Students of blowout football aren't asking who's going to win when the Steelers play the Rams Sunday in Super Bowl XIV. They just want to know how bad it's going to be.
Could be bad, folks. Real bad. Right now they're not betting on a decision, they're just trying to predict which round the knockout will come in. I haven't heard such negative forecasts since the Colts played the Jets in Super Bowl III.
Hey, the underdog Jets won that one straight up, didn't they? Different era, though. And that was a sociological contest. The old-line NFL faces turned to concrete in the owners' boxes. Now the sociology has gone full circle, and you find the same kind of smugness coming out of the AFC people.
The only kind of knock you hear against the Steelers is a "what if?" What if they come up flat? What if they take the Rams for granted? Of course, you heard "what if?" before they played Miami in the first playoff game, too. Sorry, Dolphins, no flats today, 34-14. Crunch. You heard it before their AFC championship game against Houston. After all, they had played the Oilers so many times before. It was interesting for a while, then 27-13. Crunch.
And it was crunch all through the Steelers' playoffs last year, too. No contest in the first two, and 35-17 over Dallas in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIII, before they loosened the reins and let the horses run. The Steelers—three for three in Super Bowls—simply do not come up flat when they smell postseason money. No, wait a minute, they did come up flat twice in their eight years of playoff history—in 1973 vs. Oakland and in 1977 vs. Denver, when Pittsburgh was a club strangely divided. Contract hassles, the coach in court, thank-you gifts sent to Houston for knocking Cincinnati out of the hunt. Very un-Steelerish. But since then it's been crunchball.
And what about the Rams? They are a 9-7 team, the first team with so many losses to reach an NFL title match. But they come into the Rose Bowl snarling and snapping at those faint-of-hearts who wrote them off at midseason, when everybody was hurt and they were sinking into the Pacific, those fair-weather fans who stiffed them when they were poor but love them now that they're rich.
After the Rams shut out Tampa Bay 9-0 in the NFC championship game, Jim Youngblood, their fine left linebacker, stared glumly at the scene in front of him. "Now we're playing Pittsburgh back home," he said, "and a lot of people are going to be jumping back on the bandwagon. We have nothing to prove to those people. We just have to prove things to ourselves. I just hope all those writers who bad-mouthed us and all the people in Los Angeles who gave up on us eat soap for the rest of their lives."
Atta boy, Jim. Buckle up your chin-strap and get ready. This is a hungry team that knows how to hold fast. When things were darkest, when the Rams were 5-6 and trailing New Orleans by a game, destiny finally smiled. They won their next four, although all against teams with losing records, three of them the dregs of the NFC West, a division known as L.A. and the Three Stooges. And the Saints chose that time to pull an el foldo.
"I guess the lowest point in my coaching career," says Bud Carson, L.A.'s defensive coordinator, "came in the Sunday-night game at Dallas in October. Everybody was going down. Dan Ryczek, our long snapper for punts and field goals, ended up trying to block Randy White from the guard position. Our defensive backs kept getting hurt. I had no nickel back to put in against their shotgun. For a while I even thought we were going to have to play a three-deep secondary. After the first quarter I told Ray Malavasi, 'It's all over.' "
The next week L.A. got killed by San Diego. Then the Rams lost to the Giants. Every day Malavasi would read the papers to see if he still had a job. Georgia Rosenbloom, the owner, had already fired her stepson, Steve, and put Harold Guiver, another one of the team's four vice-presidents, on waivers. She had mentioned that it had been a mistake to fire George Allen in the summer of 1978. George kept his bags packed, waiting for the phone call.