October 30, 2010

1978: Mazzetti’s 5 Field Goals Lead Falcons Past Rams

Just three weeks prior to the October 30, 1978 contest between the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams, 23-year-old PK Tim Mazzetti had been tending bar at Smokey Joe’s in Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania grad had failed to catch on with the Eagles, Cowboys, and Patriots and wondered if he would get another opportunity. But Atlanta’s placekicker, Fred Steinfort, had gotten off to a dreadful start and when the Falcons held a tryout to find a replacement, Mazzetti beat out two others to get the job. It didn’t take long for him to make a positive impression - he kicked a game-winning field goal in the final seconds to beat the 49ers in his second game. Now he would have the opportunity to kick before a Monday Night Football audience.

The Falcons were in their second season under the new organizational structure that most prominently included GM Eddie LeBaron, the former undersized star quarterback for the Redskins and Cowboys, and Head Coach Leeman Bennett. In 1977, they had gone 7-7 thanks to a dominating defense that allowed only 129 points all season while the offense was hindered by the frequent injuries to young QB Steve Bartkowski. Atlanta lost four of its first six games but had won the last two to be even at 4-4 going into the game against the Rams.

Los Angeles had been the dominant team in the NFC West for the past five seasons, but failed to make it to the Super Bowl. The head coach during that period, Chuck Knox, had run afoul of owner Carroll Rosenbloom and left for Buffalo, initially to be replaced by George Allen, who had been in LA from 1966 to ’70 before departing for Washington. However, Allen failed to last through the preseason and Ray Malavasi was now coaching the club. Despite the tumult in the front office, the team was off to an outstanding start on the field at 7-1 (including a shutout of the Falcons in LA); they had lost for the first time the previous week.

The crowd of 57,250 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was fired up and the Falcons defense responded in kind. However, it was the Rams threatening in the first quarter as they drove to the Atlanta five. They were helped along by a 12-yard pass from QB Pat Haden to WR Willie Miller (with a roughing-the-passer penalty tacked on) and 17-yard run by RB Lawrence McCutcheon. But LA came up empty when TE Terry Nelson fumbled at the two and it was recovered by Falcons CB Rick Byas.

The Rams got another shot when FS Bill Simpson intercepted a Bartkowski pass and returned it 24 yards. Haden threw a 10-yard TD pass to WR Ron Jessie on the first play of the second quarter to give Los Angeles a 7-0 lead.

To further complicate things for Atlanta, Bartkowski was lost to a shoulder separation later in the second quarter and replaced by backup June Jones. But the special teams made a big play when Falcons defensive lineman Edgar Fields blocked a punt at the LA 23. It set up Mazzetti’s first field goal of the night, from 21 yards.

The Atlanta defense came through with another big play when Byas intercepted a Haden pass at the Los Angeles 33 to set up another field goal attempt of 37 yards into a stiff cross wind with 32 seconds left in the half. Mazzetti was again successful and the Falcons went into halftime down by just a point at 7-6.

At the start of the third quarter, the Rams drove to the Atlanta 32, but Frank Corral missed a 49-yard field goal attempt. They were still leading late in the period when they tried to convert a fourth-and-one situation at the 50 and RB Cullen Bryant was stopped for a loss of a yard. It proved to be the turning point of the game.

The Falcons made the most of the opportunity, and Mazzetti put them ahead 9-7 with a 33-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter. Shortly thereafter, CB Rolland Lawrence intercepted his second pass of the game and Atlanta drove 64 yards in 10 plays capped by Mazzetti’s fourth field goal, of 26 yards, for a 12-7 lead with 6:44 left to play.

Atlanta continued to take advantage of LA turnovers. Rams DB Jackie Wallace fumbled a Falcons punt and RB Mike Esposito recovered at the Rams 25 yard line. Just before the two-minute warning, Mazzetti kicked a 37-yard field goal - his fifth of the contest.

Rams Coach Malavasi had replaced Haden with backup QB Vince Ferragamo to try and ignite the offense, but it was to no avail. When Corral missed a 43-yard field goal attempt in the last minute, LA’s fate was sealed and the Falcons came away with a 15-7 win.

Los Angeles outgained Atlanta, 234 yards to 185, and had the edge in first downs, 14 to 9. However, the Rams gave up a crucial five turnovers, to two by the Falcons, and Atlanta’s defense had five sacks.

June Jones played well in relief of Steve Bartkowski, completing 7 of 11 passes for 87 yards with none intercepted (Bartkowski threw one). Neither team was able to run effectively on the other, and RB Haskel Stanback led the Falcons with 51 yards on 21 carries; FB Bubba Bean added another 44 yards on 15 attempts. WR Alfred Jackson was the most productive of the team’s receivers, gaining 40 yards on two catches.

For the Rams, Pat Haden completed 13 of 23 passes for 130 yards with one TD but also three interceptions (two of them by Rolland Lawrence); Vince Ferragamo was two of four for 50 yards in relief. Lawrence McCutcheon was the team’s top rusher with 50 yards on 12 carries, while Ron Jessie caught four passes for 44 yards and WR Billy Waddy gained 50 yards on three catches.

“We moved the ball pretty well at first and had good field position and then started making mistakes. In fact we made too many mistakes, mainly fumbles and interceptions," said Rams Coach Malavasi.

Atlanta’s Leeman Bennett took note of his defense’s strong performance, in particular the momentum-changing stop on fourth down in the third quarter. “That was a big play,” he said. “It knocked the wind out of their sails when they didn't make it.”

The win was one of five straight for the Falcons, who went on to finish at 9-7 and in second place in the NFC West. They qualified for the playoffs as a wild card team – the franchise’s first postseason appearance – and in the first NFC Wild Card game defeated the Eagles. They succumbed to Dallas in the Divisional round, although in a tight 27-20 contest. The Rams, who went on to finish first once again in the division at 12-4, won in the Divisional round but lost the NFC Championship game to the Cowboys.

Tim Mazzetti tied the existing club record with his five field goals (since broken by Norm Johnson in 1994) on his way to leading the NFC in field goal accuracy (13 of 16, 81.3 %). It was an outstanding performance, especially for a kicker who started the season as a bartender. Mazzetti played for three seasons in the NFL and also kicked for three in the USFL.