For better and for worse, the 1980 Los Angeles Rams were a team that returned to form. The Rams spent most of the 1970s as a good team that kept coming up short in the playoffs. In 1979 they became a mediocre team, but one that scraped into the postseason out of a weak division…and they somehow made the Super Bowl. Los Angeles was improved in 1980, going 11-5, but that was small consolation when they again lost in the playoffs.
An improved offense was the biggest reason the Rams won two more regular season games in 1980. Vince Ferragamo had taken the job from Pat Haden the previous year, and Ferragamo threw for nearly 3,200 yards with a 30/19 TD-INT ratio—pretty good, by the standards of the times.
The offensive line was anchored by Pro Bowlers Kent Hill and Rich Saul, and there were a future Hall of Famer at right tackle in Jackie Slater. Protected by this line, Ferragamo spread the ball around to Preston Dennard and Billy Waddy in the passing game, while Elvis Peacock and Cullen Bryant carried the rushing load.
None were spectacular, but all were steady. The result was Los Angeles ranking third in the NFL in points scored.
Five Pro Bowlers dotted the lineup on defense, led by first-team All-Pro free safety Nolan Cromwell. The corners were in good hands with Pat Thomas and Rod Perry, while Larry Brooks made it at defensive tackle and 33-year-old middle linebacker Jack Reynolds again got Pro Bowl recognition. The LA defense was further supported by veterans up front in Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer. The Ram defense was seventh in the league in points allowed.
The season started with a bang—Drew Hill took the opening kickoff against the Detroit Lions and took it 98 yards to the house. The Rams still led 20-17 at half, but they were being lacerated on the ground. Detroit, the worst team in the NFL a year earlier, had drafted a Heisman Trophy running back in Billy Sims. Los Angeles allowed 330 rushing yards overall and they fell apart in the second half of a 41-20 home loss.
Thursday Night games weren’t common in 1980, but the Rams played one in Week 2 for the second straight season. This one was in Tampa Bay, a rematch of the NFC Championship Game, where Los Angeles had won a 9-0 defensive affair. This one was more of the same—the Rams led 9-3 after three quarters, meaning these two teams managed to go seven straight quarters without a touchdown.
But this time it caught up with LA. Ferragamo threw four interceptions and they ended up losing 10-0. Los Angeles quickly bounced back at home against the Green Bay Packers. Johnnie Johnson returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown and Perry brought one back 83 yards in a 51-21 rout.
The Rams traveled to New York to play a bad Giants team, and got three rushing touchdowns from Peacock in an easy 28-7 win. A home game with the San Francisco 49ers resulted in another day where the Ram defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a 48-26 rout.
Los Angeles went to the city they would one day call home to play the St. Louis Cardinals. Bryant ran for 115 yards as the Rams controlled the trenches, and Ferragamo played mistake-free in a 21-13 win. Another victory over the 49ers followed, this one on the road. Ferragamo was brilliant, going 18/28 for 291 yards and four touchdown passes, the second time he’d outplayed the still-developing Joe Montana.
The Rams were 5-2 and riding a five-game winning streak, but none of the wins had come against teams that would finish any better than 6-10. The Atlanta Falcons were emerging as the main challenger in the old NFC West (which included the 49ers and New Orleans Saints). Los Angeles was set for a visit to Atlanta on October 26.
It was a defensive struggle, and the Rams trailed 6-3 in the third quarter. Ferragamo stepped up with a 74-yard touchdown strike to Hill to get the lead, but Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski, enjoying a Pro Bowl year, threw a 54-yard TD pass of his own and Los Angeles lost 13-10.
A visit from the Saints, the worst team in the NFL in 1980, was just what LA needed to bounce back and Ferragamo threw three first-quarter touchdown passes to put the Rams out to a 31-0 lead. Peacock and Bryant combined for 180 rush yards to salt away a 45-31 win that was never that close. But the Rams gave it back the next week at home against the Miami Dolphins.
Ferragamo threw four interceptions, the defense allowed 280 rush yards and the Rams lost to an average team 35-14 in a game they were an (-11) home favorite. The veteran Los Angeles defense stepped it up the next week on the road against a potent New England Patriots offense. The Rams won a hard-fought 17-14 game to get back on track.
Los Angeles was on the Monday Night stage at New Orleans just prior to Thanksgiving. They got off to a sluggish start offensively and the game was scoreless into the second quarter. Then some trickery loosened things up, when running back Mike Guman threw a touchdown pass and LA coasted in to a 27-7 win.
The record was 8-4 and the playoff race was hot in both directions. The Falcons led the NFC West at 9-3. Los Angeles was in position to make the playoffs as the second wild-card (the format in 1980 had two wild-card qualifiers along with three division winners), but Detroit was right behind them at 7-5 and holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Rams had little margin for error.
Ferragamo did not play well at home against the New York Jets, throwing four interceptions. But the opponent was bad, and the running game was strong, with Peacock going for 152 yards in a 38-13 blowout. Another AFC East opponent was next, the Buffalo Bills, who would eventually win that division. Ferragamo only threw one interception this time, but it was returned for a touchdown. It was the only TD the Rams allowed, but that was all it took in a 10-7 overtime loss.
The loss pushed the Rams two games back of Atlanta with two to play. The rivals would meet in LA for the final game of the season and since Los Angeles pulling even presumed they would defeat Atlanta, the Rams would also take the tiebreakers. On the other side, Detroit had come up short in the clutch and was at 7-7, meaning one more win would lock up at least a wild-card for the Rams.
But getting that win was not going to be easy, even with both games at home. Before the finale with Atlanta, Los Angeles had to play the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. The Cowboys were in a tough fight with the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East title, with the runner-up set for a wild-card.
The Rams responded with their best game of the season. They led 7-0 after one quarter and then unleashed. Jewerl Thomas, the third running back, took off on a 34-yard touchdown jaunt. Ferragamo hit Waddy from 40 yards out, and then found Dennard on a 34-yard TD pass. The score was 38-0 by the time the fourth quarter started and only then did LA let up, and Dallas picked up a couple meaningless touchdowns.
Atlanta had also won, so the season finale had only marginal importance. The Rams were set to go on the road for the wild-card game, though they could get homefield if Dallas lost at home to Philadelphia. Atlanta had the #1 seed in hand, though they could lose it if Philadelphia beat Dallas. The Rams-Falcons and Cowboys-Eagles kicked off at the same time and it became quickly apparent that Dallas would win, rendering the game out west meaningless. It was still a good game and went into overtime before LA won 20-17.
The Rams visited Dallas for the NFC wild-card game. Los Angeles had pulled an upset in this venue the previous January, and their Monday Night humiliation of the Cowboys was fresh in everyone’s mind. The Rams started well, scoring two touchdowns and holding Dallas in the red zone on a couple occasions. But LA missed an extra point and the game was tied 13-13 at half.
Then the season ended the way it began, with a collapse of the rush defense. Dallas ended up with 338 rushing yards and the Cowboys took over, en route to a 34-13 win.
The 1980 Los Angeles Rams proved to be the last playoff team for head coach Ray Malavasi, who had taken over in 1978. Malavasi slipped under .500 the next year and after another losing season in 1982, was fired. The Rams returned to the playoffs by 1983 under the leadership of John Robinson.