Monday, January 19, 2009

NFL playoffs: Those Cardinals ain't Ram tough

The worst fear has come to pass — hearing about the 1979 Los Angeles Rams, the only other 9-7 team to reach the Super Bowl.

The tidal wave of Super Bowl hype and the media's tendency to pound a storyline into the ground is such that you might as well zing yourself, like Rabbit in 8 Mile. Go all in on nostalgia presented in place of news. Never mind that it might "rob us of the present by insisting on the past," to borrow a line from the late, great George Carlin. The '79 Rams, who reach across time to the amazing Arizona Cardinals (no one's sure how, they just do), deserve to have their story told, presuming you're not going to ask tough questions, like, "uh, why?"

Expect to hear from Jack Youngblood, who famously played in Super Bowl 14 with a broken leg, waxing nostalgic.To this day, knowitalls at AOL Frathouse invoke Youngblood whenever they want to question some NFL player's manhood, especially if he's African-American. As a bonus, Youngblood is originally from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, so he would be easy to locate. You can almost smell the journalistic juices sizzling in the pan.

The '79 Rams had the ultimate art-meets-life. A year earlier, Warren Beatty had starred in the movie, Heaven Can Wait, in which a backup quarterback leads the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Rams, ended up going to the Super Bowl, led by their backup quarterback, Vince Ferragamo, and they played, wait for it, the Pittsburgh Steelers, just like the Cardinals will be doing in two weeks.

Getting Ferragamo's insights is essential, although it's not clear what advice a one-time journeyman would have for Kurt Warner. Warner is going to his third Super Bowl; Ferragamo's Wiki, under Career Highlights and Awards, says "No notable achievements." Ferragamo later ended up in the CFL, so he might have some career advice for Warner's backup Matt Leinart, whose career has become ripe for a parody song. Ferragamo still has moves, though.

The press corps can also track down the '79 Rams kicker, Frank Corral, the last NFL player to handle kickoff, placekicking and punting duties for an entire season. (When the Rams cut Corral in 1982, his two replacements earned less combined than his princely salary of $125,000.)

Corral didn't handle the punting in '79. Ken Clark, from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, did the honours, becoming the first player from a Canadian school to play in the Super Bowl. Find out what he thinks, damnit.

For those who don't remember or couldn't care, the '79 Rams did not cast off the yoke of having been a joke franchise for decades, unlike the amazing Arizona Cardinals. They were near the end of a run of nine consecutive playoff appearances and had been a solid team pretty much since the 1950s, when their GM for a time was future NFL commish Pete Rozelle. Rozelle, of course, led the NFL out of the wilderness and into the present, where it's the alpha and omega of the American sportscape and 9-7 teams get a shot at playing for the game's greatest prize.

Those '79 Rams lost starting QB Pat Haden, went down with an injury in Week 10. They were 5-6 going into Week 12, but were only a game behind the Archie Manning-led New Orleans Saints. No problem. Ferragamo found a groove and the Rams won four straight while the Saints collapsed, particularly iwhen they blew a 28-7 lead against the Oakland (later Los Angeles, then Oakland again) Raiders during a Monday night football game.

In the playoffs, the Rams shaded the Dallas Cowboys and Roger Staubach 21-19 on a late touchdown in the divisional game. Staubach retired, not out of shame but out of concern over concussions, while the Rams advanced to a NFC title game for the ages vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were only a fourth-year team. Corral kicked field goals of 19, 21 and 23 yards for a 9-0 win in what had to be the most boring playoff game in pro football history.

It was a blessing that he didn't blow those kicks, since it might have taken one of the quarterbacks pulling an Orlovsky for either team to get any points.

In short, the Rams had got into the playoffs by nosing out the Saints, who in 1980 started the season 0-14, and made the Super Bowl by beating the Bucs, who had gone 0-14 just three seasons earlier. Two of their major hurdles were not far removed from being among the worst teams in NFL history.

Again, it should be stressed that this team which played almost 30 years ago has absolutely nothing to do with the Arizona Cardinals. It's just that the media will stretch any tissue-thin connection it can over these next two weeks, and is especially fond of "last someone" stories. For years in baseball, whenever some pitcher had 15 losses by mid-July, sportswriters would call up Brian Kingman, who for years was the last 20-game loser. Kingman even has a website set up publicizing his achievement, although he now has to settle for being the last 20-game loser of the 20th century.

The Cardinals have been a doormat for decades. The Rams, up until 1979, were a traditionally strong team, going back to the 1950s, when they had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. The Cardinals have one passer, Kurt Warner, who's getting a bust in Canton, Ohio, one day, whereas Matty Leinart is just a bust every day.

As you'll hear a hundred times between now and Feb. 1, Warner is actually older than Steelers coach, Mike Tomlin. Tomlin could be the first black coach to get a congratulatory post-Super Bowl phone call from a black president. The opposition has two coaches, Ken Whisenhunt and Cardinals offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who were with the Steelers when they won it all after the 2005 season.

Expect to hear all of this and more, but really, what do the '79 Rams think of all this? It is important. The crazy Cards/Rams cross-referencing runs deeper than most of us realize. Those Hall of Fame QBs, Van Brocklin and Waterfield, died five weeks apart in 1983. Later that year, the amazing Arizona Cardinals' otherworldly wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, was born. Freaky.

Van Brocklin also quarterbacked the 1960 Philadelphia Eagles, who remain that city's last NFL championship team. Philly fan deserve as much for heaping abuse on Donovan McNabb after he directed a great comeback. The old Dutchman also left us with the immortal line about how he'd had a brain transplant — "I made sure it was a sportswriter's brain so I could be sure it hadn't been used."

Larry Fitzgerald's father, as you already have had beaten into your brain, is a sportswriter. Take that, Norm Van Brocklin.

Those Rams and the amazing Arizona Cardinals each had the Pittsburgh Steelers as a Super Bowl opponent. Back in '79, the Cardinals were based in St. Louis. The Rams now play in St. Louis. The fanbases have even bonded, although since the Rams went 2-14 this season, bandwagon-jumping must look pretty inviting.

In other words, a team which played 29 seasons ago has everything to do with the Cardinals. The media is not always wrong.

Other notes from the NFL's final four:

That was a little too smooth: CBS' Jim Nantz, after Steelers safety Troy Polamalu iced the AFC title game for the the Steelers with an interception-return touchdown: "And No. 43 has put the Steelers in Super Bowl 43."

The questionable taste award: For the Heinz Field staffers who played Down On The Corner over the stadium loudspeakers while Baltimore's Willis McGahee was down on the field with a serious injury.

Last but not least, CFL pass rusher extraordinaire Cameron Wake has signed with the Miami Dolphins, likely as Joey Porter's backup.

Punching bag McNabb deserves better (Hector Longo, Lawrence Eagle-Tribune)


Anonymous said...

It could have been worse. The Chargers could have won out, and we'd have a Mediocre Bowl.

Dennis Prouse said...

History has now forgotten, of course, but the Rams were actually ahead after three quarters of that Super Bowl against the Steelers.

If the game was this week, I might have taken the Cardinals. The Steelers are banged up after playing in that hellacious game against the Ravens last night, and the Cardinals are on a roll. With the two week break to cool off the Cards, though, and with the Steelers having two weeks to lick their wounds and game plan, I suspect the cream will rise to the top in this one. We saw our upset Super Bowl of the decade last year -- it's a little much to expect it two years in a row. I will be cheering for the Cards, but I suspect I will have to watch Troy Polamalu's ugly mug with the Lombardi Trophy.

Anonymous said...

interesting that New England, at 11-5, couldn't even qualify for the AFC playoffs but 9-6-1 Arizona,and 9-7 Philly not only make the NFC playoffs but wind up in the conference title game.
if that doesn't speak of the relative strength of the two conferences, I don't know what else does.
I would like to see Arizona win, just because it would be nice to see a franchise that has endured so much futility for so long emerge on top for once.
The Cardinal franchise has been around since the beginning of the NFL, along wth the Packers and Bears,
But the only distinction the Cardinals have after 88 years is one NFl title and the most losses of all time.
Pittsburgh will probably win, in fact, I'd say they'll definitely win.
After beating a team like the Ravens, st don't seem as imposing as Baltimore.