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.

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