If you ever wanted to look up the definition of unfulfilled promise, look up the 1970’s Los Angeles Rams. From 1973-1979 the Rams had won 6 straight NFC West titles. Of all the teams that dominated their respective divisions, the Rams couldn’t duplicate their regular season when the playoffs began.
Los Angeles had ruled their division with a great suffocating defense and a solid running game. However they never had a top flight quarterback to push themselves over the top. From an aged John Hadl to James Harris to Ron Jaworski and finally settling on Pat Haden, the pedestrian quarterbacking failed them in the postseason repeatedly. They lost defensive battles with the Minnesota Vikings but it was against the Dallas Cowboys the worst losses were afflicted.
In ’75 the 12-2 Rams were gearing up for an NFC Championship against the Minnesota Vikings. No one expected the wild card 10-4 Dallas Cowboys to upset them with The Hail Mary. Los Angeles had finished on a 6 game winning streak, which included a 10-3 win over the defending and eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers.
Once Pittsburgh vanquished the Raiders over in the AFC Title Game, all they had to do was beat the “lucky to be there” Cowboys for the NFC and punch their ticket to Super Bowl X. Staubach sliced them up with a 37-7 defeat at home. They lost in an epic rout where their great defense let them down. It was a defense that had only given up 3 touchdowns in their last 30 quarters and held 5 of those 6 opponents to less than 10 points per game.
After two more losses to the Vikings in ’76 and ’77 Head Coach Chuck Knox moved on to coach the Bills. Defensive Coordinator Ray Malavasi was promoted and the reigns of the offense were placed in Pat Haden’s hands as the full time starter. The consensus was he could gain experience in time to win it all within the next couple years with an aging but still formidable defense.
The 1978 season saw the Rams go 12-4 and become the first team to earn homefield throughout the playoffs. They had the #1 defense which registered wins in regular season games against the Steelers 13-10, and 27-14 over Dallas. Back in the NFC Championship, they hosted the defending champion Cowboys and were shut out 28-0. Dallas wrecked another trip to the big game and it seemed the window had closed for the Rams.
A tumultuous off-season ensued, concluding with the drowning death of Owner Carroll Rosenbloom. Then the controversial ownership transfer to his wife Georgia and not his son Steve.
The tumult in the front office mimicked what was happening on the field once the season began. The defense was a step slow as the team began 5-6 and the playoffs were in jeopardy. They had just lost 4 of those last 5 and had given up 29.25 points in those including a 30-6 loss to the hated Cowboys. Now they lost starting QB Pat Haden for the year. Where was this group headed??
They turned to flashy 3rd year runner Wendell Tyler as they eased backup QB Vince Ferragamo into the lineup. Tyler got the hot hand rushing for 520 of his 1,109 yards on the season in the final 5 weeks. Ferragamo finished with less than 50% completion rate and threw 5TDs to 10 interceptions. So these unlikely players were going to lead the 9-7 Rams into the playoffs.
Most had buried the Rams as a team that didn’t have heart. The Dallas Cowboys had ripped it out in 2 championship games already. Dating back to the ’78 NFC Championship Game, they were 0-2 with a combined losing score of 58-6. So now with Vince Ferragamo and Wendell Tyler (new ’79 midseason starters) they were supposed to go to Dallas and win in the divisional round??
After sending Dallas home 21-19 in Roger Staubach’s last game and the 9-0 NFC Championship win over Tampa, the Rams fought tooth and nail with Pittsburgh out in Pasadena. Inspired by Jack Youngblood who was playing with a lower leg fracture from the Cowboy game on, the Rams exhibited all the toughness, heart, and desire they hadn’t shown in their previous playoff years.
Falling to Pittsburgh 31-19 in Super Bowl XIV kept the Rams from final glory. However they set the precedent that a team can get hot right as the playoffs near and ride that momentum to the Super Bowl. Even in that game, the lead changed hands 6 times as they wouldn’t give in to the established champion Steelers. Only a late game interception by an inexperienced Ferragamo kept the game from a 7th.
A truly Herculean effort that just came up short.
Dedicated to the memories of Ray Malavasi, Jack Faulkner, Carroll Rosenbloom & Bud Carson.
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