A Decade Later, Super Team Again Stands in Rams' Way

BALTIMORE SUN

The season was 1979, the dynasty was the Pittsburgh Steelers', the dissenting voice belonged to Ray Malavasi.

That was the last time--the only time--the Los Angeles Rams reached the Super Bowl in January, 1980. They took a 19-17 lead into the final 15 minutes of Super Bowl XIV, coughed up two touchdowns and lost, 31-19, to the Steelers.

It was Pittsburgh's second consecutive National Football League title. Nobody has won two in a row since.

A decade later, the dynasty is the San Francisco 49ers', the dissenting voice is John Robinson's, and the Rams may be the only team left with a shot at keeping the 49ers from back-to-back titles. They meet today at Candlestick Park in the National Football Conference championship game, with the winner getting the American Football Conference champion two weeks later in Super Bowl XXIV.

"This may be the best team they (the 49ers) have ever had," said Robinson, the Rams' coach and motivational master. "They're capable of beating us the way they beat Minnesota Saturday (41-13). But we're a capable team, too."

Robinson's Rams are capable, crafty, cunning. They're also young and ambitious, which may mark the biggest difference a Ram decade has made.

"Back then, we were a veteran football team that played well when we had to," said right tackle Jackie Slater. "Now we're a young team, constantly getting better."

Slater can appreciate the difference better than most. The 14-year veteran played on the Rams' Super Bowl team of 1979. At 35, he still is entrenched on the right side of that mammoth offensive line. What he likes in this team is its willingness to pay the price of success.

"We're not the most experienced team," Slater said. "But the talent on this team rivals any I've played on. The thing that makes it unique is, we've got a lot of young, talented people who were expected to play some, and they feel like they've got to keep working to get better. That's what it's all about."

Young? The Rams have 16 players on their 47-man roster who are in their first or second NFL season. Three of them start. The blend of youth and experience has produced a fresh twist for people like Irv Pankey, the Rams' left tackle and former Aberdeen standout.

"I've been in too many situations where we go into games and hope we don't lose them," said Pankey, a 10-year veteran. "Now we go into games hoping we win."

This is a team cut from Robinson's cloth, shaped in his image. It didn't hurt the sculpture, either, when malcontent Eric Dickerson forced a Halloween trade in 1987 that brought the Rams three additional first-round and three additional second-round draft picks.

Robinson used those picks to get running back Gaston Green, wide receiver Aaron Cox and linebacker Fred Strickland in 1988, and running back Cleveland Gary, linebacker Frank Stams and cornerback Darryl Henley this year. Strickland, the only starter of that crew, is the heart of the defense. Green, on injured reserve, is the only bust.

What helped even more was the 1986 deal that brought holdout quarterback Jim Everett to Los Angeles from Houston. Everett has thrown 60 touchdown passes the past two seasons, tops in the NFL. Everett enabled Robinson to make a healthy break from the Dickerson Daze, when the Rams were a one-dimensional run offense.

"I don't think you're looking at a conservative team," said running back Greg Bell, who came in the Dickerson trade. "That's just your perception. People got used to things the Rams did before Coach Robinson got here, before he really mixed up the blend of characters on the team. This is an exciting team. We pride ourselves on not quitting till the last tick's off the clock."

The Rams have been living on the brink of elimination the last month. They averted season-ending losses at New England, Philadelphia and the Meadowlands on successive weekends, beating the Patriots, Eagles, Giants and jet lag. Now they get a 50-minute flight to San Francisco, and a chance to avenge a 30-27 loss to the 49ers last Dec. 11.

"The East Coast has been good to us," Everett said, "but we're happy to be home for a West Coast game. We respect the 49ers a great deal, but we believe we are competitive with them. I think we might be the only team capable of beating the 49ers."

Slater sounded almost coach-like in his approach to the 49er rematch.

"We're excited to have the opportunity to play the defending Super Bowl champs," he said. "They're the best team of the decade, the best team we played against. It'll be a hard road to hoe.

"But we don't take a back seat to anybody."

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