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Red Sunday assured

It will indeed be Red Sunday in Miami Gardens in two weeks.

The Chiefs defeated the Titans 35-24 for the AFC Championship, and the 49ers easily ousted the Packers 37-20 for the NFC Championship to set up Super Bowl LIV.

Kansas City is in the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years, when Hank Stram’s club, led by Hall of Famers Len Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas and Johnny Robinson, defeated Bud Grant’s Vikings, who were in their five-year period without Francis Asbury Tarkenton. The 23-7 final at Tulane Stadium was considered an upset since Minnesota was favored by 13 to 14 points, but the Chiefs (or Raiders, whom Kansas City defeated in the last AFL Championship game) were far superior to the Jets club which defeated the Colts in Super Bowl III. Joe Namath’s guarantee was an upset, because that Baltimore team, even without Johnny Unitas, was great. Looking back, the 1969 Vikings weren’t.

Minnesota went 12-2, yes, but lost to the Giants and Falcons, both of whom went 6-8, and Joe Kapp was the worst quarterback to start any of the first four Super Bowls, and probably one of the ten worst ever. The Vikings had no outside running threat, their receivers were nowhere near as good as the Chiefs’ Otis Taylor, and their offensive line, which featured future Hall of Famers Mick Tinglehoff and Ron Yary, had never faced a defensive line as large as Kansas City’s. Viking losses in divisional playoff games to the 49ers in 1970 and the Cowboys in 1971 proved the offense didn’t work without Tarkenton. Tarkenton came back from New York in 1972, and while the Vikings made three more Super Bowls, they were overwhelmed each time.

The Chiefs’ other Super Bowl appearance was in the first one, which was known at the time as the AFL-NFL World Championship game. The Chiefs hung with Lombardi’s Packers for a half, but self-destructed after the break, and Green Bay went on to win 35-10 in Los Angeles. Packer wideout Max McGee became the Super Bowl’s first unlikely hero with seven receptions for 143 yards and two touchdowns.

San Francisco will be making its seventh Super Bowl appearance. The 49ers’ only Super Bowl loss was in their most recent trip, a 34-31 loss to the Ravens in New Orleans where John Harbaugh defeated younger brother Jim. The former is still in Baltimore; the latter is coaching his college alma mater in Ann Arbor. Few outside Maryland and the Bay Area remember much about the game itself, but instead the power outage at the Superdome during the third quarter.

The 49ers’ two previous trips to South Florida for the Super Bowl were quite possibly the best and worst Super Bowls ever.

The worst was in January 1995, when the 49ers mauled the Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX, the only Super Bowl to match two teams from the same state. The 49ers were favored by anywhere from 17 to 20 points, and it quickly became apparent they would cover that spread and then some. Two California teams playing in South Florida and a horrible match drove ticket prices way down. The Chargers’ starting quarterback, Stan Humphries, makes my list with Kapp for the Super Bowl’s worst.

Humprhies has a Super Bowl ring as the backup for the 1991 Redskins. Fortunately for Joe Gibbs, Mark Rypien stayed healthy throughout that season and he never needed Humphries in an important situation. Then again, the 1991 Redskins might have won Super Bowl XXVI if Gibbs played quarterback himself. That team was loaded.

The other 49ers Super Bowl in South Florida, Super Bowl XXIII vs. the Bengals, was one for the ages, and in my opinion, the best I’ve witnessed.

San Francisco fell to 6-5 in mid-November following back-to-back losses to the Cardinals and Raiders. Steve Young pulled out a game vs. the Vikings with a 49-yard touchdown run in the game’s final minute in one of the best plays I’ve seen live, but vs. the Cardinals (in their first season in Arizona), San Francisco blew a 23-0 lead and lost 24-23, while the 49ers were scuttled 9-3 at home by the Raiders in Mike Shanahan’s biggest victory as coach of the Silver and Black.

With a Monday Night Football game vs. defending Super Bowl champion Washington, Bill Walsh named a healthy Montana as his starter.

The 49ers were off and running. They routed the Redskins 37-21, then won their next three, including a 30-17 victory over the Saints at Candlestick to clinch the NFC West. In the playoffs, San Francisco earned revenge for a 1987 playoff loss to the Vikings with a 34-9 rout before going to Chicago and crushing the Bears 28-3 despite a wind chill of minus-10 Fahrenheit (minus-22 Celsius).

San Francisco was considered an underdog to the Cinderella team of 1988, the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals were 4-11 in 1987, and Sam Wyche (who passed away earlier this month; R.I.P,, Sam) had to win or else in 1988 to keep his job. Cincinnati needed a goal-line stand on opening day to outlast the Cardinals 21-14, but it spurred a 6-0 start and a 12-4 regular season to win the Bengals’ first AFC Central championship since 1981, the year they went to Super Bowl XVI and lost to the Bengals in Detroit.

Cincinnati was powered by 1988 MVP Boomer Esiason, and a powerful running back combination of James Brooks and Elbert “Ickey” Woods, who introduced the “Ickey Shuffle” to the football world. Woods was penalized when he did his dance in the end zone, so he was relegated to doing so on the sideline.

Super Bowl XXIII was the first in Miami in 10 years, and the first at Joe Robbie Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium), which opened in August 1987. Billy Joel performed a fantastic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner (he repeated it for Super Bowl XLI in the same stadium), but soon thereafter, the sunny skies over South Florida darkened.

Two serious injuries occurred in the first quarter, with 49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace and Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie taken off the field on carts. Krumrie broke a bone in his left leg, an injury so serious an air cast had to be placed over the leg to stabilize it.

The first half produced little offense, with each team kicking a field goal. 49ers kicker Mike Cofer blew a 19-yard chip shot in the second quarter, and at halftime, it was 3-3, the first halftime tie in the Super Bowl.

The Bengals scored the game’s first touchdown late in the third quarter when Stanford Jennings returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, putting Cincinnati ahead 13-6. San Francisco answered on a Joe Montana to Jerry Rice touchdown 57 seconds into the fourth quarter to forge the game’s third tie.

Rice ended the night with 10 receptions for 215 yards, both Super Bowl records, and easily won the game’s MVP award.

Jim Breech’s 40-yard field goal with 3:20 to go put the Bengals up 16-13. When the 49ers were pinned at their own 8-yard line following a penalty on the ensuing kickoff, hearts across northern California sank, while those in southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana rose. It looked like Cinderella’s glass slipper would not shatter. It looked like the team with the pumpkin-colored helmets would not turn into pumpkins themselves.

Wyche knew all too well no game was over as long as #16 was in charge for the 49ers. After all, Wyche was the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach when they won Super Bowl XVI seven years prior.

How cool was Joe Montana? As the 49ers huddled in the east end zone of the stadium prior to the first play of the drive, Montana pointed out to his teammates that actor John Candy was being shown on the video board.

Montana Magic was never more apparent than the evening of 22 January 1989 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

San Francisco drove 872 yards on 10 plays, leaving it with third and goal from the Cincinnati 10. With the Bengals focused on Rice, and rightly so, Montana spotted his other top wideout, John Taylor, on a post pattern over the middle. Taylor caught the ball in stride in the end zone with 34 seconds left.

San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16. Bill Walsh announced his retirement in the locker room after the game, and his successor, George Seifert, led the 49ers to a most dominant 14-2 season in 1989 and a 55-10 destruction of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

The Chiefs and 49ers are infrequent foes, seeing they play in opposite conferences. They don’t even play much in the exhibition season.

They first played in 1971, with Kansas City winning 26-17 at Candlestick on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs did not return to Candlestick until 1985, and they did not defeat the 49ers again until 1994, when the Montana-led Chiefs defeated the Young-led 49ers 24-17 at Arrowhead. In between, San Francisco won in 1975 and ’82 at Kansas City, and again in 1985 and ’91 at Candlestick.

Their last game was in 2018 at Arrowhead, the game where 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the season with a serious knee injury. Kansas City won 38-28. San Francisco went 4-12, giving it the #2 overall pick in the draft, which it used to take Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who will win Rookie of the Year or be a close second.

This will not be the first time the championship of a North American professional sports league will be determined by teams from Kansas City and San Francisco.

In the 2014 World Series, the Giants defeated the Royals in seven games. The teams split the first two games in Kansas City, then the Royals won the third at San Francisco. The Giants rallied to win the next two at AT&T Park (now Oracle park), but Yordano Ventura pitched a gem in game six at Kauffman to take the series to the limit.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy called on ace Madison Bumgarner, the starter and winner in games one and five, to relieve former Royal Jeremy Affeldt to begin the fifth with San Francisco ahead 3-2.

Bumgarner totally shut down the Royals until there were two out in the ninth. Alex Gordon singled and went to third when left fielder Gregor Blanco overran the ball. It looked like Gordon would be able to score, but third base coach Mike Jirschele held up Gordon.

Salvador Perez then popped up to Pablo Sandoval in foul ground. Sandoval squeezed the final out, giving San Francisco its third World Series title in five seasons. Of course, the Royals redeemed themselves one year later, with a lot of help from the bumbling Mets.

Let the hype begin.

Day of memories

A lot of things happened on January 22 in the past.

Three of those came before I was born.

On January 22, 1973, the following occurred:

  • The Supreme Court of the United States legalized abortion in Roe v Wade. Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion, although much of it was crafted by William Brennan, the leading progressive on the court for over 30 years. Byron White and William Rehnquist dissented. If you’re looking for my opinion on this case, keep waiting. Not here. Not now.
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, died of a massive heart attack at his ranch in Johnson City, Texas. LBJ was in poor health throughout his post-presidential life, and it was only a matter of time before his bad habits caught up with him.
  • George Foreman battered Joe Frazier in Jamaica, winning by TKO in the second round to claim the World Heavyweight Championship. Referee Arthur Mercante, also in charge of Frazier’s epic 15-round unanimous decision over Muhammad Ali in 1971 in New York City, mercifully stopped the fight after Frazier was knocked down for the sixth time. Howard Cosell shouted “DOWN GOES FRAZIER” after the first knockdown, the most iconic line uttered by the man who always bragged he “Tells It Like It Is”.

January 22 just happened to be one busy day in one of the most hectic months of the last 50 years. To wit:

  • January 7–Mark James Robert Essex went full commando in downtown New Orleans, killing seven–including three members of the New Orleans Police Department–and wounding 19 others in a siege at the Downtown Howard Johnson’s Hotel. It was discovered later that Essex killed two other NOPD members on New Year’s Eve and also was the probable culprit for the Rault Center fire of November 29, 1972, which killed six.
  • January 14–The Dolphins defeated the Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII to complete their 17-0 season. Also that day, Elvis Presley performed in Honolulu to a worldwide audience over over one billion (none in the United States and Canada; the concert was not aired until April in those countries).
  • January 27–The Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Two events of January 22 in the 1980s I remember much better.

The first Super Bowl I recall watching from beginning to end was Super Bowl XVIII, January 22, 1984 in Tampa.

The Redskins were the defending champion, having beaten the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. Washington went 14-2 in 1983, scoring a then-NFL record behind a dynamic offense led by quarterabck Joe Theismann, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, and running back John (The Diesel) Riggins, who scored a then-NFL record 24 touchdowns. Theismann had one of the NFL’s best receivers in Art Monk, who would be healthy for Super Bowl XVIII after missing the 1982 playoffs with a leg injury. Washington’s defense was overshadowed by its offense, but the Redskins had a stout unit, led by tackle Dave Butz, end Dexter Manley, linebacker Neal Olkewicz, and safety Mark Murphy, as well as a rookie cornerback from Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) named Darrell Green.

The Raiders were in their second season in Los Angeles. They had a superstar running back of their own in Marcus Allen, as well as speedy receiver Cliff Branch and sure-handed tight end Todd Christensen. Jim Plunkett did not have the big numbers Theismann had, but he was a fearless leader who had survived terrible stints in New England and San Francisco. Oakland’s defense was powered by a secondary led by cornerback Lester Hayes and safety Mike Haynes, acquired from the Patriots during the season. Up front, Oakland had a pair of studs at end, Lyle Alzado and Howie Long, while linebacker Ted Hendricks was still going strong in his 15th–and final–NFL season.

Washington defeated the Raiders 37-35 at RFK Stadium in week five, rallying from a 35-20 deficit in the fourth quarter to do so. The Redskins’ only losses were each by one point on Monday Night Football, at home vs. the Cowboys in the opener and at Green Bay two weeks after the game with the Raiders.Washington blew away the Rams 51-7 in the divisional playoffs, but barely beat the 49ers 24-21 in the NFC championship. San Francisco coach Bill Walsh (he will be mentioned later in this post, and with good reason) was incensed over two very marginal penalties called against the 49ers on the drive which led to the Redskins’ game-winning field goal, and he would use those calls as  a rallying point for 1984, when San Francisco tore apart the league by going 15-1 in the regular season and winning Super Bowl XIX.

Los Angeles lost twice to division rival Seattle and suffered an inexplicable December loss at home to the Cardinals, but came on strong in the playoffs, routing Pittsburgh 38-10 and Seattle 30-14.

Many of the scribes who considered themselves experts on professional football felt Super Bowl XVIII had the potential to be one of the best Super Bowls ever.

Instead, it was a super rout.

The Raiders scored following Washington’s first possession when Derrick Jensen blocked a Jeff Hayes punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. A touchdown pass from Plunkett to Branch early in the second quarter made it 14-0. The Redskins got a field goal later in the period, but one of the most disastrous plays in the history of championship football was about to occur.

The Redskins had the ball inside their own 20 with 12 seconds to go in the first half. The smart play would be for Theismann to take a knee and for Joe Gibbs and his players to regroup during the long halftime.

Instead, Gibbs sent in a play called Rocket Screen.

During the October game with the Raiders, Theismann and Joe Washington executed it to perfection. Theismann dumped off to Washington in the right flat, and the ex-Oklahoma speedster took it for 67 yards to set up a Redskin touchdown as part of the Redskins’ 17-point rally in the fourth quarter.

Los Angeles defensive coordinator Charlie Sumner believed Gibbs might call the play even though very little time remained in the half, and made an important substitution.

Sumner sent in 6-foot-4 reserve linebacker Jack Squirek, a second-year player from Illinois, in for Matt Millen (yes, THAT Matt Millen). Millen was angry that Sumner removed him, but Squirek was a better pass defender than Millen, who was a defensive tackle at Penn State before becoming a linebacker when he was drafted by the Raiders in 1980.

Squirek was asked to play man-to-man coverage against Joe Washington. If Washington caught the screen pass and broke contain, he would have a chance to gain enough yardage to set up Moseley for a field goal attempt to end the first half.

Rocket Screen did lead to a score.

Theismann dropped back and looked left for Joe Washington. Instead, Squirek caught the ball in stride at the 5 and pranced into the north end zone of Tampa Stadium.

Game, set, match, Raiders. It was 21-3 at halftime, and the Redskins’ reign as champion had 30 minutes to run.

Washington scored a touchdown on its first drive of the second half, but it was far too little, too late.

Later in the third quarter, Allen gobbled up huge chunks of real estate on his way to a then-Super Bowl record 191 yards. He scored two touchdowns during the stanza, the second on a remarkable 74-yard run on the final play of the period.

On the play, 17 Bob Trey O, Allen started out as if he would sweep left end, but reversed his field when confronted by Redskins strong safety Ken Coffey. Allen found a crease up the middle and avoided a diving tackle attempt by Olkewicz near midfield. Green and Anthony Washington gave chase, but were hopelessly behind the 1981 Heisman Trophy winner from USC.

The 74-yard jaunt sewed up MVP honors for Allen and was the icing on the cake of the Raiders’ 38-9 victory.

However, to many who watched, Super Bowl XVIII is not remembered for Allen, Squirek or Theismann, but instead for a commercial which aired during the third quarter.

In honor of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, published in 1949, Apple Computers aired a commercial where its new product, the Macintosh, would free the human race from the sinister grip of Big Brother and allow for the continued free will of man and the free exchange of ideas.

The commercial, created by famous movie director Ridley Scott, never aired again, but it is remembered by many not only as the greatest Super Bowl ad ever, but the greatest ad ever, period, regardless of air time or air date.

Five years later, the second–and last–Super Bowl played on January 22 produced one of the great championship games in NFL annals.

Super Bowl XXIII, played on January 22, 1989, marked the return of the big game to South Florida after a ten-year absence. This was the first Super Bowl played in the Dolphins’ palatial new facility, known then as Joe Robbie Stadium, in honor of the Miami owner, who built the $115 million stadium without a dime of taxpayer assistance.

The stadium now known as Hard Rock Stadium is a much better facility for football today than it was when it opened in 1987.

Robbie built the stadium with baseball in mind as well, thinking the area would receive a Major League Baseball expansion team in the near future, which it did when the Marlins joined the National League in 1993.

When the Marlins received their own stadium in 2012 (that’s another story for another post), the NFL required the Dolphins to make major renovations to the facility in order to host another Super Bowl. Current owner Stephen Ross complied, and the Super Bowl returns to South Florida in February 2020.

Super Bowl XXIII was a rematch of Super Bowl XVI, with the Bengals taking on the 49ers.

Some of the same players who were part of the 49ers’ first championship team in 1981 were still with the squad seven years later, most importantly Joe Montana. However, Montana had gone through a dip in his career following the victory over Miami in Super Bowl XIX after the 1984 season. He had a major back injury in 1986 which required surgery, and although he led the 49ers to an NFL-best 13-2 record in 1987, he struggled in a divisional playoff loss to the Vikings and was pulled from the game in favor of Steve Young, who had been acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay before the 1987 draft.

In 1988, Walsh could not make up his mind between Montana and Young through the first half of the season. San Francisco was wildly inconsistent, one week defeating Minnesota when Young scored the game-winning touchdown on a 49-yard scramble around left end on which Young somehow kept his balance, then losing the next week to the Cardinals by blowing a 23-0 lead and losing 24-23.

With the Niners 6-5 and two games behind the Saints in the NFC West, Walsh made Montana the full-time starter. The move paid off, as San Francisco won its next five games, including a 30-17 victory over New Orleans in week 15, to clinch the division championship.

In the playoffs, the 49ers blasted the Vikings 34-9, then went to Chicago and pummeled the Bears 28-3 despite a minus-18 wind chill factor.

This would be the first Super Bowl appearance for Jerry Rice, who had already established himself as one of the NFL’s all-time great receivers in just his fourth season. The Mississippi Valley State product set the league on fire in 1987 when he caught a record 22 touchdown passes in only 12 games. That record would stand for 20 years, when Randy Moss took advantage of the full 16-game slate to haul in 23 scoring passes from Tom Brady.

San Francisco’s underrated defense still featured Ronnie Lott in the secondary, but had a new star in pass rushing ace Charles Haley, who had the freedom to roam and line up at either end or linebacker. 0

The Bengals were a vastly different bunch from the 1981 team which lost to the 49ers in the Pontiac Silverdome, save for veterans Cris Collinsworth, Eddie Edwards and Reggie Williams.

In 1984, Boomer Esiason took over the quarterback duties from all-time Bengals passing leader Ken Anderson. By 1988, the left-hander from Maryland was the NFL’s leading passer, triggering a no-huddle attack which featured fleet receivers Eddie Brown and Tim McGee, plus bruising tight end Rodney Holman. Esiason was protected by an offensive line anchored by Anthony Munoz, one of the NFL’s all-time best offensive tackles.

The Bengals’ running game was led by the versatile James Brooks and a tough fullback from UNLV named Elbert Woods, who became famous as Ickey Woods. The Ickey Shuffle, Woods’ dance after touchdowns, became a national fad as the Bengals began the season 6-0 and went on to a 12-4 record, a far cry from the 4-11 mark of 1987.

Cincinnati defeated Seattle and Buffalo to win its second AFC championship and send coach Sam Wyche, a former Bengals quarterback, into a matchup against his mentor. Wyche was an assistant to Walsh in 1981. Walsh was also a longtime Bengals assistant under Paul Brown before becoming the coach at Stanford in 1977.

The expected offensive explosion didn’t happen in the first half. Each team could muster only a field goal, and each team saw a player suffer a horrific injury.

First to go was 49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace, who suffered a broken ankle. A few plays later, Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie also broke an ankle, but his injury was even more gruesome than Wallace’s.

The first touchdown did not come until late in the third quarter, and it was on a kickoff  return by the Bengals’ Stanford Jennings. The 49ers went to the final period down 13-6.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Montana hit Roger Craig for 40 yards to the Bengal 14. Monata’s next pass was almost disastrous for San Francisco, for it hit Cincinnati defender Lewis Billups in the hands.

Had Billups hung on, it might have been curtains for the 49ers.

Instead, Montana made the Bengals pay dearly. He found Rice in the left flat, and #80 did the rest, battling his way past the Bengals secondary to the pylon for the touchdown which tied the game at 13.

With 3:20 to go, Jim Breech nailed a 40-yard field goal which put Cincinnati up 16-13. The 49ers could only return the ensuing kickoff to their own 15, but were further backed up by an illegal block in the back.

With 3:10 remaining, San Francisco was at its own 8-yard line. It would take at least 60 yards to get into field goal range, but that was no sure thing, as Mike Cofer shanked a 19-yard attempt in the second quarter.

Before the first play of the drive, Montana added some levity to the situation when he pointed to the big television screen in the west end of the stadium and said “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?”.

It worked.

Montana led the 49ers on a drive for the ages, as 10 plays moved the ball 82 yards to the Cincinnati 10 with 39 seconds to play. Now the Bengals had to stiffen and hope they could force the 49ers to try a field goal.

With everyone expecting Montana to look for Rice, who finished with 11 receptions for 215 yards, both Super Bowl records, Joe Cool instead found the other wideout, John Taylor, in the middle of the end zone.

Montana’s dart nestled snugly in Taylor’s hands as the clock showed 34 seconds to play.

San Francisco was Super Bowl champion for the third time, 20-16. Walsh announced his retirement in the locker room immediately after the game. Rice, of course, was named MVP.

It’s almost January 23, so that’s it for now.

Another NFL draw

For the second time in eight days, a National Football League game has ended in a draw. 

Yet this time, the fans were not unhappy. 

The Redskins and Bengals began the day’s NFL slate with a 27-27 deadlock in London’s Wembley Stadium. 

It’s the first time since 1997 where there have been ties in the NFL on consecutive weekends. The last time it happened, the Eagles and Ravens finished 10-10, then the Giants and Redskins ended 7-7. The latter game was the infamous contest where Gus Frerotte, then the Redskins’ quarterback, head-butted a wall after scoring Washington’s only touchdown and jammed his neck. 

Last Sunday, the Cardinals and Seahawks played to a 6-6 draw. 

Arizona would gladly take a tie right now. The Cardinals look like pure shit in Charlotte, where they are losing 24-0 to Scam Newton and the Panthers. What is it about Charlotte which turns the Cardinals into something worse than a pee-wee outfit? It happeend the last two seasons in the playoffs, and it’s happening again today.

It’s an outcome which English sports fans are quite accustomed to. Draws have occurred in one of every four Premier League matches this season. William Hill, the leading bookmaker in the United Kingdom, offers odds on draws for every football (the one with the round ball) match it puts on the board. 
England’s most popular football team, Manchester United, played to a scoreless draw yesterday vs. Burnley at Old Trafford. United fans were upset, given their side’s dominance of Burnley, but Burnley fans weren’t complaining, since their team more often than not has left Old Trafford in defeat. 

Again, I do not see why a draw in an American football game is a negative. It’s not a playoff game.It’s not life or death. It’s the asinine American obsession with having a winner and a loser in anything and everything which makes most Americans averse to such an outcome. 

I am not most Americans. I believe a draw is a fine outcome of a sporting event. Those who can’t stand draws can watch something else. 

If association football, the world’s most popular sport, is okay with a draw, why isn’t American football? NOT EVERYTHING CAN HAVE A WINNER. Get over it! 

NFL playoff redux

There are two NFL playoff games taking place today. Right now, the Bengals are battling the Colts in Indianapolis. At 3:35, the Cowboys will host the Lions in Arlington.

This is not the first time the same four teams have gotten together on the same day for an NFL playoff twinbill.

It happened December 26, 1970, the first day of playoff games for the first season following the AFL-NFL merger. The Bengals, champions of the AFC Central, visited the Baltimore Colts, champions of the AFC East; and the Lions, the wild card from the NFC, went to Dallas to take on the NFC East champion Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl.

In 1970, the NFL playoffs featured eight teams, four in each conference. The three division winners–East, Central and Wes–were joined by the second place team with the best record. This format remained unchanged through 1977.

The NFL used a four-team tournament to determine its representative to the Super Bowl in the final three seasons prior to the merger. The difference was there were four divisions, the Capital and Century in the Eastern conference, ad the Central and Coastal in the Western conference.

The Colts were in the NFL–in the Western conference, no less–prior to the merger. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom agreed to a $3 million payment from the NFL to change conferences. Cleveland owner Art Modell and Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney also agreed to move from the NFL to the AFC. Many felt the Saints and Falcons, the two newest teams in the NFL prior to the merger, should have been forced to move, with a third team drawn by lot if no franchise agreed.

One big difference between the playoff tournament of 1970 and today, other than the number of teams, is the fact that home field advantage did not go to the team with the best recod in each conference. The host teams were determined by a rotation set by the NFL office. The only constant was the wild card team could never host a playof game.

Another rule was teams from the same division could not meet in the divisional (conference semifinal) round. That rule stayed in effect through the 1989 playoffs.

The 1970 Bengals began their season, their third in professional football, by defeating the Raiders on opening day, but then losing their next six. They were routed 38-3 at Detroit, and lost a 30-27 cliffhanger at Clevleand in which Cincinnati led 10-0 in the first quarter but then fell behind 30-20 with less than seven minutes to play before a late rally came up short.

But the Bengals were not out of it at 1-6. Far from it.

Cincinnati had the good fortune of playing in a weak AFC Central in 1970. To wit:

–The Oilers had been no better than mediocre for many years, and they lost starting quarterback Charley Johnson to a broken collarbone in week five. The defense had bona fide stars in future Pro Football Hall of Famers Ken Houston and Elvin Bethea, and a consistent All-Pro in George Webster, but Houston’s offense was anemic without Johnson.
–The Steelers were rapidly improving under second year coach Chuck Noll and had enjoyed two spetacularly successful drafts in 1969 and 1970, taking future stars Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Terry Bradshaw. However, building a championship caliber team took much longer in the NFL before free agency came about in 1993. The Steelers would become one of the great dynasties of professional sports, but not in 1970.
–The Browns won three consecutive Century division championships, and still had many key players from their 1964 NFL championship teams. LIke Houston, quarterback was a problem, since veteran Bill Nelsen was more crippled than Joe Namath, and rookie Mike Phipps was nowhere near as good as Purdue predecessors Len Dawson and Bob Griese. The Browns also were aging rapidly on defense, and opposing quarterbacks picked on safety Erich Barnes, a perennial All-Pro in his earlier years, but now well past his prime.

The Bengals took advantage of this less than impressive trio, winning their final seven games to overtake Cleveland for the division championship on the final day of the regular season. It didn’t hurt that Cincinnati got to play 2-11-1 New Orleans and 2-12 Boston late in the season.

The Colts were an impressive 11-2-1, bouncing back emphatically after a disappointing 8-5-1 slate in 1969. Baltimore was under new leadership, as Don McCafferty succeeded Don Shula after Shula walked out on Rosenbloom and took the Dolphins’ vacant coaching position. Johnny Unitas wasn’t always healthy, but Earl Morrall was by far the best backup in the league, and the Colts never missed a beat. Baltimore’s defense was second to none, led by All-Pros Bubba Smith, Mike Curtis and Rick Volk, with assistance from Fred Miller, Billy Ray Smith and Jerry Logan.

The Lions went 10-4 to finish second to the 12-2 Vikings in the NFC Central. Detroit’s arsenal included an excellent scrambling quarterback in Greg Landry, the game’s premier tight end in Charlie Sanders, and two fleet receivers in Earl McCulloch and Larry Walton. Detroit’s defense featured the game’s best secondary, headlined by future Hall of Famers Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau.

Dallas was all but written off after losing 38-0 at home to the Cardinals on Monday Night Football, which was in its inaugural season on ABC. Following the loss to the “other” St. Louis Cardinals, the Cowboys were 5-4, three games behind the 7-2 Cards, but St. Louis held the tiebreaker with the season sweep. Also, the Giants were ahead of the Cowboys at 6-3.

The Cardinals could not sustain their success. They went 1-3-1 down the stretch, losing to the Lions, Giants and Redskins in December.

In the Monday Night Football game following the Cowboys’ collapse, the Giants went to Philadelphia and gagged against the 1-7-1 Eagles. New York also lost earlier in the season to the pitiful Saints, and those losses would end up costing the Giants dearly.

Following the debacle in the Cotton Bowl, Dallas turned it around. Coach Tom Landry simplified the Cowboys’ famously complex offense, leaning heavily on a three-headed running back monster of Walt Garrison, Calvin Hill and rookie Duane Thomas.

The Cowboys won their last five games, albeit four of the five came against sub-.500 teams, two over a Redskins squad whose season was short-circuited when Vince Lombardi died of colon cancer 17 days before the season kicked off.

Dallas won the NFC East on the season’s final Sunday by obliterating the Oilers 52-10. The Lions won the wild card by shutting out the Packers 20-0. The Giants’ playoff hopes died with a 31-3 loss to the Rams at Yankee Stadium. The Rams had a chance to win the NFC West by routing the Giants, but the 49ers took the crown by crushing the Raiders 38-7 in a muddy bog at Oakland.

Had New York won, it would have won the NFC East, and the wild card would have come down to a coin toss between Dallas and Detroit. No doubt a few NFL executives were relieved professionally (most were Giants fans and undoubtedly wanted their team in the playoffs) the coin toss didn’t come to pass.

The Bengals were new to the playoff scene. The Colts lost Super Bowl III and also had veterans of the 1964 NFL Championship game loss to the Browns. In Unitas’ case, he was the starting quarterback n Baltimore’s 1958 and 1959 NFL championship teams, as the Colts beat the Giants in the final both years.

The final at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, aka the Baltimore Dust Bowl, was not surprising: Colts 17, Bengals 0. The Colts were one-third of the way to erasing some, if not all, of the pain from their Super Bowl III loss to the Jets, guaranteed by Broadway Joe Namath.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, the Cowboys and Lions engaged n a game which either was (a) a classic defensive struggle or (b) the worst offensive matchup in the history of playoff football. Those in Dallas and Detroit definitely chose the former. People in Minnesota were inclined to chose the latter.

In what became the first, and to date only, professional football game to be played without either team scoring a touchdown, the Cowboys defeated the Tigers, er, Lions 5-0.

Strangely enough, Dallas was just two weeks removed from another game which ended with a baseball tally, as the Cowboys won in Cleveland 6-2.

Tie it on boys!

The only gridiron football league in the United States were ties are permitted saw one occur today in Cincinnati.

The Bengals and Panthers played to a 37-37 sister-kisser. Both teams, first Cincinnati and then Carolina, kicked a field goal on their first possessions of the extra period. The two possessions ate up all but the last two and a half minutes of overtime. The Bengals drove to the Carolina 19 and had a chance to win, but Mike Nugent missed a 36-yard field goal wide right, and thus we had our third deadlock in as many years.

In the old days, the Bengals would have won the game because they took the ball and scored first. However, beginning with the 2010 postseason and 2013 regular season, if a team wins the toss and takes the ball, it must score a touchdown to end the game. If it does not, the other team can possess the ball. If that team scores a field goal, the game then goes into sudden death for the remainder of the period (regular season) or however long it takes (postseason). If the team who has the ball second gave up a field goal but scores a touchdown, the game is over.

Cincinnati is no stranger to ties in tis own stadium. The Bengals and Eagles played to a 13-13 stalemate in 2008. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia’s star quarterback at the time, didn’t think a game could end in a tie, and he did not show a sense of urgency on the Eagles’ final possession.

The team which has gone the longest without a tie is the Saints. Their last deadlock was in October 1972 vs. the 49ers, two years before the NFL Instituted overtime in the regular season. Three expansion teams who came into the league after 1974, the Seahawks, Jaguars and Texans, have never played to a tie. Today’s was the first for Carolina. The Ravens, who were officially an expansion team after Art Modell moved the original Cleveland Browns in 1996, tied the Eagles 10-10 in 1997.

Ironically, the first NFL regular season game to go to overtime, Steelers at Broncos in September 1974, ended in a 35-35 tie after Denver’s Jim Turner missed two field goal attempts in the fifth quarter.

The first NFL regular season overtime game to produce a winner came in November 1974 when the Jets beat the Giants 26-20 at the Yale Bowl, where the Giants were playing while (a) Giants Staidum in the New Jersey Meadowlands was under construction and (b) Yankee Stadium, Big Blue’s home from 1957 through 1973, was closed due to massive renovations by George Steinbrenner.

The Jets were 1-7 coming into the matchup with the Giants, and trailed 20-13 late in the fourth quarter before tying it up on a 5-yard touchdown run by this guy Joe Namath. Heard of him? Well, for Namath to RUN for a touchdown was nearly impossible, since by 1974, Namath’s knees were shot and he had no cartilage left. Broadway Joe was supposed to hand off to Emerson Boozer on a dive play, but Namath faked the dive and limped around left end. When Namath reached the end zone, numerous bottles came flying from the Yale Bowl stands.

The Giants won the overtime toss and moved into field goal range, but the normally reliable Pete Gogolak hooked a 42-yard attempt to the left. Namath and the Jets took over their own 25 and drove 75 yards to the game-winning touchdown, a 6-yard pass from Namath to Boozer where the Jets’ fullback got open behind Giants’ All-Pro linebacker Brad Van Pelt.

The NFL’s first sudden death overtime game was the epic 1958 championship game between the Colts and Giants. There were three other OT playoff games prior to 1974: 1962 AFL championship (Dallas Texans 20, Houston Oilers 17 in double OT); 1965 NFL Western Division playoff (Packers 13, Colts 10) and the longest NFL game ever played, the 1971 divisonal playoff which turned out to be the last football game at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium (Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24).

Major college football allowed ties until the 1995 bowl season, and one bowl game, Toledo vs. UNLV, required the extra session. The Rockets, coached at the time by current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, won 40-37. Overtime was introduced in the regular season for 1996, meaning the Kansas Jayhawks will forever hold the NCAA record for tie games, 57.

I don’t see where ties are the end of the world. It’s a symptom of American culture where every game MUST have a winner. Heck, ties in association football go on all the time. Is that a reason why the game hasn’t caught on in the United States? I hope the 20,000 who go to Sporting Park in KCK and watch Sporting KC know matches can end tied during the regular season. The NHL didn’t have overtime for 40 years and nobody thought less of the game. Ties also throw monkey wrenches into standings, and more often than not, a tie will prevent the use of tiebreakers.

I’m not crying over the tie. In fact, it’s a good day for NFL fans everywhere.