Super Bowl XIV
Big plays finally subdue upstart Rams
By BOB LABRIOLA
The national media wasn't impressed. Then again, neither were the Los Angeles Rams.
As the NFL staged its conference championship games at the end of the 1979 season, the national media thought almost nothing of the NFC matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Rams. Sports Illustrated referred to it as "A game for losers played by losers."
Sports Illustrated went on: "There are ways to make Super Bowl XIV competitive – put weights on the Steelers, let the Rams play with 12 men, make Terry Bradshaw throw left-handed. Then it might be a game."
But if the media had already awarded the Lombardi Trophy to the Steelers, the Rams still planned on showing up for the game and competing. Even if they would be playing the Super Bowl without starting quarterback Pat Haden, they had three coaches on Ray Malavasi's staff who knew more than just a little bit about the Steelers – Bud Carson, Lionel Taylor and Dan Radakovich.
An assistant under Chuck Noll from 1972-77, Carson had been integral in putting together the defensive line that terrorized the NFL under the moniker, "The Steel Curtain," because he was willing to look at the athletic ability of an end named L.C. Greenwood instead of getting hung up on his lack of bulk. Carson, one of the men who introduced the cover-2 scheme to the NFL, coordinated the Steelers defense during his time with Noll and won two Super Bowl rings with the team.
Taylor had been an outstanding receiver in the early days of the AFL. In fact, as a member of the Denver Broncos he led the league in receiving in each of its first six years of existence, and in 1961, he became the first professional football player to catch 100 passes, and he did it in a 14-game season. Taylor was hired by Noll in 1970, and thanks to the lessons he taught Ron Shanklin, Frank Lewis, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, all would go on to play in the Pro Bowl.
Radakovich coached both the defensive linemen and the offensive linemen during his five season stint on Noll's staff, but his greatest contribution might have been the techniques he taught offensive linemen. A lot of the footwork and hand-techniques still used by offensive linemen in the NFL today were introduced to the league by Radakovich.
In 1979, those three coaches were preparing a team to face the Steelers for a Super Bowl championship, and the Rams were not intimidated by the enormity of their task. "Usually teams are very humble when they prepare to meet us," said Dwight White. "The Rams are different. They've got some kind of inner strength."
That inner strength came out when the game started.
The Steelers scored on their first two possessions – on a 41-yard field goal by Matt Bahr and then on a 1-yard run by Franco Harris that capped a nine-play, 53-yard drive. But again, the Rams did not seem impressed, and they went through a span in the first half where they scored on three of four possessions – Frank Corral field goals of 31 and 45 yards and a 1-yard run by Cullen Bryant – and built a 13-10 halftime lead.
"At halftime, I was really concerned. I was more than concerned. I was scared," said Jack Lambert. "They had all the momentum, and our defense just wasn't playing up to par. It was just a shaky situation. It had been a big-play game, and in those games anything can happen. In the first half, they used a lot of man-in-motion, and it confused us. We finally made some adjustments at halftime."
Thanks to the kickoff returning of Larry Anderson, who had four returns of 37 yards or longer, the Steelers offense was getting good field position throughout the game. Terry Bradshaw took advantage of that early in the third quarter, and he hit Swann for a 47-yard touchdown that gave the lead back to the Steelers, 17-13.
But Swann was injured on the play – another concussion – and he was done for the day. To compound the Steelers' plight, the Rams answered that score with a four-play, 77-yard touchdown drive of their own, with the points coming on a 24-yard halfback pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith. It might have been the Steelers' motto for over a decade, but it was the Rams who were the embodiment of "whatever it takes" on this day. Going into the fourth quarter, the Rams led, 19-17.
Turnovers had been a problem for the Steelers throughout the season, and Super Bowl XIV was no different. Bradshaw would be voted the game's MVP, but before he got there his three interceptions proved to be a problem for the Steelers.
Still, great players make big plays in critical situations, and Bradshaw used this game as more evidence of his greatness. The Steelers game plan called for Bradshaw to look deep on third-down situations, rather than just to go for the first-down marker. It was one of those third downs when Bradshaw caught a Rams safety looking to jump a short route, and when Stallworth streaked past the safety, Bradshaw laid the ball in perfectly over cornerback Rod Perry for a 73-yard touchdown.
Not even that served to deter the Rams, who promptly started driving for a score that would give them the lead once again. Down, 24-19, with 5:35 left in the game, the Rams were at the Steelers 32-yard line. Vince Ferragamo had not been outplayed by Bradshaw to this point in the game, but at this crucial juncture he made a big mistake.
Ferragamo threw the ball over the middle for Ron Smith, but Smith's undisciplined pattern allowed Lambert to cut across the route and make the interception. "I was responsible for the deep middle on the play," said Lambert. "It was a play they like, but they had only run it once before which surprised me. We worked on it in practice the last two weeks, because it had been successful for them all year."
The Steelers then drove 70 yards for the clinching touchdown – a 1-yard run by Harris – and during the drive Bradshaw connected with Stallworth on another deep route on another third down, this one for 45 yards, and the Steelers had their fourth Super Bowl championship during a six-season span of the 1970s.
"Hopefully we'll be able top say that we're the greatest football team of all time," said Lambert after the game was over. "I don't feel it's going to be any tougher to do it again next year. As Chuck Noll said after the game, This trophy is now an antique.