Back in the old days, before Pete Rozelle invented wild-card teams and other gimmicks for stretching the season, the NFL had something known as the Runner-Up Bowl. It was played in Florida and was, in the immortal words of Vince Lombardi, "a game for losers played by losers." Last Sunday in Tampa the NFL resurrected that game. This time, though, it was called the NFC championship.
In the wake of Los Angeles' 9-0 win over Tampa Bay, it was difficult to figure who the biggest loser really was. Was it the orange-clad Buccaneers, who finally turned into pumpkins after a Cinderella season? Was it the Rams, who after six straight years of choking in the playoffs finally made it to the Super Bowl and, for their reward, get a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a likely humiliation right in their own backyard? Or was it Pete Rozelle, who has to promote this mismatch for two weeks? Can't you just hear Rozelle now: "Come on, you Steelers, keep a straight face. This is the Super Bowl, remember."
The game in Tampa was everything one would expect from a matchup between two solid defenses and two NFC offenses. Boring. It was the first championship game ever played in which not a single touchdown was scored, and the teams tied a record for punts (13), which figured. Actually, Buc Quarterback Mike Rae did complete a touchdown pass to Tight End Jimmie Giles in the waning minutes, but Guard Greg Roberts was so excited by the prospect of a score that he stood up before the snap of the ball to get a better view. Up in Pittsburgh Jack Lambert, Mean Joe Greene and friends must have had a good laugh as they watched the two inoffensive offenses. If Rozelle is interested in curbing television violence, he should consider asking the Ram offense to be among the no-shows in Pasadena on January 20.
Come to think of it, getting sheared in the Super Bowl would be an entirely fitting conclusion to this Ram season. It wasn't too many weeks ago that Los Angeles had a 5-6 record and everyone was assuming that owner Georgia Rosen-bloom would can Coach Ray Malavasi as soon as the season was over, if not before. On any other club Malavasi would now have earned some job security, but as one Ram cautioned last weekend, "Around here that remains to be seen." Oh, well, should Malavasi get the ax in L.A., there will always be an opening somewhere in the NFL for a coach who got his team into the Super Bowl. Even if it was just an NFC team.
It was hard to understand why the Rams were slim favorites to beat the Bucs. After all, they finished the season just two games over .500 (9-7), had been drubbed 21-6 by the Buccaneers in September and were playing on the road. What's more, Malavasi was still without the services of his starting quarterback, Pat Haden, who broke the pinky on his passing hand two months ago.
Haden's replacement, Vince Ferragamo, had thrown three TD passes in the Rams' upset playoff win over Dallas the week before, but he gives the Ram coaching staff sleepless nights. Ferragamo made the All-Academic team in the Big Eight while at Nebraska and has spent his off-seasons attending medical school at the University of California at Irvine, but as one Ram put it, "When you talk to Vince, you're not always sure he's all there. He's what we call a space cadet."
In a goal-line situation in a late-season game with the 49ers, Ferragamo came to the sideline to confer with Malavasi, who told him what play to call. "You got it," said Ferragamo dutifully. Then he ran back to the huddle and called a totally different play.
Despite Malavasi's problems, the team he brought to Tampa last week was better than the one he had fielded there in the fourth week of the season. The Rams' offensive line that day was badly banged up; this time, though, it was healthy and was, in Ferragamo's words, "our ace in the hole." Ferragamo talks about football in non-stop, non-committal clichès—as another Ram says, "Vince is tremendously dull"—but he did step out of character briefly to announce, "Our offensive line should blow the Bucs out. I'll probably have five or six seconds every time I pass."
As improbable as that prediction sounded, it was borne out. The Ram offensive line—Doug France, Kent Hill, Rich Saul, Dennis Harrah and Jackie Slater, from left tackle to right—dominated the Bucs as easily as it had dominated the Cowboys. After the game Ferragamo said, "You get more confidence when you drop back and have 10 seconds to throw the football." With that protection, he completed 12 of 23 passes for 163 yards. More important, the Ram runners picked up 216 yards. And before the day was done, both Buc defensive ends—Lee Roy Selmon and Wally Chambers—had been sidelined by the battering they took from the Ram offensive line.
That line was so overpowering that Los Angeles should have put the game out of reach early—or at least scored one touchdown. But the Ram offense kept rearing up to stop the Ram offense. Wendell Tyler fumbled for no apparent reason at the Buc 18 on L.A.'s second possession. Near the end of the first quarter Cullen Bryant ran four yards for a touchdown, but the score was wiped out by a penalty. And in the third quarter Preston Dennard caught a touchdown pass from Ferragamo but then lost control of the ball as he landed on his backside. Or at least that's what Back Judge Pat Knight ruled. So the Rams had to settle for three Frank Corral field goals, 19-and 21-yarders in the second quarter and a 23-yarder in the fourth.
For the most part, the Ram offense against the Bucs consisted of Tyler right, Tyler left and Tyler up the middle. In the previous L.A.-Tampa game, Tyler sat on the bench most of the time. When he finally got in for a few plays, he did what he had done all too often in three seasons in L.A.—he fumbled twice in seven carries.
Still, that Buccaneer game persuaded Malavasi to make Tyler a starter. Until then, he had played second string to Lawrence McCutcheon, and most people figured that was where he belonged. After all, in 1977, Tyler's rookie year, McCutcheon set a single-season Ram rushing record and became L.A.'s all-time leading ground gainer. Last year Tyler missed almost the whole season after injuring a knee in the second game of the season. Understandably, the 205-pound McCutcheon was the starter again this year, teaming with the 234-pound Bryant to form a bull elephant backfield. Both are strong inside runners who block well and rarely fumble.
Against the Bucs in September, the Rams were unable to move the ball inside. Knowing that the Rams lacked the speed to get outside, Selmon and Chambers pinched toward the middle on running downs and clogged up the Rams' running lanes. On passing downs the Buc linebackers dropped deep, forcing the Rams to drop the ball off to backs underneath the coverage. Here again, L.A.'s lack of a breakaway threat was glaringly evident. Time and again the Ram receiver on these short passes was easily brought down in a one-on-one situation by a Buc linebacker. The Ram backs couldn't have juked their way past a telephone pole. The following week Malavasi made Tyler a starter.
The switch to Tyler paid big dividends. Although he didn't start until the fifth week of the season, Tyler finished the year as the leading L. A. rusher with 1,109 yards and was the Rams' second leading receiver with 32 catches. He also confirmed his breakaway ability by topping the NFL in yards-per-carry at 5.1.
The Bucs conceded that Tyler made the Rams a different team. "Tyler puts a whole new dimension in their offense because he can run outside," said Nose Guard Randy Crowder before Sunday's game. "We have to play the Rams straight up now instead of cheating to the inside. To beat Los Angeles, first and foremost you have to stop Tyler."
It was obvious the Bucs were concentrating on Tyler. They swarmed toward him whenever he had the ball, and he had to break a lot of tackles to gain 86 yards on 28 carries. The Bucs also swarmed toward him when he didn't have the ball, which is why Bryant picked up 106 yards on just 18 carries. All game long Tyler and Bryant played keep-away from the Buc offense.
Of course, the way that offense was playing, nine points might have held up until Labor Day. Look at the game this way: if the Bucs had been awarded a point for every first down they made, Tampa Bay would have lost 9-7. The Rams have a superb defense, perhaps even a Super Bowl defense, but no defense is as good as Tampa Bay made L.A.'s look. The Bucs didn't even cross midfield until the third quarter, and they needed a gimmick play to do it—a halfback option pass from Jerry Eckwood to Larry Mucker.
For a while it even looked as if Buc Quarterback Doug Williams might go 0 for 1980. He didn't complete his first pass until late in the second quarter and was two for 13—for a grand total of 12 yards—when he was sidelined in the third quarter with a torn right bicep muscle. His replacement, Rae, wasn't any better, also completing just two of 13. Watching them, you would have thought the completed pass was an endangered species.
Come on now, you Steelers. Stop snickering.