The 1979 L.A. Rams recall their unlikely run to Super Bowl and what might've been in loss to Steelers

The play haunts Vince Ferragamo, so much that 36 years later it can jolt the former Los Angeles Rams quarterback out of a deep sleep.

Ferragamo was driving the Rams toward a potential go-ahead score with 5 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV when, from the Pittsburgh 32-yard line, he threw a pass over the middle toward Ron Smith.

Out of nowhere, it seemed, Jack Lambert, the toothless linebacker who was the iron ore of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense, stepped in for an interception, Ferragamo's only major mistake in an otherwise brilliant performance.

Terry Bradshaw threw a 45-yard pass to John Stallworth, and a Pat Thomas pass-interference penalty in the end zone gave Pittsburgh the ball on the one-yard line. Franco Harris scored to seal a 31-19 victory and the Steelers' fourth Super Bowl trophy in six years.

The thrill of the Rams' improbable run to their first Super Bowl after a tumultuous 9-7 regular season yielded to the frustration of blowing a 19-17 fourth-quarter lead in a game few people thought they could win.

"You always remember plays like that," Ferragamo, now 61, said recently in his Anaheim Hills real-estate office. "You're kicking and moving in your sleep, re-living them because they're so vivid in your mind."

His jet-black hair has faded to a salt-and-pepper gray, but the decades have not dulled Ferragamo's memories of the 1979 season — his rookie year and the Rams' last in Los Angeles before moving to Anaheim in 1980 and St. Louis in 1995.

With the Rams returning to Los Angeles in 2016 and Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers kicking off Sunday, memories came flooding back for a number of Ferragamo's teammates.

"It was definitely Willy Wonka's wild ride," said All-Pro guard Dennis Harrah, 62, retired and tending to his ranch in Paso Robles. "We were not favored to win at Dallas or Tampa Bay in the playoffs, and we beat them both. I think we had the worst record of any Super Bowl team.

"But we got hot toward the end of the season, and everything started clicking with Vinnie at quarterback. How does that happen? I can't tell you, but sometimes a team just comes together and starts to jell."

The season began just a few months after the mysterious death of popular team owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who drowned while swimming in heavy surf off the Florida coast on April 2, 1979.

The Dade County coroner concluded that Rosenbloom, 72, had suffered a heart attack while swimming. A PBS documentary suggested that Rosenbloom, a known gambler, might have been murdered, giving rise to conspiracy theories.

A power struggle between Rosenbloom's wife, Georgia Frontiere, and his son, Steve Rosenbloom, the team's executive vice president, ensued. Georgia gained control of the team and fired Steve Rosenbloom in August.

"Carroll's death was absolutely devastating," recalled Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood, 66, who resides in Orlando. "He was like our father. He loved us and considered us all his adopted sons. When he passed, the hierarchy was a little unstable."

Don Klosterman retained his general manager's role and provided some front-office continuity, but the Rams stumbled to 4-5 after consecutive losses to Dallas, San Diego and the New York Giants in which they were outscored, 90-36.

A 24-0 win at Seattle pushed the Rams to 5-5 on Nov. 4, but they lost starting quarterback Pat Haden, who, after completing 13 consecutive passes, suffered a broken his right pinkie finger on the Kingdome's artificial surface.

Ferragamo, the backup, was recovering from a hand injury, and quarterbacks Jeff Rutledge and Bob Lee struggled in a Nov. 11 loss to Chicago.

So Ferragamo made his first NFL start the following week, completing nine of 22 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-14 Monday night win over Atlanta. That sparked a four-game win streak that clinched the division title in a weak NFC West.

Ferragamo's regular-season statistics were mediocre. He completed 53 of 110 passes for 778 yards with twice as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (five).

But at 6 feet 3 and 212 pounds, he was four inches taller than the 182-pound Haden and had a much stronger arm. The Rams, under second-year coach Ray Malavasi, started throwing the ball downfield more, and that opened up the running game for Wendell Tyler and Lawrence McCutcheon.

Several players on an offensive line led by Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater and Harrah returned from injuries, giving Ferragamo ample time to make better decisions.

"Vince was more of a deep-ball thrower, and Pat was more of a possession, medium-route guy," said receiver Preston Dennard, 60, who resides in Albuquerque. "Vince didn't care about interceptions. He just threw the heck out of the ball, and the coaches took advantage of the skills he had."

Ferragamo, then 25, had a swagger that rubbed off on teammates.

"I was a young kid, an unknown, and expectations weren't high," Ferragamo said. "I played with no fear, and I think the guys really liked that attitude, the confident but relaxed way we would play."

Said Youngblood: "Vinnie let the bad stuff roll off him, and he held on to the good stuff."

The good times rolled through early December, the Rams developing a camaraderie and confidence players described as unique.

A season-ending 29-14 loss to New Orleans — in which the Rams rested several starters and were booed off the Coliseum field by fans disenchanted with the lackluster effort and the team's impending move to Anaheim — did nothing to slow the Rams, who adopted the 1979 disco hit "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" as their theme song.

"We had a mixture of seasoned, All-Pro veterans and young guys like myself who were talented enough to blend in, and we just had a common bond," Dennard said. "At the end of the year, we were a totally different team with a different mind-set. We were focused. It was a true team effort."

Looming in the playoffs were the Cowboys, one of the Rams' nemeses of the 1970s. For six straight years, from 1973-78, the Rams were eliminated from the postseason by the Cowboys or Minnesota Vikings, four times in the NFC championship game.

The Rams were heavy underdogs on the road against Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and the Cowboys, who had whipped the Rams, 30-6, earlier that season.

"Before the game, Jack Youngblood told me, 'Kid, this will be the biggest game you ever play in your life,'" Ferragamo said of his first playoff start. "The butterflies were there."

It didn't show. With a little more than two minutes left, Ferragamo fired a bullet from midfield over the middle to Billy Waddy, a speedy receiver who dropped so many passes he was once dubbed "Cement Hands."

This one Waddy caught at the 27-yard line, even after it was tipped by a defender. Waddy split the Cowboys' prevent defense and raced down the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown that gave the Rams a stunning 21-19 victory.

"The defense was on the sidelines going, 'Oh my gosh!'" Youngblood said. "The pass was tipped, and he still caught it. Finally, something good was happening to us, rather than having to struggle and fight for every inch."

Youngblood's joy was tinged with pain. He suffered a hairline fracture of his left fibula, just above the ankle, in the second quarter against the Cowboys. But that didn't stop him from leading the Rams to a 9-0 win in the NFC championship game at Tampa Bay a week later.

"My teammates were looking at me like, 'There's something wrong with this child,'" Youngblood said. "I was limping around like I needed crutches. The pain was excruciating. But it was Sunday, and that was my job. I was not about to let one ounce of that responsibility slip away because of pain."

Youngblood's grit inspired a defense that held the Buccaneers to 177 yards and pushed the Rams to their first Super Bowl berth.

"Jack's toughness was beyond what you could humanly fathom," Ferragamo said. "His strength and his will to go out there really gave the team an emotional lift."

Super Bowl XIV, on Jan. 20, 1980, at the Rose Bowl, was dubbed "Dynasty vs. Destiny," the Rams in the role of double-digit underdog to the three-rings-and-counting Steelers. Not that the Rams cared.

"That week of the Super Bowl we had our best practices of the year," Dennard said. "We were upbeat, ready, and in our minds we were winning that game."

They almost did. Before a crowd of 103,985, the Rams took a 19-17 third-quarter lead when Ferragamo handed the ball to McCutcheon, who ran right, pulled up and passed 24 yards to Smith for a touchdown. The Rams matched the Steelers on the scoreboard and blow for blow in the trenches.

"These were no Hollywood sissies," Times columnist Jim Murray wrote of the Rams. "They were a scratching, scrambling, stubborn, socking team of alley fighters, swarmers spoiling for a scrap."

The Rams twice intercepted Bradshaw passes in the third quarter, but it was the pick that wasn't that stung the most. Midway through the quarter, Rams safety Nolan Cromwell stepped in front of a short pass intended for Lynn Swann near midfield.

"I turned and looked," Youngblood said, "and the ball hit Nolan between the 2 and the 1" numbers on his jersey.

Had Cromwell made the catch, he probably would have scored for a nine-point lead.

"That's the one thing from that Super Bowl I'll remember, that I had an opportunity for an interception that would have really helped us," said Cromwell, 61, who resides in the Seattle area. "At this level, you don't get many of those opportunities. When you do, you have to make them count."

Stallworth made an acrobatic, leaping catch above the outstretched hand of Rod Perry and turned it into a 73-yard touchdown that gave Pittsburgh a 24-19 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Then came Lambert's interception — "I liked the pass," Ferragamo said, "I just didn't see him" — the Steelers' late score, and that hollow feeling of what might have been for the Rams.

"Of course it haunts you — any time you go to the big dance, you want to win," said McCutcheon, 65 and a scout for the Rams. "But when you put everything in perspective, we have nothing to hang our heads about.

"That 1979 team was probably the least talented of the eight Rams teams I played on [from 1972-79]. But for some reason, we never gave up, we played hard, and good things happened."

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 02, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Lambs to lions - A struggling Rams team caught fire late in 1979 season and nearly pulled off a Super Bowl shocker" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe