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.

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