In 1979, in the first Sunday of December, the Los Angeles Rams were on their way to the Super Bowl, only nobody knew it, least of all the Rams.
They carried a 7-6 record into the game that afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings, their first-string quarterback was injured and his backup was such an inexperienced scatter-arm that the club sent up to a real estate office in Marin county to reactivate a retired quarterback who had never been anything but a good journeyman.
Nevertheless, on this afternoon, the backup's backup had to come in and rescue a game that had been frittered away to the Vikings. The Rams won the game in overtime, 27-21, as the backup backup, Bob Lee, threw one touchdown pass and engineered the winner in the fifth-quarter final drive.
In the locker room afterward, the quarterback Lee had replaced was inconsolable. Vince Ferragamo, who had thrown 10 passes, 6 incomplete and 1 intercepted, was sure he had thrown himself, so to speak, right off the team, maybe the game.
He not only hadn't--the coach sent him right out the following weeks--but, three weeks later, he was to pass the Rams right into the Super Bowl, an astonishing turn of events no one quite understood at the time. But, on reflection, he did this by putting together a rather unbelievable game against a superior Dallas Cowboy team in which he (1) got sacked for a safety; (2) threw 2 interceptions and only completed 9 of 21 passes; but (3) completed one pass 55 yards in the air to a Ram receiver (Ron Smith) standing under the goal posts and another to a wide receiver (Billy Waddy) that went for 50 yards and had been in nobody's playbook. The Rams won, 21-19.
How had he been able to do this? Well, the balance of the evidence seems to suggest that he was successful because the Dallas Cowboys (like the Rams themselves) had no clear idea of what quarterback Vince Ferragamo was going to do next. It was like playing cards with a stranger.
The element of surprise in battle is never to be underestimated. History shows that when the league had a better handle on what Vince Ferragamo was all about, what his tendencies were, he was never again such an enigma.
I bring this up at this time because the Rams are now entering another Super Bowl tournament with another player who is, so to say, bringing his own deck.
Jim Everett is everything Vince Ferragamo was. He's tall, strong, good looking--and totally unpredictable. The coaches around the league cannot go to a tendency chart to plot their defenses. They don't have a computer backlog on what this player does best on third-and-long, how he handles a pass rush, a blitz, how he can read a zone or what he likes to do with man-to-man coverage.
Any coach in this league has a pretty good idea what to expect from a Jim Plunkett. But a Jim Everett? A kid out of Purdue?
It works both ways. A kid out of Purdue doesn't know what those guys are doing to him, either.
Jim Everett dazzled the league coming out of the box. He utterly confounded a good New England team to which the Rams barely lost on a tipped prayer of a pass. Then, he really threw a curve at the league when he rocked the Cowboys with 212 yards and a touchdown.
But, is he for real? Will he hang up those stats when the defenses start to get wise to him, when they stack the coverage to take away what he likes to do best?
Everett thinks so. "Look," he said after a recent game, "I've seen zone defenses before. I've countered 'man' coverages. I threw the ball as many as 50 times a game at Purdue. Big Ten coverages are not that unsophisticated."
The facts are, the emergence of Everett has posed problems for the Rams' brain trust, too. Heretofore, they had a tried-and-true attack. It is considered a rule of thumb that, any time you are not giving the ball to Eric Dickerson, you are vamping, stalling for time. Other teams cannot believe their good luck when someone other than Dickerson is coming at them with the ball.
The nice thing about giving the ball to Eric Dickerson is, he keeps it for hours at a time. This means a Joe Montana or a Dan Marino--or a Jay Schroeder--doesn't get to see it much.
A Jim Everett strikes quickly. Or fails quickly. Incompletions take no time off the clock. If the other team jumps into a quick, big lead, the Dickerson option is neutralized. The Rams with him are hard put to catch up in anything less than a week.
So, the Rams are playing the Washington Redskins this week in the awkward posture of a guy sitting in on the deal in which he has a small pair and a four-card flush. What does he do? Try to win with the pair or break up that pair and try for the flush?
Do you give Jim Everett the ball and say, "Don't do anything with this but hand it to Eric Dickerson till you hear from me?" Or do you give it to him and say "Don't be afraid to throw it"?
But, the nice thing about giving it to a Jim Everett is, the other team may go into catatonia trying to figure out what he's going to do next. You might want to try to draw that card.
That's how the Rams got to the Super Bowl the only time they ever got there. It may be the only way they can get there again. Maybe the best thing for the coaches would be to give Everett the ball and say "Go ahead and surprise me." And, maybe, the rest of the league, too.