In the past few weeks there have been moments in the huddle of the Los Angeles Rams when the inexperienced quarterback, Vince Ferragamo, has mumbled something or other and Dennis Harrah, the veteran guard, has been compelled to say, "Vince, we don't even have a play like that." Ferragamo would apologize and speak in more familiar terms. Well, that was then. Last Sunday in cold, gray Dallas, all Ferragamo did was whip "America's team," the heavily favored Cowboys, by the score of 21-19 and take the often maligned, frequently defeated Rams into the championship game of the National Conference against Tampa Bay.
Until six games ago Ferragamo was an understudy to Pat Haden. Vince got his chance when Haden broke a thumb, and even after that he was benched a couple of times in favor of the more experienced Bob Lee. But nobody ever said Ferragamo didn't have an arm and plenty of ability. Coach Ray Malavasi kept saying it, after apologizing to Vince for taking him out of games. Ferragamo had been a widely sought college prospect, one who used to make John McKay wipe his chin at the thought of recruiting him for USC. But Vince went to Cal, and then left for Nebraska.
Now Ferragamo will also face the same coach, McKay, who once labeled him the best quarterback prospect in the solar system. It surely boggles many minds to consider that Los Angeles and Tampa Bay will be playing to see who goes to the Super Bowl, but no doubt the most stupefied people of all must be the Cowboys.
In essence, Ferragamo did to the Dallas boys what Dallas, and mainly Roger Staubach, has had a habit of doing to other teams. Ferragamo beat the Cowboys in the dying moments of a wild and weird game by throwing his third touchdown pass of the afternoon, a 50-yarder to Billy Waddy, with exactly 2:06 to play.
Maybe Ferragamo is developing a thing about clocks. With precisely three seconds left before the end of the first half, he threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Ron Smith. Actually, on that one more credit was due Smith than Ferragamo, because Smith, a second-year man from San Diego State, made a leaping, storybook catch in the Dallas end zone after a midair wrestling match with Safety Randy Hughes, the substitute for the long lost and sorely missed Charlie Waters. That Smith could have come down with the football was simply not to be believed. That play gave Los Angeles a 14-5 lead.
Ferragamo figured in almost everything that happened. In the first quarter he had retreated into his end zone and fallen down, giving up a safety to the Cowboys. For a while it looked as if two points might be all of the scoring for the day, because neither team could generate any kind of offense. One reason Dallas wasn't doing much was L.A.'s funny "nickel-7" defense, a thing concocted by Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson. Against Staubach and the shotgun formation the Rams sent in seven defensive backs, and they appeared to be everywhere at once.
With Staubach generating only a field goal in the first half, Ferragamo recovered from his safety and capped a 92-yard second-quarter drive with the first touchdown of the game. It came on a 32-yard pass to Wendell Tyler, who had gotten isolated on Linebacker D. D. Lewis. This was the same Tyler who launched the drive with a 35-yard jaunt around the left side of the Dallas defense, where Too Tall Jones, Charlie Waters and Hollywood Henderson used to roam.
Dallas got back in the game in the third quarter with a touchdown that resulted from two things: 1) Staubach looking a little more like himself, like the man who led the NFL in passing in 1979, and 2) a 14-yard pass interference penalty on the Rams' Jim Youngblood, who either did or did not interfere with Tony Dorsett. Youngblood's thoughts about the penalty were not kept to himself; he kicked things and hollered. Dorsett may have been play-acting, but it worked. Dallas had the ball at the Rams' one-yard line, and Ron Springs lunged over. Now it was 14-12 Rams, but that fickle fellow Momentum seemed to have switched sides.
Ferragamo throws the occasional bad ball. One of them found Cliff Harris' stomach late in the third quarter, and the interception got Dallas moving to the touchdown that put the Cowboys ahead 19-14. With a couple of passes and a good run by Dorsett, Dallas worked its way to a third-and-two near the Rams' goal. On that play, Dorsett went in motion and Roger dropped back, suddenly stopped and zipped a shot over the middle to Jay Saldi, who was so open he might have been humming.
Afterward, the Rams came back with a ground game featuring Tyler and Cullen Bryant, driving from their own 23 to the Dallas 32. But, on fourth down, after one official called interference on Cliff Harris and another overruled him, the game appeared to be over.
Not to Ferragamo. With the clock approaching the two-minute warning and the ball at midfield, Vince had a discussion with himself in the huddle. A play had been suggested from the sideline, but Ferragamo said, "Aw, let's go with the other one." The other one was the winning touchdown pass, 60-X Corner.
"Waddy went out and around the zone," Ferragamo said. "They were in a deep zone and Cliff Harris was reading my eyes. I fooled him."
Billy Waddy almost didn't go "out and around" far enough. Mike Hegman, the Dallas linebacker who replaced Henderson, managed to scrape some paint off the ball while it was in the air, but did not impede its flight. The ball sailed perfectly into Waddy's arms at the Dallas 27, and he outran everyone to the end zone.
The Cowboys had a chance after the following kickoff to do that thing Staubach did to the Washington Redskins two weeks before, that thing he has done to a lot of opponents over the years: produce a game-winning score in the final two minutes. But after Dorsett ran for 12 yards to the Dallas 33, the Cowboys did nothing. Their season ended with Staubach throwing incomplete passes to Tony Hill, throwing to Guard Herb Scott, an ineligible receiver, and throwing over Drew Pearson's head.
In many ways that last series summed up the bizarre year it had been for "America's team." It began for the Cowboys when they lost, for one reason or another, three of their crowd-pleasers—Jones, Waters and Henderson.
The weird road the Cowboys traveled started taking odd twists and turns in the early summer when Too Tall shocked his teammates by announcing he was giving up football for prizefighting. Ice skating they might have believed. This left Tom Landry without a pass rush on one side of the line until he picked up the retired John Dutton, who slowly came around. As the Cowboys suffered a midseason sag, losing four of five games, the absent Too Tall became increasingly immortal. If Dallas loses one more game, somebody said, Too Tall can go straight to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Cowboy-watchers recognized Waters I as the biggest loss. He tore a ligament in his right knee in an exhibition game. This I not only took away the best strong safety in the league, but it also sidelined a guy who hollered out the defensive signals. The handsome Charlie had a good year, anyhow. He posed for a pinup poster, and it has outsold Farrah and the Cheerleaders around Dallas. He is using the money to finance his wife's first disco album. Charlie's wife, Rosie Holotik, is a singer-actress who once starred in a film titled Horror High, that also featured such notable actors as Craig Morton, Mean Joe Greene and D. D. Lewis. It still plays on some late-night TV sets under the new title of The Twisted Brain, which some Cowboy players say is an appropriate name for anyone who invested in the production in the first place.
Hughes, another handsome young man, replaced Waters and did O.K. until he dislocated a shoulder three weeks ago against Philadelphia. Before the Rams game there were two opinions about whether Hughes would be ready to play. Landry said he was ready; Hughes said, "I want to play, but I'm no fool." Landry was right.
It's such statements that ultimately get players traded from Dallas. Henderson used to talk a lot, and finally he talked too much, so smack in the middle of the season he found himself "retired." Hegman stepped in to replace him. So the Cowboys had three not-so-household words in their defense—Dutton, Hughes and Hegman.
And now America is without a team, and the NFC is going to send a strange ball club to Super Bowl XIV; either Tampa Bay, with six losses and a quarter-back, Doug Williams, who finished 27th on a list of 28 in statistics, or Los Angeles, with seven losses and a quarter-back Who often has trouble remembering anything but 60-X Corner.