1979 season, had been The Thousand Yard Man for the Rams. The key guy in a conservative offense. He eventually wore down, and Tyler took the starting job from him in 1979. McCutcheon was embarrassed, and skipped all Super Bowl media events; I know because I looked for him every day. One day he skipped out of the ball room where interviews were being done. Said guard Dennis Harrah: “Can you blame him? He knows he’s going to be asked why he’s not playing anymore, and he’s got a lot of pride.” During the week leading up to the game, however, reporters (including this one) saw the Rams practicing a halfback pass, with McCutcheon rolling to the right, pulling up and throwing. (Oh, and about reporters at practice: Only reporters who had been covering the team all year were allowed on the grounds, the idea being they could keep a secret.) So, when McCutcheon appeared on the field, after a 50-yard Vince Ferragamo completion to Billy Waddy, team reporters had an idea what was coming next. McCutcheon threw a strike to Ron Smith. It was a great moment. The Rams led 19-17; the pro-Rams crowd was heaving; the stiffs were beating the champions. A tear or two rolled down my face up in the prospect, but I tried to hide it.

3. The Bomb. The Rams still led 19-17 going into the fourth quarter. They looked more than capable of winning the game, and even more so when star Steelers receiver Lynn Swann went out of the game with an injury, further straining a Pittsburgh offense that couldn’t effectively run the ball against the Rams defense. The Rams looked in position to get the ball back when the Steelers faced a third-and-8 at their own 27, but the Steelers’ other great receiver, John Stallworth was in the game. Rams defensive coordinator Bud Carson said that after Swann went down all the Rams had to do was “cover one guy” — Stallworth. They did not. The receiver streaked down the sideline with Rams cornerback Rod Perry not far away, but Bradshaw’s pass went over the fingers of the 5-foot-9 Rod Perry (Sports Illustrated had a great photo of this) and into 6-foot-2 Stallworth’s hands, and he went in for a 73-yard lightning bolt of a touchdown. On the play, Stallworth was covered only by Perry, but nickel back Eddie Brown blew the coverage and was nowhere near Stallworth. The Rams refused to identify the “guy who had blown the coverage” and I remember asking guys after the game who it was … but none would name Brown, even though it was very likely he was the man to blame. I remember being frustrated, after the game, that I had no one on the record saying, “Yeah, Eddie Brown should have been there.” Not even Carson called him out. But that was the single key moment of the game.

4. Vince Ferragamo. He was a major story line before, during and after the game. He had taken over the QB job after Pat Haden suffered a broken pinky finger in a game in Game 10, at Seattle. It looked like trouble, because Ferragamo had never started an NFL game, and he wasn’t the smartest kid in the NFL. (At a Super Bowl media event, he conceded that he was “kinda erotic” when he meant “erratic”.) But his ability to throw the ball down the field gave the Rams an additional weapon, and made them more difficult to defend.

He did not cost the Rams the game; they almost won it because of him. He was 15-for-25 for 212 yards with a touchdown and just the one (albeit decisive) turnover.

Ah, The Turnover: After the Bradshaw bomb to Stallworth, and an exchange of punts, Ferragamo had the Rams moving down the field, getting them to the Pittsburgh 32 with less than six minutes to play. From there, he made the rookie mistake of locking eyes with Ron Smith in the middle of the field, and Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert noticed and shifted to his right … and was perfectly positioned when Ferragamo’s bullet of a pass hit Lambert in the numbers. Interception. Gasps of despair from the crowd. The Steelers finally put the game to bed by scoring a clinching touchdown with 1:49 to play.

It was exhilarating, the Rams’ first Super Bowl. It was grand, it was the little guy standing up to the bully for 58 minutes. Never had the Los Angeles Rams showed such moxie (remember, Jack Youngblood and the broken leg).

If the current edition of the Rams plays with the same heart and determination as the exhausted warriors of the 1980 Super Bowl … the final result against the New England Patriots, in two days, will not matter.


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