Quasi-home field advantage: a split decision

I’m writing this at a semi-ungodly hour because I figured it was better to get it out there while it’s fresh in my mind. I don’t do that enough with this blog.

Much has been made about the Vikings’ quest to become the first time to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Minnesota is the first team to reach the conference championship game in the same season it is hosting the Super Bowl.

Seven teams previously reached the playoffs in the same season it hosted a Super Bowl, but none got past the conference semifinals. Those were the 1970 Dolphins (lost to Raiders in AFC divisional), 1978 Dolphins (lost in AFC wild card to Oilers), 1994 Dolphins (lost to Chargers in AFC divisional, blowing 21-6 lead), 1998 Dolphins (lost to Broncos in AFC divisional), 2000 Buccaneers (lost to Eagles in NFC wild card), 2014 Cardinals (lost to Panthers in NFC wild card) and 2016 Texans (lost to Patriots in AFC divisional).

If you’re keeping score, the Saints have NEVER made the playoffs in a year they have hosted the Super Bowl. In fact, only once have they even posted a winning record in a Super Bowl hosting year, going 9-7 in 1989, and it took a three-game winning streak in December over the Bills, Eagles and Colts with John Fourcade as the starting quarterback to do so. The Saints’ records in seasons hosting the Super Bowl: 5-9 (1969), 4-8-2 (1971), 5-9 (1974), 3-11 (1977), 1-15 (1980, the year of the “Aints” and the bag heads), 1985 (5-11), 1989 (9-7), 1996 (3-13), 2001 (7-9) and 2012 (7-9).

Even though no NFL team has yet to play a Super Bowl on home turf, two teams played in college stadiums in their metropolitan areas: the 1979 Rams in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena; and the 1984 49ers in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium.

Today is a perfect day to talk about this, since Super Bowls XIV and XIX were played on January 20 of their respective years. That will never happen again, unless the NFL moves up the start of its season to mid-August. Not happening.

Pasadena is 15 miles (24 kilometers) northeast of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Coincidentally, 1979 was the last year the Rams played in the Coliseum until 2016. The Rams moved to Anaheim Stadium in Orange County in 1980 under an agreement signed in 1978 by then-owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who died under mysterious circumstances in April 1979. The team passed to his widow, Georgia, who soon remarried for the seventh time and became Georgia Frontiere. Georgia was a vicious old hag who swiped the Rams for her birthplace, St. Louis, where they played from 1995 through 2015 before returning to where they belonged.

The 1979 Rams were a hot mess. Yes, they won their seventh consecutive NFC West division championship, but benefitted from a down year by the Falcons, who were a playoff team in 1978, and a Saints team which had a potent offense led by Archie Manning and Chuck Munice, but a porous defense which allowed the Seahawks to score 38 points two weeks after the Rams held Seattle to an NFL record low minus-7 yards total offense. That porous Saints defense also allowed the Raiders to score 28 points in the fourth quarter of a Monday Night Football game in New Orleans to turn a 35-14 lead into a 42-35 loss.

Los Angeles somehow went on the road and beat the Cowboys in what turned out to be Roger Staubach’s final football game, and then the Buccaneers to reach Super Bowl XIV.

Awaiting Ray Malavasi’s club were the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were aiming for their fourth Super Bowl championship in six seasons. The Steelers were aging, but still were the dominant force in the NFL in 1979, thanks to their explosive offense, which featured Terry Bradshaw throwing deep to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann more than ever. Pittsburgh still had Franco Harris in the backfield, but Chuck Noll took advantage of the 1978 rules changes which opened up the passing game (allowing blockers to use open arms and extended hands, and limiting the amount of contact against a receiver) better than any coach in the NFL.

Pittsburgh ousted Miami in the divisional playoffs, then outlasted AFC Central rival Houston to reach the Super Bowl. It would be the first time the Steelers would play a Super Bowl on the west coast, having won Super Bowl IX in New Orleans in Tulane Stadium’s last NFL game, then X and XIII in Miami. The latter game was the last Super Bowl at the Orange Bowl, and the last in Miami until the 1988 season, by which time Joe Robbie Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium) had opened.

Nobody gave the Rams a prayer. Los Angeles was led by inexperienced quarterback Vince Ferragamo, who was ineffective after taking over for the injured Pat Haden. The Rams did have a stout defense, led by future Hall of Fame end Jack Youngblood, who was playing with a broken bone in his leg suffered during the win over Dallas, but the ineffective offense didn’t figure to be much of a challenge for the Steel Curtain, even though perennial All-Pro linebacker Jack Ham was out with an ankle injury.

Instead of the expected rout, the Rams gave the Steelers all they could handle and then some. Los Angeles led 13-10 at halftime, and after yielding a 47-yard Bradshaw to Swann touchdown pass early in the third quarter, the Rams struck back on a halfback option pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith to go back in front 19-17.

The Steelers finally remembered they were the three-time Super Bowl champions in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh took the lead for good on a 73-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Stallworth on a play where the Rams’ secondary became confused and cornerback Rod Perry had no safety help deep down the middle (sound familiar, Saints fans?), and extinguished the Rams’ last flicker of hope when Lambert intercepted Ferragamo in Steeler territory with under six minutes left. The Steelers added an insurance touchdown to make the final 31-19, but many agreed it was one of the best Super Bowls played up to that point.

Five years later, the 49ers played just 30 miles (48 kilometers) from their home at Candlestick Park to take on the Dolphins in what was expected to be the greatest quarterback battle in NFL history.

Miami, making its fifth trip to the Super Bowl under Don Shula, was powered by the rocket arm of Dan Marino, who rewrote the NFL record book in his second year in the league.

Marino, who somehow fell all the way to 27th in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft before Shula swiped him, threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in 1984, both NFL records at the time. It was a good thing Marino had a record-breaking year, because (a) Miami’s running attack was next to non-existent, and (b) the “Killer Bees” defense had lost its sting. The Dolphin defense was reeling following the departure of its architect, Bill Arnsparger, who took the head coaching job at LSU at the end of the 1983 season. Add in injuries to All-Pro linebacker A.J. Duhe and nose tackle Bob Baumhower, and Miami was a in a whole heap of trouble against Montana and the man who made the West Coast Offense as common as the off-tackle play in the NFL, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh.

Montana led the 49ers to a 15-1 regular season in 1984, with only a three-point loss to the Steelers marring their ledger. Jerry Rice had not yet arrived–he would the next season–but San Francisco still had plenty of weapons, with steady Dwight Clark, imposing tight end Russ Francis and versatile running back Roger Craig all catching loads of footballs from Montana. San Francisco also had a far more stable running game, thanks to Craig and Wendell Tyler.

The 49ers also had a very good, if underrated, defense, even though linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds was in his final NFL campaign, and future Hall of Fame end Fred Dean held out until late November. San Francisco’s strength was its secondary, where all four players made the Pro Bowl: cornerbacks Eric Wright and Dwight Hicks, and safeties Carlton Williamson and Ronnie Lott, another future Hall of Famer wearing the red and gold for Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

The expected showdown turned into a rout.

Miami led 10-7 at the end of the first quarter, but 21 unanswered points by the 49ers in the second quarter turned the Super Bowl into a super blowout, something which would become quite common in the near future.

Other than Montana’s performance, Super Bowl XIX was most notable for President Reagan performing the coin toss via satellite from the White House (the former Governor of California had to stay in Washington because of presidential inauguration ceremonies; since January 20, 1985 was a Sunday, Reagan took the oath of office privately at the White House and publicly the next day in the rotunda of the Capitol).

San Francisco won 38-16 and would go on to win two more titles in 1988 and ’89 to become the team of the decade. Miami has yet to return to the Super Bowl. Marino played 17 seasons in the NFL and set numerous records, many of which have been broken, but only reached the AFC championship game twice more, losing to the Patriots in 1985 and the Bills in 1992, both times at home. Shula retired after the 1995 season with an NFL record 347 victories.

Strangely enough, Shula is one of three coaches to lose four Super Bowls, having been in charge of the Colts when Joe Namath delivered on his guarantee in Super Bowl III. The other four-time losers didn’t win one, Marv Levy of the Bills and Bud Grant of the Vikings.

Mentioning Grant is a great segue to the current Vikings, who have thrived under Mike Zimmer despite the quarterback conundrum facing this team the past two seasons.

In August 2016, Teddy Bridgewater, the first-round draft choice out of Louisville in 2014, suffered a horrific knee injuries, tearing all three ligaments (anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and lateral collateral) during a non-contact practice drill. The injury was so serious his career was in jeopardy. He missed all of 2016 and did not play in 2017 until near the end of the year.

Before the 2016 season, the Vikings traded a first-round draft choice to the Eagles for Sam Bradford, the oft-injured former #1 draft choice of the Rams and Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma.

This season, Bradford was injured early, but the Vikings got a career year from Case Keenum, a journeyman who had been mediocre at best in previous stops with the Texans and Rams. Minnesota has the league’s #1 defense, not surprising given Zimmer was an outstanding defensive coordinator in Dallas and Cincinnati before going to the Vikings.

I am not a Vikings fan, but it would be nice to see them in the Super Bowl at home (as the designated visiting team), especially if the opponent were the Patriots. The crowd noise of U.S. Bank Stadium would be the ultimate neutralizer to Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, if “all time” is limited to the 21st century.

By 9:30 Central time tomorrow night, we’ll know who’s going to be playing in Minneapolis February 4. Then crank up the hype machine!

About David

I am a sportswriter for a group of weekly newspapers in small towns across northern Kansas. I grew up in New Orleans, went to college at LSU and wandered in the wilderness until Hurricane Katrina finally put me on the path to my current job.

Posted on January 20, 2018, in History, National Football League, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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