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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!

Soul-crushingly bad list, part II

Back to more of CBS Sports’ bad list of the most soul-crushing playoff defeat in each NFL team’s history.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

The selection: Super Bowl XLIV, when Peyton Manning lost to his hometown club, the Saints, led by Drew Brees. New Orleans trailed 10-6 at halftime, but coach Sean Payton’s gamble to start the second half with an onside kick paid off, turning the tide permanently in the Saints’ favor. Tracy Porter’s 74-yard interception return in the fourth quarter sealed New Orleans’ 31-17 victory, the Saints’ first championship.

If that’s the most soul-crushing loss in INDIANAPOLIS Colts history, fine. Okay.

But the Colts played in Baltimore from 1953-83, and had a few decent players. Johnny Unitas? Remember him? What about Gino Marchetti? Art Donovan? Lenny Moore? Raymond Berry? Yeah, they’re all in the Hall of Fame. And there were some darn good players who didn’t make it to Canton during the Baltimore years, including Bubba Smith, Mike Curtis, Bert Jones, Roger Carr, Lydell Mitchell and Joe Ehrmann, among others.

In 1968, the Colts came to training camp angry. Don Shula was entering his sixth season as the team’s coach, and while Baltimore had been a big winner throughout Shula’s tenure, the Colts had come up short when it counted.

Baltimore was waxed 27-0 by Cleveland in the 1964 NFL championship game. The next year, the Colts faced the Packers in an playoff to determine the Western Division champion. Baltimore led 10-0, only to see Green Bay come back, tying the game on a controversial Don Chandler field goal, one which Colts players, coaches and fans swore was no good, but ruled good. The Packers won in overtime, then defeated the Browns for the NFL title in Jim Brown’s last football game.

In 1967, Baltimore won 11 of its first 13 games. It did not lose in that span, tying the Rams and Colts in consecutive games in October. The Colts played the Rams in Los Angeles in the final game of the regular season, needing to win or tie to win the Coastal Division championship.

That season, the NFL expanded to 16 teams when the Saints came into existence. The NFL grouped teams into four four-team divisions, two in the Eastern Conference and two in the Western Conference. The Colts and Rams were in the same division with the Falcons and 49ers (don’t get me started on that–not this time anyway). Unlike previous seaosns, when teams who were tied atop a divsion at the end of the regular season would engage in a playoff to determine the champion, the NFL instituted a series of tiebreakers in 1967 so the playoffs were not delayed. There were now two rounds of playoffs, the conference championship games and the league championship game, prior to what was then the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, of course now the Super Bowl.

Guess what? The Colts were bitten in the butt by the new rules.

The Rams won 34-10, sending Baltimore home at 11-1-2, while 9-5 Cleveland and 9-4-1 Green Bay played on. The Packers beat the Rams to win the Western Conference, beat Dallas in the Ice Bowl for the NFL title, and then rolled over the Raiders in Super Bowl II, Vince Lombardi’s last game as Green Bay’s coach.

The Colts had one slight problem in 1968: the sore right elbow of John Constantine Unitas.

Shula did not believe Unitas was healthy enough to withstand the punishment of a 14-game season, and thus traded with the Giants for journeyman Earl Morrall, who had no chance of starting with some guy named Fran Tarkenton already there.

Morrall had the best year of his career and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. The defense, led by Smith and Curtis, was savage. Baltimore went 13-1, losing only to the Browns, now led by Leroy Kelly, in the regular season. Baltimore eased past Minnesota to win the Western Conference, then mauled the Browns 34-0 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium (aka the Mistake By the Lake) to advance to Super Bowl III.

Waiting for the Colts were the New York Jets, led by their flamboyant quarterback, Joseph William Namath, aka Broadway Joe and Joe Willie. The Jets’ high-flying attack, led by glue-fingered receivers Don Maynard and George Sauer, avenged their loss in the Heidi Game by edging the Raiders 27-23 for the AFL title.

You know the rest of the story.

Oddsmakers establish Colts as favorites anywhere between 18 to 21 points. Namath guarantees a Jet victory the Thursday before the game. Namath delivers on his guarantee, 16-7.

Now how was that not soul-crushing? Lose a game you were expected to win and win easily? A loss so bad the Colts didn’t recover in ’69, going 8-5-1 and prompting Shula to leave Baltimore for the Dolphins?

Fortunately, the Colts only lost the game. Safety Rick Volk was knocked into orbit somewhere between Uranus and Neptune after colliding more than a few times with Jets running back Matt Snell. He had to be rushed to the emergency room of a Miami hospital after going into convulsions. Some feared he might die, but he recovered and made a key interception in Super Bowl V which helped the Colts defeat the Cowboys.

I don’t care if Indianapolis has had its fair share of heartache–the 1995 AFC championship game when Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary at PIttsburgh fell off the chest of Aaron Bailey and fell to the turf, Peyton Manning’s playoff struggles vs. the Patriots until the 2006 breakthrough, losing to the Chargers at home in 2007. Super Bowl III trumps all.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

The selection: 1995 AFC divisional playoff at home vs. the Colts, when Lin Elliott missed three field goal attempts in a 10-7 loss.

Most Chiefs fans under 55 forget anything which happened before Marty Schottenheimer’s arrival in 1989. Yes, the Chiefs were pretty bad from 1972-88, playing in ONE playoff game (losing 35-15 to the Jets in 1986), but one game sent Kansas City into its deep, dark depression.

Christmas Day, 1971. Chiefs vs. Dolphins in an AFC divisional playoff, the first home game for a Kansas City team in a professional postseason.

The Chiefs were down to one, possibly two, home games at Municipal Stadium. Arrowhead Stadium would be open in August 1972, giving the Chiefs their own facility for the first time in franchise history after sharing Municipal with the Athletics and Royals from 1963-71 (except 1968, the interregnum between the Athletics moving to Oakland and the Royals coming into existence as an expansion team) and the Cotton Bowl with the Cowboys as the Dallas Texans from 1960-62.

Kansas City won three AFL championships (1962, ’66, ’69) in the league’s ten seasons, but all four playoff games to win those titles were on the road: Houston in ’62, Buffalo in ’66, then Shea Stadium and Oakland in ’69. Of course, both Super Bowls were away from Kansas City, too, with the Chiefs losing the first to Green Bay in Los Angeles, then beating Minnesota in the fourth at New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium.

Finally, playoff football was coming to Missouri (the Cardinals had yet to reach the playoffs since moving to St. Louis in 1960, and never played a home playoff game in 28 seasons in the Gateway City), and the Chiefs had a fine team which went 10-3-1. Many considered this to be Hank Stram’s strongest team, better than the one which won Super bowl IV.

Quarterback Len Dawson had a superb season at age 36. Receiver Otis Taylor was a consensus All-Pro who scared the bejesus out of cornerbacks and safeties. Ed Podolak was a solid running back who was excellent at catching the ball out of the backfield. The offensive line was punishing. The defense, anchored by Hall of Famers Buck Buchanan, Curley Culp, Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Emmitt Thomas, was suffocating.

I’m sure Lamar Hunt had many a dream in the fall of 1971 about his Chiefs taking down the Cowboys in New Orleans at Super Bowl VI. Many thought the game would come to pass.

In their second season under Don Shula, the Dolphins unseated the Colts as AFC East champion. Bob Griese was the consensus choice as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year, and Miami had a powerful one-two running attack of Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, better known as “Butch and Sundance”, a homage to the western which gave us the iconic song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. The Dolphin defense was one of the league’s best, anchored by middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti and featuring standouts such as Manny Fernandez, Bill Stanfill, Dick Anderson and Jake Scott.

Last weekend, Kansas City experienced bitter cold. But on December 25, 1971, it was 62 degrees when the Chiefs and Dolphins got underway.

With the Chiefs already ahead 3-0, Lanier intercepted Griese on Miami’s second drive, and it led to a touchdown on a screen pass from Dawson to Podolak. However, the Dolphins would come back from the 10-0 deficit with 10 points of their own in the second quarter, and this set up quite a slugfest in the second half.

The teams traded touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters. The Chiefs took the lead twice, but each time the Dolphins countered. Following Griese’s strike to Marv Fleming which tied at 24-24 with 1:36 to go, Podolak returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards to the Miami 22. Three running plays lost three yards, but the Chiefs were in easy field goal range for Jan Stenerud, the man who would become the first pure kicker inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991. However, he missed an earlier attempt from nearly the same distance in the second quarter, and his accuracy was well down from his high standards of the previous four seasons.

Indeed, Stenerud missed the 32-yard attempt. The two misses prompted Hank Stram to decline the opportunity for Stenerud to attempt a 68-yard field goal on a free kick after Dennis Homan fair caught Larry Seiple’s punt on the final play of the fourth quarter.

In overtime, Buoniconti blocked Stenerud’s 42-yard attempt, and Miami’s Garo Yepremian was short on a 52-yard try. The game went into a second overtime, only the second game in professional football history to reach the sixth period.

The Chiefs were also involved in the other double overtime game to that point, winning the 1962 AFL championship as the Dallas Texans over the Houston OIlers. In that game, the Texans’ Abner Haynes erroneously chose to kick off to begin overtime instead of taking the wind as Stram had wanted. The Texans waited out the Oilers long enough to gain the wind in the second overtime, and Tommy Brooker connected on a 25-yard field goal for a 20-17 triumph at Houston’s Jeppesen Stadium, which is now the site of the University of Houston’s TDECU Stadium.

Dawson was intercepted by Scott in the second overtime. Csonka, who had been bottled up by Lanier, Culp, Buchanan and the rest of the Chiefs’ defense, finally busted loose on a trap play. Yepremian nailed a 37-yard field goal, and after 22 minutes, 40 seconds of overtime, the Dolphins were a 27-24 winner.

Miami blanked Baltimore 21-0 at the Orange Bowl for the AFC championship, but were no match for Dallas in Super Bowl VI. The Dolphins were gashed by Duane Thomas and Walt Garrison for 252 yards rushing, and the Cowboys won 24-3. Through the first 51 Super Bowls, the ’71 Dolphins are the only team not to score a touchdown, although other teams (’72 Redskins, ’74 Vikings, 2000 Giants) did not score an offensive touchdown.

The next season, the Dolphins opened in Kansas City at Arrowhead. Miami won 20-10 in a game nowhere near as close as the score–the Chiefs’ only touchdown came with nine seconds left in the game–and the Dolphins did not lose again until September 23, 1973.

Kansas City spent the next 14 seasons in purgatory, failing to reach the playoffs until 1986. Stram was fired after going 5-9 in 1974. He would then coach the Saints in 1976 and ’77, going 7-21, and infamously becoming the first coach to lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in December 1977.

And no, I did not give any consideration to today’s meltdown vs. the Titans.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

The selection: Super Bowl XXXVI. The Rams entered as 14-point favorites following a 14-2 regular season which included a 24-17 win over the Patriots at Foxborough. Yet New England won 20-17 on a 48-yard field goal by Adam Viantieri on the game’s final play.  The Patriots’ quarterback, some guy named Tom Brady, was named the game’s MVP. “The Greatest Show on Turf” was denied its second Super Bowl title in three seasons.

Okay, I will go along with that as the most soul-crushing playoff loss in ST. LOUIS Rams history.

There are plenty of candidates as far as the LOS ANGELES Rams go.

Super Bowl XIV? Not close. The Steelers, aiming for their fourth championship in six years, were heavy favorites to beat the 9-7 Rams. However, Los Angeles scrapped and clawed at Pittsburgh throughout before finally succumbing to two Terry Bradshaw-to-John Stallworth bombs in the final period. The 31-19 tally was no indication of how close the game was. It hurt the Rams, but I’m sure most fans were not grieving for long.

The 1967 NFL Western Conference championship? Yes, the Rams came in at 11-1-2 compared to 9-4-1 for the Packers, and Los Angeles beat Green Bay 27-24 at the L.A. Coliseum two weeks prior to this contest. However, the Packers had proven time and time again they were money in the playoffs under Vince Lombardi, the 1960 NFL championship game loss to the Eagles excepted, and this game was in cold, but not frigid, Milwaukee, not Los Angeles.

Losing 51-7 to the Redskins in the 1983 NFC divisional playoff? Nope. The Redskins were too powerful for a Rams team which had been carried to the playoffs by rookie Eric Dickerson, who rushed for 1,808 yards that season.

The award goes to FOUR games with one common denominator.

Chuck Knox was the Rams’ coach in all of them.

1974 NFC championship at Minnesota–this was the expected matchup for the right to go to Super Bowl IX.

The Vikings and Rams both finished the regular season 10-4. In the regular season, the Rams bested the Vikings 20-17 in Los Angeles, but due to the NFL’s method of predetermined playoff sites–one which would be scrapped in 1975 to give home field advantage to the team with the better record–the Rams were forced to venture to the Twin Cities after beating the Redskins 19-10 in the divisional playoffs. The Vikings, who routed the Cardinals 30-14 in the other NFC divisional playoff, were looking to get back to the Super Bowl after their humiliation by Miami in Super Bowl VIII.

The Rams caught a huge break with the weather. It was 31 degrees in Bloomington on December 29, 1974, which prompted some Viking fans to venture to Metropolitan Stadium in shorts. Vikings coach Bud Grant, who did not allow the use of heaters on his team’s sideline, was less than pleased. He was hoping for about 31 degrees colder.

In a defensive struggle, the Vikings led 7-3 at halftime, but in the third quarter, a 73-yard pass from James Harris to Harold Jackson moved the Rams to the Viking 1.

Los Angeles came away with nothing.

Tom Mack, a Rams All-Pro guard who would eventually be enshrined in Canton, was called for a false start, which apparently came after some pointing and screaming from Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page, a future Hall of Famer himself, and not from anything Mack did. Replays showed Mack did not move.

The drive ended when Harris was intercepted in the end zone by Wally Hilgenberg. The Vikings took over at the 20 and drove 80 yards to the touchdown which put the game on ice. The Rams scored a late TD, but it was not enough. Minnesota won 14-10.

1975 NFC championship game at home vs. Cowboys–the Rams went 12-2 in ’75, aided no doubt by a putrid NFC West which saw no other team win more than five games. However, one of Los Angeles’ two defeats was an 18-7 setback on opening day at Texas Stadium to a Cowboys team which went 10-4 and was the wild card to the NFC playoffs, finishing one game behind the division champion Cardinals.

The Rams blasted the Cards 35-23 in the divisional playoffs, which Jack Youngblood returning an intercepted screen pass 47 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys, meanwhile, shocked the 12-2 Vikings 17-14 in Bloomington on a 50-yard pass from Staubach to Drew Pearson, the pass which would give rise to the term “Hail Mary” in football.

The Rams, led by quarterback Ron Jaworski and running back Lawrence McCutcheon, acted as if they would rather be anywhere but the L.A. Coliseum on the fourth day of 1976. The Cowboys won 37-7.

1976 NFC championship game at Minnesota–the third time is the charm for Knox and the Rams, right?

Nope.

With fourth-and-inches inside the Viking 1 in the first quarter, Knox eschewed going for it and instead sent in Tom Dempsey, he of the deformed right foot and 63-yard field goal in 1970, to convert an 18-yard try. Instead, the Vikings’ Nate Allen blocked the kick, and Bobby Bryant raced 90 yards the other way for a Minnesota touchdown.

The Rams cut a 17-0 halftime deficit to 17-13, but the Vikings put the game away in the fourth quarter on a 12-yard touchdown run by reserve Sammy Lee Johnson. Minnesota was on its way to its fourth Super Bowl loss in eight seasons, a position the Rams would gladly have begged for.

1977 NFC divisional playoff at home vs. Vikings–one year to the day after the 1976 NFC title game loss, the Rams met Minnesota again, this time at the Coliseum.

No bad weather. Sunny and 70, right?

Instead, Mother Nature unleashed her full fury on southern California, unleashing a torrential rainstorm the day after Christmas which turned the grass of the Coliseum into a sea of mud. And certainly a field in Los Angeles did not have the advanced draining of one in Miami, so the Vikings and Rams would be forced to slog through a quagmire to get to Dallas for the NFC championship game.

One advantage Los Angeles held was the Vikings would be without Fran Tarkenton, who was out with injuries which come with being a 37-year old quarterback. Instead, journeyman Bob Lee would start.

The Rams’ starting quarterback was Pat Haden, the ex-USC Trojan and Rhodes Scholar. One of his backups was none other than Joe Namath, the same Broadway Joe I mentioned earlier.

Given the conditions and Tarkenton’s absence, defenses ruled the roost. Through three quarters, the Vikings led 7-0.

The Rams had two chances to score early in the fourth quarter, only to be foiled by an interception and a missed field goal. The Vikings scored on a short field following a punt to make it 14-0, and Los Angeles would not score until the game’s final minute. The Rams recovered an onside kick, but the drive went nowhere and the Rams were done. Again.

Knox’s assistants were begging him to put Namath in the game throughout. They felt Joe Willie still had magic in his arm despite the rest of his body resembling that of a 70-year old with arthritis. Namath never got in the game, and less than three months later, he retired.

Knox was fired soon after this loss and went to Buffalo, where he coached the Bills to two playoff appearances in five seasons. In 1983, Knox went to Seattle, where his nine-year run included three playoff trips, the first in franchise history. He would go back to the Rams in 1992, but suffered through three woeful seasons before getting out of coaching for good.

The good news? The Rams saved themselves the embarrassment of a likely blowout in Dallas the next week. The Cowboys squashed the Vikings 23-6, then battered the Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII.

I lied. I said there were four soul-crushing Rams losses. Turns out there’s a fifth.

1978 NFC championship game at home vs. Dallas–that the Rams went 12-4 after what happened in the offseason was a minor miracle.

The Rams originally hired George Allen, who coached the team from 1966-70, to replace Knox. Allen himself was fired after the 1968 season by the late Dan Reeves, who owned the team from the time it moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946 through his death in 1971, but a player revolt prompted Reeves to bring Allen back. George lasted two more seasons before going to Washington, where his Over the Hill Gang got the Redskins to Super Bowl VII.

By the end of 1977, Allen wore out his welcome in the nation’s capital, and the Rams, desperate to get over the hump and make the Super Bowl, brought Allen back. But after two exhibition games, Carroll Rosenbloom, who acquired the Rams in 1972 after swapping the Colts with Robert Irsay (talk about a disaster), had enough and sent Allen packing.

Into the breach stepped Ray Malavasi, a longtime Rams assistant. Los Angeles won its sixth consecutive NFC West title in ’78 and crushed the Vikings 34-10 at home in the divisional playoffs.

The defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys started slowly, losing four of their first ten games, including one to the Rams at the Coliseum. However, Dallas righted the ship when it counted, winning its final six regular season games, then overcoming the fiery Falcons 27-20 in the divisional playoffs behind backup quarterback Danny White, who came into the game when Staubach was knocked out on an illegal hit by Atlanta’s Robert Pennywell.

Had it been 2017, Staubach would have been in the NFL’s concussion protocol and might not have played vs. the Rams. However, it was 1978, and Tom Landry declared Staubach good to go in L.A.

It turned out the Rams’ offense was so pitiful, and Tony Dorsett was so wonderful (101 yards, 1 TD), that Landry would have gotten away with sitting Staubach.

Los Angeles turned the ball over five times in the second half. Pat Haden broke his hand with eight minutes remaining, forcing Malavasi to go with Vince Ferragamo. Not surprisingly, the final score came when Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson intercepted Ferragamo and returned it 68 yards for a touchdown to put the exclamation point on Dallas’ 28-0 victory.

Rosenbloom drowned off the coast of Florida in April 1979, leaving the team to his widow, Georgia. Oh boy. That would be a disaster for all except Georgia and the city of St. Louis.

NEW YORK GIANTS

The selection: 1997 NFC wild card playoff at home vs. Vikings, where the Giants blew a 19-3 halftime lead and lost 23-22.

Wow. That’s really stupid. Beyond stupid. Does anyone think the ’97 Giants would have beaten both the 49ers and Packers on the road to reach Super Bowl XXXII? Hell no.

If you want a soul-crushing playoff loss under Jim Fassel, all you have to do is look up Super Bowl XXXV, where New York didn’t score an offensive point in being destroyed by the Ravens, and the 2002 NFC wild card game where the Giants blew a 38-14 third quarter lead and lost 39-38 in San Francisco.

But let’s forget Jim Fassel. To find a soul-crushing Giants playoff loss, you have to go back. Way back. Way, way, way back.

December 28, 1958. Giants vs. Colts at Yankee Stadium for the NFL championship. An emerging Baltimore quarterback named Unitas, aided by stud runner Lenny Moore and wonderful wideout Raymond Berry, against a Giants defense led by Andy Robustelli,  Sam Huff and Emlen Tunnell, all future Hall of Famers. New York’s superstar, Frank Gifford, against Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti and a tough Colts D. Weeb Ewbank coaching the Colts, matching wits with Giant assistants Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, both of whom won many, many games as head coaches. h

The Yankees may have ruled New York in the 1950s, winning the World Series six times in the decade, led by baseball’s most transcendent talent of the time, Mickey Mantle. Yet the Giants, led by the telegenic Gifford, had closed the gap to the point where the Yankees were 1 and the Giants were 1A.

In 1958, the Yankees and Giants had to massage the city’s wounded sports psyche. The Dodgers and baseball Giants left at the end of 1957 for California. The Knicks were terrible, and the NBA didn’t register a blip on the sports scene outside of New England to begin with. The Rangers were taking nightly beatings from the Canadiens, Red Wings, Black Hawks and Maple Leafs and battling the Bruins to stay out of the NHL’s cellar. The AFL was still more than a year away. The Islanders? Yeah right, they’ll really put a pro team on Long Island.

This game more than any propelled professional football into America’s sports pantheon. Prior to this contest, the professional game lagged far behind the college version, especially in places outside the northeast. There were no NFL teams south of Washington, thanks to Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who steadfastly refused to allow teams in what he claimed was “his” territory. The only teams west of the Mississippi River were the 49ers and Rams. The Colts were in the WESTERN division despite being east of several teams in the Eastern division, including the Redskins, Steelers, Browns and Cardinals, who were in Chicago in 1958, but would move to St. Louis in 1960.

Texas, despite its rabid high school football fan bases and the presence of the Longhorns, Aggies and Horned Frogs, among others, still didn’t have a pro team. Atlanta could care less about the NFL. Georgia and Georgia Tech were more than enough football. Same in with New Orleans, where most fans were glued to what was happening in Baton Rouge, where LSU went 11-0 and won the national championship in 1958.

The Giants took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter on a 36-yard field goal by Pat Summerall. The Colts dominated the second quarter, scoring on a 2-yard run by Alan Ameche and a 15-yard pass from Unitas to Berry to make it 14-3.

With Baltimore ready to put the game out of reach, New York’s defnese held at its 1, then drove the length of the field the other way for a Mel Triplett touchdown. In the fourth quarter, the Giants regained the lead on Gifford’s 15-yard touchdown reception from Charlie Conerly.

With it fourth and inches on their own 40 later in the game, the Giants opted to punt rather than go for it. Staring from their own 14, the Colts drove to the New York 13, and Steve Myhra kicked a 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left.

In 1958, NFL regular season games which were tied after 60 minutes stayed that way. The first 26 NFL championship games had a clear winner after 60 minutes. What now? Certainly college football did not have overtime in 1958, and many a bowl game had ended deadlocked.

There was a thought the Colts and Giants would have to come back the next Sunday and play it all over again, which was the rule at the time in the “other” football (soccer). Or would the Colts and Giants simply be declared co-champions?

Finally, referee Ron Gibbs ordered Ewbank and Giants coach Jim Lee Howell to send out their captains for another coin toss. It was time for the first sudden death overtime in the history of football at any level. The first team to score would win.

The Giants won the toss, but they went three-and-out. The Colts took over and drove 80 yards on 13 plays. Unitas completed four passes for 59 yards on the march, including receptions of 33 and 12 yards by Berry.

With the Colts on the Giant 8, NBC’s transmission from New York went dead. Television views saw static (except those within 75 miles of New York City, which was blacked out under NFL rules at the time). Someone ran on the field and was chased down by the NYPD, creating enough of a delay for NBC technicians to restore the feed.

Television viewers saw Ameche plunge over from the 1 to give the Colts a 23-17 victory. One month later, Lombardi was named head coach and general manager of the Packers. That turned out pretty well for the New Jersey native and former Block of Granite at Fordham.

The Giants would continue to take punches to the gut in the coming years, losing four more championship games over five seasons.

They lost the next year to the Colts in Baltimore, 31-16. Not long thereafter, Tom Landry was on his way to Dallas to take over the reins of the expansion Cowboys. He did okay, too.

In 1960, the Giants traded for a new quarterback, Y.A. Tittle, who had put up huge numbers in San Francisco. However, New York’s championship hopes died that season when Chuck Bednarik knocked out Frank Gifford on a vicious hit in the Eagles-Giants game at Yankee Stadium. Philadelphia went on to win the NFL championship.

Gifford sat out 1961 due to his injuries, but the Giants bounced back to go 10-3-1 and win the East, only to be destroyed 37-0 by Lomardi’s Packers in Green Bay. The two teams met again in 1962 at Yankee Stadium, with Green Bay winning 16-7 thanks to tough running by Jimmy Taylor and three field goals by Jerry Kramer.

In 1963, the Giants got back to the title game, only to be stymied by the Bears in Wrigley Field 14-10. Nobody knew it at the time, but both teams were in for very, very long dry spells.

The Giants crashed and burned in 1964, going 2-10-2, and they would not return to the playoffs until 1981. The Bears played in two playoff games between 1964 and 1983, losing both, despite having Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus and Walter Payton on the roster at various times.

Thank you for reading my novella. Part three coming tomorrow.

One score and 13 years ago…

The 97th season of the National Football League kicks off tonight when Denver hosts Carolina in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.

I began following the NFL in 1983. That season kicked off a month before my seventh birthday. The Washington REDSKINS were the dominant team at that time, having won Super Bowl XVII following the strike-shortened 1982 season, and setting a then-NFL record by scoring 541 points in 1983 behind Joe Theismann and John Riggins, who set the NFL record with 24 touchdowns, since bettered by Emmit Smith in 1995 and LaDanian Tomlinson in 2006.

The 1983 season also saw the Saints, my hometown team at the time, make their biggest push for the playoffs in franchise history up until that point. New Orleans could have made the postseason if it defeated the Los Angeles Rams in the Louisiana Superdome in the final week of the regular season, but lost 26-24 on a last-second field goal by Mike Lansford. The Rams won that game despite not scoring an offensive touchdown, returning two Kenny Stabler interceptions for TDs, returning a punt for another TD, and adding a safety when Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood sacked Stabler, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month.

New Orleans embarrassed itself on national television, too. In their first Monday Night Football game in three years, the Saints led the Jets 28-14 going into the fourth quarter, only to watch in horror as New York scored 17 unanswered points in the final period. The crusher was a 76-yard punt return TD by Kirk Springs to complete the comeback as the Jets escaped, 31-28.

The Raiders, playing their second season in Los Angeles, won Super Bowl XVIII by routing the Redskins 38-9. The Silver and Black avenged a 37-35 loss at Washington in week five, and that was after the Raiders defeated the Seahawks in the AFC championship game. Strangely enough, Seattle won both regular season games.

The Raiders went 12-4 during the ’83 regular season. The team responsible for the fourth loss? The St. Louis FOOTBALL Cardinals. That’s right. A team which ended the year 8-7-1, having to win four of its final five to nose above .500. A team which played what was called the worst Monday Night Football game EVER, a 20-20 tie against the Giants in late October, a game in which Neil O’Donoghue missed THREE field goals in overtime, including a 19-yard chip shot. YEESH.

The more amazing thing about the Cardinals-Raiders game of 1983–only the second between the clubs all-time–was L.A. led 17-0 early in the second quarter, only to get steamrolled the rest of the way as St. Louis went on to a 34-24 triumph, easily one of the best games the Cardinals played during their 28 seasons (1960-87) in the Gateway City. The loss may have stoked the Raiders’ anger, because their last four games–the regular season finale vs. the Chargers, then three playoff games vs. Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington–were all blowouts.

The Cardinals were in the chase for the NFC East championship in 1984, only to lose the finale at Washington 29-27 when O’Donoghue missed a long field goal. Three years later, St. Louis had a chance to make the playoffs, but again, it lost the final game of the regular season, this time 21-16 at Dallas. Three months later, the Cardinals officially moved to Arizona.

The ’83 Cardinals also beat the Seahawks, but lost 38-14 at Kansas City, which finished last in the AFC West. Had St. Louis been able to win that game, it would have made the playoffs at 9-6-1. Losing by wide margins twice each to the Cowboys and Redskins didn’t help.

This season, Arizona is attempting something the Cardinals franchise has never achieved–four consecutive winning seasons. In fact, the Cardinals have a chance for four consecutive 10-win seasons. WOW. Remember, this is a franchise which has lost over 700 games since the NFL began in 1920.

I can truly consider the 1983 NFL season the beginning of my obsession with sports. By the end of ’83, I was watching all four major sports leagues and college football.

One-Mule State

The Los Angeles Rams made a huge splash Thursday morning when they traded with Tennessee to acquire the Titans’ No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, which begins April 28.

It’s the first time since 1991 that a team from outside the top 10 traded up to the No.1 pick. That year, the Cowboys acquired the top overall pick from the Patriots and selected Miami (Fla.) defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who was a starter on Dallas’ three Super Bowl championship teams in the 1990s.

Nobody knew it at the time, but New England and Dallas would someday share a common coaching link. Bill Parcells, who did not retire as Giants coach until after the ’91 draft, would coach the Patriots from 1993-96, and then the Cowboys from 2003-06.

The Rams and Titans already share a common coaching link. Jeff Fisher coached the Titans (previously Houston/Tennessee Oilers) from the middle of the 1994 season through 2010, and then took over the Rams in 2012. The franchises have another link with the late Jack Pardee, who played linebacker for the Rams from 1957-70, then was Fisher’s predecessor as Oilers coach from 1990 through the middle of ’94.

Of course, the Rams played in St. Louis from 1995 through 2015, making Missouri a two-team NFL state, as it was from 1963, the year the Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City to become the Chiefs, through 1987, the Cardinals’ last year in St. Louis before moving to Arizona.

Now, you can clearly tell Missouri is once again the exclusive domain of the denizens of Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs’ radio network now shades all of Missouri as part of “Chiefs Kingdom”, a term liberally used by play-by-play man Mitch Holthaus. It used to only include the section of Missouri roughly along and west of US 63, which includes Columbia and Jefferson City. Those two locales did not have many Rams fans until Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce began “The Greatest Show on Turf” era until 1999. The Rams were dominant in mid-Missouri from 1999 through 2003, but after that, the pendulum began to swing back to the west, but really, both teams were pretty pathetic for many years between 2004 and 2012.

I went to a Bed, Bath and Beyond yesterday after eating lunch with Bill. I did not see a single Rams item. I saw plenty of Chiefs, Royals, Blues and Mizzou. But no Rams. Not even in the clearance bin. It’s been only three months since NFL owners approved Stan Kroenke’s request to move the Rams back to Los Angeles, and you can’t tell the team played its last game in St. Louis last December 17.

Coincidentally, 2013 was a turning point for the loyalties of both NFL and MLB fans in mid-Missouri.

The Chiefs immediately improved under Andy Reid, starting 2013 9-0. They’ve made the playoffs twice under Reid, winning their first playoff game since 1993 earlier this year. The Rams? Did anyone in Columbia, Jefferson City (and Springfield for that matter) notice the Rams? Sure, they were on TV in those cities when it didn’t conflict with the Chiefs, but did anyone really watch? Those with NFL Sunday Ticket certainly didn’t. And most others could simply watch Red Zone to follow all the games at once.

Meanwhile, by September 2013, people in this part of Missouri realized there was a real MLB team playing on the western edge of the state, not a team playing in MLB masquerading as a minor league squad.

The Royals were pretty much irrelevant in all of Missouri, save for the immediate Kansas City area and the I-29 corridor all the way to the Iowa state line, from the mid-’90s until 2013, when Kansas City enjoyed a late surge and finished with 86 wins.

Now, I would say the loyalties may be 60-40 Cardinals, a major improvement for the boys in blue. Columbia is actually closer to St. Louis than Kansas City by a few miles, but there are an awful lot of Royals fans here.

Now hockey loyalties have NEVER been a problem in Missouri. All Blues, all the time. Yes, I’m aware there were the Kansas City Scouts for two seasons in the mid-’70s, but hardly anybody in Kansas City cared, so I’m certain nobody did 125 miles to the east.

Even Mizzou doesn’t have the entire state’s loyalty. The Kansas Jayhawks have owned the Kansas City metro in recent years, and that ownership has only grown after the Tigers left the Big 12 for the SEC. Right now, Mizzou is toxic in the City of Fountains.

The NBA hasn’t been in Missouri since April 1985, when the Kings left for Sacramento (Suckramento–thank you Jim Rome). The Hawks left St. Louis for Atlanta in 1968, four years before the Cincinnati Royals moved to KC. I guess the Bulls are the choice of most NBA fans here, although there may be pockets of Thunder fans in southwest Missouri and Grizzlies fans in the southeast.

Major League Soccer? Sporting Kansas City plays in Kansas. Never mind.

 

Inglewood, sports paradise

The National Football League is returning to Los Angeles.

Earlier this evening, NFL owners voted 30-2 (I would love to know who the two were) to approve Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s stadium proposal in Inglewood, located in Los Angeles County a few miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The Rams, played in St. Louis from 1995 through 2015, will play in the Los Angeles Coliseum for the next three seasons while the stadium in Inglewood is built.

The Rams  will not be the first professional sports franchise to call Inglewood home.

Inglewood is the home of The Forum, which was the home of the NBA’s Lakers and the NHL’s Kings from 1967 through 1999, when both teams moved to Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The Clippers, who previously played at the Los Angeles Sports Arena from 1984-99, also moved into Staples Center.

The Forum was built by Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Lakers and was awarded an NHL expansion franchise which became the Kings. Cooke was tired of the Lakers having to share the L.A. Sports Arena with USC and other events, and thus built his own facility for his teams.

The Lakers enjoyed their glory days in the Forum. Led by Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, Los Angeles won 33 consecutive games during the 1971-72 season en route to the franchise’s first championship in California. The Lakers won five titles when they were in Minneapolis, led by George Mikan, but had come up short time and again in L.A., losing in the championship series five times between 1962 and 1970.

Cooke traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, and in 1979, drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson out of Michigan State, and Showtime was born. The Lakers won titles in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988, abut more importantly, the Forum was the place to see and be seen. Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon and numerous other stars were regulars at Laker games.

The Kings were an afterthought during their first 20 seasons. They were mostly terrible, more often than not residing at or near the bottom of the NHL standings. Los Angeles often had to struggle to reach the playoffs, and that took some serious doing during the 1980s, when the Kings routinely battled with two other bottom feeders, the Winnipeg Jets (the team which is now the Arizona Coyotes) and the Vancouver Canucks, for to playoff spots.

Hockey became cool all of a sudden on August 9, 1988.

That Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours before the Cubs played their first official night game at Wrigley Field vs. the Mets, Wayne Gretzky was traded by the Edmonton Oilers, who won four Stanley Cups in five seasons with The Great One leading the way, to the Kings.

All of a sudden, the Kings were no longer the poor stepchild of Inglewood. Although the Kings never won the Cup with Gretzky–they lost in the ’93 finals to Montreal–the Kings’ success allowed the NHL to (regrettably, in my opinion) expand further into California and other southern locations.

When the Lakers and Kings left Inglewood, nobody could have dreamed the town would ever host a professional sports franchise again. Yet come 2019, the Rams will call Inglewood home.

The sad thing in all this is the Rams should have never left in the first place. I’ll get into that in this blog very shortly.