Sunday, February 2, 2020

A Steel Curtain Call for the Super Bowl's First Dynasty

ACCORDING TO CHINESE ASTROLOGY, the Year of the Ram started on Jan. 28, 1979 and ended on Feb. 15, 1980.

According to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it ended some three weeks earlier, with 12:15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Vince Ferragamo and Mean Joe Greene
(Sports Illustrated photo)

It ended, 40 years ago, with one of the most indelible plays in Super Bowl history.

The upstart Los Angeles Rams made it to pro-football's biggest stage despite winning just nine games during the regular season, the fewest ever to that date for a team appearing in the National Football League season finale.* The defending champion Steelers were making their fourth Super Bowl appearance in just six seasons, having won matches IX, X and XIII.

Led by its already legendary quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh had gone 12-4 during the 1979 season, then beat the Miami Dolphins and Houston Oilers in the playoffs. They had the NFL's highest-scoring offense while their Steel Curtain defense had allowed the seventh fewest points.

Los Angeles QB Vince Ferragamo wasn't even his team's starter until the 12th game of the season, after a broken finger sidelined incumbent Pat Haden. Though he'd steered L.A. to an aggregate 6-1 record, the big game was just his eighth NFL start. Plus, the Rams had outscored their opponents by just 14 points during the regular season, beating the Tampa Buccaneers 9-0 for the conference championship.

Experts were predicting the biggest slaughter since Abraham spared Isaac.

The official game program
L.A.'s game-opening drive stalled on its own 26-yard-line after three plays for a net total of five yards. Then the Steelers went to work, Bradshaw deploying running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier to gain 55 yards, setting up a Matt Bahr field goal. Steelers 3, Rams 0.

Five minutes and nine plays later, L.A. answered back. Running back Wendell Tyler's 39-yard dance through Pittsburgh's defense put the Rams in the red zone. Moments later, Cullen Bryant bulled in from the one. L.A. 7, Steelers 3.

Early in the second quarter, Harris plowed into the end zone, putting Pitt back on top, 10-7. Then strange things started to happen, things that make odds-makers and bookies nervous.

Rams placekicker Frank Corral tied the game five minutes after Franco's plunge. Then, after the teams traded three-and-outs, L.A. defensive back Dave Elemendorf's interception of a Bradshaw pass led to another Corral F.G.

At halftime, the score stood: Los Angeles Rams 13, Pittsburgh Steelers 10.

With Pittsburgh's ground game struggling in the third, Bradshaw connected with Lynn Swann for a 47-yard TD, the Hall of Fame-bound wide receiver beating double coverage to haul in the heave.

Wendell Tyler on the run.
(Sports Illustrated photo)
The champs were back on top, 17-13, but the Rams refused to lay down.

Ferragamo quickly connected with Billy Waddy on a 50-yard passing play that put L.A. on the Pittsburgh 24. Running back Lawrence McCutcheon then tossed a half-back option TD pass to receiver Ron Smith.

Though Corral missed the extra point, it was Rams 19, Steelers 17 midway through the third and things were about to get even worse for Pittsburgh.

Swann, leaping high for a catch, had his legs cut out from under by a Rams defender. The acrobatic receiver landed hard on his right shoulder, his helmeted head slamming to the Rose Bowl turf. He left the game with concussion.

Bradshaw was intercepted twice more before the quarter's end, the second time when Rams cornerback Rod Perry caught a pass meant for the Steeler's remaining Hall-bound wideout, John Stallworth.

The third quarter wrapped with L.A. clinging to that slender two-point lead, but the Rams could do little with the possession gained by Perry's piracy. Their punt gave Pittsburgh possession on its own 25-yard-line with 12:59 left on the clock. Then, the Steelers galvanized.

A Harris run gained two yards. An incomplete pass left them there. It was third and eight on the Pittsburgh 27 when Bradshaw took the snap, dropped back about 10 yards, then uncorked one of the greatest throws in pro football history.

Perry leaps in vain as Stallworth gathers in the pass.
(Sports Illustrated photo)
His high tight spiral sailed 46 yards down field. Just clearing Perry's outstretched hand, the ball was caught by Stallworth in full stride at the Rams' 36. With Perry lying prone on field, the Steelers receiver raced untouched to the end zone. Steelers 24, Rams 19.

The champs never looked back, scoring once more after a Ferragamo interception to seal the win, 31-19.

Despite three interceptions, Bradshaw was named the game's most valuable player, largely on the strength of 60 Prevent, Slot Hook and Go, a play they'd repeatedly tried and failed to execute in practice that week.

It would be Bradshaw's last Super Bowl. An elbow injury would force him to retire after the 1983 season.

The victory over the Rams also marked the end of the Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty, the first of the NFL's Super Bowl era. They'd not return to the big game until 1996.

* For a now-standard 16-game NFL season.

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