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.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Super Bowl Moment VII: A tragedy even Shakespeare couldn't have conceived...

Stevvvvvvve Perry! (Sorry Cowboy fans I it's a reflex to laugh at this).

Sometimes, no matter how good you are for an entire career, one mistake can permanently alter your legacy. Most of time that this tragic event might occur, it’s in a relatively small circle of society, but for a professional football player in the Super Bowl, one slip-up can be ingrained in the minds of millions for decades.

Generally speaking, no one roots for something like this to happen. You want your team to win the Super Bowl; you don’t want the other team to hand it to you on the heels of some terrible mistake (unless, perhaps, it’s a mistake by Terrell Owens). Yet these game-changing errors occur. And none was bigger than Jackie Smith’s in Super Bowl XIII.

It’s truly one of the great Super Bowl tragedies.

If he played today, he’d be on my fantasy team…

Coming into the NFL in the 1960’s, Jackie Smith was an anomaly. Playing tight end, he represented a type of player who was still largely decades away. His ability to run and catch was nearly unprecedented for a man at his position (with the notable exception of Mike Ditka).

Playing on the Cardinals (a perpetually struggling organization), he was a bright spot amid a team largely bereft of talent. (He even was the team punter in his first three seasons.)

In one 45 game period between 1967 and 1970, he had at least one reception and started 121 straight games at the height of his career. His finest season came in 1967 when the 28 year old Smith hauled in 56 receptions for (get this) 1205 yards and 5 touchdowns (and he even rushed for three touchdowns).

As good as Smith was, it had little to no effect on the general trajectory of his team though. Only twice in his 15 year stint with the Cardinals did they make the playoffs, never advancing anywhere close to a Super Bowl.

This was the era before free agency, so a player who had the misfortune of being stuck on a bad team could go their entire career without ever playing in a truly meaningful game.

This appeared to have happened to Smith as his career wound down in 1977, hampered by injuries that had long since ruined his streak for consecutive games-started.

But he was saved at the doorstep of an ignominious retirement by what was the very face of success in the NFL: Tom Landry.

The Cowboys

Landry and his Dallas Cowboys were fresh off defeating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XV 27-10 and were gearing up to repeat, one-upping the Steelers in their decade-long race to win the most Lombardi trophies.

Adding a veteran like Smith was a win-win for all sides. Smith would finally get a chance to play on a legitimate title-contender. For Landry, who had experienced success adding a veteran tight-end before (Mike Ditka had helped the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl in the 71-72 season), Smith was an acquisition that added insurance to his already formidable receiving corps.

Interestingly enough, Smith didn’t catch a single pass in 1978 with the Cowboys, though he played in 12 games and displayed the blocking ability that had helped to make him a five-time Pro Bowler.

The Cowboys once again advanced to the Super Bowl, blanking the Rams 28-0 in the NFC Championship game. In the Super Bowl, almost inevitably, they faced their nemesis: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Super Bowl XIII

Pittsburgh had won the first Super Bowl meeting between the two in Super Bowl XIII, 21-17. It had been a very tight game that the Steelers had triumphed in by a narrow margin. Now, the Cowboys (with an ecstatic 38 year old Jackie Smith) would have a chance at revenge.

The pregame talk had been done mostly by Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson who quipped about Terry Bradshaw’s supposed lack of intelligence: “He couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’.”

Needless to say, both sides were well motivated.

And the game didn’t disappoint, turning into an instant classic. Though the defenses were strong, the halftime score failed to reflect this. It had been a free-scoring pace (21-14 in Pittsburgh’s favor).

In the third quarter though, Dallas drove downfield, looking destined to tie the game at 21 apiece. Finally, on third and 3 at the Pittsburgh ten yard line, Staubach and the Cowboys turned to Jackie Smith to catch a pass for the first time all season.

It seemed like the perfect ploy. Who would suspect the man who hadn’t had a single reception all year long? And, from a Cowboy perspective, who would be better in those circumstances than the man who’d had more catches than any other tight end in that era?

When you watch the replay, Smith isn’t just open, he’s wide open. There isn’t even a Steeler defender in the picture. Staubach could’ve underhanded it if he’d wanted to (in fact, he practically did underhand it judging by how soft the toss was).

But the man who’d made his career on being so dependable and so good at receiving…dropped it. The ball was in his hands. Everyone, including Cowboys radio announcer Verne Lundquist, was convinced and called it a touchdown.

Yet just as quickly as the ball had landed in Smith’s hands, it bounced right off and ricocheted harmlessly onto the ground in the endzone for an agonizing incompletion. Fourth down.

“Oh bless his heart he’s got to be the sickest man in America” declared a crestfallen Lundquist. It may have been a statement that was slightly overblown, but not by much. (You can see the play here, just skip to 12:52 mark.)

The Cowboys settled for a field goal (making it 21-17 Steelers). And while Dallas rallied late, they fell short 35-31 in the end. The difference had been the four points that Smith’s drop had directly cost them.

The aftermath

There are few times when one player’s error is so tangible in the way it costs his team, but this was clearly one of them. It was cruel irony that a man who’d made his entire football life around being reliable as a pass-catcher dropped the biggest pass of his career.

Smith retired after that season, having come so close to a Super Bowl, only to lose it in the most excruciating of circumstances. And while he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994  as one of the best players in his position ever, his legacy will forever be scarred in the minds of football fans by the final play of his career.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Super Bowl Moment VI: Lynn Swann mixes football and ballet with great effect (unless you're a Cowboys fan)...

A picture in concentration, Swann held on for a big play.

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 6 on the list of the top 25.

By January 1976, ten years into the Super Bowl era, two things were very clear. First, the Super Bowl was fast becoming one of the nation’s annual excuses to eat and drink way too much and be hungover the next day at work. And second, the two leagues that had seemed miles apart barely a decade earlier had now exchanged roles completely.

Since winning the first two Super Bowls to prove their so-called dominance, the old NFL (now known as the NFC) had managed only one win in eight tries. Only the Cowboys, on their way to becoming known as “America’s Team,” had carried the flag for the National Football Conference.

Teams that had been barely a blip on the nation’s radar when the Super Bowl began were now winning it nearly every season. First Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins had shown America what perfection looked like. 
Now, the team from Steel Town, USA would show everyone what a modern dynasty was.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, wrought from the vision of their head coach Chuck Noll, had drafted smarter than perhaps any team ever (even to this day). In a single draft during 1974, the Steelers had landed four future Hall of Famers, including wide receiver John Stallworth, center Mike Webster and game-changing linebacker Jack Lambert.

But it was Noll’s first pick in that draft, wide receiver Lynn Swann from USC, who would captivate the country not merely for his talent, but because he seemed so out of place in professional football.

Playing for the Steelers made Swann a paradoxical figure. When people think of Pittsburgh’s football team in that era (or Pittsburgh itself for that matter) they imagine a person like Swann’s fellow ’74 draftee, Jack Lambert, a hard-nosed, blue collar-type who became famous for a sneer which only highlighted his many missing front teeth.

They were tough, steely men who destroyed you physically and mentally. They attacked remorselessly until you waved the white flag. This usually occurred about midway through the third quarter when only your third-string quarterback remained, though even he would already have the telltale grass stuck in his helmet from being driven into the ground by Steeler pass-rushers.

Even their cornerbacks, Mel Blount (a Hall of Famer himself) and J.T. Thomas were big and could hit hard (a concept Deion Sanders never became familiar with). All aspects of their defense petrified opponents.

It was into this environment that Lynn Swann stepped as an All-American who’d plied his college trade at flashy USC. Swann didn’t acclimate overly well in his first season, but roared to success in his second.

As NFL films once noted, “He caught only 11 passes in his first season, but in his second season he caught 11 touchdowns.” The turnaround was tremendous.

And though the Steelers had triumphed in Swann’s rookie season of 1974 (defeating the Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX) he had unfinished business in the NFL’s top game. This was because he had not made a catch, nor even been thrown to in the Steelers’ first Super Bowl. When Pittsburgh advanced to the Super Bowl again the next season, Swann set out to remedy his non-impact.

That goal was made tougher, however, by the fact that Swann had sustained a concussion in previous week during the AFC Championship game at the hands of their classic nemesis: the Oakland Raiders.

Raiders’ safety George Atkinson had swung his forearm into Swann’s head, knocking him to the ground and nearly causing his helmet to pop off (what Raiders’ linebacker Phil Villapiano dubbed as the “can-opener” which you can see here in the first minute of the video on O.J. Simpson).

Almost unbelievably, the “can-opener” was a completely legal NFL move at that point (it’s a wonder any receiver caught for a thousand yards before rule changes in 1978 started to drastically reduce contact on receivers.)

But Swann played, having been motivated by Cliff Harris, the starting safety of the Steelers Super Bowl opponent, the Cowboys. Harris said in the week before the game that “I'm not going to hurt anyone intentionally. But getting hit again while he's running a pass route must be in the back of Swann's mind.”

Needless to say, Swann was now desperate not just to make a catch in the Super Bowl, but make a play that would shut up the bellicose Cowboys.

And on a crucial third down from nearly their own endzone late in the first half, Swann went far in accomplishing that. Steeler quarterback, the perpetually bald Terry Bradshaw, simply lofted the ball up for Swann to go and get it.

Dallas cornerback Mark Washington was glued to him in coverage, but Swann simply jumped over him. And even when Washington looked to have broken up the pass despite being out-jumped, Swann fell back on a weapon that seemed as out of place in football as it did in Pittsburgh especially: the ballet.

Hilarious as it sounds (and, frankly, is) there is truth to this part of the story. The great Lynn Swann, wide receiver for the tough-guy Steelers, did ballet to help him with football.

He once said in an interview that the ballet “helped a great deal with body control, balance, a sense of rhythm, and timing.” It also helped him with his already ridiculous ability to jump.

And using that enhanced sense of body control and balance, Swann had the presence of mind to reach out and catch the ball after tipping it to himself...all while falling down and smothered by the desperate Cowboy defensive back.

It remains one of the finest catches in Super Bowl history, a 53-yard grab that exhibited a perfect marriage between football’s strength and the ballet’s grace. It was embodied in Swann, who went onto catch four passes for 161 yards, capping it off with a game-deciding 63-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers triumphed in the end, 21-17. Swann had gone from no receptions the year before and almost not playing to becoming the first wide-receiver to win Super Bowl MVP.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Super Bowl Moment V: Garo Yepremian almost sinks the whole thing...

Even Tim Tebow's throwing mechanics are better than Garo's...

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 5 on the list of the top 25.

Though football has become one of the most prominent sports (if not the most prominent) in America, it’s the only one that hasn’t been significantly touched by globalization. The percentage of foreign-born players is almost non-existent.

Yet there have been famous foreigners in the NFL and, believe it or not, one of them executed what remains to this day as the most un-athletic play in Super Bowl history.

His name was Garo Yepremian and his route to the NFL was astonishing.

Coming from the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus, his family longed for the classic American Dream. 

Following his family's immigration, he had a wild idea watching an American football game on TV. He could kick.

After finally catching on in the NFL with the Lions, the first football game he ever saw in person was one that he played in.

Famously, after hearing that his team had lost the coin toss, he sprinted on the field and started looking for what he thought was the “lost” coin. This was only an example of the many disarmingly hilarious stories about his acclamation to professional football.

After a stint in the Army in 1968, Yepremian returned to the NFL and made the cut with the Miami Dolphins under newly installed coach Don Shula.

Shula was already a legend, having taken over the Colts at a remarkably young age and guided them to the infamous loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Now, he intended to make good on his past mistakes. He chased perfection.

And in 1972, the Dolphins found it. Yepremian became the team’s leading scorer that season and kicked the game-winner in what was the longest game in NFL history (a double overtime contest against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional playoff round).

As a team, Miami went a perfect 14-0 during the regular season, marching with a sense of inevitability to the Super Bowl, a game where they’d lost only season before to the Cowboys.

Facing them were the Washington Redskins, at that point coached by the charismatic George Allen (a man with unscrupulous friends in high places).

After jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the Dolphins utilized their three-pronged ground attack of Mercury “Worst Rapper Ever” Morris, Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka to kill the clock. The strategy worked beautifully and with just over two minutes left, they sent Yepremian out to kick a chip-shot field goal to ice the game.

What ensued remains one of the most hilarious plays in football history.

The kick was blocked by Washington, who were fighting desperately to preserve the game as one that they had any hope of winning. Bouncing backward, the ball found Yepremian, who picked it up.

(At this point it’s worth pointing out that Garo should’ve just fallen on the football and limited the damage.)

But Yepremian has always been one to march to the beat of his own drummer and the Cyprian star decided he’d have a go at throwing it downfield. Unfortunately, he possessed no ability once-so-ever at throwing and the ball slipped right threw his hands, traveling not forward but backward.

It looked as hilarious as it sounds (if not more), but Garo wasn’t done yet. He batted the ball up in the air, where the unbelieving Mike Bass of the Redskins snatched it and ran for a 49 yard touchdown.

In one fell-swoop, Yepremian had not only not made the field goal, he’d provided a lifeline to Washington, who now only trailed 14-7.

Thankfully for the health of Yepremian (who might’ve been in mortal danger had the game gone against Miami at that point), the Dolphins held on. They achieved perfection (and haven’t let anyone forget it incase you were wondering).

It was a horribly un-athletic play worthy of recognition though, and while Garo Yepremian was named by more than a few as the best kicker of the 1970’s, everyone remembers him for Garo’s Gaffe.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Super Bowl Moment IV: O'Brien becomes Vinatieri before Vinatieri...

Giving 'em the old toe ball...

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 4 on the list of the top 25.

The knock on kickers in football has always been “they’re not real football players.” I always find this funny, first because I immediately summon a montage in my mind’s eye of kickers either whiffing horribly on special teams tackles or getting lit up by the other team's gunners

And second because the guys who say that type of stuff are the same guys who are most anxious when their “non-football player” is lining up to kick a make-or-break field goal in January.

Interestingly enough, kickers haven’t always been liable for such treatment (though subjected to it nonetheless). They weren’t always so specialized in one role, often taking on kicker only as a secondary position to some other skill set (usually as a wide receiver).

This was certainly the case with Baltimore Colts rookie kicker Dave O’Brien in 1970. (And yes, they were the Baltimore Colts at this point, their owner having not yet swindled the city and moved to Indi.) He’d been drafted as a wide receiver in the third round out of Cincinnati. In fact, he was a pretty good pass-catcher/kicker combo, having led the nation in scoring during his senior season.

Coming to the Colts was a culture shock for O’Brien though. His long hair, as it so often became in that period, was a statement regardless of actual character. And there were few teams who embodied the old-school, establishment mentality of the NFL like the Baltimore Colts.

After all, it had been the Colts who’d provided the villain so perfectly against Joe Namath (another long-haired statement-maker) in Super Bowl III. They’d been shocked by the loss and had failed to make the playoffs the following season.

As an aging team stacked with veterans like Bubba Smith, Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall, they looked at the rookie O’Brien with suspicion.

It didn’t help that O’Brien wasn’t exactly Mr. Automatic. In the 1970 regular season, he hit only 55% of his field goal tries. His worst ratio was in the 30-39 yard range where he was just four for nine. He’d also missed two extra points (one miss is a right-off, but two?)

Despite the troubles of their kicker, Baltimore notched an 11-2-1 regular season record almost by habit. They weren’t especially fantastic in any single category, but they were 7-0-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They defined the classic archetype of “crafty veterans.”

In the playoffs, the Colts reached the Super Bowl by avoiding mistakes. After having at least one turnover in every game of the season, Baltimore had no turnovers in their first two playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl.

They faced the Dallas Cowboys, who were only a decade removed from going 0-11 in their inaugural 1960 season. Led by the defense that would one day be nicknamed the “Doomsday Defense,” they were formidable opposition for Unitas, Morrall and the Colts.

In fact, the game itself was marred by mistakes on both sides. Baltimore, who’d navigated the playoffs up till that point with no turnovers, proceeded to commit seven (three interceptions, four fumbles). Dallas committed four turnovers themselves, but also an astounding ten penalties.

The best play of the day (a 75 yard touchdown pass from Unitas to John Mackey) only occurred as the result of a highly fortuitous deflection off Cowboys defensive backs.

And the jubilation among the Colts was quickly tempered by O’Brien missing the extra point (there must have been a stomach-wrenching sense of foreboding among Colts fans seeing this).

Trailing late in the game 13-6, Baltimore’s defense made two massive plays. Free safety Rick Volk made an interception and took it all the way down to the Dallas three yard line, resulting in a game-tying rushing score from Tom Nowatzke.

Two possessions later, linebacker Mike Curtis intercepted Dallas QB Craig Morton again. And this time, with only 59 seconds left on the clock and possessing the ball at Dallas’ 28 yard line, Davey O’Brien probably began thinking he would have a role to play.

Sure enough, two clock-killing run plays later O’Brien began trotting on the field for a 32 yard field goal with five seconds remaining.

I wonder what he was thinking at that exact moment. Maybe he was pondering how ironic it was that the field goal he’d have to make to win the Super Bowl was in the range he’d been least effective at all season (4-9 in the 30-39 yard range).

Maybe he was thinking about how, if he couldn’t make an extra point in the first quarter, he’d now drill a longer kick in the much more pressure-filled environment of the fourth quarter.

Whatever O’Brien was thinking, he trotted onto the field just the same. In the classic style of the straight-on kicker who used to dominate the NFL landscape but is now non-existent, O’Brien made solid contact with the ball. And finally, when the game mattered most, he delivered.

in history. (One of the many random and useless talents I have it be able to recite every Super Bowl champion and I always used to screw it up because I’d forget the 1970 Colts…no offense Baltimore but you once cost me two 30 racks for fucking this up so I’m a little bitter.)

The team of veterans who’d once ridiculed and marginalized their rookie kicker celebrated like they’d been unable to do only years before thanks to Joe Namath. They had their revenge.

In many ways it was the end of an era and the beginning of another. It was the first year of the NFL-AFL merger, forming the modern AFC-NFC structure that exists to this day.

The game also closed the book on Johnny Unitas in football’s biggest games. His play hadn’t determined the outcome, but his ability to win was proven uncanny once again.

And just as the door was closing on Unitas it opened for Dallas. Coached by the innovative Landry, they would dominate the NFL in the 70’s along with the Dolphins, Raiders and Steelers. The following season, Landry and newly minted starting quarterback Roger Staubach would win Super Bowl VI.

Finally there was O’Brien. Vindicated and now a hero, he basked in the glow of winning the Super Bowl. This was by far the high point of his career.

The Super Bowl was now becoming a national sensation. In just four short years, it had gone from circus-exhibition game to countrywide phenomenon (the cost of a 30 second commercial during the game had nearly doubled since 1967). O’Brien’s dramatic winner was yet another sign of things to come.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Super Bowl Moment III: Namath delivers...and gives America "the finger"

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 3 on the list of the top 25.

If I  was ranking Super Bowl moments from best to worst instead of chronologically as I’ve been doing, I think this one would be near the top of the list (if not at the very top). It had all the elements of a really good Western: the sheep-like settlers (aka the American public) who expect only the obvious outcome, the villain (the Baltimore Colts) and last but certainly not least, the cool customer of a hero: Mr. Joe Namath. (In fact, if you feel so compelled, listen to some Western music now to get into the spirit of things and indulge your inner dork like I do all-too often.)

It was perfectly poignant that Namath was the one who positioned himself to break the NFL’s vice-grip on the championship in Super Bowl III, since his story was so intertwined with the success of the AFL in the first place.

He’d won a National Championship with Alabama and headed towards professional football like a meteor, destined to collide with maximum impact even before the legendary Bear Bryant had declared him “the greatest athlete I ever coached.” Yet, for the first time in a long time, the top college talent had more than one option about what to do.

Thanks to a clever tactic of holding their draft on the same exact day as the NFL (November 28th, 1964), the AFL (who were competing directly with their older NFL rivals) could get the attention of top players who were the lifeblood of the fledgling league.

That said, the real lifeblood of any league is money. And the upstart AFL, spearheaded by wealthy men like Bud Adams and Lamar Hunt, had plenty of financial muscle-power.

After being drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals 12th overall and first overall by the AFL’s New York Jets, Namath chose New York and the less-heralded AFL. It probably helped that he also received a then-record $427,000 salary. Nonetheless, the AFL had what it coveted: a stone-cold superstar quarterback.

Namath famously acclimated to the heightened sports stage of New York City like no other athlete since Mickey Mantle, earning the immortal nickname Broadway Joe for his famous actions on the field and off of it.
Who does things like this? Broadway Joe.

“I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde” he once said (this was clearly in a time before the women’s movement had much traction).

He also earned his enormous salary by becoming the first quarterback to ever throw for 4000 yards in 1967, helping to further establish the AFL as a credible league. 

Yet the specter of being “the gimmick league” remained over the AFL as the combined score in the first two Super Bowls was 68-24 in the NFL's favor. Needless to say, the AFL was 0-2.

For Namath though, his stock continued to rise. By 1968, the Jets as a team had caught up to the talent of their quarterback, notching an 11-3 record and defeating the Raiders 27-23 to get into the Super Bowl.

Few gave Namath or the Jets a chance on football’s greatest stage. To this day they remain the greatest underdog in the Super Bowl’s illustrious history as their opponent, the Baltimore Colts, were 18-point favorites.

But Joe Namath wasn’t one to be intimidated. Famously, at the Miami Touchdown Club while accepting an award, Namath responded decisively to a heckling Baltimore fan.

“Were gonna win the game” declared the unerringly confident Namath, “I guarantee it.” With those words, his life would change, although at the time most people assumed it would be for the worst.

It remains arguably the most famous quote in the history of professional football. Of course, it retains its luster because Namath and Jets delivered the first AFL victory in Super Bowl history, 16-7.

What’s interesting is that Broadway Joe had a fairly pedestrian performance, throwing for only 206 yards, no touchdowns (but also no interceptions). It was fullback Matt Snell who managed the best game, notching 121 yards rushing and the only Jets touchdown of the day (coupled with excellent work from the Jets offensive line).

Yet more important than his on-the-field play, Namath had shifted the balance of power in professional football forever. By so brashly declaring the Jets would win despite being such immense underdogs, coupled with the simple fact that he delivered, there could only be one outcome.

The fans, the players and everyone who watched football could never again slight the AFL for being weaker. In essence, Namath and the Jets established parody in a way that no other team could have.

No other player had so publicly thumbed his nose at the establishment NFL in choosing where he would play. And no other player so perfectly embodied the rebellious nature of his league and the counter-culture of his time.

Namath’s finest moment though (the one that’s emblazoned in Super Bowl history) was after the game. And going back to my original theory that Super Bowl III had the plot of a classic Western, Namath rode off into the sunset victorious, wagging his index finger aloft to remind an awestruck America that he was, indisputably, number one.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Super Bowl Moment II: Lombardi goes out a champion...and a tradition is born

Vince Lombardi: All he did was win Championships.

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 2 on the list of the top 25 that I'm adding onto daily to countdown to Super Bowl Sunday on February 6th.

The second Super Bowl moment once again pertains to the Green Bay Packers, only in Super Bowl II this time.

Having won the NFL championship in 1965 (there was no Super Bowl at that point) and then the first Super Bowl the next season, Green Bay entered the 1967 season with one goal: to become the first professional football team ever to “three-peat.”

Vince Lombardi, Green Bay’s longtime coach, was absolutely fixated on this and never let his players think about anything else. All at once this represented one of the best and worst qualities about the legendary coach. All he cared about was winning.

HBO’s recent documentary about Lombardi did an excellent job of capturing how his relentless pursuit of victory caused problems with his family and health, but probably my favorite anecdote was regarding his color-blind treatment of players.

(And yes this is a tangent but I promise two things: 1) It's a cool story and 2) It ties into the larger seriously.)

As the story went, one of the African American players on his defense, linebacker Dave Robinson, wanted to marry a white woman. Previously, this was treated as a serious offense in a league where cruel prejudice and racism was still very prevalent. Worried, Robinson told Lombardi expecting a negative response.

Instead what he got was a bedrock resolution from the coach that it didn’t matter who he married as long as he kept up his Pro Bowl standards on the field. I always love hearing things like that. More than any innovation in tactics or training, it reveals the character of Lombardi that’s helped to make the NFL one of the most racially diverse leagues in the world today.

But back to the Packers in 1967, fighting for their three-peat. They triumphed famously over Tom Landry’s Cowboys in the epic “Ice Bowl” on nearly the final play. Quarterback Bart Starr successfully pulled off the sneak up the middle on the frozen tundra to secure another NFL championship and a ticket to Super Bowl II.

Playing the Packers was another rising football power, Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders. The Silver and Black had scored over a hundred more points than the Packers during the course of the season, but Vince Lombardi’s defense proved stout, holding prolific Oakland receiver Fred Biletnikoff to just two catches for ten yards.

The game was all but locked up for Green Bay (who were leading 26-7 in the fourth quarter) when cornerback Herb Adderley stepped in front of an errant pass from Oakland quarterback Daryle Lamonica and took the ball 60 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

When the final gun sounded, Green Bay had a 33-14 win, their second straight Super Bowl and their third straight championship. All that was left was a moment that lives on in Green Bay lore.

Though he had aged like only a President can in such a short period of time during his tenure as head coach, Lombardi sprung to life following the win, jubilant that he’d reached his goal of the three-peat.

His players, especially All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer, gave the legend a proper sendoff. They carried the Brooklyn native and historic coach off the field, beginning a long and illustrious Super Bowl tradition for winning coaches (except for you George Seifert).

It was to be his last game with the Packers, but Lombardi went out the way he had come in: winning. His life would be cut short tragically only a few years later to cancer, but his legacy had been set.

Under his tutelage, the Super Bowl had emerged from a quirky exhibition game to become a proper Championship. Three days after his death, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle would name the Super Bowl trophy after Lombardi in his honor.

Yet for all the footage, sound bites and traditions synonymous with Lombardi, the immortal image of him smiling as he was carried off the field that last time, champion once again, remains one of football’s finest hours.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Super Bowl Moment: Max McGee shrugs off the hangover to open the book on Super Bowl touchdowns...

In honor of the fact that the Super Bowl is only four cold weeks away, I’m deciding to be bold. Over the next 25 days, I’ll be adding my 25 best Super Bowl moments. Obviously, I can’t include all the great ones, but it’ll be a good mix. So here we go with the first one.

Since it’s ridiculous to actually label certain moments as being measurably better than the next (as it inevitably deteriorates into an argument between various fan bases...or dudes who've had too much Four Loko), I’m just going to go through it chronologically. And since not every Super Bowl produces especially “super” moments, I’ll leave some out (Super Bowl XXXVII…this could mean you).

But without further ado, we’ll start with one of my personal favorites:

Max McGee’s version of ‘the hangover’.

It was Super Bowl I and needless to say, the halftime show wasn’t nearly what it is today. The name itself (the Super Bowl) was the invention of American Football League head Lamar Hunt who’d seen his kids playing with a Super Ball. The light-bulb went off and he came up with name for what’s now the most popular sporting event in America.

At that time though, it was anything but established as a national event. No companies were vying for commercial time, Janet Jackson wasn’t even a year old (and her nipple ring was still decades away).

The inaugural Super Bowl saw the Green Bay Packers (led by the ageless Vince Lombardi) against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was in many ways a clash of old vs. new. The establishment vs. the upstarts.

The AFL had simply not gone away like every other football league that had tried to compete with the older NFL. It had endured. And now it was directly lining up against their rivals in a championship game. Everything seemed to be in place to make the final step towards legitimacy.

But there was one man who the AFL had failed to account for. And frankly, no matter what Vince Lombardi might’ve claimed, he probably hadn’t accounted for this man either. His name was Max McGee and he’d managed only four catches as a backup wide receiver all season.

In the well-oiled machine that was the Packer dynasty, McGee had seen his playing time decline steadily as his age pushed him closer to retirement from football. Though he’d been a Pro Bowler, but was now playing only in blowouts.

McGee was so convinced that he wouldn’t be playing in the all-important Super Bowl that he violated the strict team curfew the night before the game, drinking and carousing in the Hollywood night.

The next morning he managed to get himself to breakfast but made sure to tell the man who’d taken his job, Boyd Dowler, that “I hope you don’t get hurt. I’m not in very good shape.”

Naturally, Dowler separated his shoulder three plays into the game and Lombardi ordered the struggling McGee into the game (his forehead no doubt bumping like Charlie Murphy’s). To cap it all off, McGee hadn’t even brought his helmet out of the locker room and scrambled to grab a reserve linemen’s.

Yet there was more to Mac McGee than met the eye. He might not have been the fastest receiver (and no, NO ONE ever accused him of that), but he had an exceptional ability to catch.

McGee reels it in for Green Bay.
So when Packer quarterback (and Hall of Famer) Bart Starr threw behind McGee on a crossing route, he just did what he’d always done: find a way to make a play.

“I stuck my hand back just to try to break up the interception and the damned ball stuck to the palm of my hand. I had no idea I was trying to catch it” joked McGee. It was a remarkable display of catching and, by his own admission, luck.

(Plus he was doing all this despite the hangover. For anyone who’s engaged in physical activity the night after drinking I’m pretty sure we’d agree this was the greatest accomplishment.)

He proceeded to dash 24 yards for the first touchdown in Super Bowl history, opening the book on scoring on football’s greatest stage in grand fashion. It was indicative of what was coming. The game, like the league itself, was destined for great things. The Packers went onto win the game easily, 35-10.

That it was started on that particular day by that particular man with those circumstances makes it an amazing story. He truly was everything most American athletes aspire to be: a perfect balance of skill, coordination and alcohol.