If a lot of us can find a few ways the Los Angeles Rams can stay close to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday in Super Bowl 14, hardly anyone can see them winning. The one major pregame question remaining is: who will throw the first punch?
Or if anyone will care.
An emotion or two might stir just before kickoff -- because a memorable team has a chance to become a significant part of NFL history. But the game scarcely can escape being a flat-out bore, regardless of how the Rams try to confound the Steelers.
L.A. is a good team that got healthy and lucky near the end of the season. Also, it has two imaginative assistant coaches, Bud Carson and Dan Radakovich, who helped develop the Steelers and know them as well as any outsider possibly can.
"I've got this strange feeling," said an NFL official assigned this week to the Rams. "If these guys are uptight, they don't show it. Maybe I'm dealing from the heart here, because I have gotten to know them pretty well, but they've looked good. And they have an amazing confidence in Bob Lee as a miracle worker."
And perhaps not an amazing amount of confidence in Vince Ferragamo's ability to keep Lee tied to the Bench. Poor Ferragamo, skilled and bright, but suurely too inexperienced and immature to challenge the sophisticated Steelers in a game desperately important to them.
Five years ago, there was a Ferragamo at the Super Bowl. He was called Terry Bradshaw. But the Steelers at that time, during Super Bowl 9, were so strong the brightest decision Bradshaw had to make was whether to run Franco Harris off tackle or behind the center. He was not dominant at that time, he did not have to be against the Vikings.
Now he is. Few players have had teams brilliant enough to allow them to evolve from rough ore to polished gems in such a seeking spotlight, the ultimate test of their sport. Bradshaw now can carry the Steelers -- and may have to Sunday.
Earlier this week, possibly recalling his own feelings undner similar conditions, Bradshaw said it would be wise for Ferragamo not to realize this was the Super Bowl until after the game. He was advising Ram coaches to keep their quarterback tied to a blackboard in training camp, allow him to read about trivial matters such as Afghanistan if he needs mental exercise, but, above all, keep him shielded from reality.
Tell him it's the Saints again. Or the Steelers, if you must, but assure him it's nothing more than that midseason game you won in Los Angeles last season. Do anything to keep him from mentally melting during the week. But also concoct a game plan that requires him to do very little.
That is the scenario more of us than Bradshaw see from the Rams, that the only way they have a chance -- barring the oddest fluke -- is to be even more conservative than usual and hope the Steelers make some mistakes. Close to the vest? Inside it. Throw now and then, and long, so an interception will serve the same field-position purpose as a punt.
Which leads again to the original question of which team throws that first punch, takes the first offensive gamble. Who leads in this dance? Should the Rams try and confuse everyone with an all-out attack early? or are the defending champs obliged to make a game of it? Or should they stay as within themselves as the Rams and bank on their defense to ultimately force the decisive Ram blunder?
We have some clues that suggest the Steelers will not be offensive pacifists, that Bradshaw will not be giddy wild but still bold enough for the team to achieve its proper destiny properly.
Most coaches approach a Super Bowl by finding ways not to lose, or ways not to be embarrassed, because they are not totally sure of themselves in such a rarified atmospher. It is one reason teams usually lose their Super Bowl debuts. This will be Chuck Noll's fourth Super Bowl.
He was daring in the third.
Gradually, the rest of the NFL is realizing what Noll has known for some time, that the Steelers are more an offensive than defensive team now. If everyone stays healthy, Pittsburgh might have an offense for the ages. But some coaches, given fine offensive tools, still would not use them.
Did someone say George Allen?
Well, someone did mention Allen the other day to John Madden, the former Raider coach turned broadcaster. He asked Madden for whom Allen would be rooting Sunday, privately at least.
"The defense," Madden said.
"The defense. No matter which team has the ball, George'll be rooting for the defense," said Madden, smiling but knowing he had not exaggerated too much.
Noll now is sure enough of himself to use all available firepower. Last year he allowed Bradshaw to throw 30 times, in part because he also probably sensed the Cowboys' Tom Landry was fearless enough to open up on him. And Bradshaw completed 17 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns.
Probably, Noll will be less open against the Rams, for the simple reason that their defense is quite a lot better than Dallas'. But it would be a surprise if the Steelers play directly into the Rams' hooves by not passing early and often, because they now pass better than they run.
"But," Steeler left guard Sam Davis reminds all, "we led the league in rushing and we led the league in passing -- and we also led the league in turnovers."
Even so, that is more positive than might leap immediately to mind. It helps define a team's attitude, shows it is unafraid to fail once in a while. As Davis also suggests: "We are a gutsy club. We'll take it to you regardless. If we can't run, we'll pass; if we can't trap-block you, we'll block you straight on.
"We try whatever it takes."
The Super Bowl winner is the one who best copes with Super Bowl Week. Survives might be a better word, for the Tuesday-through-Thursday media blitz can stagger someone not familiar with it. Or who does not have some ways to fend off the attackers.
Noll's best defense is called Bland. He offers nothing quotable, so hardly anyone bothers him for more than the bare-essentials interviews and he has all the more time for the work that matters.Some of the players also seem so inclined, for when a fellow walked by offensive tackle Larry Brown and heard him say, "Any time you play a football games against a football team in the National Football League it's gonna be tough," he knew it was time for this football game to begin.