Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Super Bowl XLV Breakdown: Packers use flexibility and aggression to perfection...

When looking over the stats for Super Bowl XLV, the first thing that becomes clear is that, if you only looked at the stats, you’d have thought the Steelers won.

They had chalked up a greater number of total yards, including more than twice as many rushing yards. Pittsburgh also had more first downs, a greater time of possession, committed fewer penalties and recorded more sacks/quarterback hits.

Yet they were undone in the end by one crucial statistic which they were on the wrong end of: turnovers.

It’s become such a popular measuring stick for NFL success in recent years that focusing on it seems to be a cliché, like saying “they lost the game because they didn’t score enough points.” John Maddenisms aside, the turnover battle was indisputably decisive in this Super Bowl.

This was primarily because Green Bay fully exploited Pittsburgh’s uncharacteristic mistakes. Aaron Rodgers and the Packer offense scored a perfect three touchdowns off of three turnovers. Without question, this was the facet of the game upon which the outcome was decided.

Green Bay stretches the field by going conventional, not empty backfield

Much of the pregame talk about the Packers’ offense was regarding how aggressive they would be. How much responsibility would Coach Mike McCarthy place on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders? How much would they try to run against Pittsburgh’s near-historically good run defense?

The answer, ultimately, was that McCarthy placed an extreme amount of the offense in Rodgers’ capable hands. The end-of-game stats broke down Green Bay’s pass-run ratio at exactly 75%-25%.

Even in the current age where empty backfields have grown more prevalent, it was an unusual decision to focus so heavily on the passing game. (And it was even more unique considering Green Bay was protecting a lead for almost the entire game.)

Yet for all their focus on the passing game, Green Bay employed tricks that fooled Pittsburgh into thinking they were constantly on the verge of running more. On the Packers’ first scoring drive, there were three instances when they employed play-action.

The third came on 3rd and 1 at Pittsburgh’s 29 yard line (shown above).

With two receivers split to the strong side and an off-set I in the backfield, it certainly appeared that Green Bay was running. Pittsburgh, in their typically combative style, was bound and determined to stop the run.

Notice the bottom of the screen though, where 6’3” 215-pound Jordy Nelson is singled up on 5’10” 190 William Gay. Normally Gay would have help from Troy Polamalu guarding deep routes, but the situation has dictated Pittsburgh to be more aggressive in their play-call. Polamalu is playing more central (he’s just off the screen to the rear-middle).

The result could have gone either way. Gay’s coverage was perfectly adequate, but Nelson was simply too strong and gained the superior position, hauling in a 29 yard touchdown.

Nothing should be taken away from the execution of Rodgers and Nelson on the play, but had Green Bay stayed with their more predictable game-plan (a heavy dose of spread, shotgun sets), Pittsburgh would have been in a more conservative coverage that could have prevented the touchdown.

The Packers may not have run the ball, but the threat of it was enough to unlock Pittsburgh’s coverage.
McCarthy’s willingness to make quick adjustments from a game-plan he’d spent two weeks devising was the kind of bravery that Super Bowl-winning coaches have. I was impressed.

Specialized defenses hit their mark for Green Bay

Throughout the course of the game, Green Bay utilized an array of specialized defensive lineups and personnel groups. They used everything from a standard 3-4 to an amoeba-like front which had zero down-linemen.

Yet arguably the most important was a lineup that went in the complete opposite direction than their previous strategy. For most of the game, they had focused on stopping Ben Roethlisberger. Finally, after being torched by Pittsburgh’s ground game for three quarters, defensive coordinator Dom Capers made a change.

He inserted a fourth lineman in place of the strong safety, creating a 4-4-3 (four linemen, four linebackers and three defensive backs). It matched up perfectly with Pittsburgh’s power formations. And it was the first play of the fourth quarter that exemplified the benefits of this specialization.

As you can see, Green Bay has four linebackers (with the red dots over their heads). They also have two defensive backs in picture (blue dots) and one more behind them who’s out of the picture.

The difference is with the men on the Packer defense not highlighted (the linemen). Instead of only three linemen, they have four (and the Packer defensive line is one of the biggest in the NFL). This, as you can imagine, is designed to put the clamps on the Steeler running-game.

On this down (2nd and 2 at the Green Bay 33), Pittsburgh tried to run off-tackle right (a play they’d run perfectly on several other occasions including a third quarter touchdown).

But this time, the Packers were ready.

The very scary man with the red dot over his head is the prolific Clay Matthews, who had been abnormally quiet prior to this play. The enormous linemen circled in blue (who had been subbed-in to bulk up the Packer defense) is 340 pound Ryan Pickett. If you want to “bulk-up” your defense, there are few men with more bulk than Pickett.

On the play, Pickett occupies (and then overpowers) Pittsburgh lineman Doug Legursky. Had Green Bay gone with their standard three linemen setup, Legursky would’ve had a clean block on Matthews, but with Pickett in the game Matthews is still moving, unblocked.

And it was this decision (inserting Pickett) which created havoc in the Pittsburgh backfield. After all, Clay Matthews is one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL today, what chance did Steeler tight-end David Johnson (#85) have to block him on his own? Without an offensive lineman to block Matthews, the Steelers were asking for trouble.

Sure enough, Matthews simply outran Johnson and, together with Pickett, crushed Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall, forcing a pivotal fumble which setup Green Bay’s fourth and final touchdown of the night.

Their previously dwindling lead (which had shrunk from 21-3 to 21-17) was now restored to a comfortable two scores. The Steelers rallied late but fell short thanks, in part, to the fumble and ensuing touchdown caused by Matthews and Pickett.


In the end, you’d have to say that the exemplary play of Aaron Rodgers was ultimately the difference. Every tactical adjustment in the world couldn’t have compensated for his intelligence, accuracy and resilience. (After all, could you have seen, say, Phillip Rivers be so even-keel after four drops from his receivers?)

Yet Green Bay’s flexibility and aggression in their game-plan played a vast part in their fourth Super Bowl win as well. They may not have committed to the run, but they’re formation choice and use of play-action forced Pittsburgh to respect the threat of the run. 

And their constant switching of personnel on defense kept pass-rushers fresh and did what game-plans are ultimately supposed to do: put your best players in a position to make a play (which Matthews certainly did).

And now we move into an uncertain offseason. With the possibility of an NFL lockout growing geometrically every day, savoring this game for a while might not be a bad idea.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Super Bowl Moment XIII: Joe Montana spots John Candy, then marches 92 yards like it's no big deal...

When in doubt, look for a B-list celebrity to calm everyone down...

The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 13 on the list of the top 25.

This is probably my favorite Super Bowl story. It has everything I love about football: the best players on the biggest stage in the most crucial moments and they actually delivered. And more than that, they did it with style. They had panache.

It was Super Bowl XXIII and it was supposed to be a coronation for the NFL’s dynasty of the 80’s: the San Francisco 49ers. With Bill Walsh (one of the greatest coaches ever), legendary quarterback Joe Montana, and the best receiver of all-time (Jerry Rice), the Niners were stacked with talent.

Throw in ridiculous players like Ronnie Lott (who once cut off his own finger at halftime of a game so that he could keep playing), Roger Craig (the first running back to both rush and receive for a 1000 yards in the same season) and Bill Romanowski (who would eventually get caught in the BALCO steroids scandal with Barry Bonds), you had all the makings of a great team (even if Romo was on roids).

(All that and I didn’t even mention that Steve Young was the backup quarterback.)

But with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter, Montana and the 49ers trailed 16-13 to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Their offense had been largely stifled all game (with the notable exception of Jerry Rice who was on his way to a Super Bowl record 11 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown).

And because of a penalty, San Francisco took over on their own 8 yard-line. As 49er guard Harris Barton put it: “This was the tensest time that you could ever have as a football player. I mean, this is the Super Bowl, and you’re down.”

Right around the time Barton (and probably the rest of the 49er offense) was wrapping their minds around the difficulty of the task in front of them, Joe Montana strolled into the huddle.

He was already a legend, having won two Super Bowl MVPs and led many late-game heroics. But he’d never had to do this in the Super Bowl. San Francisco’s other wins had been more comfortable.

So there he is with the rest of his teammates, standing in their own endzone waiting for the play-call. And seemingly oblivious to the nervousness around him, Montana gestured to Barton to look down at the other endzone.

“You see him?” Montana asked. Barton was clueless.

“There’s John Candy” said an amused Montana.

And in that very serious moment, a crossroads in Super Bowl history, when the 49ers could either become a full-fledge dynasty or see their coronation ruined, the San Francisco offense was more interested in the presence of the John Candy.

It’s one of the most hilarious moments in football. Especially given the nature of football and the 49ers in that time, who were so given to a completely focused and serious mentality, it seems so unusual that they would pick that moment to goof off. 

But maybe that’s what made it so cool, that at the very point when they should have had maximum anxiety, they were loose enough to be star-struck (but seriously, they couldn’t have picked a more high-profile celeb?)

Of course, what makes the story so incredible is that the television timeout ended seconds later and Montana and his offense proceeded to drive 92 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 34 seconds remaining. Simply legendary. It was one of those things that literally could not have been believed had a screen-writer composed it.

What's fascinating is that, for all the calmness he projected, Montana actually hyper-ventilated midway through the drive. He was ignored by Bill Walsh when he wanted to call a timeout so he could calm down because Walsh was so fooled by Montana’s cool demeanor.

But he kept it together (like always) and simply picked apart Cincinnati’s defense before firing an inch-perfect pass to John Taylor for a ten yard touchdown that gave the Niners the lead for good (20-16).

It was Walsh’s last game as coach and the last play he ever called for them (20 Halfback Curl X Up) worked just as he’d drawn it up. Focusing too much on Jerry Rice (who moved from right to left in motion), the Bengal defense left a seam wide open for a grateful Taylor.

And while the effect of spotting John Candy can’t be measured, the ensuing drive speaks for itself. Montana’s confidence, bordering almost on aloofness, is the reason why even his fiercest rivals wouldn’t prefer any other quarterback to him in the classic question: “If you had to win one game to save your life, who would the quarterback be?”

The answer, undoubtedly, would be Joe Cool.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Super Bowl Moment XII: The Gatorade bath enters football's lexicon...

That takes a serious blend of guts and crazy to pull off...

The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 12 on the list of the top 25.

After the Super Bowl this Sunday, the attention of the NFL will turn inevitably to next season (that is, if there is one). A big part of thinking about “next year” is always the impact of free agency.

What most people (especially people my age) tend to forget is that for a long time, there was no free agency in the NFL. If you were a talented player who got drafted by a bad team, you were stuck.

This was precisely what happened to middle-linebacker Harry Carson of the New York Giants for the first eight years of his career. In that span, from 1976 (when the Giants drafted him in the 4th round) to 1984, New York had just one winning season.

So you might imagine his unending joy when 1986 rolled around and his New York Giants found themselves, for the first time, in the Super Bowl.

One of the NFL’s older franchises had gone through drastic changes in the early 80’s. The cornerstone of that was, obviously, drafting Lawrence Taylor.

And LT (not to be confused with that wussy, nickname-stealing running back for the Jets) had his finest season in 1986, slaughtering quarterbacks to the tune of 20.5 sacks (my favorite hit is at 2:15 into the clip) and winning league MVP.

Yet it was the team’s middle linebacker, Carson, who was the leader. Taylor, for all his on the field heroics, was too busy doing, umm, other things (hint: it wasn’t charity work) to lead his teammates when the game was over.

On their way to the Super Bowl that season, enigmatic Coach Bill Parcells never relented in his typically abrasive approach. Even as the best team in the league, he found many problems with the Giants on a regular basis.

His most volatile moment came during halftime against the Green Bay Packers in the final week of the regular season. Though the Giants were already sitting pretty in the standings at 13-2, Parcells could’ve cared less. After going ahead 24-0, the Giants had surrendered 17 unanswered points to enter the half leading only 24-17.

After telling the offense “If we score 45 points, we might be able to tie this game,” he turned to his defense for a more hands-on pep talk.

Carrying a large barrel of garbage into the room where his defense was meeting, Parcells proceeded to dump garbage on his players. He told them, in no short terms, that this was what he thought about their play.

Such an unsparing visual aid was the shot in the arm New York’s “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” defense needed. They allowed only one more Green Bay score and the offense rolled to 31 additional points, guiding the Giants to a runaway 55-24 victory.

After the contest, Carson decided it was time for some revenge on his coach.

In a moment of pure insanity, he grabbed the Gatorade cooler and dumped it on Parcells.

Now, keep in mind Bill Parcells was the same man who once unleashed Lawrence Taylor on rookie quarterback in training camp just because he thought it was funny. He wasn’t normally the kind of man you dumped Gatorade on…

But Carson was a strong willed leader (and, more importantly, he was now gratefully part of the best team in the league).

Being a superstitious man, Parcells decided the Gatorade douse would be a tradition.

So with minutes left in Super Bowl XXI and New York leading John Elway’s Broncos by a wide margin, Carson decided it was time.

And at that moment, the world was introduced to one of the most nonsensical traditions in all of football: the Gatorade bath.

Though he tried mightily to avoid it (knowing it was coming), Parcells couldn’t escape Carson’s final contribution to the finest season of his career. His coach was now not only Super Bowl champion, but also drenched in Gatorade.

After years of misery and losing, Carson was a winner. So were the Giants, who had notched their first Super Bowl win. And Parcells, though he would never fully change his coaching demeanor, probably thought twice about ever dumping anything on his players again.

(In a related note, this was the same night I was born. And since the Giants are my family's team, it's my go-to fun fact whenever I'm forced into playing inevitably awkward "name-games" in orientation for school or work. For some reason I always think people will be more impressed than they ever actually are, but then I generally under-appreciate how huge a dork I am. Either way, an amazing night for my dad.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Super Bowl Moment XI: The Fridge becomes the heaviest man to score a Super Bowl touchdown...

Pure Athleticism...

The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 11 on the list of the top 25.

Sometimes, the best ideas are born in the worst of times. For Bears Coach Mike Ditka, this happened on a chilly day in San Francisco. It was the NFC Championship game for the 1984 season and the 49ers had dominated Ditka’s Bears.

Leading late in the game, legendary 49er Coach Bill Walsh inserted backup lineman Guy McIntyre into the game as a fullback.

Ditka, having already seen his team get shutout and his quarterback sacked eight times, was not amused. It was a violation of the unwritten rules of football in his view. It appeared to Ditka that Walsh was rubbing it in and he didn’t like that.

And say what you want about Mike Ditka, but the man had a long memory. He didn’t forget.

Nine months later, the Bears again found themselves against Walsh and the 49ers in the city by the bay. This time, with Jim McMahon as their quarterback, Chicago found some offense. And some defense called the “46” (which you may or may not have heard of) harried Joe Montana to the tune of a career high seven sacks.

With the lead safe and the Bears running out the clock, Ditka had an epiphany. He would take his revenge, but with who? Which lineman would he choose to execute his middle finger-like gesture to the Niners?

The answer was a rookie defensive tackle that, up till that point, hadn’t cracked the starting lineup.

He was the man they called “the Refrigerator,” William Perry.

Standing at only 6’2” (short for his position), his 380 pound weight (which fluctuated frequently) looked that much more ridiculous.

That’s the guy thought Ditka. And so the massive reserve lineman went in at fullback. But Ditka had thought of a small wrinkle to the original plan. He wasn’t just going to have Perry block for Hall of Famer Walter Payton, he would let “the Fridge” run the ball himself.

It was the most over “Eff You” in the history of football strategy. You weren’t just losing to the Bears, you were losing so bad they were putting in this walking, talking joke of a ball carrier to complete the humiliation.

After that game, the Fridge started to develop his persona (and Ditka famously went onto to a DUI). Perry made it into Buddy Ryan’s starting defense (which was the best defense in NFL history no big deal) and enhanced his offensive reputation.

He scored two rushing touchdowns during the regular season and actually caught a touchdown too.

Reaching the Super Bowl, the Bears were already on one of the most impressive defensive runs in playoff history. They had not allowed a single point on their thunderous run to the championship.

Facing them in the Super Bowl (and serving as sacrificial lamb) were the New England Patriots. The game was never in doubt after the Patriots led briefly 3-0 in the first quarter. The Bears would score 37 unanswered points and the final touchdown of that streak was something like no other touchdown in Super Bowl history.

Late in the third quarter, Chicago was at the Patriots one yard line. And Mike Ditka was itching to use his secret weapon. In went the Fridge.

Pro football would never be the same (ok…slight overstatement but technically it’s true. When else has someone like him been used in that role?)

And William Perry did what any physically gifted 380 pound man would do with the football on the one yard line: he fell forward. Touchdown.

With that, the route was on in Super Bowl XX (Chicago would win 46-10 setting a record for Super Bowl margin of victory).

Fridge became the heaviest man to ever score a touchdown in the Super Bowl (and probably had the margin by more than 150 pounds).

Super Bowl Moment X: Marcus Allen adds the cherry on top at a time when Al Davis was crazy like a fox instead of just...crazy

And they said before the draft that he was too slow...

The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 10 on the list of the top 25.

The Oakland Raiders are one of the most unique teams in the entire world. No other franchise embraces being the bad guys quite like the Silver and Black. NFL films even composed a special song for the Raiders that can make even the most devout pacifist want to pillage something. They also have a ridiculously over-the-top poem that makes poetry sound mean (sorry I couldn't find a better link to the second one...anything that's that badass in my opinion CANNOT include a picture of Kerry Collins but whatever nothing's perfect.)

So in 1983 when famous Raiders owner and 2010 suspected corpse Al Davis decided to move his team from Oakland (its historic home) to L.A, it surprised no one. After all, the Raiders were seen as the bad guys everywhere else in America except for Oakland, so why not alienate them as well?

Davis fought a very bitter, public fight with NFL commissioner Peter Rozelle (a man who he’d never seen eye to eye with since Davis was involved in the old AFL-NFL fights twenty years before). The business of actually playing football, something the Raiders always handled quite well in those days, seemed in jeopardy as the team was caught in a particularly awkward position (with their home in limbo).

But the team that Davis had constructed over the course of two decades thrived on adversity. In fact, most of them were probably so crazy that they didn’t notice the change from the stadium in Oakland and the Coliseum in L.A. As linemen Howie long put it: “It was dysfunction…function.”

With men like Ted Hendricks (a 6’7” linebacker nicknamed “the mad stork” because he once road onto a practice field on horseback while wearing a vintage German helmet), Todd Christensen (who to this day resembles a mustached undertaker) and Cliff Branch (who famously would tell his coach that he just knew he could beat his man…during the national anthem before he even knew who his man was), the Raiders certainly had the right collection of characters to win even in tough times.

And that summary of their team barely scratched the surface. There was Lyle Alzado (“Three Mile Lyle”), who was crazy even by Raider standards and had once fought Muhammad Ali without shaming himself. Then there was Lester Hayes, who may have hated his nickname (“the molester”) but did nothing to make himself look normal by following his pregame routine of covering himself in Stickum.

And don’t forget Matt Millen, the star middle-linebacker, who followed his coaches instructions to a tee (even if it was to cheap shot Eagles receiver Harold Carmichael on the first play of the game: “Don’t worry about the flag, just hit him as a hard as you can”. You can watch it by skipping to 6:03 here.)

It was all in step with basic Raider rules. Apparently (according to Millen), rule number one was "Cheating is encouraged". Rule number two? "See rule number one." This was their mentality...badass.

Yet the most talented player on the Raiders was probably their running back from the University of Southern California, Marcus Allen.

“It was fun being me” said Allen. He was a star already in Southern California and certainly enjoyed the lifestyle (hmm star running back, early 1980’s, lots of money, what could he have possibly been doing?)

Allen was extremely productive on the field though and justified his high flying reputation.

So as the Raiders found themselves in Super Bowl XVIII, they knew who to go to.

They were facing the defending champion Washington Redskins who had scored a then-record 541 points during the regular season. Raiders Coach Tom Flores and his defense weren’t impressed.

As Redskin quarterback Joe Theisman said, “They handed us our asses on a tray…and the tray was bent.”
Leading 28-9, the lead looked safe. One play though, put it out of everyone’s mind.

Late in the third quarter, the Raiders called 17 Bob Trey O. It was a run play to the left for Marcus Allen. It appeared to be getting blown up in the backfield as Redskin strong safety Ken Coffey stood in Allen’s path.

But this wasn’t some ponderous fullback. This was Marcus Allen. And as NFL films announcer John Fascenda declared (in probably the best call in NFL films history):

“On came Marcus Allen, running with the night.”

Allen reversed fields, doing just about everything you’re taught never to do as a running back. He found a whole and exploded 74 yards for a touchdown. It was one of the most electrifying single plays in Super Bowl history.

And more importantly for the Raiders, it iced the game (which they won 38-9 for their third Super Bowl trophy).

(Afterward in the locker room, one of the great moments in Al Davis’ life transpired when Pete Rozelle had to hand his arch-nemesis Al Davis the Lombardi Trophy yet again. The most beloved bad guys had triumphed…and made sure to rub everybody’s noses in it.)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Super Bowl Moment IX: The Diesel finds his gear on fourth and 1...

You can't arm-tackle the Diesel...

The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 9 on the list of the top 25.

With the unfortunate prospect of an NFL lockout growing more likely with every antagonistic Antonio Cromartie tweet, the top Super Bowl moments countdown draws to the 1982 season. This was the first NFL lockout of the modern era, when nearly half of the regular season was wiped from the schedule.

What made it even stranger was that the strike took place after the season had started. Two weeks into the ’82 season (from late September through late November) the players’ union and the owners locked horns, both sides at an impasse in dividing up the NFL’s ballooning profits.

Finally, an agreement was worked out and the season resumed. Due to the length of the strike, the league extended the regular season into January for the first time and created a special 16 team playoff format, disregarding divisions (seeding teams on their record alone).

The Washington Redskins, who for so long had been a team of with a tremendous following that unfortunately didn’t reflect their achievements, finally had gotten back to the Super Bowl. Under second year head coach Joe Gibbs, they had started on a season-long odessy of discovering virtually every conceivable way to win a game.

It came as no surprise then when kicker (yes, kicker) Mark Moseley won league MVP. Whether or not you agree with a kicker ever fully warranting the MVP, no one can argue with Moseley’s stats: 20-21. And no one could argue with the endorsement he got from teammates.

“Mark Moseley, without question, was the most valuable part of our football team” noted quarterback Joe Theisman. “Every time we needed a clutch kick, Mark would get it done.”

The Redskins prided themselves on having stayed more focused and worked harder than anyone else during the lockout, with Theisman taking the lead in organizing players-only practices.

Coming out of the strike, the Redskins continued their hot start to finish the regular season 8-1.

Reaching the Super Bowl, they faced Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins. Revenge was on the minds of the Washington faithful, remembering quite well the loss Shula and his team had handed out in the 1972 Super Bowl (the year the Dolphins were perfect).

The game went largely against the Redskins, and with barely ten minutes to go they trailed 17-13. It was right around that time that they faced a pivotal fourth and one just inside Miami territory.

This was a seminal moment in the game and it was in this moment that Joe Gibbs and the Redskins turned to their All-Pro offensive line: the Hogs (arguably one of the great nicknames in football history) to block in a short-yardage run.

And it helped that when you need one yard at a crucial moment, your running back is nicknamed The Diesel.

Up stepped John Riggins, one of the great fullbacks in history. He was famous for his loose demeanor and drinking beers in a shed after practice with his linemen (and also pretty famous for running the football).

Calling “Goalline 70 Chip,” Washington went off-tackle to their left. Miami, guessing a short yardage run, were positioned perfectly to stop it. But the Diesel found his gear and simply ran over Miami cornerback Don McNeal, stomping 44 yards to the endzone.

Washington took the lead and never looked back, winning 27-17. With their first Super Bowl in hand, the Redskins would see two more in the Joe Gibbs era, undoubtedly the finest period in their history.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Super Bowl Moment VIII: Stallworth's late score becomes another brick in the wall for the Steeler dynasty...

SI has shown marginal improvements in their headlines since 1980.

The not-so-brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 8 on the list of the top 25. Because of my birthday, the weekend shenanigans and the simple fact that I never totally do things the way I plan them, I’ve been falling a little of the pace of my original promise of 25 top Super Bowl moments in 25 days. No worries though, I fully intend on catching up (though I’ve decided against outsourcing some of them to writers abroad as part of Obama’s incessant demand to ‘win the future’.)

By 1979, the Pittsburgh Steelers had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were the team of the decade. They had won three Super Bowls since 1974 and had defeated their decade rival, the Dallas Cowboys, decisively in Super Bowls X and XIII.

Trying to win their fourth proved more difficult than any of the previous ones, if for no other reason than the injury toll that cropped up. The other reason was that the league was changing, whether Pittsburgh was ready or not.

The new rules, designed to open up the passing game, had been instituted the previous off-season and while Terry Bradshaw and John Stallworth might have been happy, these changes took out a piece of the Steel Curtain.

Part of the Steelers strategy in their early addition of the Cover-2 defense was to manhandle receivers all the way down the field, making them regret their decision to even think about running a route (much less catching an actual pass).

Yet the Steel Curtain wasn’t one-dimensional and talented cornerbacks Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas overcame the new changes without the catastrophic consequences that some had predicted.

Super Bowl XIV

Advancing once again to the Super Bowl, the veteran Steelers faced the Los Angeles Rams. L.A. were newcomers to football’s biggest stage and had avenged the previous year’s shutout loss the Cowboys by denying Tom Landry’s team in a game that “America’s Team” had seen as a formality in the NFC Championship.

And though the Steelers were the consummate champions, the Rams took a 13-10 lead at the half and led in fourth quarter, 19-16. Having knocked star receiver/acrobat Lynn Swann out of the game with an injury, L.A. (playing on their home field in Pasadena) looked like they might pull off the upset.

But while Swann may have been injured, Pittsburgh’s less heralded All-Pro wideout, John Stallworth, was not.

60 Slot Hook and Go

At their own 27 yard line and facing a crucial 3rd and 8, the play call came in. It was 60 Slot Hook and Go, a play Stallworth remembered hadn’t worked nearly every time it had been used previously.

Faking a handoff, Terry Bradshaw hung a pass in the air that at first seemed destined to overshoot it’s intended target and land incomplete.

“My initial thought, and this is exactly what I thought, I said ‘damn it Bradshaw, you’ve overthrown me” said Stallworth. “And (I) really just turned away from the ball and just started to run.”

The long-striding Alabamian was up to the task. As immortal NFL films announcer John Facenda had noted earlier in the decade, “locals say John Stallworth is like a combination of sipping whiskey and white lightning—smooth, with a strong finishing kick.”

And that finishing kick allowed him to get under the ball and away from the Rams secondary, hauling in a game-changing 73-yard touchdown that gave Pittsburgh the lead for good. When the final gun sounded, they stood on top yet again, 31-19.

The End of Football’s Second Great Dynasty

It was the last shining moment for the Steelers of that era. Their once healthy dynasty would slowly whither in the coming years as retiring legends simply couldn’t be replaced (how exactly could someone ever replace Mean Joe Greene?)

On that night though, Stallworth and the Steel city could celebrate once again. They were the first team to ever win four Super Bowls and set the foundation for a hallowed franchise whose success continues to this day.