Perhaps a more unlikely matchup Sunday than the one between Tampa Bay and Los Angeles for the NFC title is the one between quarterbacks Doug Williams and Vince Ferragamo for personal satisfaction after a season filled with controversy.
Neither the Bucs nor the Rams, the latter favored by 3 1/2 points, were expected to be around for this game. And certainly Tampa's Williams, the erratic thrower from Grambling, and L.A.'S Ferragamo, the early season reserve from Nebraska, weren't thought to be good enough to direct their clubs this far.
So much for accurate prognostication.
The 4-year-old Bucs, who only two seasons ago ended a 26-game losing streak, won the Central Division title with the help of a less-than-challenging schedule, then stunned Philadelphia last week in the conference semi-finals to advance to this 5 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9) game before a roaring hometown crowd.
They reprsent the latest in a six-year long line of obstacles that have stood in the Rams' way of reaching the Super Bowl. Four times in that span, Los Angeles advanced to the conference championship. Each time, the other guy won, making this team the most frustrated losers in recent NFL history, if the Minnesota Vikings aren't.
Williams knows all about frustration. The first black quarterback to be drafted in an opening round, he has spent the season defending his 41 percent throwing accuracy. He has become a bit testy, feeling the criticism is unjustified.
"I'm not in it for statistics," he said "I'd rather throw the ball away. A lot of quarterbacks spend too much time throwing to the backs and forget about downfield.
"I think the backs are secondary receivers. A lot of quarterbacks think of the backs as firstdary (sic)."
Ferragamo has had to defend his starting in place of the injured Pat Haden. He has had some dreadful games, forcing Coach Ray Malavasi to employ well-worn backup Bob Lee, but Ferragamo became a hero last week when he brought the rams back against favored Dallas.
"I'm learning every time I play," he said, "and I'd be the first to admit that I don't have enough experience. But I consider myself an NFL quarterback. I can do the job, I have confidence in that. I don't care what anyone else thinks."
Williams sometimes tries to do too much. He forces passes into coverage and, according to Coach John McKay, gets confused by multiple defenses. Against the Eagles, McKay helped by employing a simple game plan that concentrated on Ricky Bell's running and a sprinkling of passes.
Since the Rams' veteran defense thrives on different looks, Williams could be in for a long afternoon if Bell, one of the league's stronger backs, cannot make early headway.
"I'm maturing, I'm still learning," Williams said over and over this week. "Fran Tarkenton was in the league 18 years and he still threw 33 interceptions."
Williams threw 24 interceptions and 18 touchdowns but was sacked only seven times, which the Bucs think is the second-lowest toatl in NFL history. He is mobile and strong, with a bazooka for an arm, but he had too many 10-for-31 days this year to make McKay very comfortable.
His supporting cast is young and talented. Tight end Jimmie Giles may become one of the league's best, while 5-foot-9 wide receiver Isaac Hagins represents the Bucs' primary long threat. The addition of rookie guard Greg Roberts and former defensive lineman Charles Hannah to the offensive line this season solidified that unit.
Williams and Co. handed Los Angeles a decisive 21-6 licking in September. "It was embarassing," said the Rams' Eddie Brown. The Rams only scored came on an interception return; otherwise the offense failed on 16 possessions while Williams tossed two touchdown passes.
But the Ram defense, even with end Jack Youngblood slowed because of a small bone fracture in his leg, is better now. Pat Thomas has returned to the secondary, Youngblood and Fred Dryer are solid and the linebacking corps of Jack Reynolds, Jim Youngblood and Greg Brudzinski is aggressive. c
This is the heart of Coach Malavasi's team. This is where the bulk of the experience lies (there are 14 Rams who have played at least seven years) and where the big plays must come for L.A. to win.
"Doug Williams is not a good quarterback," Dryer said this week.
"We are different team now than we were when we played them," said Malavasi. "There is no comparison. We are healthy. We have our secondary back. We remember that game. They beat us and I think that has made our week easier for us to prepare."
The Rams have a lot of memories, most of them bleak. They've been highly favored before to win the conference title, but usually have come up with clunker perofrmances in these games.
This season, they struggled to a 9-7 record, barely winning the West Division. But they are solid where championship teams must be good -- on defense -- and as long as Ferragamo holds up, Malavasi thinks this season could continue as a Ram success story.
While the Bucs hope Williams does not kill them with errors, Los Angeles is hoping that Ferragamo can do something big to give the team a lift. His touchdown pass with 126 seconds left against Dallas fulfilled that order last week after he had tossed two interceptions.
McKay's pride and joy is his linebacking corps of David Lewis, Dewey Selmon, Richard Wood and Cecil Johnson. He already has dared the Rams to run up the middle, the supposed weakness of the defense, "to see if they can do what no one else has done."
"Did he say that?" Malavasi asked, smiling. "Well, we tried it a few times the first game and probably will again."
Malavasi was asked what ending he saw for this Rams' soap-opera season.
"We are going to kick Tampa's butt, and then go onto the Super Bowl," he said without hesitation.