The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should know that Home, Sweet Home doesn’t always make for a Super home-field advantage.
The Bucs will become the first NFL team to play a Super Bowl on its own turf when they kick off at Raymond James Stadium against the Kansas Chiefs at 3:30 p.m. today.
They won’t, however, be the first hometown team in pro football’s premier event. The Los Angeles Rams enjoyed that distinction at the Rose Bowl in 1980 when they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.
At least I thought they were going to enjoy it before I went to the midweek presser.
It’s why I gave $100 to a buddy who was bound for Las Vegas and asked him to bet it all on the Rams to cover the 11-point spread. I was bound for L.A. at the same time to pick up my Super Bowl credential and join a circus that included a record 2,267 members of the media.
Many of us took part in the traditional, $1 media pool to pick the winning score. Two-thirds of us went for the Steelers. They had, after all, won three of the previous five Super Bowls.
But I had grown up wearing the L.A. Rams gear my Dad once bought me for Christmas. It was so ill-fitting that I looked like a bobblehead under the cheap, plastic helmet. But I also bubbled over in pride every time I wore it.
I knew the Rams’ 9-7 record was the worst ever for a Super Bowl finalist. And I could barely afford the sentiment, let alone risking another $1 on a rookie sportswriter’s salary. But home was still where my heart was when I jotted down my pick: Rams 24, Steelers 23.
My brain, on the other hand, was in la-la land.
The Rams I was soon interviewing didn’t feel much at home in L.A. anymore. The team was about to move from the downtown Coliseum to Anaheim’s Angel Stadium, and their jilted fans were throwing no going-away parties.
“I don’t really feel like we’re playing in the Super Bowl for Los Angeles,” offensive tackle Doug France said during the presser. “We’d like to win the Super Bowl for Los Angeles only because we’d like to leave the fans with something to remember us by … let them see who they gave up on.
“They know it’s not their Super Bowl team, anyway. We already feel like we belong in Orange County. I know when the Angels lost their last game down here, the fans applauded until the players came back on the field. But fans in Los Angeles couldn’t wait for us to get off the field.”
I wrote it off as the rant of a surly lineman. Fullback Cullen Bryant didn’t seem as affected when asked the same questions.
“With so much going on, so many sports teams, and so much to do in Southern California, I guess it’s to be expected,” he said of the season’s dwindling number of disenchanted fans. “They booed us when we lost, booed us when we didn’t win by enough points, booed us when we went into halftime tied.
“I don’t think it bothered many of us.”
The most bothersome thing about the record 103,985 crowd that showed up for the game was the marathon hike it created from my parking space to the press box. That was 42,039 more fans than had turned out for the first Super Bowl at the Coliseum in 1967.
No cheering is allowed in the press box, so I had to keep my fist-pumps under the table as the Rams took a 13-10 halftime lead. And I was starting to count my money after Lawrence McCutcheon’s razzle-dazzle, half-back, touchdown pass to Ron Smith gave them a 19-17 lead by the end of the third quarter.
I was keeping my own stats by that time: a two-point lead plus an 11-point spread meant that I was winning by 13. And Pittsburgh had not only lost the lead in the third period, it had also lost its best receiver when Lynn Swann was knocked out of the game.
That left Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw unsure about some of the plays that coach Chuck Noll was calling during the fourth quarter. One of them, known as “63 Prevent Slot Hook and Go,” called for John Stallworth to break long after running a hook pattern to suck in the deep secondary.
“The funny thing,” Bradshaw said afterward, “is that we ran the play eight times in practice and I never liked it. It didn’t work at all.
“It was a hook-and-go from the slot, and all we’ve run off that play all year is a hook-and-slide. I just didn’t have a lot of confidence in the play.”
But Bradshaw, who now shakes his ample bootie in boxer shorts for TV commercials, caught the Rams stark-naked. Stallworth got behind defensive back Rod Perry on his hook fake. Bradshaw threw his pass just over Perry’s swiping hand for a 73-yard touchdown and a 24-19 lead.
My own lead had now dwindled to just six points. I was wringing my fist under the table instead of pumping it.
All the Steelers had to do when they got the ball back in the closing minutes was run out the clock. But they apparently wanted to beat the Bobblehead Kid along with the team he was covering. They went back to the same play, which I was now calling “63 Prevent Mark From Winning $100.”
The Ram defenders once again went for the fake, and Stallworth again sprinted behind them. Bradshaw drilled him for a 45-yard gain before he was dragged down at the Los Angeles 22. A few plays later, Franco Harris punched the ball over the goal line — and me in the gut.
I kept jotting down the math to make sure it was right: 31 minus 19 equals a 12-point lead. The Steelers had covered.
I was no longer wringing my fist under the table. I was pounding it.
Stallworth admitted to being “a little leery” when Noll called the play. But the Rams apparently weren’t leery enough, staying in the same coverage which resulted in nearly the same result.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and it’s a shame I’m now out $100. And in 1980 dollars, I remember feeling like it was a gazillion.
I personally sought out Rams safety Nolan Cromwell to ask what they were thinking.
“I don’t know,” he replied softly. “We just made a mistake.”
I’m not sure he heard the response I muttered: “Yeah, me too.”
Bradshaw wound up with the big payday and won the MVP Award for the second-straight year.
“I felt more pressure in this than in any other Super Bowl,” he confessed during the locker room celebration. “I couldn’t sleep last night. That’s the first time that has happened to me.”
I’ve been sleeping better before this Super Bowl LV than I did after Super Bowl XIV. I no longer bet C notes on hometown teams, even if they do have a quarterback with VI Super Bowl rings on his hand.
I figure last year’s Super Bowl MVP, Patrick Mahomes II, is this year’s Terry Bradshaw. He’s got the hotter hand.