January 18, 2010

1976: Steelers Top Cowboys in Super Bowl X

The Pittsburgh Steelers had won the first championship in franchise history in 1974 and put together an even better season in ’75. Under Head Coach Chuck Noll, who had carefully constructed the team since taking over in 1969, the Steelers went 12-2 in winning the AFC Central. The defense, built around DT “Mean Joe” Greene, DE L.C. Greenwood, linebackers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, and CB Mel Blount, who led the league with 11 interceptions, was superb. The offense was outstanding as well, as QB Terry Bradshaw matured into an outstanding performer, second-year WR Lynn Swann became a starter and caught 49 passes with 11 TDs, and durable FB Franco Harris gained 1246 yards on the ground.

Pittsburgh defeated the Baltimore Colts in the Divisional round and Oakland Raiders for the conference title, which put them in the Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas, under Head Coach Tom Landry, had missed the postseason in 1974 for the first time after eight straight appearances, but bounced back in ’75 with a 10-4 record. It wasn’t enough to beat out Washington for the NFC East title, but did provide the Cowboys with a wild card berth. There had been key retirements in the previous offseason, most notably DT Bob Lilly, FB Walt Garrison, and defensive back Cornell Green, plus the loss of RB Calvin Hill to the World Football League. But newcomers like FB Robert Newhouse and defensive ends Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Harvey Martin joined the veteran core of QB Roger Staubach, WR Drew Pearson, DT Jethro Pugh, LB Lee Roy Jordan, and CB Mel Renfro allowing the team to perform better than anticipated.

The Cowboys won a thrilling Divisional playoff game at Minnesota and then dominated the Rams in the NFC Championship game to advance to the Super Bowl – the first wild card team to do so.

Super Bowl X was played on January 18, 1976 on a cool, clear day with 80,187 fans present at the Orange Bowl in Miami. The Steelers were heavily favored, but it was Dallas getting the first break of the game that in turn led to the initial score. Pittsburgh was forced to punt after its initial series, but punter Bobby Walden bobbled the snap, recovered at the Steelers 29 yard line, and was tackled by Dallas TE Billy Joe DuPree. On the next play, Staubach threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson.

Pittsburgh came right back on the next possession, driving 67 yards on eight plays, including a 32-yard pass from Bradshaw to Swann, and concluding with Bradshaw hitting TE Randy Grossman with a seven-yard TD toss to even the score. The Cowboys countered with a 46-yard, 11-play drive that resulted in a 36-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch that put them back in the lead, 10-7.

The score remained the same until early in the fourth quarter, with Steelers placekicker Roy Gerela missing two field goal attempts along the way. After the second, Dallas FS Cliff Harris patted Gerela on the helmet and mockingly congratulated him, which enraged Pittsburgh LB Jack Lambert, who flung Harris to the ground (and came close to being ejected). What was already an intense contest moved to a higher level, especially the Steelers defense and in particular Lambert (pictured at right), who played like a man on fire the rest of the way (he totaled 14 tackles for the day).

With just over thirteen minutes remaining in the game, Walden boomed a 59-yard punt (making up for his earlier miscue) that backed the Cowboys to their own 19 yard line. Dallas tried a flea-flicker play, with Staubach handing off to RB Preston Pearson who faked a run and then lateraled back to the quarterback. However, CB J.T. Thomas didn’t bite on the fake run and Drew Pearson, the primary target, remained covered; Staubach tried to run and lost a yard. The next two plays also resulted in lost yardage, and Dallas had to punt. Steelers RB Reggie Harrison blocked the kick by Mitch Hoopes, which bounced back through the end zone for a safety.

Now down by a point, the Steelers received the free kick following the safety and moved 25 yards in six plays for Gerela to kick a 36-yard field goal that put them ahead for the first time, 12-10. Dallas got the ball back and Staubach, again throwing for Drew Pearson, was intercepted by SS Mike Wagner, who returned the pickoff 19 yards (pictured below). The result of the turnover was an 18-yard field goal by Gerela to extend Pittsburgh’s lead to 15-10.

After Dallas failed to move in its possession, the Steelers got the ball back with 4:25 remaining on the clock. Shortly thereafter, in the biggest play of the game, Bradshaw instructed Swann to run a deep pattern. The Cowboys were guessing pass and blitzed heavily, with the quarterback just getting rid of the ball before being knocked unconscious by Harris and DT Larry Cole. What he didn’t get to see was Swann streaking beyond CB Mark Washington to gather in the pass that traveled 59 yards in the air as the play ended up covering 64 yards for a touchdown.

Gerela missed the extra point, and so the score stood at 21-10 as the Cowboys got the ball back on their 20 yard line with just under three minutes remaining. Dallas, especially with Staubach at quarterback, had gained a reputation for exciting comebacks, and sought to do it again as they drove quickly downfield. WR Percy Howard caught a 34-yard TD pass to narrow Pittsburgh’s margin to four points.

The Cowboys attempted an onside kick that was recovered by Steelers guard Gerry Mullins at the Dallas 42. Pittsburgh’s offense ran down the clock, and on fourth-and-nine Coach Noll chose not to punt, avoiding a possible block or fumble, and having supreme confidence in his defense. RB Rocky Bleier was held to a two-yard gain and Dallas took over with no time outs remaining. They made it to the Pittsburgh 38, but any possibility of a miracle finish was snuffed out as FS Glen Edwards intercepted Staubach’s pass into the end zone. The final score was 21-17.

Lynn Swann was the game’s MVP, catching 4 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. Terry Bradshaw (pictured at left) completed 9 of 19 passes for 209 yards with two TDs and none picked off. Franco Harris led the running game with 82 yards on 27 carries. Overall, the Steelers outgained the Cowboys 339 yards to 270 and, most importantly, had no turnovers to Dallas’ three.

Roger Staubach completed 15 of his 24 passes for 204 yards, but had three interceptions in addition to two touchdown passes. Robert Newhouse was the team’s leading ground gainer with 16 carries for 56 yards. Preston Pearson caught the most passes, with 5 (for 53 yards), while Drew Pearson was held to just two receptions for a team-leading 59 yards with the one score.

At the time, the game was widely considered to have been the most exciting and intensely played of the Super Bowls to date. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was a second consecutive championship; they would go on to win the AFC Central the next four seasons and achieve two more championships in that time span. Dallas also remained a contender, making it to the postseason in each of the next eight years; they would make it back to the Super Bowl twice.