Super Bowl XIV: What if
Nolan Cromwell had hung
onto that pass?

        Posted: 2012

The problem with the 1979 Los Angeles Rams is that they just weren't intimidated.

But they were far better at playing from behind than with a lead, and when they had a chance to seriously imperil the march to the 4th Lombardi, they just couldn't handle it.

Having just gone up 19-17 mid-3rd quarter in Super Bowl XIV on 2 thrilling passes, the relentless Rams were poised to strike gold.

Terry Bradshaw, on the following drive, had 1st and 10 at the Steelers' 43, and, under a decent rush, unwisely chose to throw a short pass back across the middle of the field to a waiting Lynn Swann.

Rams safety Nolan Cromwell, a clutch Pro Bowler for several years, was waiting too, and unlike Swann, had a serious jump on the pass and was already sprinting toward the goal line.

But Cromwell perhaps was too preoccupied with visions of the end zone before actually catching the ball. Paul Zimmerman quoted Mike Webster in Sports Illustrated, "The only thing that could have stopped him was a .357 Magnum."

Cromwell dropped the ball. And the momentarily horrifying 9-point deficit that had never before been overcome in a Super Bowl was not to be.

The 1979 Steelers were quite possibly the greatest team to ever take the field up to that point in history but were dogged all season by 2 problems that derailed visions of an easy Super Bowl blowout: turnovers and injuries.

They won the Super Bowl the same way they prevailed most of the season, by filling the holes with quality reserves and simply making more big plays than they gave away.

A lot of that came from a psychological edge. They had the best players, and they knew it. They intimidated the Dallas Cowboys, the 2nd-best team of the era, and though they won't admit it because they respected them too much, they intimidated the Houston Oilers, at least in the playoffs, where Houston went 2-for-2 in feeling mighty uncomfortable and off its game.

Quite simply, even the Steelers' best opponents would drop the ball. The Curtain would always get the fumble, the incompletion, the drive-killer.

The Rams, impressively, gave them no such breaks.

But the Rams had an Achilles heel — they weren't comfortable at all as a front-runner, a mind-set they probably didn't give themselves a chance to practice, and so they put together one of the most polarizing Super Bowls ever played — electric when trailing, inert while ahead.

Despite the rightful praise for Vince Ferragamo's calm and stats, he did not have a particularly good game. A couple times in the first half he missed open receivers in the end zone and settled for field goals. He underthrew a 3rd-quarter bomb to Billy Waddy that was nevertheless caught but should've gone for a touchdown (they scored the next play on a halfback option). In the 4th quarter, trailing 24-19 on 3rd down from his own 9-yard line, he critically underthrew Preston Dennard, who had beaten Ron Johnson (who was targeted all game) by a step across the 50 in what proved to be the Rams' last realistic scoring opportunity.

Zimmerman quoted Mike Webster as saying, "Ferragamo was the better quarterback today. Overall, I'd have to say he did the better job." It might've felt that way during the more harrowing moments, but that statement is not accurate. Ferragamo did achieve one unofficial distinction — the best game, to that point in time, by a losing Super Bowl quarterback.

Bradshaw's MVP award is debatable — Pat Summerall said near the end of the game he'd pick Stallworth, because of Bradshaw's 3 interceptions — not counting the Cromwell drop. He overthrew Lynn Swann in the end zone in the first quarter. He underthrew Swann on their 3rd quarter, 47-yard TD, although just barely, he threw over the wrong shoulder to Stallworth on the 4th quarter touchdown, and underthrew Stallworth late in the 4th with another bomb that was nevertheless caught and helped put the game away. He also got Swann knocked out of the game with an awkwardly high throw that sidelined Swann with blurred vision just after the Cromwell drop.

However the Stallworth bombs happened, the Rams have only themselves to blame. Swann was out of the game. Whether the Rams spent much film study on Super Bowl XIII is unknown, but they would've noticed a juggernaut of a Steeler offense totally drying up in the 2nd half with Stallworth out. When both receivers played they were indefensible, but with just one, it was a vulnerable, thin, disoriented offense that could no longer rely on a grind-it-out performance from Franco Harris. That Stallworth escaped double-coverage at any time after Swann's injury — especially a critical 3rd and 8 in which Bennie Cunningham was split out wide because they were out of receivers — can only be attributed to a game plan that didn't quite take certain possibilities to the next level.

The box score says the Rams adequately stopped Franco Harris, but they didn't. He regularly converted on short yardage, twice for scores and several times for first downs. Moreover, he picked up big yardage on 3 passes over the middle that changed the field-position equation. The Rams' vaunted front line produced no sacks and allowed 37 rushing attempts and, aside from the random Bradshaw interception, struggled mightily to get off the field.

The Steel Curtain, perhaps surprised at the resiliency of the Rams, finally arrived for the game in the 3rd quarter, at the best possible moment, the series after the Cromwell miss that ended in a deeper downfield interception by Eddie Brown and the Steelers trailing 19-17.

They got a boost from a Ram offense that insisted on trying to run while ahead. The Rams underestimated the damage their deep, speedy receiver corps could do to an aging secondary and banged-up linebacker group, a back 7 that could still hit but had lost a step in coverage. Instead their running attack met the same fate as Houston's 2 weeks earlier. Tyler had 1 early scamper for 39 yards; he was 16 for 21 the rest of the game. Cullen Bryant and Lawrence McCutcheon were never sustainable alternatives.

On the most important drive of the game — likely the most important Steeler defensive stand of all 4 Super Bowls — the Curtain, protecting a tenuous 24-19 lead in a total see-saw game with just over 5 minutes to play, summoned the veterans. Steve Furness and Dwight White, who did not start the game, spelled Gary Dunn and John Banaszak. Loren Toews, owner of 3 rings himself, took the field in place of Robin Cole. Furness even shouted at Jack Lambert during a penalty discussion. They allowed a 3rd-and-13 conversion, then produced the most critical mistake — a Ferragamo throw to Jack Lambert.

XIV was among only a handful of Super Bowls in which the team with the most rushing yards lost the game. That was true of XIII also. Yet, this being the '70s, both the Steelers and Rams were adamant about running the ball with multiple carriers, when any objective postgame analysis has to conclude that throwing the deep ball was easily each team's best option.

When a team wins 4 Super Bowls, there are bound to be some what-ifs. Critics still talk about Jackie Smith's drop in XIII, the Benny Barnes interference in the same game, the Mike Renfro ruling in the 1979 AFC Championship Game.

None of those situations, if reversed, would've been nearly as devastating to a Steeler Super Bowl bid as Cromwell's long-forgotten potential interception would've been.

Super Bowl XIV, called the best ever to that point, pitted Dynasty vs. Destiny. Few believed the Destiny had a chance, a perennial playoff runner-up with a quarterback starting his 8th game.

Most believed the banged-up Houston Oilers, in the AFC Championship Game, were the last chance to stop the Steelers, and when that didn't happen, the succeeding broadcast of the Rams' NFC Championship Game win at Tampa Bay sounded almost like an exhibition.

Teams tell themselves all the time never to take an opponent lightly; that they've all seen from plenty of experience what an inspired team can do to an overconfident one.

The Steelers played the first half as though it were an exhibition, attempting a 20-yard bloop kickoff at one point, and, in a first for them in a Super Bowl, giving up a touchdown drive almost completely on the ground.

Without question, the Steelers were overconfident for Super Bowl XIV.

A few things should've given them pause.

The Rams had beaten the Steelers in 1975 and 1978, and had already upset the Rams' nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys, on the road in the 1979 playoffs.

And the Super Bowl was in their backyard, L.A., if not their home ballpark.

There was even the recent Warren Beatty hit, "Heaven Can Wait," in which a backup quarterback leads the Rams over the Steelers in the Super Bowl, a reference during the Super Hype weeks that annoyed the Steelers.

Maybe most importantly for the Steelers, the Rams did not at all resemble the Steelers' recent playoff foes Houston, Miami and Denver, who had virtually nothing to test a secondary. The Rams had tremendous speed and a stable of deep threats. The Steelers of the '70s almost never altered their 4-3 arrangement, but they might've considered a base defense with 5 defensive backs and pulling either Dennis Winston or Gary Dunn, perhaps recognizing they might be vulnerable on the edge and not assuming Ferragamo was incapable of playing well enough to win.

But you can't convince yourself of something you don't really believe, and so all the slogans really amount to nothing.

This Super Bowl delivered an immense truth about sports — it's great to prepare like an underdog, but it's better to actually expect victory.

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