December 2, 2011
The Los Angeles Rams had won the NFC West title for six straight years heading into the 1979 season, but the streak appeared to be in jeopardy. In their second year under Head Coach Ray Malavasi, there was still plenty of talent, but injuries had tested the club’s depth. In particular, QB Pat Haden had gone out with a broken finger ten weeks through the schedule, and inexperienced backup Vince Ferragamo had taken over. While he proved to be a good passer, the ground game that featured HB Wendell Tyler and FB Cullen Bryant was the key to resurgence, along with the rugged defense (when healthy).
On December 2 the Rams, having won two straight games and thus sporting a 7-6 record, hosted the Minnesota Vikings at the Memorial Coliseum. As the Rams had in the NFC West, Minnesota largely dominated the NFC Central under Head Coach Bud Grant, but was also experiencing difficulty in ’79. Many of the veterans who had contributed heavily to the club’s success over the years were either over-the-hill or gone, most notably QB Fran Tarkenton, who retired after 1978, his 18th season (and 13th, over two stints, in Minnesota). Tarkenton’s successor, 24-year-old Tommy Kramer, was performing capably but the running game was weak and the defense not nearly as strong as it had been during the team’s best years. However, the special teams had blocked 13 kicks during the season (punts, field goals, and extra point attempts), which would factor into the game’s outcome.
There were 56,700 fans at the Coliseum, and they saw the Vikings dominate the first half, although the score was 14-14 at halftime as the Rams took advantage of a blocked punt, muffed punt, and interception. In the first quarter, LB Joe Harris, a former Viking, returned the blocked punt 31 yards to put LA in front at 7-0. Later in the period, Kramer passed to WR Terry LeCount for a 36-yard TD to tie the score.
The Vikings went ahead on a second Kramer scoring pass, this time to WR Sammy White from six yards out. But Cullen Bryant’s two-yard touchdown run and the ensuing extra point resulted in the tied score after a half of play. It was fortunate for LA, for Ferragamo had been ineffective, completing just 4 of 10 passes for 22 yards with one interception.
With the LA offense playing poorly in the first half, Coach Malavasi chose to change quarterbacks for the second half. Ex-Viking QB Bob Lee, who had been signed by the Rams the previous month, came into the game. The move paid dividends when he completed a pass to WR Preston Dennard for a 41-yard touchdown and 21-14 lead. However, in the fourth quarter the Vikings struck once more as Kramer connected with WR Ahmad Rashad for a 22-yard TD and, with Rick Danmeier’s extra point, the score was again tied at 21-21 at the end of regulation.
Minnesota appeared to be driving for the win in overtime, but DB Eddie Brown intercepted a Kramer pass at his own 15 yard line and returned it 25 yards (it was Brown’s second pickoff of the game). Lee completed a throw to Bryant that gained 20 yards, and the Rams got 15 more added when DE Mark Mullaney was penalized for roughing the passer. Tyler ran for 17 yards to the Minnesota eight and then Bryant’s short three-yard carry set the Rams up for a field goal attempt on third down.
Frank Corral was lined up for an apparent 22-yard kick, but Jack Youngblood, the star defensive end who played blocking back in kicking situations and called the signals, was mindful of Minnesota’s success at blocking kicks and audibled for a fake. FS Nolan Cromwell (pictured at top), the holder, took the snap and ran around left end for a five-yard touchdown to give the Rams a 27-21 win at 6:53 into the overtime period.
The Vikings outgained LA (409 yards to 300) and had far more first downs (26 to 14). However, they had four costly turnovers, to three by LA, and Kramer was sacked five times. The Rams were hurt by 9 penalties, totaling 90 yards, to 7 flags thrown on Minnesota.
In relief of Ferragamo, Bob Lee completed 7 of 14 passes for 161 yards with a TD and an interception. WR Ron Smith caught three passes for 99 yards while Wendell Tyler added 17 yards on three receptions to go along with his 36 yards on 13 rushing attempts. Cullen Bryant paced the club with 44 yards on 14 carries that included a TD. Highlighting the difficulties encountered by the offense, Ken Clark punted 10 times over the course of the contest (40.4 avg.).
For the Vikings, Tommy Kramer went to the air 42 times and completed 21 for 297 yards and three touchdowns, as well as three that were picked off. Ahmad Rashad caught 6 of those passes for 102 yards and a TD. HB Rickey Young gained 70 yards on 16 carries and FB Ted Brown had 18 rushing attempts for 52 yards and caught 5 passes for 56 more. 16-year veteran FS Paul Krause accounted for both of the team’s interceptions, thus breaking a tie with Emlen Tunnell at 79 and giving him the NFL career record of 81.
“The plan was to run if they were set for a kick,” said Jack Youngblood of the climactic fake field goal. “Obviously, they were playing for a kick.”
“All we had to do was get three points,” said Ray Malavasi (pictured below). “If Cromwell puts it in, we win. We still had another shot if it failed. It was a play we worked on during the week.”
The Rams split their last two games to end up first in the NFC West once more, although with a rather ordinary 9-7 record. However, they won the NFC Championship, something that had eluded the team during its prior years of success over the decade (they lost four conference title games during the ‘70s), beating the Cowboys and upstart Buccaneers to advance in the playoffs. They lost a hard-fought Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Minnesota ended up at 7-9 to place third in the NFC Central, the team’s first losing record since Bud Grant’s initial year as head coach in 1967.
Despite the rough outing against the Vikings, Vince Ferragamo went 4-1 as the starting quarterback in the regular season and 2-1 in the playoffs, looking impressive in doing so. It was enough to ignite a quarterback controversy that was settled in the 1981 season-opening game when Pat Haden suffered another hand injury and Ferragamo put together a career year.