It was an emotional Super Bowl and easily the best of the XIV played so far. It was the way Super Bowls are supposed to be played, but haven't been. The score changed hands six times before it ended Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19, but only the guys who laid the 11 points with the bookies read it as a 12-point Steeler win. The Rams made it that close. They stayed in it because of a sustained intensity that brought them great honor, because of an unexpectedly brilliant performance by young Quarterback Vince Ferragamo, and because of a tackle-to-tackle ferocity that had the Steeler defense on its heels much of the afternoon.
But the Steelers aren't exactly virgins in this type of warfare, and when they needed the great plays they got them—two Terry Bradshaw-to-John Stallworth passes worth 118 yards in the fourth quarter and a deep interception by Jack Lambert on his own 14 that cut off the Rams with 5:24 left to play and Pittsburgh ahead 24-19. The Steelers routinely make the great plays, and when you get all excited about those feats, they'll look at you level and say things like: "I've made better catches in Super Bowls...a couple of one-handers one time" (Stallworth); or "It's part of our basic coverage...it's on the films" (Lambert); or "I really didn't think it would work...I hadn't been completing it in practice" (Bradshaw).
Which is why the Steelers have won four Super Bowl rings in the last six years, and why Joe Greene can say, "This game was an invitation engraved in gold."
"An invitation to what?" someone asked, on cue.
January 28, 1980
"To immortality...along with those tremendous pacesetters, the Green Bay Packers," Greene said. He thought for a moment and then added, "Next year it'll all be forgotten. It'll be, 'What have you done for me lately?' A vicious, vicious cycle."
As the Steelers discovered on Sunday, it's getting tougher and tougher to stay on top. Two weeks before, Houston was supposed to roll over—but hadn't; the Oilers had hung tough until the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game. This time it was the Rams who were supposed to lie down. The betting was even money that Ferragamo, making only his eighth start, would not be in at the end. The only Ferragamo interview of note that had appeared in the papers during the week was a piece about his malapropisms: "How they arrived at their conclusions behooves me," etc.
But Ferragamo was clear-headed in Pasadena, and he led a very spirited team. As the clubs changed ends to start the fourth quarter with the Rams leading 19-17, a significant thing happened. The Rams had intercepted Bradshaw—for the third time—at the L.A. four-yard line, and Wendell Tyler had broken one for 13 yards, out to the 17, behind a big block by his fullback, Cullen Bryant. Then the whistle blew, and next thing you knew, the Rams were sprinting for the other end of the field.
"We talked about doing it," said Left Tackle Doug France. "It was a very good psych; it let them know we were ready to go. We had 83 yards to cover, and we had to show them we had the strength to do it. We were saying to them, 'Hey, we're not that tired.' "
The Steelers took their time switching ends. No sense getting all excited about a change of quarters.
"No, I didn't see it," Greene said of the L.A. sprint, showing a tiny bit of annoyance for the only time during the post-game interviews. "I had other things on my mind."
"I think the Rams were just excited," said Cornerback Mel Blount, like Greene a veteran of Steeler Coach Chuck Noll's eight playoff teams. "You know, it's the Super Bowl and all that."
If Hollywood, not Pasadena, had been hosting XIV, the Rams would have driven those 83 yards and put the game away, and the losingest team—9-7 on the regular season—ever to come into a Super Bowl would have tasted the golden bubbly. But what happened was that the Rams ran three plays, gained six yards and had to punt. And it was a terrific punt by Ken Clark, 59 yards, one yard short of his career best. The Steelers got the ball on their own 25, and, hey, the Rams were still on top of this game.
First-and-10: Jack Reynolds stuffs Franco Harris after a couple of yards. Second-and-eight: Sidney Thornton drops a screen pass, but the play is messed up anyway because Gerry Mullins, the Steeler right guard, is 10 yards down-field. Hang on, Rams, the champs are coming apart. Third-and-eight at the Pittsburgh 27 and what to do? Normally, the Steelers would have gone into a three-wide-receiver set and tried to work something underneath the zone defense for the first down, but they didn't have three wide receivers left.
Lynn Swann had given the Steelers a brief 17-13 lead in the third quarter with a leaping catch of a 47-yard touchdown a pass, but he had been knocked out of the game one series later as the result of a very bad decision by Bradshaw. Bradshaw had rolled to his left, looking for help, and had dumped the ball to Swann, curling to the left side. Throw late over the middle and you run the risk of getting either an interception or one of your receivers killed. Bradshaw got the ball high to Swann, who got a very rough ride from Cornerback Pat Thomas. When Swann came to, his vision was blurred and one whole area was totally blank. "Lower right quadrant," he said. "I couldn't see anything at all in that area. The doc told me I'd had it for the day."
Theo Bell, a backup receiver for the Steelers, had been removed from the game after taking a vicious shot by Linebacker George Andrews on a punt, and now, with third-and-eight on their own 27, with a little over 12 minutes to go and trailing by two points, the Steelers had only two wide receivers left on the roster. Bennie Cunningham, the tight end, split wide left. Jim Smith, Swann's backup, was wide right, and Stallworth was in the slot inside him. Chuck Noll sent in the play: "60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go." A pass to Stallworth, who would make a little hitch inside and then take off.
"I didn't like the call," Bradshaw said, "but, you know, the coach sent it in. I hadn't been hitting that pass all week. It's a matter of building confidence. You don't build confidence in things that don't work. Maybe it was our ace in the hole, I don't know."
It hadn't been a good week for Bradshaw. He was beat, having slept only four or five hours a night. The night before the game he went to bed at midnight but woke up at 3 a.m. "I couldn't get back to sleep," he said. He had dragged through the practices, the interview sessions, the pre-Super Bowl madness that turned the Steelers' Newport Beach hotel into a zoo. Meanwhile, the Rams were practicing on their home turf over in Anaheim and going home to the wife and kiddies at night. On Thursday, Bradshaw gave one of his zillion radio interviews of the week. His answers were mechanical.
"You certainly seem laid-back going into this game," the guy with the mike said.
"Yeah, well, you know, we've been here before," Bradshaw said, giving stock answer No. 435.
"Laid-back, hell, I'm tired. Tired," he said later. "I'm not sleeping. I just can't sleep.... I don't know what it is. Pressure, I guess. Tension. I've never felt it this bad. I haven't thrown the ball well in two weeks. I'm just tired of football. Drained."
Ray Mansfield, the old Steeler center, dropped by the hotel to visit with his former teammates. "I could always look at Terry before a game and tell you what kind of a day he was going to have," Mansfield said. "If he was a little glassy-eyed—you'd be talking to him and he'd look through you like you weren't there—I'd know it was going to be a long afternoon."
"How does he look today?" Mansfield was asked.
"Don't ask," he said.
And now the coach is telling Bradshaw that his arm is going to win it. Bradshaw's first interception, which had set up a Rams' go-ahead field goal—13-10—in the second quarter, had brought back visions of the interception Houston's Vernon Perry ran back for a TD in the AFC title game. His first interception against the Rams had been a late throw over the middle to Swann; Bradshaw had tried to force the ball through double coverage, and Dave Elmendorf had picked it off. Bradshaw's second interception had been a ball that got away from him, a bloop throw to Smith on a deep pattern. His third one had been a force to Stallworth over the middle, deep in Ram territory, with the Steelers behind 19-17.
There had almost been a fourth one. In the third quarter, with the Rams still on top 19-17, Bradshaw had tried to find Swann inside, and Nolan Cromwell, the L.A. free safety, had roared up like the Duesenberg that had transported Steeler patriarch Art Rooney out for the coin toss. "The only thing that could have stopped him," said Steeler Center Mike Webster, "was a .357 magnum." But Cromwell dropped the ball.
Third-and-eight on the 27. Your game to win, Terry baby. The Steelers' running game? Forget it. Thirty-seven carries for only 84 yards on the day. "The Rams did their homework," Webster said. "When we'd audible, Jack Reynolds would call the correct defense for the play we audibled to. They knew us."
"I could see them doing research on the sidelines," Ram Defensive End Fred Dryer said. "I think Terry was having trouble reading us."
There are not many ways a human being can throw a football better than Bradshaw did to Stallworth on that third-and-eight play. Stallworth got inside Rod Perry, the cornerback, and behind Elmendorf, the strong safety, and took it 73 yards for a 24-19 Pittsburgh lead. Two series later Stallworth did it again—45 yards on the same play—only this time he didn't bother to throw the little inside fake. It set up Franco Harris' one-yard touchdown for the 31-19 margin that rewarded the Steeler bettors.
"God-given ability," Webster said. "You just can't beat it. Terry had enough ability to overcome the mistakes, the three interceptions, the bad week he'd had. He had the courage to go with that long stuff."
In the Rams' locker room Perry answered the same question over and over: "Inside-outside coverage. I had the outside. I did the best I could. Hey, haven't you ever seen a perfect play?"
Emotions were running high in that dressing room. On his way in, Tyler had turned to the writers and said, "I didn't fumble in the game. Put that in your paper!" Tyler never fumbled. No one did. The Steelers banged Tyler around plenty, too. Knocked him out of the game five times. Count 'em. But he kept coming back.
"We wanted to gang-tackle him because he has a reputation for fumbling," Lambert said. "We wanted to make him know he'd been in a football game."
It went both ways. On his third carry Tyler broke a 39-yarder, which set up the Rams' first score and gave them a 7-3 lead. Faked two guys off their feet on the slippery sideline turf.
"It set the tone," Greene said. "Put us in the tank, so to speak."
In a corner Ferragamo was trying to describe what it had been like to face 103,985 fans and 11 Steelers in his first Super Bowl. "I tried audibling one time at the noisy end of the field," he said. "No one heard me. I was a little leery about audibling after that. There was a 30-second clock, but it was kind of concealed. It was tough to see until it started getting dark. It was there for you, though, if you could make it out. Hell, you'd better make it out."
Ferragamo was asked a technical question. "I tried zooming—and motion—they took me out of it," he said. No one knew what he was talking about. Ferragamo stopped for a moment and looked up. "It just hurts to know you're that good and you can't win it," he said. "It's a hurting feeling inside."
"Ferragamo was the better quarterback today," Webster said in the other dressing room. "Overall, I'd have to say he did the better job."
It was a strange role-reversal for the clubs. The Rams were the muscle team, not the Steelers. L.A. established a running game very early and worked it. The Steelers went big play, big gamble. Three big plays, three interceptions.
Anyone who calls us dogs," Jack Youngblood, the Rams' defensive end, said, "well, let him call me that to my face."
"We gave it everything we had, we went out there with everything in our hearts," Dennis Harrah, the L.A. right guard, was saying. "We picked up all their stunts, all their defensive-line games. I think we surprised them with our guts and determination."
He was looking at the floor. When he looked up, you could see he was crying.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't talk about it anymore," Harrah said.
Jim Jodat, a reserve running back, put his arm around Harrah. "C'mon, man, the bus is leaving," he said.
"I'll be all right," Harrah said.
"I said a few nice things to Joe Greene after the game," Harrah said. "I hugged my buddy [Steeler defensive tackle] Gary Dunn. I just...I'm sorry, I can't say any more."
There were times when the Pittsburgh defense looked shaky, when it looked as if the Steelers were barely hanging on. They reached Ferragamo for four sacks, but they had to use multiple blitzes to do it. Linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks—the Steelers threw it all at the kid. Ferragamo said, "On one of them—when we were down on their 13 and they put 11 men up on the line and sacked me—well, maybe I should have called time out before I ran the play. Maybe it's inexperience. We'll be back here again."
The Rams fooled the Steeler secondary on their last touchdown, a 24-yard halfback option pass, Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith, that gave them the 19-17 lead. L.A. did a number on Ron Johnson, the left corner, on that play. Johnson had been having words with Billy Waddy, the Rams' wide receiver. Then Waddy, on an underthrown ball, had caught a 50-yarder on Johnson, the kind of catch that drives cornerbacks crazy. The book says you don't let crazy cornerbacks off the hook, so the Rams swept McCutcheon to Johnson's side, and when Johnson was drawn into the net, it was time for McCutcheon to stand and deliver to Smith. Six points.
"You could see we were getting to them," said Gordon Gravelle, the reserve L.A. tackle who used to be a Steeler. "At times they looked a little confused out there. I haven't seen that on a Pittsburgh team in a long while."
"Jack Lambert hollered so hard in the huddle in the first half that I got scared," said Steeler Strong Safety Donnie Shell. "I can't repeat what he said, but he got real red in the face. He said we were sleepwalking out there."
The final chapter is that the Steelers' big-play people—Bradshaw, Lambert, Swann, Stallworth, the guys who had done it so many times before—rose up one more time.
"The real fact," Greene said, "was that we just had too many good football players. It had to show today because the Rams were so high emotionally and they were executing so well."
He looked at his audience. "You can't beat talent," he said.