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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.

Soul-crushingly bad list, part III

MIAMI DOLPHINS

The selection: 1981 AFC divisional playoff, the “Epic in Miami” vs. the Chargers–yes, I can understand this selection somewhat, since the Dolphins lost 41-38 in overtime. However, Miami rallied from a 24-0 deficit despite having the woefully bad quarterback tandem of David Woodley and Don Strock (“WoodStrock”), scoring on the final play of the first half on a hook-and-ladder. Miami’s opportunity to win in regulation was foiled by Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow, who blocked Uwe von Schamman’s field goal attempt on the final play of the fourth quarter. San Diego won it late in overtime on Rolf Bernsichke’s three-pointer. Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards despite severe dehydration.

The Epic in Miami was heartbreaking, but not as soul-crushing as December 21, 1974.

The Dolphins were the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, looking to win their fourth consecutive AFC championship. Their first playoff opponent was the Raiders, who were steamrolled 27-10 in Miami in the previous year’s AFC championship game.

The general consensus among scribes who knew anything about professional football was the winner of Miami at Oakland would be awarded the Vince Lombardi Trophy the evening of January 12 in New Orleans. The Steelers were formidable thanks to the Steel Curtain and Franco Harris, but the press was still not convinced Terry Bradshaw was starting quarterback material. The NFC’s best, the Rams and Vikings, had their flaws. The Cowboys were not in the playoffs for the only time between 1966 and 1983. The Redskins were too old and offensively ineffective. The Bills had O.J. Simpson and no defense. The Cardinals were in the playoffs for the first time since 1948.

Miami took charge on the opening kickoff when rookie Nat Moore returned it 89 yards for a touchdown, silencing the Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders’ first drive ended on a Kenny Stabler interception, but they got it in gear the next time they had the ball and scored on a pass from the Snake to Charlie Smith. Miami took a 10-7 lead at halftime on a Garo Yepremian field goal.

In the third quarter, Stabler found Fred Biletnikoff in the right corner of the end zone for another TD, and the scoring would go back and forth throughout the second half. Oakland took a 21-19 lead in the fourth on a 75-yard bomb from Stabler to Cliff Branch, only to have that lead erased on Benny Malone’s 23-yard run with 2:08 to go.

The Raiders, who lost a 1972 divisional playoff game on Harris’ Immaculate Reception, looked like they would suffer heartbreak again.

Instead, Stabler showed why he was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1974, completing passes of 18 and 20 yards to Biletnikoff to help Oakland reach the Miami 8 with 35 seconds left.

Stabler rolled left and appeared to be caught from behind by Dolphins defensive end Vern Den Herder, but the Snake got the pass away. It fell into a crowd where Clarence Davis had to battle three Dolphins for the ball, but somehow Davis snatched the pigskin away from linebacker Mike Kolen and fell to the turf in front of back judge Ben Tompkins, who immediately signaled touchdown.

Griese and Miami got the ball back one more time, needing a field goal to win, but an interception preserved Oakland’s 28-26 victory.

Had the NFL adopted rules which gave home field advantage to the teams with the best record and not a predetermined formula in 1974, not 1975, this game would not have happened. Miami would have hosted Pittsburgh and Oakland would have welcomed Buffalo in the divisional round.

As it turned out, the Raiders did not win the Super Bowl. They didn’t make it to New Orleans, falling 24-13 to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game at Oakland. Two weeks later, the Steelers beat the Vikings 16-6 for the first of four championships in six seasons. The Raiders’ title had to wait until 1976.

Miami is still in search of its first championship since 1973. The Dolphins lost Super Bowl XVII to the Redskins and XIX to the 49ers.

Honestly, none of Miami’s Super Bowl losses were surprising.

–In Super Bowl VI, the Cowboys had the experience from losing the previous year’s game to the Colts, while the Dolphins were in their fourth playoff game all-time.

–In Super Bowl XVII, the Dolphins had the league’s top defense, but they were well overmatched by the Redskins’ Hogs and John Riggins. Also, David Woodley and Don Strock had no business playing quarterback in a Super Bowl. Don Shula figured it out and drafted Dan Marino three months later.

–In Super Bowl XIX, Marino was coming off his record-setting regular season, but Joe Montana had a more balanced offense. San Francisco also had a far superior defense.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

The selection: 1998 NFC championship game at home vs. Atlanta. The Vikings went 15-1 in the ’98 regular season, scoring a then-NFL record 556 points. Minnesota, led by MVP quarterback Randall Cunningham and dynamic receivers Cris Carter and rookie Randy Moss, simply shelled opposing defenses all season, save for a 27-24 loss at Tampa Bay in week nine.

Atlanta came into the game 14-2, but were in the NFC championship game for the first time. Minnesota led 27-20 in the final five minutes, only to see Gary Anderson miss a 39-yard field goal, his first miss of a field goal or extra point all season. The Falcons drove to the tying touchdown, and Morten Andersen kicked Atlanta to Super Bowl XXXIII in overtime.

Another case of very short-term memory by the author of this list.

All of the Vikings’ Super Bowl losses occurred prior to the 1977 season, so few people under 50 can remember any of them. Of those four losses, three cannot be considered soul-crushing.

The Vikings were underdogs in Super Bowl VIII vs. Miami. The Dolphins of 1973 were, to many, better than the undefeated 1972 team, because that year’s Miami squad played a tougher schedule and was more dominant in the playoffs, including the 24-7 pasting of the Vikings at Rice Stadium. Minnesota, on the other hand, played in a putrid division (nobody else in the NFC Central finished above .500) and were defeated by two of the best three teams on its regular season schedule, the Falcons and Bengals. The better tam won.

In Super Bowl IX vs. Pittsburgh, the Vikings had the experience edge, but the Steelers were the more talented team, except at quarterback, where Fran Tarkenton was far ahead of Terry Bradshaw at that time. Both teams had Hall of Fame defensive tackles (Joe Greene for Pittsburgh, Alan Page for Minnesota), but the Steelers had the better linebackers, led by Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Minnesota’s offense gained a mere 17 yards rushing and 119 total, and the Vikings’ only score came on a blocked punt. Better team won.

Oakland came into Super Bowl XI with very few players remaining from the Super Bowl II squad which lost to Vince Lombardi’s Packers but John Madden had much better offensive weapons, led by Stabler, Branch and Biletnikoff, plus tight end Dave Casper. By this time, many thought the Vikings were doomed to fail a fourth time, and sure enough, they were. Raiders win 32-14, and it wasn’t even that close, given Minnesota scored its second touchdown in the game’s final minute against Oakland’s scrubs. The Raiders proved they were the far superior team.

Super Bowl IV hurt for Minnesota. The Vikings came into Tulane Stadium as 14-point favorites over the Chiefs, the losers of Super Bowl I, and many felt the Jets’ victory over the Colts the previous year was a fluke, that the AFL was still the inferior league.

The lens of time, however, reveals this was not as big an “upset” as it was made out to be in 1970. The Chiefs had so many Hall of Famers on their defense–Bobby Bell, Curley Culp, Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier (who wasn’t on the team in Super Bowl I) and Emmitt Thomas–and played enough “exotic” schemes (at least for 1969) that Minnesota was befuddled when Kansas City lined up. All Stram had to do was line up Culp or Buchanan over Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff (a future Hall of Famer) and Minnesota’s blocking schemes were blown up.

Offensively, Len Dawson was a much better quarterback than Joe Kapp. Stram devised plans to double team ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and throw outside to Otis Taylor, Frank Pitts and shifty halfback Mike Garrett, plus run traps and misdirection plays to fool Page, which happened often in the Chiefs’ 23-7 win.

Having studied the 1969 season statistics, Kansas City should have been favored, in my humble opinion.

However, the most soul-crushing playoff loss in Viking history occurred in Bloomington in the 1975 NFC divisional playoff vs. Dallas.

The Vikings came in 12-2, even though their schedule was pretty bad. Fran Tarkenton had the best year of his career and was the consensus choice as league MVP. Chuck Foreman scored 22 touchdowns, only one off the record set that season by O.J. The Purple People Eaters were at their suffocating best.

Dallas was the wild card team out of the NFC at 10-4, one game behind the Cardinals. The Cowboys missed the playoffs in 1974 by going 8-6, and many thought 1975 would be a “rebuilding” year. Bob Lilly, possibly the greatest defensive tackle who ever played the game, retired after ’74, while defensive teammates Lee Roy Jordan, Jethro Pugh, Larry Cole and Mel Renfro were aging. The offensive line was now without All-Pro guard John Niland and center Dave Manders. The running game was in flux, as Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison were gone, and Tony Dorsett was still two years away.

However, the Cowboys had Roger “The Dodger” Staubach, and that was enough to give Tom Landry’s team a fighting chance in any game.

Indeed, Staubach was never better than the afternoon of December 28, 1975 in Metropolitan Stadium.

With just over three minutes to play, Minnesota led 14-10 and had the ball. It looked like the Cowboys would once again come up short in their quest for their third NFC championship.

However, the Cowboys stopped the Vikings and got the ball back at their own 15 with just under two minutes left. Dallas survived a 4th-and-16 from its own 25 with a 25-yard pass from Staubach to Drew Pearson, a play where Minnesota believed Pearson was out of bounds when he caught the pass, but the officials ruled he was forced out by the Vikings’ Nate Wright.

One play later, Pearson and Wright jostled again as Staubach launched a high arching pass deep down the right sideline. The ball came down at the 4, where Pearson outfought Wright, made the catch and backed into the end zone.

The Vikings believed there was offensive pass interference. Page argued so much he was ejected. Tarkenton, whose father died watching the game back at his home in Georgia, came onto the field to berate an official, leading to Vikings fans throwing numerous objects onto the field. A whiskey bottle hit back judge Armen Terzian in the head, rendering him unconscious. (Terzian would become more infamous in 1978 when Chiefs coach Marv Levy called Terzian an “over-officious jerk” during a game in Buffalo.)

Dallas defeated Minnesota 17-14, then routed Los Angeles 37-7 in the NFC championship game, but fell 21-17 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X.

The Vikings are now two wins away from playing in Super Bowl LII in their own stadium. This list may need to be updated. But for now, Staubach’s Hail Mary trumps all else.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The selection: 2010 NFC wild card game at Seattle, where the defending Super Bowl champion Saints lost 41-36 to the Seahawks, who won the ridiculously weak NFC West with a 7-9 record. The game became famous (or infamous in Louisiana) for the “Beast Quake”, when Marshawn Lynch rumbled 67 yards for the game-clinching touchdown and prompted the crowd at CenturyLink Field to cheer so loud it registered on a seismograph at the University of Washington’s geology department.

Had to think about my hometown team long and hard with this one. Yes, losing to a 7-9 team in the playoffs was more annoying than soul-crushing. Saints fans, and many other football fans across the country, decried the fact a 12-4 team had to go on the road in the playoffs against a team with a losing record.

However, my choice for the Saints’ most soul-crushing playoff loss goes back to my youth. In fact, the 30-year anniversary of this game was just last Wednesday.

It was New Orleans’ very first NFL playoff game, the 1987 NFC wild card game at home vs. Minnesota.

From 1967 through 1986, the Saints posted exactly zero winning seasons. They went 8-8 in both 1979 and ’83 and were in position to make the playoffs going into December, but each time, New Orleans stumbled.

In 1979, the Saints were 7-6 and held a 35-14 lead in the third quarter against Oakland on Monday Night Football. Instead of clinching their first non-losing season in franchise history, the Saints imploded, giving up 28 unanswered points to the Raiders, who won 42-35. The next week, Dan Fouts came to the Superdome and carved up the Saints like a turkey in a 35-0 laugher, knocking New Orleans out of the playoffs. The Saints won their season finale in Los Angeles against the Rams in the Rams’ last home game at the Los Angeles Coliseum for almost 37 years.  The next season, New Orleans lost their first 14 games and finished 1-15, but more importantly, introduced the world to the practice of wearing paper bags at games to hide their shame of supporting terrible teams.

Four years later, the Saints only needed to beat the Rams in the regular season finale to go to the playoffs. The Saints did not allow an offensive touchdown, but the Rams scored a safety, two touchdowns on interception and another TD on a punt return. Los Angeles’ only offensive points were Mike Lansford’s 42-yard field goal with two seconds left to give the Rams a 26-24 victory and leave New Orleans in the cold again.

In 1985, Tom Benson bought the Saints from original owner John Mecom, who made overtures to Jacksonville about moving the franchise there. It took intervention from Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards to force Mecom to sell to an owner who would keep the team in Louisiana.

Saints coach Bum Phillips, hired by Mecom in 1981, resigned with four games to go in 1985. Soon thereafter, Benson hired Jim Finks, the architect of championship teams in Minnesota and Chicago, as general manager. Finks then hired Jim Mora, who coached the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars to two United States Football League championships and one runner-up finish, as Phillips’ successor.

The Saints went 7-9 in Mora’s first season of 1986. The next season, New Orleans split their first two games, winning at home vs. Cleveland and losing at Philadelphia before NFL players went on strike. One game was cancelled, and three more were played with replacement players. The Saints went 2-1 in the replacement games before the regulars came back for the sixth game vs. San Francisco.

Morten Andersen, the future Hall of Fame kicker, made five field goals for the Saints, but his game-winning attempt was no good, allowing San Francisco to get out of the Big Easy with a 24-22 win.

After the game, Mora went nuclear. Two of the most famous lines ever uttered by an NFL coach were spewed in the Saints’ locker room:

  • We’ve got a long way to go. We’re close, and close don’t mean shit (censored). And you can put that on TV for me.
  • Could of, would of, should of…the good teams don’t say coulda, woulda, shoulda. They get it done, okay? I’m tired of saying coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Those statements lit a fire under the Saints, who won their next nine games, clinching the franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth. New Orleans’ 12-3 record was the second best in the NFL, trailing only San Francisco’s 13-2.

Minnesota, meanwhile, scraped into the playoffs at 8-7. The Vikings were all but eliminated from the postseason when they lost their regular season finale at home to the Redskins, but the next day, they were revived by the Cowboys, who beat the Cardinals in what would be the Cards’ final game representing St. Louis.

Saints fans had already booked reservations in Chicago, where the Saints would face the Bears in the divisional round if they beat the Vikings.

New Orleans started very well, recovering a fumble deep in Minnesota territory on the Vikings’ first possession and converting it into a touchdown pass from Bobby Hebert to Eric Martin.

After forcing the Vikings to punt on their second drive, the tide turned sharply against the Black and Gold.

The Saints fumbled the punt, and Minnesota converted it into a field goal. When the Saints punted after their next possession, Anthony Carter, the Vikings’ All-Pro receiver, returned it 84 yards for a touchdown, and Minnesota was ahead to stay.

Any faint hope the Saints had of a comeback died on the final play of the first half when Wade Wilson completed a 44-yard Hail Mary to Hassan Jones, making it 31-10.

Final: Vikings 44, Saints 10.

New Orleans would not win its first playoff game until 2000, when it beat the defending champion Rams. And of course, 2009 was nirvana for the Saints and their long-suffering fans, thanks to Breesus and victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints and Vikings meet again next Sunday. Minnesota won in the regular season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium, the site of the rematch, as well as Super Bowl LII.

Okay enough for tonight. More later in the week.

 

Armageddon at Arrowhead

Four hours until kickoff at Arrowhead Stadium. Four hours until the most important Chiefs vs. Raiders game in 22 years gets started. At stake is first place in the AFC West, and in all likliehood, a first-round bye in the playoffs. 

The parking lots at Arrowhead (and Kauffman Stadium) opened early today. Those fortunate enough not to be working today can get plenty of eating and drinking (bad idea; alcohol is not recommended in cold weather, since it lowers the body’s ability to fight the chill) before kickoff. 

I know all about that from attending numerous games at LSU, where many fans start tailgating on Friday before a Saturday game. Many fans want night games at LSU in order to have more time to tailgate. The worst thing to some is an afternoon kickoff, since it curtails the time to be eating and drinking. 

Kansas City is going to melt down if the Chiefs lose. There are two all-sports radio stations in the area (KCSP 610 AM and WHB 810 AM), and not one local personality believes the Chiefs will lose tonight. They say the Raiders’ defense is soft, they think Derek Carr will buckle under pressure from the Kansas City defense, they think it wil be too cold for the Raiders, whatever. If you believe some of the talking heads, the Chiefs might as well book their reservations for Houston and Super Bowl LI. For a franchise which hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1969, and has played in only one AFC championship game (1993) since winning Super Bowl IV, that’s heady stuff. 

Many sports fans in the area are upset already. Wade Davis, the Royals’ closer on the 2015 World Series winning team, was traded to the Cubs yesterday. Simply put, Royals owner David Glass didn’t want to shell out the $$$$$ to keep Davis in blue and gold. Instead, Davis heads to Wrigley, where he joins Joe Maddon’s juggernaut. Kelvim Herrera becomes the closer after being a setup man the last few seasons. 

The Royals weren’t the only team to trade their closer this week. The Brewers dealt Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox. Milwaukee isn’t expected to contend until 2018 or 2019, but general manager David Stearns is taking a chance on some prospects developing. Closer has been a royal pain in the butt for the Brewers since the heyday of Dan Plesac in the late 1980s. Before that, it was also a pain, because Rollie Fingers was injured and could not pitch in the 1982 World Series. It may not have made a difference, but Milwaukee would have had a better chance against the Cardinals. More recently, Francisco “K Rod” Rodriguez blew up as the Brewers stumbled down the stretch in September 2014 after leading the NL Central for most of the season. 

Speaking of the Brewers, Bud Selig is going into the Hall of Fame. His reign as commissioner of baseball was an abomination. Ignoring steroids, foisting interleague play upon us, and worst of all, giving the winning league in the All-Star Game home field advantage in the World Series. On the good side, he brought baseball back to Milwaukee after the Braves pulled up stakes and moved to Atlanta, and built a solid core around Robin Young, Paul Molitor, Jim Gantner, Cecil Cooper and Ben Oglivie, all of whom started on Harvey’s Wallbangers, the Brewers’ 1982 American League championship team. Also, Selig got Milwaukee into the National League. 

I’ve been at Buffalo Wild Wings since 1 p.m. Going to stay for part of the Chiefs game, but how long is up in the air. 

Let it snow (a little)

I’m back at Buffalo Wild Wings this cold Wednesday afternoon. The snow which came this morning was only enough to cover the car, and even then, only my rear windshield and driver’s side doors were covered. I knew snow was possible before I left Russell, so I had my snow brush ready. It took only three minutes to get windows cleared and for me to be on the road. Had to make a stop at Hy-Vee on Barry Road before coming in. 

It’s below freezing, and will stay that way until at least Friday afternoon, more likely Saturday. Not that I’m going very far, just up and down I-29 between Zona Rosa and the hotel, although I may venture north to Platte City at some point to go the Price Chopper there. I kept forgetting about that one the last time I stayed near KCI; I kept going to the one in Liberty, which is a very nice store, don’t get me wrong. However, I probably should save the gas and just venture up I-29. 

I just played “Do They Know It’s Christmas” on the jukebox. I don’t know why, but I’m feeling more festive in 2016 than I did in previous years. Being here at Buffalo Wild Wings helps a lot, as did seeing Robb and Dawn yesterday, plus all the people I know who work here. I’ve also got “Last Christmas” by Wham queued. 

Tori is always glad to see me, not only because I tip her well, but because I play music she likes. I have received many compliments on my musical selection. Robb and Dawn are not happy with the number of times Rihanna’s “Work” is played. It is nauseating after hearing it once, much less the 28 times per day it is played here. 

Someone wrote “F**K THE RAIDERS” in the snow on a table on the patio at Buffalo Wild Wings. Frankly, this is the most important Raiders-Chiefs game since the 1994 regular season finale, where Kansas City won a winner-take-all showdown in what turned out to be the Raiders’ final game in Los Angeles. The most important Raiders-Chiefs game in Kansas City was the 1991 AFC wild card game, won by the Chiefs 10-6 on a cold day at Arrowhead where it was sleeting. 

Of course, no Chiefs-Raiders game has ever been more important than the one played January 4, 1970. That day, Hank Stram’s Chiefs went to Oakland and beat the Raiders 17-7 to win the last American Football League championship and advance to Super Bowl IV. Of course, the Chiefs went to New Orleans and beat the heavily favored Vikings 23-7. 

Today is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Flags are appropriately flying at half-mast. 

First two questions of this Buzztime trivia game kicked my butt. Better luck with the third question, then back into the crapper with the fourth. Oh well. I had a perfect score yesterday. It’s not so bad. 

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.

Immaculate for 42 years

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.

NFL almost back

The start of the 2014 NFL season is less than 24 hours away. By this time tomorrow night, the KIckoff Game between the Packers and Seahawks should be finished or very close to it.

I have not been to an NFL game since November 14, 2004. It was the Chiefs and the Saints in the Superdome. Kansas City rolled up 497 yards, including 186 rushing on 33 carries by backup running back Derrick Blaylock, but the Chiefs’ defense kept letting the Saints march down the field, and with 5;28 to go, ex-Chief Joe Horn caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Broks which put New Orleans up 27-20. The Chiefs drove deep into Saints territory in an attempt to tie the game, but they turned it over. Once that happened, my dad and I left and beat the traffic out of the Superdome parking garage.

Eight days after the game, I was in a hospital in Chalmette, fighting for my life due to pneumonia and a collapsed lung. That’s another story for another day.

My dad’s company, Air Products and Chemicals, had a great set of four tickets on the 50-yard line on the east visitor’s) side of the Superdome in the Club Level. The tickets at that time cost $130 to $!50 per game; today, they’re $400 an outing. Not only were the seats awesome, but they came with full access to a club lounge where there was an expanded food collection, and those who wished to imbibe could purchase just about any cocktail imaginable. The concession selections were also much more extensive than the other levels.

My dad and I had the four tickets for the Saints-Lions game scheduled for Christmas Eve 2005, but of course, Hurricane Katrina happened, and

We did go to a Saints-Lions game on September 3, 2000, the last time the NFL opened its regular season on Labor Day weekend. The game itself was not memorable, as the Lions won a 14-10 snoozer. The lone highlight was a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter by Detroit’s Desmond Howard. Howard was used to big games in the Superdome; he earned Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors in Super Bowl XXXI with the Packers, when Green Bay beat New England 35-21 in the BIg Easy.

It was my second consecutive day of watching football in the Superdome; the day before, I watched two high school games between four of Louisiana’s top programs. West Monroe easily beat John Curtis 25-7 in the first, but in the second, Archbishop Shaw defeated Evangel Christian of Shreveport 22-19, ending Evangel’s 60-game, four-year winning streak. Evangel’s players, coaches and fans were so stunned they didn’t know how to react to a loss. The Shaw player who blocked Evangel’s game winning field goal attempt as time expired, Cameron Vaughn, was a starting linebacker for LSU when it won the 2003 BCS national championship vs. Oklahoma in the same building.

I was bad luck to the Saints in 2000. I went to games later that season vs. the Raiders and Broncos some of my friends from Baton Rouge, and New Orleans lost both. In the Denver game, Mike Anderson rushed for a Broncos record 251 yards in a 38-23 victory.

My dad and brother got to go to the playoff game vs. the Rams, which the Saints won 31-28.