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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 clich�s—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.