Todd Bowles could not keep the streak going after all.
The three previous head coaches of the New York Jets — Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan — had led them to the playoffs in his first season. On Sunday, all Bowles had to do to repeat that feat was defeat the Buffalo Bills in the final game of the regular season at windy, snowy Buffalo. But he could not do it, as Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three fourth-quarter interceptions — including one in the end zone with the Jets in position to take the lead with a field goal. Final score: Ryan’s Bills 22, Bowles’ Jets 17.
And with the Steelers beating the last-place Browns in Cleveland, Pittsburgh claimed the final wild-card spot in the AFC instead of the Jets. Both teams finished 10-6, but the Steelers owned the tiebreaker.
So it was that Bowles repeated the disappointing endings authored by two other first-year coaches in recent Jets history. Like Bowles on Sunday, Bill Parcells in 1997 and Al Groh in 2000 missed out on the playoffs by losing in heartbreaking fashion on the road in the season’s final game.
The 1997 Jets could have earned a wild-card spot by defeating Detroit in the Pontiac Silverdome. But an ill-advised halfback-option pass was intercepted in the end zone to kill one of the few promising drives the Jets could muster, and Barry Sanders broke loose for 184 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Sanders (2,053) became just the third player in NFL history to run for 2,000 yards in a season. Final score: Lions 13, Jets 10. And the Miami Dolphins, who like the Jets finished 9-7, sneaked into the playoffs.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens are remembered as one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history, but in the season finale on Christmas Eve, Vinny Testaverde led the Jets up and down the field against them. With a playoff berth at stake, New York led 14-0 after one quarter. The Jets dominated statistically — 22-5 in first downs, 473-78 in passing yardage, 91-55 in offensive plays — but three return touchdowns resulted in a defeat that defied explanation. Jermaine Lewis ran back not one but two punts for scores in the second half, but the return that turned the game around came with just seven seconds left in the first. The Jets were driving, seemingly assured of going into halftime with the lead, when Chris McAlister intercepted a pass and returned it 98 yards to put the Ravens ahead by six. They never trailed again. Final score: Ravens 34, Jets 20.
It was Groh’s last game as an NFL head coach. Later that week, he stunned the Jets by resigning from his post after just one season to take over the football program at the University of Virginia.
It’s the play football teams try when there’s time on the clock only for one last, desperate heave. Two or more receivers line up on the same side of the formation, all of them run for the goal line, and the quarterback hopes his pass reaches the end zone. A receiver can produce the winning touchdown either one of two ways — by leaping above the crowd to grab the jump ball, or by tipping the pass like a volleyball so that a teammate can catch it.
That’s what Green Bay star Aaron Rodgers was hoping for Thursday night in Detroit. The Lions appeared to have the game won, only to have it extended by a facemask penalty as the Ford Field clock struck 0:00. Since a game cannot end on a foul by the defense, quarterback Rodgers, given a reprieve, launched a high rainbow that traveled 70 yards in the air. With players from both teams gathering behind him in the end zone, tight end Richard Rodgers positioned himself in front of the crowd and jumped high to complete a 61-yard scoring play. In the most stunning finish of the NFL season, the Packers turned a 20-0 third-quarter deficit into a 27-23 triumph.
The play was described on Twitter and other media as a “Hail Mary” pass, but “Big Ben” would be more historically accurate.
On November 12, 1978, the Atlanta Falcons put the play on the football map when they became the first NFL team to win a game with it. Before 1978, the tactic hadn’t been tried because the rules didn’t allow it. In fact, that was the main reason for the controversy surrounding the famous “Immaculate Reception” play of 1972. The only way that pass could be legal would be if it ricocheted off Oakland defender Jack Tatum, not Pittsburgh running back John Fuqua, before Franco Harris caught it off his shoe tops to complete perhaps the most unlikely scoring play in football history. Under a gray December sky and with no stripes on the ball to contrast with Fuqua’s black jersey, video technology of the time could not definitively show whether the ball deflected from Fuqua directly to teammate Harris. Such a deflection — from one offensive player to another without a defensive player touching the ball in between — would have been illegal then.
Among several rules changes introduced for the 1978 NFL season — the first with a 16-game schedule — was the freedom for one eligible receiver to tip the ball directly to another. So Falcons coach Leeman Bennett took advantage of the opportunity to dream up a play called “Big Ben,” named after the clock tower in London (Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t even born yet). At New Orleans in Week 11, the Falcons tried “Big Ben” at the end of each half — and it worked both times. But when they ran it to the left just before halftime, the officials ruled that the tipped pass had struck the turf before wide receiver Alfred Jackson caught it for an apparent touchdown. Replays showed that the call was incorrect, but the NFL had not yet embraced replay as an officiating tool. So the call on the field stood and was looming large when, trailing the Saints by four in the last half-minute, Atlanta dialed up “Big Ben” again, this time to the right.
From his own 43-yard line, quarterback Steve Bartkowski heaved the ball down the right sideline. A group of six players were waiting around the Saints’ 10 when the throw finally descended from the Superdome ceiling.
“My job is to tip the ball up and keep it alive,” Falcons receiver Wallace Francis said. Francis, who became an ordained minister after his playing career, did just that. Thanks to his volleyball move, the Falcons still had a prayer.
“I follow right behind the crowd to get it when somebody tips it,” Jackson said. The play went down as a 57-yard pass from Bartkowski to Jackson that gave the Falcons a 20-17 victory.
After the game, Bennett said, “We practiced that play all week.” The assembled reporters laughed, not realizing the coach was serious. Before long, everybody knew.
Somehow, though, “Big Ben” never caught on as the term describing this tactic of last resort. The idea of prayer replaced the idea of beating the clock, and “Hail Mary” pushed “Big Ben” out of the football lexicon.
But anyone who has seen footage of Roger Staubach’s “Hail Mary Pass” to Drew Pearson (and at this point, who hasn’t?) knows that it was a much different type of play. Restricted by the same rules that clouded the “Immaculate Reception” in controversy, Pearson made his memorable 50-yard touchdown catch in the 1975 playoffs while going one-on-one with Minnesota Vikings cornerback Nate Wright. The two were running side by side. There was no crowd waiting for the ball to come down, and in no way did the play resemble volleyball.
Perhaps it was because Staubach was one of the game’s most popular players and his Dallas Cowboys one of its most popular teams. Perhaps it was because Staubach, good Catholic that he is, told reporters after the game that he just threw the ball to Drew and said a Hail Mary. Or perhaps it was because there is simply too much religiosity in football.
Whatever the reason, “Hail Mary” pass has become a generic term, rather than a reference to a specific play in NFL history. And the contributions of the 1978 Atlanta Falcons — who used “Big Ben” as a springboard to their first playoff berth in franchise history, and dealt Saints quarterback Archie Manning (below) a crushing defeat — are largely forgotten.
In a sport where each team has 22 starters — and that doesn’t even count special teams — it’s easy for an outstanding career to be overlooked. Add to the mix the great coaches and the executives who helped build the NFL, and many candidates worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame might never see their day in the sun.
On Wednesday, the Hall of Fame Seniors Committee announced that Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken (The Snake) Stabler and 1950s All-Pro guard Dick Stanfel will be nominees for induction in 2016. Both of them are recently deceased. If they are enshrined, following the induction of Junior Seau earlier this month, they would become the fifth and sixth players in an eight-year span to become Pro Football Hall of Famers posthumously.
I have my own list of former players I consider deserving of the Hall of Fame. All of my picks here would be Seniors Committee nominees, which means time is running out for them. In order to allow more Contributors Committee candidates to be enshrined, three fewer Seniors Committee choices will be made from 2015 to 2019. This year’s only Seniors choice — Minnesota Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff — is 75 years old and did not make an acceptance speech at the ceremony, reportedly because of health problems that include loss of memory.
Two Seniors per year will be selected in 2016 and 2018, but only one each in 2017 and 2019. Wednesday’s announcement means that my choices for next year won’t make it, at least not in 2016. But whether the following men are ever enshrined or not, those who appreciate the sport’s history will always remember their contributions to the game:
2016: Jerry Kramer and Bob Kuechenberg — Sometimes I think the voters have the right team and the right position group, but the wrong guy. Such is the case with these two, both of whom were outstanding offensive linemen on championship teams.
How is it that neither of the pulling guards leading the Green Bay Packers’ legendary power sweep of the 1960s is in the Hall of Fame? The answer might be that in 1981, the selection committee chose longtime Green Bay center Jim Ringo instead of Kramer or Fuzzy Thurston. But Ringo played on just two of Vince Lombardi’s five NFL championship teams, and Lombardi considered him expendable in 1964, trading Ringo to Philadelphia.
Kramer did more than just draw attention to his previously anonymous position by writing his breakthrough football memoir Instant Replay. A week before his famous block opened the hole for the winning touchdown in the “Ice Bowl” against Dallas, Kramer rendered Rams great Merlin Olsen a non-factor in the Packers’ 28-7 stunner over once-beaten Los Angeles in the divisional playoffs. Two years later, in 1969, the Hall of Fame compiled a list of the greatest players by position to that point in NFL history. Kramer was chosen as the best offensive guard of the NFL’s first 50 seasons — but he remains the only player of the 16 selected for that all-time team not to have his bust displayed in Canton, Ohio.
Kuechenberg, playing with a heavily wrapped injured arm, got the better of Vikings great Alan Page as Larry Csonka rushed for 145 yards in the Dolphins’ 24-7 victory in Super Bowl VIII. Kuechenberg lined up side by side with two centers — Jim Langer (110 starts in 12 seasons) and Dwight Stephenson (87 starts in eight seasons) — who are in the Hall of Fame despite careers that weren’t nearly as long as Kuechenberg’s (176 starts in 14 seasons). He might have been a better choice than Langer, who was unable to crack Miami’s starting lineup in 1970 and ’71, while Kuechenberg started in Miami’s first-ever playoff game and first-ever Super Bowl those two years.
Kuechenberg was a Hall of Fame finalist eight consecutive years from 2002-09. The Hall already has Langer and Larry Little from Miami’s offensive line of the mid-1970s, and Ringo and Forrest Gregg from Green Bay’s of the early-’60s. But a third would not be unprecedented: Hall of Famers Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto once lined up side by side on Oakland’s offensive line.
In 1982, football historian and longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman “polled 25 NFL all-timers and asked them to name their candidates for ‘best ever’ offensive linemen, and these are the ones that kept coming up. … ” Kramer and Kuechenberg were both on the list that followed.
2017: Joe Klecko — As a lifelong New Yorker, I had an opportunity to see almost every game of Klecko’s career. It was a privilege, and by the time Klecko’s career with the Jets was winding down, I had come to the conclusion that he was a great one. First he made the Pro Bowl at defensive end. Then he made the Pro Bowl at defensive tackle. Then he made the Pro Bowl at nose tackle. On the legendary front four that was the “New York Sack Exchange,” Mark Gastineau may have had the style, but Klecko brought the substance.
His 20.5 sacks in 1981 came a year too early to count as an official statistic. Gastineau had 20 that season, as the two ends combined to terrorize quarterbacks and Klecko was named Defensive Player of the Year. But Klecko could also stop the run. He played through injuries. He played with effort and energy. And when he moved to the inside, he received from opponents the ultimate sign of respect — a steady diet of double-team blocking. Quite often, Klecko beat those double teams.
His final season was 1988, making him barely old enough to qualify for the Seniors Committee (a player’s career must have ended a minimum of 25 years prior). Besides my vote for him here, Jets fans have taken up a petition to support Klecko’s cause. However, Klecko likely will have to wait a while to see his bronze bust.
2018: Chuck Howley and Drew Pearson — Bobby Bell, Dave Wilcox and Dave Robinson all played outside linebacker in the same era as Howley. All three are in the Hall of Fame — but not Howley, who was just as good if not better. A five-time first-team All-Pro, Howley could stop the run, blanket running backs in pass coverage, or wreak havoc as a blitzer.
The speedy, playmaking Howley could be counted on for the big takeaway, as evidenced by his three interceptions in two Super Bowl appearances. Though Mike Curtis may have been more deserving of the MVP award he received, Howley was a big reason why the original “Doomsday Defense” led Dallas to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1970 and ’71. In six playoff games over those two seasons, the Cowboys allowed just four touchdowns, and Jim O’Brien’s field goal in the final minute of Super Bowl V marked the only time Dallas trailed in any of those games. Yet while the Kansas City Chiefs boast five Hall of Fame defenders from the 1969 championship team that didn’t even win its division, Dallas’ dominant group from 1970-71 has just three players in the Hall of Fame, one of whom (Herb Adderley) spent most of his career with Green Bay. “Doomsday” is underrepresented in Canton, and the addition of Howley — who gets my vote over teammates Charlie Waters, Lee Roy Jordan and Cliff Harris — would help rectify that.
Those who claim that voters historically have been biased against the Cowboys also can point to the fact that of the 22 first-team offensive and defensive players on the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s Team, the only ones not enshrined in Canton are Harris, a hard-hitting safety, and Pearson.
Clint Longley and Roger Staubach didn’t agree on much, but one thing the rival Dallas quarterbacks did agree on was this: When the game is on the line, throw the ball to Drew Pearson. Longley did on Thanksgiving Day in 1974, Staubach did in the divisional playoffs in 1975, and each came away with the most memorable touchdown pass of his career. Besides those two winning bombs, Pearson is also remembered for the two scoring catches he made in the final minutes to deny the Atlanta Falcons in the 1980 divisional round and give the Cowboys yet another comeback victory. Danny White was Dallas’ quarterback in that game.
To Pearson, it didn’t matter who played quarterback. The first of the three star receivers to wear No. 88 for the Cowboys was “Mr. Clutch,” even though he was rail-thin at about 185 pounds. Pearson was a three-time first-team All-Pro, and a two-time 1,000-yard receiver in an era when few players achieved that milestone. He played in three Super Bowls, led the league in receptions in 1977, and finished his 11-year Dallas career with an even 16-yard average per catch.
Is Pearson overdue for induction? I’d say. In his book Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, author Peter Golenbock refers to Pearson as “a certain future Football Hall of Famer.” That book was published 18 years ago.
2019: Jim Tyrer — The 6-foot-6, 280-pound Tyrer was voted the best left tackle in the history of the American Football League. A starter from his rookie year on, he played 180 consecutive games for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs franchise, a streak that began in 1961 and lasted till 1973. A key player on three AFL championship teams, he was a big reason why the Chiefs’ offensive line was able to control Minnesota’s great “Purple Gang” defense in Super Bowl IV.
“He was THE preeminent left tackle in all of football,” said Elvin Bethea, a Hall of Fame defensive end for the Houston Oilers. “All other blockers I faced in the NFL were mediocre compared to him. He would just swamp me each game to where I would be lucky to beat him even once in a game.”
Of all the players not in the Hall of Fame, Tyrer, who was named to nine straight all-star games, might be the best. One reason cited for his exclusion is a general lack of respect for players who spent most of their careers in the AFL. But the biggest reason why Tyrer’s career is not remembered might be that his death cannot be forgotten.
In 1980 — when there was much less awareness of the dangerous long-term effects of repeated blows to the head — Tyrer shot his wife Martha, then himself. The murder-suicide left behind four children.
Like many other former football players, Tyrer in retirement suffered from depression. It should be noted that treatment for depression, like treatment for concussions, has improved since 1980. “I felt my dad’s mental state at the end of his life must have been impaired and that very well could have been as a result of the trauma his brain experienced during his football career,” said Brad Tyrer, oldest son of Jim and Martha.
Tyrer — No. 77 in the photo below, with scratches all over his helmet — played in an era when offensive linemen were taught to use their heads as weapons. Rules of the time made it illegal for blockers to grab their opponents when protecting the quarterback. As if that weren’t enough to give pass rushers the edge, they were allowed to strike offensive players such as Tyrer in the head. Two fierce defensive ends who were contemporaries of Tyrer, David (Deacon) Jones and Rich (Tombstone) Jackson, both claimed to be the inventor of the head slap in long-ago interviews with NFL Films.
More recently, however, Jackson also said: “It is a travesty that Jim Tyrer has yet to be inducted into Canton.”
Sources —St. Paul Pioneer Press; crazycantoncuts.blogspot.com; endzonescore.com; mmqb.si.com; NFL.com; ProFootballHOF.com; pro-footballreference.com; Great Teams’ Great Years: Kansas City Chiefs by Dick Connor, prepared by NFL Creative Services Division (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974); The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman (Simon and Schuster, 1984); Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes by Peter Golenbock (Warner Books, Inc., 1997).
Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions appeared on NBC News’ “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on January 16, 1963. “Yes, I have bet on ballgames,” Karras said. On games in which you were playing? he was asked. “Yes, I have.”
That same month, Paul Hornung was called into the league offices to answer questions about whether he, too, had gambled on football. Hornung even submitted to a lie-detector test. “The Golden Boy,” mere days after Green Bay’s second consecutive championship, at first denied the allegations but soon admitted to an NFL investigator that yes, he had placed bets on Packers games.
As ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” uncovered last week written evidence that Pete Rose bet on baseball while still a player — a violation he had denied for decades — comparisons were made to the Hornung-Karras gambling scandal that rocked the National Football League half a century ago. The question is raised: Why has Rose been a baseball pariah for 26 years, while Hornung is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Karras, who died in 2012, is remembered fondly?
The answer goes beyond the differences in the ways baseball and football are perceived by the fans and presented by the media. Simply put, Hornung and Karras are a lot more likable than Rose in the court of public opinion — mainly because they were honest.
They paid for that honesty, too.
Hornung, the versatile halfback who had been league MVP in 1961, and Karras, a standout defensive tackle later named to the league’s All-Decade Team, were suspended for the entire 1963 season by NFL czar Pete Rozelle. Having met the good-behavior requirements set forth by the commissioner, Hornung and Karras resumed their playing careers in 1964 after Rozelle reinstated them.
Hornung placed his bets through Bernard (Barney) Shapiro, a businessman whom he had befriended at the end of his senior season at Notre Dame. Shapiro split his time between San Francisco and Las Vegas, where his investments included a pinball and slot company called United Coin Machine. After Hornung joined Green Bay in 1956, Shapiro would call him to ask: How do you think the Packers will do this week? By 1959, Hornung was both giving information to help Shapiro with his own bets and asking Shapiro to place bets for him. Shapiro, however, was not a bookie, and Hornung’s wagers were often on the Packers. “Not once did I ever bet against us,” Hornung said.
The wagers were made in Vegas, so they weren’t illegal — except that they violated the terms and conditions of an NFL player’s contract. “I did wrong,” Hornung said at the time. “I should be penalized.”
Sportswriter Dick Schaap recalled that he witnessed Hornung placing a bet on the Packers; when Green Bay covered the point spread, Hornung’s payoff was just $100. And Packers teammate Ron Kramer, likewise reasoning that Hornung’s bets were harmless, had implored Hornung not to incriminate himself at the NFL’s interrogation. “Why he did, I don’t know,” Kramer said. “I guess because he’s an honorable man.”
The same cannot be said of Pete Rose. As columnist Rick Reilly put it in Sports Illustrated in 1993, “Born without shame, Rose does not spend a whole lot of time with regret.”
He’s certainly had more than his share of regrettable moments. In 1990, a year after he was banned from baseball for life by commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, Rose tarnished his image even more and damaged his standing in baseball circles even further when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Pete served five months in a federal prison camp, but his issues with the IRS didn’t stop there. In 2004, he was hit with a nearly $1 million lien for unpaid back taxes.
Rose also has associated with a convicted drug dealer and other characters so shady that when Rose managed the Reds, his own players felt uncomfortable around them. Ted Power, a pitcher on Rose’s Reds teams, said he “thought they were Pete’s bodyguards.” And despite a directive from the commissioner prohibiting anyone except club personnel and accredited media from entering a major-league clubhouse, Rose routinely invited his posse behind closed doors. As another former Reds player put it, “I was scared. I didn’t like the kind of people Pete had around him. You would think that a guy of his reputation and stature would be more careful who he’s friends with. But Pete didn’t care.”
Not until 2004 did Rose admit to gambling on baseball, and even then he did so on his own terms. He said he did it only as a manager, and he made the “confession” within the pages of his autobiography. That’s Pete “Charlie Hustle” for you — he’ll tell you the truth, but he wants you to shell out 25 bucks for the hardcover version of it.
Published in 2004, Rose’s book is titled My Prison Without Bars. Karras has written an autobiography, too. Its title: Even Big Guys Cry. It was published in 1978, three years after Karras played George Zaharias, husband of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, in the made-for-TV movie “Babe.” Karras fell in love with the actress who played the title role, Susan Clark, and soon life was imitating art. The couple married, and from 1983 to ’89, they starred together in the situation comedy “Webster,” about a retired football player who adopts a black child, the orphaned young son of a former teammate.
Karras’ most memorable screen role, however, was as Mongo — “only pawn in game of life” — punching a horse in the 1974 Mel Brooks western spoof “Blazing Saddles.” Karras in the mid-’70s also became a commentator in the “Monday Night Football” booth, where he made Howard Cosell chuckle by singing a capella and remarked that Otis Sistrunk, a defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders whose head was completely shaven, looked as if he had played college ball at “the University of Mars.”
Alex Karras made people laugh. Pete Rose makes them groan.
When Karras starred with his real-life wife on “Webster,” he was considered a “lovable TV dad” and the series lasted six years. When Rose appeared with his fiancee in “Pete Rose: Hits and Mrs.” in 2013, the reality show was largely ignored and bombed after just six episodes.
Rose, then 71, co-starred with model Kiana Kim, a buxom beauty roughly half his age who has posed nude for Playboy. One episode deals with Kim’s breast reduction — “It’s no problem. She’s still bigger than most girls,” Rose says, trying to hide his disappointment. In another episode, Kim and her two children, ages 14 and 11, are visiting Cooperstown with Pete, and when they ask whether he’ll join them as they enter the Hall of Fame, Rose says he won’t unless he’s invited. As Pete is left standing on the sidewalk, Kim says, “Because he is this tough guy, he just can’t show to the rest of the world how much it’s hurting. And … it hurts.”
A weak attempt at sympathy if ever there was one. Just another reason why “Charlie Hustle,” in sharp contrast to “The Golden Boy” and “Mongo,” is a very difficult gambler to like.
Filed June 28, 2015
America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, by Michael MacCambridge, Anchor Books (2005).
Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster (1966, 1967)
Sunday’s Heroes: NFL Legends Talk About the Times of Their Lives, by Richard Whittingham, Triumph Books (2003, 2004).
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster (1999).
“Rose’s Grim Vigil” by Craig Neff and Jill Lieber, Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1989.
“A Rose Is a Rose” by Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated, Aug. 16, 1993.
CNN.com; thebiglead.com; bleacherreport.com; talkoffamenetwork.com; The Associated Press.
“There at the end we were going for the win. I wanted him to throw that one pass and, if it was complete, throw another. If incomplete, we run the ball on third down, punt and take our chances in sudden death.”
This year marks the 44th anniversary of Super Bowl V, the championship game the football world seems to want to forget. It has slipped into the cracks of time, rarely taken seriously by historians of the sport, despite the fact that only three other Super Bowls (and none in the first 33) came as close to going into overtime.
The Baltimore Colts won the game, but years later still express regret about how poorly they played in it. The Dallas Cowboys lost the game, but their memories over the years have focused on the questionable official’s call early in the second half that hurt them a lot — rather than the unthinkable play call late in the second half that hurt them even more.
For both Dallas and Baltimore, the 1960s had been a decade of nearly unbearable frustration. They were the losing teams in the greatest bad-weather game in pro football history — Packers 21, Cowboys 17, in “the Ice Bowl” — and most monumental upset in pro football history — Jets 16, Colts 7, in Super Bowl III. Those painful disappointments left lingering hangover effects. Dallas followed up its last-minute defeat in the frostbitten 1967 NFL title game with shockingly lopsided losses to underdog Cleveland in the 1968 and ’69 playoffs. Baltimore, after losing just one regular-season game each in the 1967 and ’68 seasons, finished a disappointing 8-5-1 in 1969.
Their championship clash in Miami that climaxed the 1970 season was marred by 14 penalties (10 against Dallas) and 11 turnovers (seven of them given away by Baltimore). Both defenses were fierce and, at times, heroic. The offenses, meanwhile, were frequently inept, seemingly tormented by the teams’ previous failures in postseason games. “Those two teams seemed more nervous than any that have played in the Super Bowl,” AFC president Lamar Hunt said at the time.
When players on the 1970 Colts reflect on their season in NFL Films’ “America’s Game” series, one emotion they express is that their victory over Dallas was bittersweet because of the way it was achieved.
“We were desperate to win and to look good doing it. We didn’t want to just win; we wanted to win and be convincing,” Baltimore center Bill Curry says. “We felt like we were tougher than the Dallas Cowboys. We felt like they could not stay with us for four quarters, if we went out there and took care of business: did not turn the ball over, played well in the kicking game, and just flat whup ’em physically. We thought we could do that. Now, we didn’t do any of those things. We didn’t whup ’em physically, we didn’t take good care of the football, we didn’t play well in the kicking game — we didn’t do any of that stuff.”
In a sense, it was the Super Bowl nobody won. Baltimore didn’t win it so much as Dallas lost it. And the NFL itself came out a loser, too, because the Super Bowl that could have gone down as only the fourth sudden-death overtime game in pro football history instead is remembered — or rather forgotten — as a comedy of errors.
“I think they were pressing too hard sometimes,” Colts middle linebacker Mike Curtis says in his “America’s Game” interview. “ … I think a lot of those guys put a lot of pressure on themselves, to push harder — for both sides. I think that’s why it was a carnival.”
The bizarre afternoon at the Orange Bowl ultimately teetered on three tipped passes — all of which were caught by the Colts, setting up all 16 of their points in a 16-13 victory. But the third tipped pass never should have been thrown.
Second down, 35 yards to go. Ball at the Dallas 27-yard line. A little over a minute left, score tied 13-13.
Confused ref, not Landry, gets blamed
This is the first Super Bowl that I have personal memories of. I was in second grade, but my three older brothers had provided enough of a football education for me to think I could actually understand the game. My favorite team at the time was the Cowboys. To this day, my favorite player is Bob Lilly, my favorite quarterback is Roger Staubach … and my favorite football coach is Tom Landry.
So it was with some reluctance that I searched for an answer to this question: On second-and-35 from the Dallas 27, was Landry the man responsible for the worst play call the game has ever seen?
History has been kind to Landry with regard to this particular decision. Although the coach called the plays for quarterback Craig Morton, Landry has largely escaped blame for the high-risk, low-reward pass that landed in Curtis’ heavily bandaged arms and put Baltimore in position for Jim O’Brien’s game-winning field goal.
There are many reasons for this, but the main one is Duane Thomas’ goal-line fumble on Dallas’ first possession of the second half. Cowboys center Dave Manders recovered, but Colts defensive tackle Billy Ray Smith was so convincing in his celebration that line judge Jack Fette mistakenly awarded possession to Baltimore. It is this blown call — not their foolish decision to throw when playing for overtime was clearly the better choice — that the 1970 Cowboys point to as the stroke of misfortune they could not overcome.
“The ball came right to me,” Manders recalled in a column published by The Baltimore Sun in 1993. “I was all by myself in this little space. Nobody was even around me so there was no judgment call about whether one player had more of the ball than the other guy.
“Billy Ray Smith jumped on my back and started yelling, ‘I’ve got the ball; I’ve got the ball.’ Without hesitation, Jack Fette turned and signaled, ‘First down, Baltimore.’ I handed Fette the ball. Craig Morton and I argued, but he told us, ‘One more word and you two are out of the game.’ ” Dallas’ center and quarterback were joined in the argument by their normally stoic coach, in what was for him a rare display of outrage. “I ran down the sideline screaming to the officials. But my protests made no difference,” Landry writes in his 1990 autobiography.
Dallas led 13-6 at the time of the controversial fumble, and Landry claimed that Baltimore would not have been able to come back from a two-touchdown deficit against a Cowboys defense that had given up just two touchdowns since mid-November. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. “Manders … believes a 20-6 lead, since scoring was so limited, would have resulted in a Super Bowl triumph. This observer, a non-partisan, is in agreement with the theory,” John Steadman writes in his 1993 Sun column. Steadman concludes by saying, “A player convinced an official of something that never happened and it makes for an eventful, intriguing chapter in Super Bowl history.”
The focus through the years on Thomas’ fumble diverts attention away from the decision to risk a short-yardage throw on second-and-35. Then again, this unusual game was marred by so many blunders both mental and physical that it is difficult to identify which mistake was the most costly. Even winning coach Don McCafferty made a puzzling decision that blew up in his face: On the next-to-last play of the first half, McCafferty went for it on fourth-and-goal from the Dallas 2. Earl Morrall’s pass to tight end Tom Mitchell was incomplete, which is how Dallas walked off with a seven-point halftime lead in the first place.
Such brain cramps would have made great fodder for sports-talk radio and social media, if either of them existed on January 17, 1971. This was also eight full years before ESPN was founded, so there was no all-sports cable television network to analyze the teams’ every move. The TV coverage that did exist was still in its early stages of development. For example, cameras were placed on only one side of the field — no one had developed a “reverse angle” replay yet — and NBC brought to the game a relatively small crew of announcers and cameramen, led by play-by-play voice Curt Goudy.
In the broadcast (available on YouTube), Manders clearly has the football as the players unpile; he holds the ball up, shaking it, to prove he had recovered Thomas’ fumble. Manders rises to his feet angrily and immediately gets nose-to-nose with an official, but the Cowboys have little time to argue because no commercials are shown before the Colts take possession. “Dallas is unhappy now,” Gowdy says, adding, “Craig Morton, letting the officials have it as he comes off (the field).” Yet neither Gowdy nor color commentator Kyle Rote questions the accuracy of the officials’ call. A replay is shown from an end-zone angle, but the NBC producers return to live action before a clear recovery of the fumble can be established. “It looked like Billy Ray Smith, 74, recovered it,” Rote says, to which Gowdy responds: “Or Mike Curtis, one of the two, in that pileup.” And that’s it — end of discussion.
It also must be remembered that graphics during telecasts back then consisted of little more than occasional reminders of what the score was. Nothing like a “Fox box” existed to remind viewers of the down, distance and time remaining, so the millions watching from home easily could have lost track of how foolish it was for Dallas to throw the ball when it had no realistic chance of moving into first-down territory or field-goal range in the final minute.
Slipping through the cracks of history
Usually, NFL Films can be counted on to shed light on games from this era, but for Super Bowl V, Steve Sabol and his crew were more fancy than fact-filled. Their highlight reel of the game, rerun on television frequently in the years since, isn’t so much a documentary as it is an impressionist painting. The final minutes of the game are presented as a montage of dramatic sounds and images, including player wirings (not all of them recorded during Super Bowl V), violent collisions that flash across the screen, and a musical score that includes part of Tchaikovsky’s March Slav. All that noise and fury paints the finish in colors of heroism, with not even a hint of second-guessing whether to throw the ball on the play that resulted in Curtis’ game-turning interception.
More than 40 years later, even the informative, detail-filled “America’s Game” documentary fails to mention that Dallas — a run-oriented team with a sore-armed quarterback — ultimately gave the game away by throwing the ball on second-and-35 from its own 27 with a minute left and the score tied. In the “America’s Game” episode on the 1970 Colts, the narrator cites Curtis’ interception as “the most important play of Super Bowl V.” But in the “America’s Game” episode on the 1971 Cowboys, players on that Dallas team point instead to Thomas’ fumble, which gave the Colts possession at their 1-yard line with 11:08 remaining in the third quarter.
For the rest of the game — nearly two full quarters — the Cowboys’ longest drive was just 33 yards, or 2 less than the yardage needed on second-and-35. They did have a second-year backup quarterback from Navy available, and his throwing arm was healthier than Morton’s. But the inexperienced Staubach never got a chance to inject his never-give-up-the-ship attitude into the listless Dallas attack.
“If Morton was a pitcher in baseball he would have been knocked out in the first inning,” Cowboys Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley is quoted as saying in the 1997 book Cotton Bowl Days. “He overthrew Duane on one wide-open touchdown and missed a lot of passes. Landry wouldn’t put Staubach in. Morton played worse that day than any quarterback I’d ever seen in a big game, but Landry was set in his ways and stubborn enough not to make a change.”
With 9:11 left in the game, the ball bounced Dallas’ way when a Baltimore fumble went through the back of the end zone for a touchback, the Colts’ final turnover of the day. But on the very next possession, Morton threw high for running back Walt Garrison, who tipped the ball into the hands of Rick Volk, a Baltimore safety. Volk returned the interception to the Dallas 3, setting up the tying touchdown.
With 4:03 remaining, Dallas punter Ron Widby executed a successful coffin-corner kick, pinning the Colts back to their own 5-yard line. Baltimore kept the ball on the ground and went three-and-out, and David Lee’s ensuing kick went just 38 yards and out of bounds. Despite the bad breaks — Thomas’ goal-line fumble, plus the Colts’ first touchdown, which was legal only because it barely made contact with a Dallas defender’s finger — the Cowboys appeared to be sitting pretty. An exchange of punts left them in position to start a drive at the Baltimore 48 with 1:51 remaining in the game.
At that point, overtime seemed like the worst-case scenario for Dallas. But after a 1-yard loss on first down, the Cowboys fell victim to a rule that would soon be legislated out of the game. Tackle Ralph Neely was called for holding, which at the time was a 15-yard penalty — not 10 yards — with the walk-off starting from the spot of the foul if the infraction took place behind the line of scrimmage. The officials ruled that Neely was holding 9 yards behind the line, making it in total a 24-yard penalty (In the photo of the play below, notice the penalty flag near the leg of Neely, No. 73).
The down did not count, but the drive had been killed. Now it was second-and-35.
Error worse than Pisarcik’s fumble
The botched handoff that Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards returned for a touchdown in the final seconds against the New York Giants in 1978 has gone down as one of the most infamous errors in NFL history. The stunning 19-17 loss led to a shakeup of the Giants’ coaching staff and contributed to the popularity of the “victory formation.” Before long, it became standard operating procedure for the winning team to snap the ball and kneel to run out the clock at the end of a game.
But the “Miracle of the Meadowlands” was just a regular-season game. Considering what was at stake, Morton’s failure to secure the ball at the end of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl V was a more grievous mistake than Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik’s memorable failure to do the same against Philadelphia.
The question is: Whose call was it — Landry’s or Morton’s?
To that point in NFL history, there had been just three games decided in overtime (two of them involving the Colts), so journalists were still figuring out how to report on such a scenario. This may explain a befuddling phrase by reporter Norm Miller, who wrote in the New York Daily News that “Morton had no alternative but to pass” on second-and-35. Other game reports of the period pinned the blame for the decision to throw on Morton. In his 1972 book Super Bowl! Newark Star-Ledger reporter Dave Klein writes that Morton, “staring the clock straight in the eyes, went counter to all logic and threw big, long and beautifully available.” Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated described the game-deciding turnover this way: “Not wanting to settle for a tie in regulation play and face the hazards of sudden-death, Morton tried another pass. The ball bounced off the fingers of (Dan) Reeves, who might have caught it, and was intercepted by Linebacker Mike Curtis who returned it to the Cowboy 28.”
But the 1970 Cowboys, unlike almost every other NFL team that season, did not let the quarterback call his own plays. Landry utilized tight ends Pettis Norman and Mike Ditka to relay his messages from the sideline to the huddle. “Craig and I are very close,” Landry said. “I keep impressing on him that he is an excellent play selector, probably the best one we’ve ever had in Dallas. But we’ll do everything we need to win.”
“Tom started calling the plays because he thought I’d gotten too conservative,” Morton said the week before Super Bowl V. “ … And we won that game, so he called them the next week, too. And we kept winning, so you don’t change a winning combination.”
In their seven-game streak leading up to that Super Bowl, the Cowboys’ “winning combination” was a dominant defense complemented by a run-oriented, conservative offense. Led by Lilly, a legendary tackle, Dallas’ “Doomsday Defense” put together a string of 23 quarters — nearly six full games — without giving up a touchdown. The streak included the Cowboys’ first playoff win that season, a 5-0 victory over the Detroit Lions in which Morton completed only 4 of 18 passes and Dallas’ longest offensive play went just 20 yards.
A slightly better performance against the 49ers the following week gave Morton a two-game total of 11 completions in 40 attempts for the playoffs. He connected with Hall of Fame pass catchers Bob Hayes and Ditka only once each, for a total of 25 yards. Dallas’ offense instead relied on Thomas, a rookie, who rushed for 135 yards against Detroit and 143 in the 17-10 victory at San Francisco. In those two games, Thomas ran the ball 17 more times than Morton threw it.
“In the playoffs, we didn’t have much of a passing game because Craig was having arm trouble,” Landry is quoted as saying in Staubach’s 1974 autobiography First Down, Lifetime to Go. “We just continued to emphasize our running game. When we needed to pass, we would just drop it off short and not try to go deep. We just felt our defense could hold anybody.”
In sessions with the media the week before the Super Bowl, some journalists questioned Morton’s value to the team. “They ask me about Tom calling all the plays,” Morton told Steve Perkins, a reporter covering the Cowboys. “They want to know if my arm is sore, because we mostly ran the ball in the playoff games. What they really want to ask me is, ‘Besides handing off, what the hell do you do?’ ” In a story published in Sports Illustrated that week, Morton acknowledged that he did have the okay to change a play at the line of scrimmage if the defensive alignment was set up to stop Landry’s play call. “Against the 49ers, I called 10 or 12 audibles, most of them pitchouts to Duane Thomas,” Morton told SI.
So the 1970 Cowboys ran and ran and ran — except on the play that mattered most.
Cotton Bowl Days author John Eisenberg, mistakenly citing the down and distance as third-and-34, puts the decision to throw on Morton’s shoulders. “Landry had called almost all of the plays in the game, … but Morton called the third-down play because the clock was running and there was no time to run messengers in and out of the game,” he writes. “Morton called ‘13 takeoff,’ a pass to Dan Reeves, who would either run a post or go into a hole in the Colts’ zone. A handoff would have been more prudent considering how much yardage was needed for a first down; the Cowboys would have been wise to run the clock out and try to win in overtime. Yet Landry would not second-guess Morton’s call after the game. ‘We were not thinking about running out the clock,’ Landry said.”
I disagree with some details in Eisenberg’s account. One, since a penalty had been called on the previous play, the clock would have stopped and the offense would not have been in hurry-up mode. Landry had the time to shuttle in personnel for a running play, if he so chose. The fact that Reeves was the intended receiver on the play suggests that the decision to throw was Landry’s — not Morton’s. Reeves, in the first of his nine Super Bowls as a player or coach, was the running back Landry used in passing situations at the time. He had no carries but five receptions in that Super Bowl, and the fact that Reeves was on the field at all suggests that Landry was the one who chose to throw the ball.
In 1972, shortly after Landry’s team had finally climbed to the pinnacle of the sport by crushing Miami in Super Bowl VI, Perkins’ book The Dallas Cowboys: Winning the Big One was published. And it was in this obscure, out-of-print but well-written book that I discovered a startling admission. Tom Landry, in the post-game locker room after Super Bowl V, said this about the decision to throw on second-and-35 from his own 27 with a minute left in a tie game: “There at the end we were going for the win. I wanted him to throw that one pass and, if it was complete, throw another. If incomplete, we run the ball on third down, punt and take our chances in sudden death.”
There it was — one of the most innovative football minds the game has ever known, and normally a superb play-caller, acknowledging the biggest mistake of his coaching career. Yet because of circumstances, Landry was never taken to task for the not-so-bright decision that helped give the blue-jersey jinx an enduring place in Dallas Cowboys lore — and gave the Baltimore Colts a championship the Colts themselves are not so sure they deserved.
With just over a minute to play, an ill-advised Craig Morton pass was intercepted by Baltimore linebacker Mike Curtis. A few plays later, rookie Jim O’Brien kicked the 32-yard field goal that made the Colts champions. The Cowboys were so close, yet so far.
From a summary I wrote for my Super Bowl scrapbook in 1978
Play-by-play account from The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America’s Greatest Game, Simon and Schuster (1990). Other statistics from pro-football-reference.com.
Video sources cited in text.
Newspaper articles (archived online):
“Colts Save Kick for Final 5 Seconds: O’Brien FG nips Dallas, 16-13,” by Norm Miller, New York Daily News, January 18, 1971.
“At bottom of 22-year pile, ex-Cowboy still insists he, not Colts, had fumble,” by John Steadman, The Baltimore Sun, February 3, 1993.
“An Act, Followed by an Act, Followed by an Act,” by Robert F. Jones, Sports Illustrated, January 18, 1971.
“Eleven Big Mistakes,” by Tex Maule, Sports Illustrated, January 25, 1971 (archived online).
McDonald’s History of the Super Bowl, Volume 2, NFL Properties, Inc. (1977).
Super Bowl, New and Revised Edition, by Marty Ralbovsky, Hawthorn Books, Inc. (1971, 1972).
The Dallas Cowboys: Winning the Big One, by Steve Perkins, Grosset & Dunlap (1972).
Super Bowl! By Dave Klein, Stadia Sports Publishing, Inc. (1972).
Staubach: First Down, Lifetime To Go, by Roger Staubach with Sam Blair and Bob St. John, Word, Incorporated (1974).
The NFL’s Official Encyclopedic History of Professional Football, by NFL Properties, Inc., Rutledge Books/Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. (1977).
The Man Inside … Landry, by Bob St. John, Word, Incorporated (1979).
Super Sundays I-XIII, by Lou Sahadi, Contemporary Books, Inc. (1979).
Time Enough To Win, by Roger Staubach with Frank Luksa, Word, Incorporated (1980).
The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America’s Greatest Game, chapter on Super Bowl V by Bill McGrane. Simon and Schuster (1990).
Tom Landry, An Autobiography, with Gregg Lewis, Zondervan Publishing House and HarperCollinsPublishers (1990).
God’s Coach: The Hymns, Hype, and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry‘s Cowboys, by Skip Bayless, Simon and Schuster (1990).
Cotton Bowl Days: Growing Up with Dallas and the Cowboys in the 1960s, by John Eisenberg, Simon & Schuster (1997).
Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, by Peter Golenbock, Warner Books, Inc. (1997).