Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo avoided the rush and guided his team to a surprising halftime lead.
January 20, 1980
Almost from the moment he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, John Stallworth was the other kid on the block, the wide receiver who gained recognition only if some spilled over from heralded Lynn Swann.
A product of Alabama A&M, Stallworth was hardly a publicity match for Swann, an All-America from the University of Southern California and an acrobatic artist whose very name implied ballet-like grace.
In the 1974 draft, Swann was selected No. 1 by the Steelers, and Stallworth No. 4, which was their approximate numerical relationship five years later: one Swann was equal to four Stallworths in the minds of most observers.
In Super Bowl XIII, Stallworth caught two first-half touchdown passes against Dallas -- a fact that was generally overlooked when John sat out the second half because of leg cramps, and Swann stole the spotlight.
The 1979 season was pure discomfort for Stallworth. Two sprained wrists made it too painful for him to lift his infant daughter, yet he caught 70 passes good for 1,183 yards, both Steelers records.
Stallworth's day of recognition arrived eventually, before a record Super Bowl crowd of 103,985 in the Rose Bowl on January 20, 1980. The 6-2 Alabamian caught three passes for 121 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 73-yard pass play in Pittsburgh's 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
The play that projected the Steelers into their fourth world championship had been practiced eight times during Super Bowl week, Stallworth disclosed -- and it hadn't worked once.
"It's hard to have confidence in a play that never works," said Stallworth. "But I think it didn't work because the field was soggy. Terry Bradshaw was throwing the ball long and I couldn't get to it."
The play, known to the Steelers as "60 prevent, slot, hook and go," occurred at 2:56 of the fourth quarter, after the score had already changed hands five times. Los Angeles held a 19-17 lead.
On third and eight at his 27-yard line, Stallworth -- the slot man -- took two defenders 15 yards downfield, hooked and then went deep, pulling in a perfectly thrown Bradshaw pass 39 yards from the line of scrimmage. He then raced the remaining 34 yards unmolested.
"Usually, on that play," Bradshaw noted, "the receiver hooks and slides. And that's the way the Rams defensed it."
Los Angeles strong safety Eddie Brown confessed: "I blew it. I thought we had five defensive backs on the field instead of six. I should have gone to the inside, but I took the outside receiver instead."
The help that cornerback Rod Perry expected never arrived.
"Bradshaw put just enough arc on the ball to get it over my hands," noted Perry, who yielded five inches to Stallworth.
Bradshaw called the same play later in the game and Stallworth picked up 45 yards, setting up the final Pittsburgh touchdown.
"I felt all along I could deliver the big play," reported Stallworth, gifted with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. "I feel that I can go deep on anybody in the NFL. We tried to beat them with the bomb and go deep on the fly pattern because they were double covering short and deep."
The selection of Bradshaw as the Most Valuable Player for the second consecutive year failed to disturb Stallworth. "I don't worry about things I can't control," he philosophized. "I just go with the flow."
The Steelers did not exactly "flow" to their fourth Super Bowl appearance in six years, suffering four defeats on their 16-game schedule. Their most crushing defeats were by Cincinnati, 34-10, and San Diego, 35-7. In the AFC playoffs, they eliminated Miami, 34-14, and Houston, 27-13.
For the Rams, the Super Bowl engagement was their first and capped their seventh consecutive NFC Western Division championship season. It also marked the first time an NFC West team had qualified for the title game.
The Los Angeles regular-season record of 9-7 was the poorest of any team ever to reach the Super Bowl -- and it was only one victory better than division runner-up New Orleans' 8-8. The Rams barely outscored their season opponents, 323 points to 309, and in midseason suffered such consecutive one-sided defeats as 30-6 to Dallas and 40-16 to San Diego. In the playoffs they squeaked by Dallas, 21-19, before beating Tampa Bay, 9-0, on three field goals by Frank Corral.
L.A. had undergone its annual quarterback crisis, with Vince Ferragamo, a third-year player, emerging as the starter at season's end. Pat Haden held the job at the beginning of the year, but was felled by a broken finger. Rookie Jeff Rutledge and veteran Bob Lee also had turns behind center before Ferragamo recovered from a broken hand and led the Rams to six victories in seven games, enough to win the NFC West.
The Rams were coached by Raymondo Giuseppi Giovanni Baptiste Malavasi, who had replaced George Allen midway through the preseason schedule in 1978.
A product of Clifton, N.J., and a graduate of Mississippi State in civil engineering, Ray Malavasi surfaced as coach of the Rams following a checkerboard career that started at Fort Belvoir, Va., while he was in military service.
He was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, Memphis State and Wake Forest before being hired as personnel director of the Denver Broncos in 1962.
In 1966, following the dismissal of Mac Speedie, Malavasi coached the Broncos to a 4-8 record. He was defensive coordinator of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League the following year. In 1969, he became an assistant with the Buffalo Bills, moved to the Oakland Raiders as an assistant in 1970 and joined the Rams in 1973, serving as defensive coordinator under Coach Chuck Knox. For Allen, he was offensive coordinator and offensive coach.
Malavasi underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery early in 1978. A year later, in the spring of 1979, he was hospitalized for treatment of hypertension and, he said at the Super Bowl, he was still on medication.
Now Malavasi was ready for the Steelers. When he was asked if he thought the Rams would be satisfied to have gotten to the Super Bowl and were not 100 percent determined to win, Malavasi replied heatedly, "I don't think so. For me to get here and not win is like not getting here at all."
While Malavasi was prepared for the main event, Terry Bradshaw tossed fitfully the night before the game. Three hours after falling asleep, he was wide awake, staring at blank walls. For entertainment, he turned on the television set and listened to the whine of test patterns.
"I couldn't shake the idea of losing," related the three-time Super Bowl quarterback. "I couldn't sleep. It was the first time that's happened to me."
To Art Rooney, gentle patriarch of the Steelers, went the honor of making the traditional coin toss. Rooney nearing 79, heard the Rams' captains call the toss correctly and announce they would receive.
The NFC champions, however, progressed no further than their 34-yard line on their first possession and the Steelers, following Ken Clark's punt and a 15-yard clipping penalty, started their first series from their 21.
Eleven plays and three first downs later, rookie Matt Bahr kicked a 41-yard field goal.
After Bahr's kickoff traveled only to the Los Angeles 41, the Rams scored in eight plays to move ahead, 7-3. Wendell Tyler accounted for 39 yards with a sweep around left end and Cullen Bryant finished off the drive with a one-yard plunge with 12:16 elapsed.
Larry Anderson, who was to set a Super Bowl record by returning five kickoffs 162 yards, sprinted 45 yards with Corral's kickoff and Bradshaw needed only nine plays for Pittsburgh to regain the lead.
Systematically, Terry mixed passes and line smashes until the Steelers reached the 1, from where Franco Harris circled right end for the touchdown. With 2:08 gone in the second period, the AFC champions were on top, 10-7.
The Steelers had three more possessions the remainder of the quarter. One drive stalled at midfield, another was terminated by safety Dave Elmendorf's interception of a first-down pass on the Pittsburgh 49 and the third died at the Pittsburgh 34 as time ran out.
The Rams, meanwhile scored twice on Corral field goals from 31 and 45 yards, taking a 13-10 lead into the locker room at halftime.
"It was an uneasy feeling," reported tackle Larry Brown of the mood in the Pittsburgh clubhouse. "We knew we could win the game, but we also knew we'd have to make some changes."
"We never thought we were going to lose," added defensive end Dwight White, "but it was going to be a test of maturity and character."
Middle linebacker Jack Lambert conceded that "I was scared. The Rams had the momentum. I'm never concerned about our offense, but our defense was playing poorly."
Assistant coach Woody Widenhofer minced no words, telling the defensive unit, "How can you mess up this way? Didn't we go over these things a dozen times? You guys are standing out there like statues."
Results of the censure were not immediately noticeable, although the Pittsburgh offensive unit scored three minutes into the third quarter when Bradshaw and Lynn Swann hooked up on a 47-yard play and turned a 17-13 lead over to the defense.
Along with others, Rams free safety Nolan Cromwell thought he was in ideal position to deflect the touchdown pass to Swann. "But I guess I jumped a little early," he said. "I was on the way down when the ball arrived. I think I partially deflected it, but not enough to knock it off-course."
Cornerback Pat Thomas thought that Cromwell "had the interception. He misjudged it. All I could do was try to slap the ball away from Swann."
When Swann returned to the Pittsburgh bench, teammates greeted him with backslaps and a message: "Swannie, that's what we needed."
The lead did not last long in the hands of the Steelers' defense. The Rams went 77 yards in four plays to reclaim the lead. A 50-yard pass from Ferragamo to wide receiver Billy Waddy moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 24. One play later, Lawrence McCutcheon, on a halfback option play, passed to wide receiver Ron Smith for a touchdown. When Corral's extra point try was wide left, the Rams' lead was 19-17.
"A good call," conceded Lambert of the TD play. "They'd had some success running on us, and the secondary was coming up to give support."
If there was any favorable aspect of the game's pattern, Stallworth noted, it was that "we always had time to come back.
"It wasn't like there were two minutes left and everything was at stake."
There were in fact, 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter when the Steelers commenced their next series on their 26-yard line.
Two plays later, from his 44, Bradshaw launched a bomb intended for Swann. Cromwell was positioned perfectly for the interception, but let the ball slip through his hands.
"After I dropped the ball, I looked up and saw where everyone was," related Cromwell. "I felt sick. There was one Steeler in front of me and he was blocked. I just took my eye off the ball. We could have been nine points ahead and that might have changed the result."
If the Rams missed a scoring opportunity on Cromwell's failure, the Steelers did no better with continued possession.
Their drive ended disastrously when a Bradshaw pass intended for Jim Smith was intercepted by Eddie Brown, who handed off to Pat Thomas for an overall return of 12 yards to the Rams' 39.
With less than one minute left in the quarter, and the Steelers driving inside the Rams' 20, Bradshaw attempted a pass to Stallworth on the 5, where cornerback Rod Perry batted the ball into the air and intercepted.
"I was so dad-blame mad at that interception I couldn't see straight," said Bradshaw. "In a situation like that you have to get at least three points."
At this juncture Bradshaw was 12-for-17 in passing, with three interceptions, and Ferragamo was 11-for-16 with a spotless interception record.
With less than three minutes elapsed in the fourth period, the Steelers executed the play that turned the game around in the opinion of many observers. It was the Stallworth special that had been such an abominable failure during the week.
Bradshaw refused to call the play the first time that Coach Chuck Noll sent it in. On this occasion, Stallworth convinced the quarterback he should call it.
"I saw Rod Perry's hand over me just as I was about to catch the ball," related the wide receiver. "He came very close to making a damn good play."
With 8:29 to play and trailing 24-19, the Rams launched a drive from their 16-yard line and proceeded to the Steelers 32 when Ferragamo passed toward Smith.
Lambert beat Smith to the ball, however, and the Steelers were in control at their 16.
"The play-action pass is designed to hold the linebackers," said Ferragamo. "It held nobody. I probably should have gone to the deep man (Billy Waddy) near the goal line. Lambert is a very rangy guy."
The interception was not Lambert's first contribution to the Pittsburgh effort, of course. Late in the first half he had stepped into the defensive huddle and emitted an ear-splitting exhortation to his teammates.
"He bellowed so loud," remembered safety Donnie Shell, "that I got kinda scared. I don't recall what he said, but I can tell you I didn't say anything."
At another time, after the Rams' Tyler had broken a tackle and reversed his course across the field, Lambert suddenly appeared behind him and threw the ball-carrier for a nine-yard loss.
"Jack has a role on this team," declared Greene. "I can't tell you what the role is, but he plays it very well."
"I did go into a tirade," Lambert admitted, "but I was very concerned the way the defense was playing. It seemed to me that we didn't have the necessary intensity. We weren't flying around the field the way we should have."
Inspired by Lambert, who participated in 13 tackles during the game, the Steelers put the ball in play on their 30 with 5:24 remaining. Two plays netted only three yards before Bradshaw, surveying the L. A. defense, spotted an inviting deployment.
"Gol dang it," he muttered to himself, "they're in the same coverage" -- as in the same scheme as they were for the TD bomb to Stallworth seven minutes earlier. Terry called the same play.
It was a 45-yard completion to Stallworth, who reached the Rams' 22 before he was tackled by Perry.
Rocky Bleier gained nothing at left tackle and Bradshaw went to the air again. A pass to Jim Smith in the end zone fell incomplete, but field judge Charlie Musser flagged Pat Thomas for interference, placing the ball on the L.A. 1-yard line. Two line smashes came up short before Harris plunged over tackle for an insurance touchdown with 1:49 remaining.
"It was a sorry call," snorted Thomas of the interference ruling.
Malavasi agreed. "I could see the play clearly. Thomas did not interfere. It was just a bad call."
Assistant coach Jack Faulkner of the Rams added, "I thought it was offensive interference. You don't call it that close in that situation in a game as important as this one."
Replied Musser, "Thomas had good position all the way until the last second when he played the man instead of the ball."
"Never in my life was I so happy to see a game end," said Bradshaw, who set Super Bowl records for most yards gained passing, career, and most touchdown passes, career. "There was so much more pressure than in previous Super Bowls.
"We knew how good the Rams were, and they were playing at home. I knew it would be very, very tough."
Bradshaw confessed that he was not "totally involved" in the first half.
"I knew I wasn't throwing well. I could see that the team wasn't juiced. So I did a lot of talking to a lot of guys. I feel good about that. I feel like I contributed to getting us juiced up."
Concerning his MVP honor, Bradshaw joked, "They seldom give such awards to quarterbacks who throw three interceptions."
Bradshaw was generous in his praise of Ferragamo, in the sternest test of his 21-game pro career. I didn't believe he could play as well as he did," complimented Bradshaw. "I have great respect for him."
Describing himself as "excited but not nervous," Ferragamo observed, "I didn't do well in particular, but the whole team did well. We could have won if I hadn't thrown an interception.
"The big thing is that we've been to a Super Bowl, we've had a taste. We know what it takes to win this thing."
While Ferragamo may not have been nervous, running back Tyler was.
"I had a nervous stomach," he revealed, "and was throwing up on the sidelines. I was lying down when an official wondered if I was hurt."
"We had 'em on the ropes," moaned L.A. defensive end Fred Dryer after the Rams lost to the Steelers for the first time in four meetings. "Nobody on this club is bitter, nobody's sore. We played the hell out of those guys. I guarantee those guys know they've been in a football game."
Satisfaction in their performance was general among the Rams. Said defensive tackle Larry Brooks, "There's a lot of pride on this team. A lot of people didn't respect the Rams, but who will say we didn't play admirably?"
"We were in it all the way," said Jack Youngblood, defensive end. "If anyone wants to call us dogs now, let him come to me. The Rams can play with anyone, anytime, anywhere. I'm not ashamed."
"We played as well as we could as hard as we could," added Dave Elmendorf.
"We played a damn good game. We gave them a long pass and an interception," asserted Doug France, an offensive tackle.
Rams defensive coordinator Bud Carson, a former Pittsburgh assistant, lamented, "We had them by the jugular and let them get away. They had only one receiver they wanted to throw to (after Swann suffered a mild concussion in the second half). It should have been all over."
"From the beginning I thought we were going to win," said Malavasi. "We ran on them, we threw on them. We just didn't get the big play."
Steelers players were nearly unanimous in their praise for the beaten Rams. Mel Blount was an exception.
"I think they played their game in the newspapers," said the cornerback. "I was surprised at the comments they made. That told me right there they didn't have any confidence. That's the difference between a championship team with character and the team that's trying to become a champion."
Other Steelers were more charitable.
"They played their hearts out," lauded Greene. "They were just outmanned. They read our blitzes well. They stayed outside well, and they ran well. We just didn't play with our usual zest in the first half.
"We were sleep-walking out there for a while. They played well enough to make us look bad. They came prepared and you've got to respect a team like that."
Offered center Mike Webster, "It took the big play to beat them and that's what you need to beat a great defense."
Defensive end White cited the bruising physical aspects of the game, declaring, "They have the type of guys who, when we do so much stunting, can catch you moving and drive you into the stands."
With a fourth Super Bowl trophy at hand, much post-game conversation concentrated on the Steelers' ranking among the all-time great teams.
Art Rooney fired the signal gun. "This might be the greatest team of all time," he said, while lamenting the fact that the referee had failed to return the gold piece used in the pre-game coin toss. "The Rams played a wonderful game. They should be proud, just as I am proud of my boys. These are the most gentlemanly fellows I've ever had. None of the team gets swell-headed."
"The facts speak for themselves," said Noll. "The victory is probably the best we've ever had."
Jack Ham, Pittsburgh linebacker who was forced to miss the game because of an ankle injury, summed it up this way:
"Comparisons are hard to make, but I think we're the greatest. The No. 1 factor is depth. We have 45 players who can play. We have much more depth than we have ever had.
"We can win a lot of different ways. We can grind it out and make the big plays. Today, it was a big-play game."
"Winning a fourth Super Bowl should put us in a special category," said Blount. "I think this is the best team ever assembled. They talk about Vince Lombardi, but I think the Chuck Noll era is even greater."
None of the Steelers demonstrated more elation over the victory than J. T. Thomas. He had been sidelined the entire 1978 season with a blood disorder and missed Super Bowl XIII. He recovered in time to play again in 1979 and got one more Super Bowl ring.
"It's something I wished for, hoped for, prayed for," bubbled the free safety. "The Rams thought they were good enough to win, but we were convinced we were good enough.
"I think we can be imitated, but I don't think we can be duplicated. We knew to beat us they had to throw the ball and we had to beat ourselves. We didn't.
"We win together, we lose together, we screw up together. The difference between the two teams is that they only thought they could beat us. We knew we could beat them."