Only one Super Bowl has ever been contested on January 21.
It still ranks as one of the best championship games at any level of football 36 years later.
Super Bowl XIII matched the two most popular National Football League franchises of the 1970, and also the two best, the PIttsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys.
The winner of Super Bowl XIII would become the first team to win three Super Bowls. The winner would lay claim to the title of Team of the 1970s, since each had won both of their previous titles in the decade.
Dallas won first, claiming Super Bowl VI following the 1971 season, but had to wait six years before winning again in Super Bowl XII.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh didn’t make the playoffs for the first time until 1972, the year after the Cowboys’ conquest of the Dolphins. The Steelers made up for four decades of losing with back-to-back titles in Super Bowls IX and X following the 1974 and ’75 seasons.
Chuck Noll took over the wretched Steelers in 1969, and following a 1-13 initial campaign, Pittsburgh became the team the Steel City knew and loved: gritty, hard-nosed, aggressive, blue collar, much like the city at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Mongahela Rivers.
Starting in 1972, the Steelers did not miss the playoffs for the remainder of the decade. The Cowboys made the playoffs every season between 1966 and 1983 EXCEPT for 1974, when the older roster from Super Bowls V and VI was transitioning to the younger group which went to Super Bowls X, XII and XIII.
Super Bowl XIII provided the first Super Bowl rematch. The Steelers and Cowboys faced off three years prior in a thrilling game won by Pittsburgh 21-17. Dallas scored first and led into the fourth quarter, but a blocked punt turned the tide in favor of the Steelers. Terry Bradshaw threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Lynn Swann with three minutes left to give his team a 21-10 lead, but Bradshaw was knocked out cold on the play by Larry Cole. The Cowboys came back to score on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach to Percy Howard–the ONLY CATCH of his NFL career! Dallas got the ball back, but on the game’s last play, Staubach was intercepted in the end zone by Glen Edwards.
The 1978 Steelers was Pittsburgh’s best team. They went 14-2, losing only to the Oilers at home and the Rams on the road. Pittsburgh’s offense had morphed from a run-heavy playbook reliant on Franco Harris into a high-flying aerial circus, with Bradshaw throwing to fleet receivers Swann and John Stallworth. The Steel Curtain was aging, but Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount were still playing at their Hall of Fame levels.
Pittsburgh crushed 1977 AFC champion Denver in the divisional playoff before annihilating Houston 34-5 in an ice storm in the conference final.
The 1978 Cowboys started off sluggishly, losing four of their first ten games, including a 9-5 decision at Washington on Monday Night with President Carter in attendance. Dallas got it going in the second half of the season to finish 12-4, but in their first playoff game vs. Atlanta, Staubach was knocked out on a late hit by Robert Pennywell.
Danny White, who had been the Cowboys punter since joining the team in 1976, took over at quarterback when Staubach went down vs. Atlanta. White led the Cowboys to two second half touchdowns, and the Doomsday Defense shut out the Falcons in the final 30-plus minutes to win 27-20.
Staubach returned to the lineup in Los Angeles for the NFC championship game, but through three quarters, the Cowboys’ lead over the Rams was just 7-0. Finally, Dallas broke it open with three touchdowns in the final period, the last a 68-yard interception return by Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson. The 28-0 win set up the rematch in Miami, which had been the site of Super Bowl X.
The Cowboys were coached by the ageless Tom Landry, who built the franchise from scratch in 1960 and turned it into America’s Team by 1978, his 19th season at the helm. Landry devolped the Flex Defense, the man in motion offense, and revived the shotgun formation to give Staubach more time to locate receivers downfield.
Hollywood Henderson stepped in it on media day. When asked about Bradshaw, he said “He couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A.” Little did most know Henderson was high on cocaine during that interview, and he would be hopped up on the white stuff come Super Sunday.
Pittsburgh scored first on a touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Stallworth, but Dallas got even on the final play of the first quarter when Tony Hill ran past Blount, who was paying attention to Drew Pearson and never saw Hill catch Staubach’s pass. Hill romped to a 65-yard score.
After the first quarter touchdown pass, Bradshaw went bad. He was intercepted by D.D. Lewis prior to the Dallas touchdown, and in the second quarter, he fumbled at his own 37-yard line when smothered by Henderson. Mike Hegman picked up the loose ball and scooted to paydirt, putting the Cowboys, the reigning champions, ahead 14-7.
Pittsburgh tied the game on another long touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Stallworth. The score remained 14-14 until the final minute of the first half, when Bradshaw hit Rocky Bleier on a rollout pass. Bleier, the Vietnam War hero, made a twisting catch in front of Lewis to send the Steelers to the locker room ahead by seven.
Neither team did much with the ball until late in the third quarter, when Dallas moved to within yards of the tying touchdown.
On a third down play, Staubach spotted Jackie Smith wide open in the dead center of the end zone. Smith was in his 16th and final NFL season, but his first with the Cowboys after numerous All-Pro seasons with the Cardinals.
Smith had to come back to his right and slid, but the ball was dead center between the 8 and 1 on his jersey.
He dropped it.
Cowboys radio play-by-play man Verne Lundquist said of Smith, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.”
Maybe no more powerful words have been spoken during a Super Bowl broadcast.
Dallas kicked a field goal to pull to within 21-17 as the fourth quarter arrived.
Then came another disaster for the Cowboys.
Bradshaw looped a pass down the right sideline for Swann. The ball was underthrown, and as Swann attempted to adjust, he tripped over the feet of Cowboys cornerback Benny Barnes.
The ball appeared to be uncatchable, but back judge Fred Swearingen called pass interference on Barnes, giving the Steelers a first down at the Cowboy 18.
Swearingen and the Steelers had a history long before this game.
In 1972, Swearingen was the referee for the Steelers’ first playoff game vs. the Raiders. Of course, that was the game in which Franco Harris made the “Immaculate Reception” after a Bradshaw pass intended for French Fuqua was knocked away when Fuqua and Jack Tatum collided. Swearingen and his crew went to a dugout phone at Three Rivers Stadium and asked for help from NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, who offered none and ordered Swearingen to make a ruling.
On the play after Swearingen’s pass interference call, Harris rumbled 18 yards to a touchdown to give the Steelers a 28-17 lead.
The key block was thrown by Art Demmas.
Demmas was the umpire on the officiating crew whom Cowboys safety Charlie Waters collided with as he closed in on Harris. Nobody else was within hailing distance of Harris, and he scored untouched.
Such a situation probably would not happen in an NFL game today, since starting in 2009, the league moved the umpire from behind the defensive line to the offensive backfield lateral to the referee. The move was made because several NFL umpires had suffered serious injuries when trampled by players. The umpire stands behind the defense only when (a) there are less than 2 minutes left in the first half; (b) there are less than five minutes left in the second half; and (c) the offense is inside the opponent’s 5.
On the ensuing kickoff following Harris’ touchdown, Steelers kicker Roy Gerela slipped on the slick grass. The ball squibbed to Randy White, the Cowboys’ All-Prio defensive tackle who was supposed to be blocking. White carried the ball in his left hand, which happened to have a heavy cast on it due to a broken thumb, and White could not grip the ball properly. It squirted loose, and Tony Dungy–yes, THAT Tony Dungy–recovered for the Steelers.
Bradshaw hit a leaping Swann in the end zone well behind Cliff Harris, and with less than six minutes remaining, the Steelers appeared to be safely home, leading 35-17.
Slight problem: Captain Comeback was quarterbacking the other team.
Sure enough, Staubach and Tony Dorsett engineered a frantic 8-play, 90-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown pass from Stabuach to Billy Jo Dupree which cut the margin to 11 with 2:27 to go (remember, the 2-point conversion would not return to the NFL until 1994, after having been used in the AFL prior to the merger).
Rafael Septein executed a perfect onside kick, and Dennis Thurman recovered. The Cowboys drove downfield again and scored on a pass from Staubach to Butch Johnson.
Now, only 22 seconds remained, and Dallas would not only have to recover another onside kick, but it would have to drive at least 50 yards with no timeouts.
It became moot when Bleier recovered the onside kick.
Bradshaw threw for 318 yards to earn MVP honors and shut up Hollywood Henderson.
Staubach, meanwhile, ripped the officials, especially Swearningen for his call against Barnes. Cowboys coach Tom Landry also complained vociferously and was fined by the NFL.
Turns out Landry and Staubach were right about Swearingen. A few days later, McNally ruled Barnes should not have been flagged. Incidental contact.
Staubach would never return to the Super Bowl. He was knocked out of the Cowboys’ 1979 divisional playoff loss to the Rams on a hit by Jack Youngblood, and in March 1980, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner and Naval officer retired.
Dallas would enter a steep decline beginning in 1984, and by 1988, it was 3-13. In February 1989, Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys and immediately fired Landry, replacing him with Jimmy Johnson.
Pittsburgh successfully defended its title in 1979, defeating the Rams in Super Bowl XIV in a game which was far closer than the 31-19 final indicated. The Steelers would start to age, and their dynasty finally ended for good when Bradshaw and Blount retired following the 1983 season.
It wasn’t until January 28, 1996 when the Cowboys and Steelers finally shared the field again in a Super Bowl. By this time, Barry Switzer and Bill Cowher were coaching, and the quarterbacks were Troy Aikman and Neil O’Donnell. The NFL was also in Arizona, following the Cardinals’ move from St. Louis to the desert in 1988.
Dallas won 27-17, but it has not been back to the Super Bowl since. The Steelers, meanwhile, have returned three times, besting the Seahawks in XL (2005) and Cardinals in XLIII (2008), but losing to the Packers in XLV (2010).
January 22 saw two Super Bowls played five years apart. I remember both very well. That’s tomorrow’s posts.
For some it’s probably hard to believe, but it has now been exactly 42 years since possibly the most famous play in the history of the National Football League too place.
It was the first playoff game for the PIttsburgh Steelers, and they were hosting the Oakland Raiders. In their first 39 seasons (1933-71), the Steelers qualified for the playoffs the same number of times I’ve had sex. ZERO. Nada. Zilch.
The team’s fortunes began to turn in 1969, when owner Art Rooney hired Chuck Noll as coach. Noll hit the jackpot in his first draft, selecting Mean Joe Greene out of North Texas and L.C. Greenwood out of East Texas State to anchor his defensive line. Pittsburgh was only 1-13 in ’69, but it had the number one pick for 1979, and Noll added another key piece to the puzzle by drafting Louisiana Tech quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
By 1972, Noll added Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Mike Wagner, Mel Blount, Ernie Holmes, Jon Kolb and Franco Harris, among others, and that year, the Steelers went 10-3-1.
The 1972 Raiders were 9-4-1. John Madden’s fourth edition of the Silver and Black featured a mix of players who were on the roster when Oakland lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl II and newer faces. The quarterback situation was unsettled, with Daryle Lamonica starting, but Madden had a quick hook, often shutting in a young Ken Stabler and the ancient George Blanda, who was mostly reduced to kicking, but still could sling the ball when needed, as evidenced by his 1970 season, when he finished as runner-up for NFL MVP at 43.
THe ’72 Raiders had a new weapon in rookie receiver Cliff Branch from Colorado. Oakland also had another new receiver, Villanova’s MIke Siani, to compliment Fred Blietnikoff, who was forced to go it alone for the most part in ’71 after former deep threat Warren Wells was imprisoned.
The Raider defense was solid, although this unit didn’t have any household names beyond Willie Brown and Jack Tatum in the secondary.
The first half of the Raiders-Steelers game was scoreless. PIttsburgh kicked two field goals in the second half, and it appeared that 6-0 score would hold up.
Madden replaced Lamonica with Stabler in the fourth quarter, and with less than two minutes left, Stabler scampered 30 yards around left end to the game’s first touchdown. Blanda’s extra point made it 7-6 in Oakland’s favor.
Pittsburgh appeared to be out of miracles. It soon faced fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds to go.
Bradshaw launched a pass over the middle for John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who was circling out of the backfield. However, the ball, Fuqua and Tatum all arrived at the same time near the Oakland 45-yard line.
Just as the ball was about to strike the TartanTurf of Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Franco Harris scooped the ball off of his shoelaces and galloped down the left sideline all the way to the end zone with 13 seconds to go.
The Raiders thought the play was illegal. At that time, two offensive players could not touch the ball consecutively. That was a point of contention during Super Bowl V two years earlier on Baltimore’s 75-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas to John Mackey. The Cowboys claimed the ball went off the hands of receiver Eddie Hinton straight to Mackey, but the officials ruled Dallas safety Mel Refro’s fingers grazed the laces in between. NFL Films replays proved the officials correct in that case.
Referee Fred Swearingen went to the Pirates’ dugout near the end zone where Harris scored and called NFL Director of Officiating Art McNally. McNally told Swearingen he could not help, and the decision was up to the officials on the field.
(The urban legend is Swearingen called up to the director of security and asked how many cops he could provide if the officials ruled the touchdown didn’t count. When the response was six, Swearingen then said okay, “Six for Pittsburgh”, meaning the play would stand.)
Instant replay would not come into existence until 1986, and even if there instant replay in 1972, it would have done no good. There were not as many cameras covering the game, the video quality was not anywhere near where it is now, and it would have taken way too long to run the film to the truck, rack the film and re-rack it time and again to determine the call.
Pittsburgh won 13-7, and two years later, the Steelers won their first of four Super Bowls in six seasons under coach Chuck Noll.
Oakland would have to wait until 1976 to win its title. To this day, Madden and all of the Raiders refuse to acknowledge the Steelers won.
How iconic is the Immaculate Reception? Travelers to Pittsburgh International Airport are greeted by a life-sized statue of Franco Harris in the exact uniform he wore in 1972, catching the ball like he did vs. the Raiders.
The Immaculate Reception is so cemented in NFL lore that in a poll earlier this year, it was named the greatest play of all-time. ESPN had a poll of the greatest play of each of the 32 teams. and then a tournament was held to determine the best play of all-time. The Immaculate Reception defeated Bart Starr’s game-winning quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl by a wide margin.