Depending on whom you talk to Vince Ferragamo is either distant or shy, either spaced out or selective in his thinking. He has been portrayed as a dimwit who calls plays that do not exist. But he was accepted at a top medical school.

He has been called greedy, branded a malcontent, although others insist he wants only what he deserves: a commensurate wage for his quarter-backing skills and some sign that his bosses like him enough to keep him around.

Ferragamo says he makes his own decisions, yet he has had two contract attorneys, an accountant, an entertainment agent and an acting agent in the last year, and his annual salary is only $52,000.

A great deal has been written and said the last several months about the Ram quarterback, but the end result is a confusing, contradictory picture. Is he as complex and enigmatic as some think? Or does he fit this description by his older brother, Chris, who said: "Vinnie is an ordinary kid. He loves a plate of spaghetti in front of him, with the TV on, so he can kick back and relax. Vinnie is an open book that anyone can read."

Take away the soap-opera quality of the Ram quarterbacking role, substract a prolonged contract hassle with the front office, and it is entirely possible his brother has come closer to capturing the real Ferragamo. This much is certain: As he finishes his fourth year in the National Football League and first full season as the Ram starter, he has become, at 26, a star.

He is the team's most exciting quarterback since Waterfield and Van Brocklin. He may be football's next dominant quarterback, as much a model for the '80s as Terry Bradshaw was for the '70s.

En route to a third-place ranking among NFL quarterbacks, Ferragamo set Ram season records for completions (240), passing yards (3,199) and touchdown passes (30). His completion percentage was 59.7.

The Rams have won 17 of 23 games Ferragamo has started. He helped them to their first Super Bowl after just seven NFL starts last season.

The first step toward Super Bowl 15 comes Sunday at Texas Stadium, where Los Angeles plays Dallas (12-4) in the NFC wild card game. There Ferragamo might silence a few more of the critics who question his ability. He can show he is capable of winning big games, the thing Ram General Manager Don Klosterman believes he must do to achieve greatness.

Klosterman has more than a small stake in the matter, representing the Rams in off-again, on-again and finally off-until-the-season-ends contract talks with a quarterback who wants Bradshaw's paycheck more than he does Bradshaw's legacy. But even Klosterman, No. 2 in command on a club that has not exactly sung Ferragamo's praises, is having a hard time holding back.

"I think he is gonna be another Van Brocklin," Klosterman says. "What a gifted arm. And he has only scratched the surface. Potentially, no quarterback in football is better."

And Ferragamo might still be second string if Pat Haden hadn't broken a finger in the season opener. Ferragamo thought he won the job outright during the exhibition season, but Haden started opening day. Then, after Haden got hurt, Ferragamo left the Rams for a day, three days before the Tampa Bay game, to underscore his unhappiness over money.

When it appeared his lawyer, Paul Caruso, had closed a relatively lucrative deal with Klosterman, Ferragamo backed out and fired Caruso. Then Ferragamo said he would negotiate for himself. Then Ferragamo said negotiations were off until the end of the season, at which time he might even jump to Canada, he said, if the money were right.

And then two national magazines made him their cover boy, and in one article, Ferragamo's wife, Jodi, called the Ram contract offer "a three-year prison sentence with a year off for good behavior." Jodi now says she does not remember saying that, though she would not swear she didn't.

In that story in Inside Sports, writer Gary Smith said Vince and Jodi drove home after games cursing their common enemy, the Rams. The money problems, Smith said, is the burning issue in the Ferragamos' lives.

Naturally, controversy swirled and Ferragamo became the target of unflattering comments from several corners. He learned quickly that it is indeed lonely at the top, that when you have as much going for you as he appears to -- the Gentleman's Quarterly looks, the football future, the academic credentials, the supportive family -- some people look for weaknesses. aIt isn't easy squeezing into a fishbowl when you're 6-foot-3, 212 pounds.

". . . I laugh about it; it doesn't really affect me," Ferragamo said. "But these kinds of things do give you a bad image. I'm not really the way I've been described.

"I hope this isn't misinterpreted as cockiness, but maybe people are envious. Some people do like to be critical, pick on things that aren't there."

Klosterman says: "Vince is the most misunderstood quarterback I've ever known. As visible as he is, so few people know him. He's on the quiet side, not really outgoing, so a lot of people think he never lets go. They think he's cocky. He's not."

"Vinnie doesn't have an outgoing personality," Fred Dryer said. "It's more subtle. But he likes a good joke. He's easy to joke with.

"He realizes that because of his contract situation, the position he plays and the stuff with his agents, he's gonna get a lot of, uh, feedback from his coworkers. We make sure Vinnie isn't ignored.

"Listen, no matter what's been said, Vinnie is basically a real good guy. If you don't like him, you're sitting next to the wrong guy. The problem is yours, not his.

"Basically, he's shy. And spacy. But spaciness doesn't reflect on his ability to play football or his IQ . . . Sometimes Vinnie isn't in the here and now, but as long as he can find the airplane on Fridays, he's fine . . . We all dig Vinnie."

Said Ferragamo: "Jodi summed it up best when she said I'm a selective thinker. Sometimes my mind is elsewhere . . . I'm not tuned in. Sometimes I'm thinking hard about other things.

"I'm not a genius. But I can read a book. I can write. I can read a little sheet music and play the guitar. I've blown a trumpet, saxophone and trombone. I've gone to class, put out, achieved good grades. Isn't that what you're supposed to do when you go to school?"

And, if the Rams do not sign Ferragamo by Feb. 1, he becomes a free agent.

Splitting for big bucks would only further complicate the saga of the Rams' uncomplicated quarterback, but, at this point, he is tired of being what Inside Sports called him: the quarterback of the '80s with the salary of the '60s.

" . . . I've been upset periodically about this contract thing. I gave the Rams offers they didn't go for, and I couldn't understand. Now Jodi and my folks know I'm gonna make my own decision. If I go to Buffalo or Saskatchewan, my folks will be there, too, if they want to be. I'll just bring em with us. They'd like to see me stay in California. I'd like to, too. But I don't think anyone in his right mind would pass up a lucrative contract for something less. Not even I'm that dumb."