Most NFL coaches have enough trouble figuring out how to win every Sunday. But that might have been the least of Ray Malavasi's problems this season.

His Rams had enough injuries to fill a "M*A*S*H" unit. The team owner died in a tragic accident, leaving the front office in turmoil. His relationship with the press became chaotic. He heard he was in danger of being fired almost from the start of training camp. He lost his star quarterback just when his team began playing its best football.

Then, after the Rams still managed to struggle into the playoffs, he had to coach against the favored Dallas Cowboys last Sunday with his rumored successor, George Allen, sitting in the television booth, offering unsolicited advice.

"Just a normal work day around here," said defensive back Eddie Brown, with a big smile.

Malavasi still is the coach of the Rams and Allen is still a TV anaylst.

And Malavasi believes it will stay that way, no matter what happens in the NFC title game againt Tampa Bay Sunday.

"I will be the coach of the Rams," he said. "Why?Because no one has ever told me differently. Sure, I've heard all the stories, but they don't mean anything until someone official tells you."

Malavasi laughed. He had a right to be happy, because he knows he is a game away from taking the Rams to the Super Bowl, the last place almost anyone expected them to wind up when they had a below-.500 record halfway through the season.

Other Los Angeles teams have come this far, teams with better personnel, better quarterbacks and much more confidence. But none of those was playing an opponent as young and as unpredictable as the Bucs.

"I don't like to look at the past," Malavasi said. "What is over is over.

But sure those years have an effect on everyone. I remember them. You hurt when you never get to the Super Bowl and when people talk to you.

"But I'm not surprised we're here. Why? For one thing, I've known how good we are for a long time, even if no one else did. We aren't the same team we were six weeks ago or four weeks ago. We're much better.

"It also doesn't matter what your regular-season record is. So what if ours was 9-7? All that matters is we got into the playoffs. Once we are here, we can win the Super Bowl as well as anyone."

Malavasi spent much of his pro coaching career as one of those assistants that the players loved but owners ignored. Football experts thought he'd make a fine head coach, some day, but that some day never came until Carroll Rosenbloom fired Allen in August 1978.

Malavasi seemed like an interim solution to the Rams' coaching problems then, and he never has been able to break that stigma. There was always Allen in the background, or some other big-name football mind ready to take over.

"This has almost been like a soap opera since I arrived," said Brown, who was traded to the Rams last season by Washington. "You see so many rumors and hear so many things, you don't know what to believe. After a while, you just don't pay any attention anymore.

"There is no question what has happened this season has affected the team. It's tough to concentrate under the circumstances.

"Hell, we can hold Seattle to minus yards one week, then turn around and give up 400 to New York the next. It's been something."

Malavasi has brought some of the problems on himself through his shaky dealings with the media, which culminated in a midseason lecture from him on how the Rams should be covered.

When Malavasi smiles, he looks a lot like a 240-pound Billy Kilmer. His stomach hangs out over his belt in the best former-lineman fashion and his blond hair hangs down around his eyes.

He worked long and hard to get to this point in his career. From assistant jobs at three colleges to staff positions with Denver, Hamilton, Buffalo and Oakland, he developed a specialty in defense, which led to his move to the Rams in 1973 as defensive coordinator.

"I've been through a lot of good times with this team," he said. "And a lot of sad times, so close. It's got to leave a mark. That's why you want to see these guys succeed. The older players have wanted it so badly."

Those older players, like Jack Youngblood, Fred dryer and Jack Reynolds, realize too, that their time at the top could be running out. This season, the Rams almost didn't make it to the playoffs; next year, they might be sitting home over the holidays.

During the course of the season, 16 Rams, many of them key players, missed at least one game with an injury. The loss of quarterback Pat Haden was the most devastating blow, forcing Malavasi to go with little-experienced Vince Ferragamo.

Through it all, Malavasi had one predominant philosophy: Keep it simple.

"We went back to the fundamentals," he said. "We started over, almost like training camp. We kept adding things every week while people started to get healthy. We had to work our young players in and wait until the veterans came back.

"Then when I thought things were working out fine and we were playing our best football, we lost Pat. It came at the worst possible time. But Vince has come through for us. I have confidence in him, although who wouldn't want to go into a game like this with a quarterback who has 12 years' experience?"

Malavasi, at least in public, doesn't seem to want to get his hopes up too high for this game, the Rams' fifth appearance over the last six years in the conference championship. He talks bravely about winning, but there have been so many disappointments, so many long offseasons.

"I've never gone into a game I thought I couldn't win," he finally said. "And neither have my players. If they think they are going to lose, they better leave right now. I don't want 'em around."