The Los Angeles Rams had been a playoff team in the NFC every year since 1973, including making the conference championship game in 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1978. But none of those teams took the next step to the Super Bowl. Oddly enough, the 1979 Los Angeles Rams, a team much worse than their predecessors, were the ones who found a way to win in January.
Ray Malavasi was in his second year as head coach, taking over after Chuck Knox was fired for his playoff losses and a brief experiment with George Allen in 1978 blew up before preseason was out. Malavasi was a defensive specialist and that’s where the strength of this Ram team lie.
The front four had two 1st-team All-Pros in Jack Youngblood and Larry Brooks, along with 33-year old Fred Dryer, a former Pro Bowler and future actor who would one day finish as the runner-up to Ted Danson to play the character of Sam Malone on Cheers, the top TV sitcom of all time. Linebacker Jim Youngblood, Jack’s brother, was a Pro Bowler himself.
Los Angeles had two future Pro Bowlers in the secondary, with Rod Perry at corner. And Nolan Cromwell would eventually become acknowledged as one of the best free safeties in the game. This developing talent merged with the established players and resulted in a defense that ranked 11th in the NFL.
The Rams’ offense wasn’t quite as good, due to inconsistency at the quarterback position, but they were strong up front. Rich Saul, their veteran center, and right guard Dennis Harrah each made the Pro Bowl. Jackie Slater didn’t, but at 25 he was starting a career that one day win him acclaim as the league’s best right tackle. Behind this line, Wendell Tyler ran for 1,100 yards and Cullen Bryant tacked on over 600 more.
Pat Haden was the starting quarterback, but as we’ll soon see, he was up and down. Eventually injuries forced Malavasi to go casting for a backup and he found the right one, Vince Ferragamo just in time.
Los Angeles opened the season with a home game against the Oakland Raiders, no longer the Super Bowl contender that had been under John Madden or would soon be again under current coach Tom Flores, but still a winning team. The Rams took a 14-0 lead, but with Haden throwing three interceptions, the lead evaporated and LA lost 24-17.
A Thursday night game was a novelty in the late 1970s, and the Rams played one in Denver for Week 2. They trailed the Broncos, the two-time defending AFC West champs and future wild-card team this year, 9-6 in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Jack Reynolds then recovered a fumble inside the Bronco 5-yard line and waltzed in for the winning touchdown.
Los Angeles was a (-13) favorite against a terrible San Francisco 49ers team, one that would win just two games as a new head coach named Bill Walsh looked to get the organization turned around. The Rams started poorly and trailed 10-0 before ripping off 24 consecutive points. Bryant rushed for 106 yards, keying ground-game dominance in a 27-24 win.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a good team in 1979 and a September 23 visit for a late afternoon kickoff wasn’t the last the Rams would see of the Bucs. Jim Youngblood got the game off to a good start with a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown. But the extra point was missed and Los Angeles didn’t score the rest of the day. Haden was 13/27 for only 64 yards and later replaced by Ferragamo in a 21-6 loss.
Haden was back the following week against the St. Louis Cardinals and played pretty well against a bad opponent, going 14/24 for 170 yards and no interceptions. But the defense really came through. Veteran defensive back Dave Elmendorf picked off two Jim Hart passes and a 21-0 win moved the Rams to 3-2. Then they crushed the New Orleans Saints, 35-17, with the secondary again playing the key role. LA intercepted Archie Manning five times, three from defensive back Pat Thomas.
Los Angeles wasn’t playing great, but at 4-2 they were respectable and the old NFC West—including the 49ers, Saints and Atlanta Falcons—wasn’t particularly strong. The lack of division strength was what the Rams would have to fall back on as the season threatened to get away from them the next three weeks.
Sunday night games were another novelty and Los Angeles played one in Dallas that went poorly. They were outrushed 201-59, and despite trailing just 13-6 at the half, the Rams gave up three third-quarter touchdowns to the Cowboys and lost 30-6. A home game with the San Diego Chargers, en route to a 12-4 season, went even worse. They surrendered 326 yards to San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts and turned the ball over eight times in a 40-16 defeat.
As bad as these losses were, at least the Cowboys and Chargers were good teams—in fact, both would be the #1 seeds in their respective conference playoffs. You couldn’t say that about the New York Giants, who came to the LA Coliseum, picked off Haden four times and maintained control of the game to a 20-14 win. The Rams were now 4-5, a game back of the Saints and only a game ahead of the Falcons.
The coming trip to Seattle had the potential to break the season. The Seahawks were a decent team, who would finish 9-7, and the Rams were a slight road underdog. But the Los Angeles defense came up with one of the truly amazing performances in the modern era of the NFL.
Los Angeles held Seattle to one first down. They allowed only two completed passes to Jim Zorn. They held the Seahawks to (-7) total yards. Suffice it to say, the game was a shutout. The Rams won 24-0, and even though Haden broke a finger towards the end of the game, that would be a situation that ended up working out okay for the team.
The Rams went to Chicago, where the Bears were on their way to the playoffs. LA led 16-7 at the half and had gone up 23-14 in the third quarter after Tyler bolted 63 yards. But new quarterback Jeff Rutledge only threw for 71 yards and the defense failed in the fourth quarter, losing 27-23. Malavasi made the decision to go with Ferragamo, as the 5-6 Rams were still a game back of the Saints and a game ahead of the Falcons.
Atlanta was coming into Los Angeles for a Monday Night visit. Ferragamo was erratic, completing less than half of his passes. But he made big plays—a 29-yard touchdown pass to Preston Dennard and a 40-yard strike to speedy Billy Waddy. The result was a 20-14 win and the Falcons were finished as a contender.
Another game with the 49ers was next, and once again, San Francisco was pesky, leading 17-13 in the third quarter. Ferragamo was 9/20, but he again made his completions count—they went for 149 yards, including a 71-yard scoring toss to Tyler that turned the game. The versatile Tyler also rushed for 94 yards in a 26-20 win.
Ferragamo started poorly in a home date with the Minnesota Vikings, a team that had consistently tormented the Rams in the playoffs, though the great quarterback Fran Tarkenton, had retired after 1978. After Ferragamo went 4/10 for 22 yards, Malavasi summoned veteran Bob Lee—who ironically had once backed up Tarkenton in Minnesota.
The game was a good one. LA got a blocked punt for a touchdown, but it went to overtime tied 21-21. Los Angeles drove to the five-yard line and facing third down lined up for a field goal. The Viking special teams were notoriously good, and with a down to spare, the Rams got creative. Cromwell, the holder, took off on a fake and scored the winning touchdown easily.
Even better was what happened the next night. New Orleans, in a Monday Night home date with Oakland, gave up three fourth quarter touchdowns and lost 42-35. Los Angeles now had a one-game lead in the NFC West and could clinch with a victory at Atlanta in the season’s penultimate game.
Tyler rushed for 138 yards, while Ferragamo was 10/15 for 188 yards and a 25-yard touchdown pass to Waddy. The game was no contest and Los Angeles won 34-13, extending their divisional record to 5-0 and punching their ticket back to the playoffs. The anticipated season finale at home with New Orleans proved to be meaningless and the Rams basically rolled over in a 29-14 loss.
The 9-7 record wasn’t exactly screaming “Super Bowl” at anyone, and Los Angeles was a decisive (+8.5) underdog at Dallas for the divisional round on December 30. It was the final game of the weekend, with Tampa Bay having already advanced to the NFC Championship Game. The Rams’ road to the Super Bowl would involve beating two teams on the road where they had previously lost by a combined score of 51-12.
Ferragamo was sacked for a safety in the first quarter, but he got the passing game going in the second. The quarterback found Tyler on a 32-yard scoring play. Then, with 11 seconds left in the half, Ferragamo rifled a 43-yard touchdown strike to Ron Smith for a 14-5 lead.
The offense was shut down for much of the second half though, and the Cowboys began to come back. It appeared the Rams had thwarted one drive when they intercepted the great Roger Staubach, playing his final season, in the end zone. But pass interference was called, Dallas was scored and the lead was 14-12. Eventually, the Cowboys took a 19-14 lead and the Rams found themselves at midfield in the final two minutes.
Ferragamo dropped back, looked left and fired the ball to Waddy. It appeared to be tipped by a Cowboy linebacker but the throw had enough strength on it to get to Waddy, who took it to the end zone. Los Angeles had pulled an improbable 21-19 upset.
The NFC Championship Game in Tampa was a defensive battle. The Ram offense drove inside the 10-yard line three times, but had to settle for field goals each time. It turned out that was more than enough. The defense forced two different Tampa Bay quarterbacks, starter Doug Williams and backup Mike Rae, into 2-for-13 passing each.
The final was 9-0. I’d say it was anticlimactic after the Dallas game, but when you’ve lost four conference championship games the previous six years, nothing was going to take the bloom of this one. The Los Angeles Rams were finally going to the Super Bowl.
LA’s magical January nearly carried them to what would have been a big Super Bowl upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the “Steel Curtain”, who had three of the previous five Super Bowls, including 1978. Los Angeles led 19-17 in the fourth quarter, and even when trailing 24-19, were driving for the go-ahead touchdown. But Ferragamo threw an interception, Pittsburgh mounted a long drive and the game ended 31-19.
The Rams would not make it back to the Super Bowl until they had relocated to St. Louis. For the Los Angeles phase of their history, they reached the NFC Championship Game twice more, in 1985 and 1989 and were hammered by all-time great teams in the Bears and 49ers respectively.
Of all the playoff teams the franchise produced in Los Angeles, it’s fair to the 1979 Los Angeles Rams were the worst in the regular season. But they were the best when it mattered most.