That walking piece of handsome Italian sculpture, Vince Ferragamo, the NFL's newest quarterback star, is bidding to take the bickering Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl once more despite the distractions of a love-hate relationship with moody fans and warfare with a parsimonious front office. So far this season he has thrown 26 touchdown passes—and has been called a choker, a dimwit, a prima donna, an ingrate and a malcontent. He also might make All-Pro.
Last Sunday, Ferragamo and the Rams, those ruffians of the West, did it again—that is, put aside their squabbles long enough to beat the New York Jets 38-13 in Anaheim Stadium, with Vince throwing four TD passes. L.A.'s victory, coupled with Atlanta's 10-6 win over Washington, kept the Rams (9-4) one game behind the first-place Falcons (10-3) in the NFC West, a division the Rams had dominated for seven seasons.
Barring a disastrous finish, the runner-up in the NFC West seems certain to gain one of the conference's two wild-card playoff spots; thus, win or place, Los Angeles should be around for the postseason festivities.
But this has been a season of turmoil for all the Rams. The source of disgruntlement is the front office, where owner Georgia Frontiere, the widow of Carroll Rosenbloom, has adopted a fiscal policy that might be called "The buck stops here." No fewer than eight players—defensive linemen Jack Youngblood and Larry Brooks; Guard Dennis Harrah; linebackers Jim Youngblood, Bob Brudzinski and Jack Reynolds; Cornerback Pat Thomas; and Ferragamo, i.e., the heart of the team—have either held out, walked out or spoken out this season. Says Brooks: "We don't play for management; we play for ourselves." Two weeks ago Brudzinski said goodby forever, stalking off and suggesting he never again would play for Madame Ram, as Georgia has been called.
L.A. began the season out of shape and out of sync, losing its first two games. Since then, Coach Ray Malavasi, who also is trying to negotiate a contract with Madame Ram, has alternately fretted and applauded as his team turned the tap off and on.
Ferragamo's mission, returning the Rams to the Super Bowl, is additionally difficult because L.A. is weighted just where it can hurt—at both ends of the age spectrum. The Rams are prone to rash mistakes, something that happens to teams with eight rookies, and at times they tend to doze off, something that happens to teams with eight players in their 30s. And Ferragamo has had to rely on the passing game more than he had expected to, because the Rams' No. 1 runner, Wendell Tyler, who gained 1,109 yards last year, missed the first seven games with a dislocated hip, the result of a summer auto accident.
Tyler rushed for 88 yards while playing only a half against New Orleans on the Monday night before the Jets game, and he started off strongly against New York, gaining 27 yards in the first 10 minutes. But then he went out—probably for the rest of the regular season—with a dislocated right elbow. So onto the field trotted Elvis Peacock, the former Oklahoma flash who had knee surgery in 1978 and a broken ankle in 1979. Peacock rushed for 112 yards in the first half, finished with 152 and made Ferragamo happy by keeping the Jet blitzers honest.
For his part, Ferragamo is lucky to be starting, to say nothing of doing so well. For the second season in a row, L.A.'s No. 1 quarterback on paper, Pat Haden, has broken a finger, and Ferragamo has come on to save the Rams. Along the way Ferragamo has sold a couple of million newspapers, creating controversy by remaining unsigned. In his own eyes, he is also unloved. If the free-agent market beckons, his bags are packed. In the meantime, the Rams have won 15 of the 20 games Ferragamo has started. And for the most part he has had to make do with a motley group of wide receivers—free agents, discards and draft-choice dregs called the Forgotten Five.
Ferragamo, 26, is 6'3", 212 pounds and sturdy. When he played for Nebraska, after having spent his first two seasons of college eligibility splitting time with Steve Bartkowski at California, a linebacker hit him head on and was knocked unconscious for several moments.
And Ferragamo throwing the ball is like Mozart working a sheet of music—the performance is classical. In one five-game stretch this season, while NFL statisticians frantically jiggled their calculators to see if they were working properly, Ferragamo hit on 70% of his passes, throwing for 13 touchdowns while yielding only two interceptions.