January 30, 2012

1983: Riggins Runs Redskins Past Dolphins to Win Super Bowl XVII

Super Bowl XVII capped a 1982 NFL season that was shortened to nine games due to a players’ strike and, as a result, necessitated a change to the usual alignment and playoff structure. The divisions were done away with and the teams with the eight best records in each conference qualified for a postseason tournament. The clubs that came out of the process to meet in the Super Bowl on January 30, 1983 were the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins.

The Redskins, under second-year Head Coach Joe Gibbs, had made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1976 and did so in impressive fashion, topping the NFC with an 8-1 record. QB Joe Theismann, the NFL’s top-ranked passer (91.3 rating), operated behind an outstanding offensive line known as “The Hogs”. Wide receivers Charlie Brown and Art Monk were productive, and FB John Riggins (pictured above), typically lined up as a single back in a two-tight end offense, gained 553 yards during the season and had been most impressive in the playoffs with 444 yards on 98 carries (4.5 avg.) in three dominating wins over the Lions, Vikings, and, for the NFC title, the Cowboys. The defense lacked big names but gave up the fewest points in the NFL. To top it off, a special teams performer was selected as league MVP by the Associated Press and Sporting News – PK Mark Moseley, successful on 20 of 21 field goal attempts. Moseley and DB Mike Nelms, an outstanding kick returner, were both named to the Pro Bowl.

The Miami Dolphins, coached by Don Shula, were the second-seeded AFC team at 7-2. With the unspectacular but mobile David Woodley at quarterback, Miami emphasized the ground game on offense, led by Pro Bowl FB Andra Franklin (701 yards). The tough, league-leading defense contained several notable players with last names that began with B and thus were dubbed “The Killer Bees”. They included NT Bob Baumhower, ends Doug Betters and Kim Bokamper, LB Bob Brudzinski, and sibling safeties Glenn and Lyle Blackwood. Outstanding defenders in the 3-4 alignment with non-B last names included inside linebackers A.J. Duhe and Earnest Rhone and CB Don McNeal. Miami defeated the Patriots and Chargers in the first two rounds of the playoffs and then shut out the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game.

There was a giant crowd of 103,667 on hand at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California for the contest. The teams traded punts to open the first quarter, but on the second play of the second Miami possession Woodley threw a sideline pass to WR Jimmy Cefalo, who made the catch 21 yards up the field and continued on to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown.

The Redskins went three-and-out on their next series and the Dolphins ran effectively when they got the ball back, with RB Tony Nathan gaining 12 yards up the middle and Franklin adding another 13 yards on two carries. But with a first down on the Washington 37, Woodley dropped back to pass and was hit hard by DE Dexter Manley, forcing a fumble. DT Dave Butz recovered for the Redskins, who then proceeded to put together an eight-play scoring drive that stretched into the early seconds of the second quarter. After converting a third down to get to the Miami 35, it was Riggins running on five consecutive plays and gaining 21 yards. Moseley kicked a 31-yard field goal and Miami’s lead was cut to 7-3.

The Dolphins started their next series with good field position thanks to CB Fulton Walker’s 42-yard kickoff return to the Miami 47. They drove methodically down the field with Nathan and Franklin running the ball and Woodley throwing short passes. However, after getting a first-and-goal at the Washington eight yard line, the Dolphins couldn’t get into the end zone and settled for Uwe von Schamann’s 20-yard field goal that capped the 13-play possession and made the score 10-3.

The Redskins came back with a long drive of their own, going 80 yards in 11 plays. Theismann started off by passing to TE Rick Walker for 27 yards and the tight end followed up by running for six yards on a reverse. Two Riggins carries garnered a first down at the Miami 43 and Theismann threw twice for 19 yards, 15 on a screen pass to Riggins. Two plays later, Theismann ran the ball 12 yards to the 13 and, following two more runs by Riggins that got the ball to the four, Theismann threw to WR Alvin Garrett in the corner of the end zone. Moseley’s extra point tied the game at 10-10, but it didn’t stay that way for long. Fulton Walker returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown (pictured below) – the first on a kick return in Super Bowl history. It put Miami back in front at 17-10, and that remained the score at halftime. It would prove to the high water mark of the game for the Dolphins.

The clubs traded punts to start the third quarter before the Redskins put together a six-play, 61-yard scoring drive. The highlight was Garrett running on a reverse for 44 yards to the Miami nine. Moseley kicked a 20-yard field goal that narrowed the score to 17-13.

After neither team could generate a first down on the next three possessions, Theismann tossed a pass that Duhe intercepted at the Washington 47. The Dolphins were unable to capitalize, however, as Woodley’s long pass intended for Cefalo was deflected and picked off by FS Mark Murphy at the five yard line. Riggins ran twice for 13 yards but, with the ball out to the 18, disaster nearly struck for the Redskins when Theismann’s first-down throw intended for Charlie Brown was tipped up into the air and almost intercepted by Bokamper. As the defensive tackle tried to pull the ball in, and with nothing between him and the goal line, Theismann alertly reached over to jar the ball loose for an incompletion.

Washington continued its drive, with the game entering the fourth quarter, to the Miami 43 and a long pass by Theismann intended for Brown was intercepted by Lyle Blackwood at the one. In a critical series, the Dolphins were able to gain only three yards and Tom Orosz’s punt sailed 41 yards - with a three-yard return by Nelms, the Redskins had good field position at the their 48.

They made the most of it. Following two runs by Riggins and a carry by RB Clarence Harmon, Washington faced a fourth-and-one situation and went for it. Riggins took the handoff, headed toward left end, and kept going all the way for a 43-yard touchdown. With Moseley’s extra point, the Redskins took a 20-17 lead.

The Washington defense was steadily taking control and the Dolphins responded with a short series that started at their 22 and ended with a net loss of a yard at the 21. Orosz punted only 32 yards, Nelms returned for 12, and the Redskins again had outstanding field position, starting at the Miami 41.

It was all ball control now as Riggins carried on six of the next seven plays. Theismann rolled out on a third down play and threw to Charlie Brown for the needed nine yards to get inside the Dolphins’ ten and three plays later he threw to Brown again for a six-yard TD that sealed the win for Washington. The 12-play drive ran nearly seven minutes off the clock and the Dolphins were down by ten points with under two minutes to play. Miami turned to backup QB Don Strock, a better passer than Woodley, but it made no difference. The Redskins won their first NFL title since 1942 by a score of 27-17.

Washington’s domination was complete, outgaining the Dolphins by 400 yards to 176 and posting 24 first downs to Miami’s 9. 276 of the Redskins’ yards came on the ground, and the Dolphins gained only 34 total yards in the second half, with no pass completions at all. Each team turned the ball over twice.

John Riggins was the game’s MVP as he rushed for 166 yards on 38 carries and a TD – 108 of those yards came in the second half. Joe Theismann (pictured at left) completed 15 of 23 passes for 143 yards with two touchdowns and two intercepted. Charlie Brown had 6 catches for 60 yards and the game-clinching TD.

For the Dolphins, David Woodley was successful on four of his 14 throws for 97 yards with the one long touchdown that accounted for most of the yardage and one interception. Jimmy Cefalo, who caught the scoring pass, had two catches for 82 yards and WR Duriel Harris pulled in the other two completions, gaining 15 yards. Andra Franklin led the ground game with 49 yards on 16 attempts. Fulton Walker, with his 190 yards on four kickoff returns for a 47.5 average and a TD, was Miami’s most productive offensive weapon.

After Coach Gibbs had received the congratulatory phone call from President Ronald Reagan and Riggins learned that he was the game’s Most Valuable Player, the irrepressible fullback said, “At least for tonight, Ron may be the President, but I’m the King.” The Super Bowl performance crowned an impressive postseason for Riggins, in which he ended up with more rushing yards in the four playoff games (610) than he did in the nine regular season contests (553).

The Redskins proved it was no fluke in 1983, putting together a record-setting offensive season while going 14-2. They again won the NFC title, but were upset by the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Miami went 12-4, losing in the Divisional round of the playoffs, although the stage was set for a return to the Super Bowl in ’84 due to the impressive play of rookie QB Dan Marino.

January 29, 2012

Past Venue: Yale Bowl

New Haven, CT

Year opened: 1914
Capacity: 64,246, down from 70,869 at opening

Yale Bowl, 1914 to date

Pro football tenants:
New York Giants (NFL), 1973-74

Postseason games hosted:

Other tenants of note:
Yale University, 1914 to date
Connecticut Bicentennials (NASL), 1976-77

Notes: Hosted NFL Giants for two seasons after Yankee Stadium was closed for major renovation and prior to completion of Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ (the team played one season at Shea Stadium as well). First bowl-shaped stadium in the US. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Scoreboard was added in 1958 that had the unusual feature of displaying the game time vertically rather than in the typical horizontal fashion (replaced in 2008). Facility underwent a major renovation in 2005-06. Largest crowd to attend a football game at the stadium was 80,000 for Yale vs. Army, Nov. 3, 1923. First football game at venue was Yale vs. Harvard, Nov. 21, 1914. First pro football game was a preseason contest between the Giants and Detroit Lions in 1960.

Fate: Still in use.

January 28, 2012

MVP Profile: Earl Morrall, 1968

Quarterback, Baltimore Colts

Age: 34
13th season in pro football, 1st with Colts
College: Michigan State
Height: 6’1” Weight: 206

After leading Michigan State to a win in the Rose Bowl, Morrall was taken in the first round of the 1956 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Following a mediocre rookie season in which he backed up Y.A. Tittle, he was dealt to Pittsburgh where he became the starter and had a fair year in ’57. Two games into 1958, he was traded to Detroit in the deal that brought Bobby Layne to the Steelers and for the next seven years he shared the job with, first, Jim Ninowski and then Milt Plum. His best season with the Lions was in 1963, when he passed for 2621 yards and 24 TDs. But when new Head Coach Harry Gilmer committed to Plum for ’65, Morrall was dealt to the New York Giants. He started in 1965 and had a good year for a 7-7 team, but missed half of ’66 due to injury and was on the bench behind Fran Tarkenton in 1967. Frustrated at once again being a backup, he was traded to the Colts during the 1968 preseason to provide insurance as number two to Johnny Unitas. When Unitas suffered a major arm injury, Morrall took over as the starting quarterback.

1968 Season Summary
Appeared in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Attempts – 317 [5]
Most attempts, game – 31 vs. San Francisco 9/15
Completions – 182 [3, tied with Fran Tarkenton]
Most completions, game – 17 vs. Minnesota 11/24, vs. Atlanta 12/1
Yards – 2909 [2]
Most yards, game – 302 vs. Chicago 10/6
Completion percentage – 57.4 [3]
Yards per attempt – 9.2 [3]
TD passes – 26 [1]
Most TD passes, game – 4 vs. Chicago 10/6
Interceptions – 17 [4, tied with Joe Kapp, Bill Kilmer & Dick Shiner]
Most interceptions, game – 3 at Atlanta 9/22, vs. LA Rams 10/27
Passer rating – 93.2 [2](Ranked 1st in system used at time)
300-yard passing games – 1
200-yard passing games – 8

Attempts – 11
Most attempts, game - 3 (for 13 yds.) vs. San Francisco 9/15
Yards – 18
Most yards, game – 13 yards (on 3 carries) vs. San Francisco 9/15
Yards per attempt – 1.6
TDs – 1

TDs – 1
Points - 6

Postseason: 3 G
Pass attempts – 64
Most attempts, game - 25 at Cleveland, NFL Championship
Pass completions – 30
Most completions, game - 13 vs. Minnesota, Western Conf. Championship
Passing yardage – 520
Most yards, game - 280 vs. Minnesota, Western Conf. Championship
TD passes – 2
Most TD passes, game - 2 vs. Minnesota, Western Conf. Championship
Interceptions – 5
Most interceptions, game – 3 vs. NY Jets, Super Bowl

Rushing attempts – 3
Most rushing attempts, game - 2 vs. NY Jets, Super Bowl
Rushing yards – -2
Most rushing yards, game - 0 at Cleveland, NFL Championship
Average gain rushing – -0.7
Rushing TDs – 0

Awards & Honors:
NFL MVP: AP, UPI, NEA, Sporting News
1st team All-NFL: AP, NEA, UPI, NY Daily News, Pro Football Weekly
2nd team All-NFL: PFWA
1st team All-Western Conference: Sporting News
Pro Bowl

Colts went 13-1 to finish first in the NFL Coastal Division while ranking second in points (402) and TDs (50). Won Western Conference Championship over Minnesota Vikings (24-14) and NFL Championship over Cleveland Browns (34-0). Lost Super Bowl to New York Jets (16-7).

Morrall returned to a backup role with the return of Unitas in 1969 and helped rally the Colts in relief in the Super Bowl win over the Cowboys following the ’70 season. He saw considerable action in place of the increasingly-brittle Unitas in 1971, but with the team undergoing a youth movement in ’72 he was traded once more, this time to the Miami Dolphins where he was reunited with his first coach in Baltimore, Don Shula. When starter Bob Griese went down with a broken leg, Morrall led the team the rest of the way to an undefeated season, but gave way to Griese in the playoffs. He stayed on another four years as a backup, finally retiring following the 1976 season at age 42 and after 21 seasons in the NFL. Often regarded as the greatest backup quarterback in league history, he twice was selected to the Pro Bowl and ended up passing for 20,809 yards and 161 TDs.


MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself).

[Updated 2/10/14]

January 27, 2012

1991: Giants Edge Bills in Super Bowl XXV

It was a showdown between two 13-3 teams in the 25th edition of the Super Bowl on January 27, 1991. The New York Giants, under Head Coach Bill Parcells, had won their first ten games in 1990 and, after thrashing the Bears in the Divisional playoff round, dethroned the two-time champion San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. In losing three of their last four regular season contests, the Giants had also lost QB Phil Simms to a foot sprain and RB Rodney Hampton to an injured leg, but backup QB Jeff Hostetler and 33-year-old RB Ottis Anderson (pictured above) both rose to the occasion. The conservative offense made few mistakes along the way, turning the ball over just 14 times in 16 games. The stifling defense was led by LB Lawrence Taylor and ranked first in the conference.

The Buffalo Bills, coached by Marv Levy, won the AFC East in 1988 and ‘89 but had not made it to the Super Bowl. Their offense was the league’s highest-scoring, led by QB Jim Kelly (who also had an able backup in Frank Reich) and featuring all-purpose RB Thurman Thomas (pictured at right) and WR Andre Reed. The outstanding defense was anchored by DE Bruce Smith and was especially strong at linebacker, with Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan, and Darryl Talley. They ran up a total of 95 points in defeating Miami in the Divisional playoff round (44-34) and the Raiders for the AFC title (51-3) to advance to the team’s first Super Bowl (the Bills won two championships in the AFL).

There was a crowd of 73,813 at Tampa Stadium for the contest between the two clubs from New York state. The Bills punted following the first series of the game and New York took over at its 31 yard line after RB Dave Meggett returned it 20 yards. The Giants put together a methodical 10-play, 58-yard drive. Hostetler completed passes of 13 yards to TE Howard Cross and 16 yards to WR Mark Ingram along the way and Matt Bahr finished the possession off with a 28-yard field goal.

Buffalo came right back when, on the second play of their next series, Kelly threw a long pass that was deflected but caught by 13-year veteran WR James Lofton for a 61-yard gain to the New York eight. The Giants defense held and Scott Norwood booted a 23-yard field goal to tie the game at 3-3.

After a punt by the Giants, the Bills put together a long scoring drive of 12 plays that extended into the second quarter and covered 80 yards. Kelly completed four passes to Reed that covered a total of 44 yards and RB Don Smith scored on a one-yard touchdown carry. Norwood’s PAT made it 10-3.

The teams traded punts and Buffalo’s Rick Tuten pinned the Giants back on their seven yard line with his. Following a gain of seven yards on a pass to Anderson, New York was penalized half the distance due to a holding penalty, putting them back at the seven, and Hostetler tripped when fading back to pass and was sacked in his end zone by Bruce Smith for a safety. The Bills were up by 12-3 and dominating the contest.

With 3:49 to go in the first half, the Giants got the ball back on their 13 following a Buffalo punt. The offense gained ground in chunks as, following a Hostetler pass to TE Mark Bavaro, Anderson ran up the middle for an 18-yard gain, Hostetler went to the air again to Ingram for 22 more, and Meggett ran around end for 17 yards to the Buffalo 24. On a third-and-seven play, Hostetler threw to Cross who clawed his way to the first down. After two incomplete passes, Hostetler found WR Stephen Baker in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown. The teams went into halftime with the Bills holding a narrow 12-10 lead.

The Giants started off the second half as they had ended the first, putting together a long scoring drive of 75 yards in 14 plays that ate up over nine minutes. Along the way, they converted on third-and-eight with Hostetler throwing to Meggett for 11 yards, Anderson had a 24-yard run, Hostetler connected with Ingram, who broke four tackles after making the catch, for 14 yards in a third-and-13 situation, and on third-and-four at the Buffalo 12, Hostetler completed a pass to Cross for nine yards. Anderson capped the long series with a one-yard scoring run and New York took the lead at 17-12.

The Bills found themselves in a fourth-and-25 situation on their next possession and had to punt from their own 38. Tuten’s kick traveled only 20 yards, giving the Giants good field position at their 42. Driving to the Buffalo 35, they went for it on fourth-and-two. The result was Anderson being thrown for a two-yard loss, and the momentum shifted back to the Bills as the game moved into the fourth quarter.

It took just four plays for Buffalo to capitalize as Thomas took the handoff on a draw play, broke two tackles, and bounded down the sideline for a 31-yard touchdown. With Norwood’s extra point, the Bills were back in front by two points at 19-17.

The Giants responded by putting together another long drive. They converted two third downs as Hostetler completed four passes and Anderson, Meggett, and FB Maurice Carthon all carried the ball. After going 74 yards in 13 plays to the Buffalo three yard line, Bahr kicked a 21-yard field goal and New York was in the lead by a point.

The teams traded punts, and Buffalo regained possession on its own 10 with 2:16 remaining on the clock. Kelly scrambled twice for nine yards and, on third-and-one, Thomas took off for 22 yards on a draw play out of shotgun formation. A pass to Reed and a nine-yard Kelly run got the ball into New York territory. Kelly threw to TE Keith McKellar, who made a shoestring catch at the 40, and Thomas ran for 11 yards to the New York 29. Kelly spiked the ball to stop the clock, which was now down to eight seconds, and Norwood came in to attempt a 47-yard field goal. There was no last-second success for the Bills, though – Norwood’s kick sailed wide to the right and the Giants were champions by a score of 20-19.

New York had a huge edge in time of possession (40:33 to 19:27), keeping the high-powered Bills and their no-huddle offense off the field. Statistically it was closer, however, as the Giants had the edge in total yards (386 to 371) and first downs (24 to 18). Neither team turned the ball over, but Buffalo suffered from dropped passes and missed tackles.

“We didn't want them to have the ball,” Bill Parcells said. “I have a lot of confidence in our defense, but I'm not so naive to think they couldn't put points on the board against us. I knew for us to have a chance to win we had to keep their offense off the field.”

Cornelius Bennett summed up the feeling of his Buffalo teammates when he said, “Scotty (Norwood) didn’t lose the football game. We lost it as a team.”

Jeff Hostetler (pictured at left) completed 20 of 32 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. Ottis Anderson was the game’s MVP as he rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries that included a TD; Dave Meggett added 48 yards on 9 attempts. Mark Ingram caught 5 passes for 74 yards and Mark Bavaro also had 5 receptions, gaining 50 yards.

For the Bills, Thurman Thomas was outstanding as he ran the ball 15 times for 135 yards and added another 55 yards on 5 pass receptions. Jim Kelly was successful on 18 of 30 throws for 212 yards. Andre Reed had 8 catches for 62 yards and James Lofton gained 61 on his one reception.

In the offseason, Bill Parcells quit as coach of the Giants and, under his successor Ray Handley, the club fell out of contention during the next two years. Buffalo continued to top the AFC, winning the next three AFC Championships. However, the one-point loss to New York was the closest they came to winning a Super Bowl during that period as they lost badly to the Redskins following the 1991 season and Dallas after ’92 and ’93.

January 26, 2012

1970: Dolphins Obtain Paul Warfield from Browns

The Miami Dolphins had been a losing team in its first four years, but took major steps to reverse that in the offseason following the ’69 season. The biggest step was replacing the team’s original head coach, George Wilson, with Don Shula, pried away from the Colts and made general manager as well as head coach. Prior to that, on January 26, 1970, the team made a significant addition to the roster by trading its first pick in the upcoming NFL draft to the Cleveland Browns for WR Paul Warfield.

The 27-year-old Warfield, who expressed surprise at the trade, was considered one of the premier wide receivers in the game. A halfback in college at Ohio State, with its ground-oriented attack under Head Coach Woody Hayes, Warfield was taken by the Browns in the first round of the 1964 draft and quickly converted to split end. It was a fortuitous move – as a rookie, he caught 52 passes for 920 yards (17.7 avg.) and nine touchdowns. He was selected to the Pro Bowl, and his addition to an offense that already included QB Frank Ryan, FB Jim Brown, and flanker Gary Collins undoubtedly played a role in winning the NFL title in ’64.

Warfield missed virtually all of the 1965 season due to a broken collarbone, however, but returned in ’66 to average 20.6 yards per catch on his 36 receptions – indeed, he never averaged under twenty yards in any of his remaining four years in Cleveland. In 1968 and ’69 he again was chosen to the Pro Bowl and in ’68 had his best year with 50 catches for 1067 yards (21.3 avg.) and 12 TDs. Overall with the Browns, he caught a total of 215 passes for 4346 yards (20.2 avg. gain) and 44 touchdowns.

In the restructured NFL, newly-merged with the American Football League, the Browns were concerned about developing a young quarterback behind the capable-but-fragile Bill Nelsen. In dealing for Miami’s spot in the first round of the draft, which was third overall, they were looking to take advantage of a highly-regarded field of quarterbacks and chose Mike Phipps from Purdue.

Said Browns owner Art Modell, “Paul has played so well for us and is such a high type person that I hated like the devil to consider any trade involving him. However, it was the overwhelming consensus of all our combined thinking that we had a pressing need for backup protection behind quarterback Bill Nelsen.”

In an effort to replace Warfield, Cleveland traded DT Jim Kanicki (who missed virtually the entire ’69 season with a broken leg), promising young RB Ron Johnson, and LB Wayne Meylan to the New York Giants to obtain WR Homer Jones. Jones had put together some outstanding seasons for the Giants in which he was a potent deep threat, but was not of the same caliber as Warfield, who ran more disciplined patterns and played with greater skill. He was coming off a bit of a lesser year in ’69, having been shifted from split end to tight end by Giants Head Coach Alex Webster with poor results.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins had a promising young quarterback in Bob Griese but a lack of speed at wide receiver. Their most productive receiver in 1969 had been TE Larry Seiple, also the team’s punter, who caught 41 passes for 577 yards and five TDs. Flanker Karl Noonan, who had a good year in ’68, slumped badly as he pulled in just 29 throws for 307 yards (10.6 avg.) and three scores, and split end Jack Clancy hadn’t come close to duplicating his 67-catch season of 1967 as he pulled in 21 passes for 289 yards (13.8 avg.) and one TD (he was traded to Green Bay). Slow-but-sure-handed WR Howard Twilley had yet to emerge, with 10 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. The addition of Warfield upgraded the receiving corps dramatically.

The team responded well to Shula’s coaching, going a surprising 10-4 in 1970 and qualifying for the postseason as a wild card team (a new feature in the NFL). While the ground game was predominant in the ball-control offense, and Griese was still a work in progress, Warfield’s presence was significant. He missed three full games due to a rib injury and caught only 28 passes, but they were good for 703 yards, which was an average of 25.1 yards-per-reception, and six touchdowns. Moreover, he attracted double-coverage from opposing defenses and Twilley improved as a possession receiver on the other side, pulling in 22 throws for 281 yards and five TDs. The catches may not have been many, but Warfield was again selected to the Pro Bowl as one of the best wide receivers in the league.

The improvement in ’70 marked the beginning of an outstanding run for Miami. The Dolphins won the next three AFC titles and the Super Bowls following the 1972 and ’73 seasons, posting a perfect record in ’72. Warfield continued to be the deep-threat receiver that kept defenses honest against the run-oriented team and was a Pro Bowl selectee after each of those seasons. He had his best statistical year with the Dolphins in ’71, catching 43 passes for 996 yards (23.2 avg.) and a league-leading 11 TDs and was also a consensus first-team All-Pro. In ’72 and ’73, Warfield caught just 29 passes apiece, but in the latter year an amazing 11 of them were for touchdowns and he was once more a first-team All-Pro.

Miami again made it to the postseason in 1974 but came up short in losing a thrilling AFC Divisional playoff game to the Raiders. Warfield was limited to nine games as a result of injury but still went to the Pro Bowl for the seventh straight year with 27 receptions for 536 yards (19.9 avg.). However, going into the season it was already known that it would be his last with the Dolphins. In a blockbuster move, the Toronto Northmen of the newly-created World Football League signed Warfield, along with FB Larry Csonka and HB Jim Kiick, to big contracts that would take effect in 1975 (the team would become the Memphis Southmen – or, more popularly, Grizzlies - before it ever took the field). Warfield left Miami, having made 156 catches for 3355 yards (21.5 avg.) and 33 touchdowns – he added 34 receptions for 717 yards (21.1 avg.) and four TDs in 11 postseason games.

In the abbreviated 1975 WFL season, Warfield caught 25 passes for 422 yards (16.9 avg.) and three scores in the eleven contests before the league folded. He returned to the NFL in 1976, but with his original team, the Browns. After two years back in Cleveland, he retired with career totals of 427 receptions for 8565 yards (20.1 avg.) and 85 TDs – his ratio of one touchdown for every five catches is still one of the best in league history.

Playing at the time he did, and largely with teams that ran the ball far more often than they threw it, Warfield’s numbers don’t look spectacular when compared to top modern wide receivers. Zone defenses had made NFL offenses ground-oriented, and the rules changes that did so much to open up the passing game for the most part didn’t come into effect until after his retirement. But the honors he received and the regard in which he was held during his career speak to his effectiveness – he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983, his first year eligible. Fast, with outstanding moves, graceful leaping ability, and dependable hands, he was a receiver that defenses had to account for and thus made him a key player on any offense he was with.

As a postscript to the trade that sent Warfield to the Dolphins, Homer Jones lasted one year with the Browns, failed to maintain a spot in the starting lineup, and caught just 10 passes – he was used more as a kickoff returner, averaging 25.5 yards on his 29 returns with one that was brought back 94 yards for a touchdown. Mike Phipps never lived up to his first-round promise in seven seasons with Cleveland. Jim Kanicki played two years for the Giants while Wayne Meylan didn’t play for them at all. However, Ron Johnson proved to be a very good runner and receiver out of the backfield, when healthy, achieving the first two thousand-yard rushing seasons in franchise history.

January 24, 2012

2010: Saints Defeat Vikings in Overtime for First NFC Title

The NFC Championship game on January 24, 2010 featured the New Orleans Saints, who had never been to a Super Bowl in their history dating back to 1967, against the Minnesota Vikings, who had been to four, but none since 1976.

The Saints, in their fourth season under Head Coach Sean Payton, featured an exciting and high-scoring offense. QB Drew Brees (pictured at right) compensated for his relatively short stature (6’0”) with outstanding passing accuracy and a quick release. The receiving corps was talented and led by WR Marques Colston (70 catches, 1074 yards). The running backs were more nondescript, but RB Pierre Thomas had emerged as the best of the group. Defense had been the team’s downfall in prior years, but under first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the platoon had become more aggressive and opportunistic. MLB Jonathan Vilma went to the Pro Bowl, as did the tandem of SS Roman Harper and 34-year-old FS Darren Sharper, who intercepted 9 passes. New Orleans won its first 13 games before losing its last three, but pulverized the Cardinals by a score of 45-14 in the Divisional playoff round.

The key player for Minnesota was 40-year-old QB Brett Favre. After 16 years with division-rival Green Bay and a season with the Jets, Favre ended the annual speculation regarding his retirement to sign with the Vikings in the preseason. Proving the critics wrong who believed he could no longer hold up to the rigors of a full season, he passed for 4202 yards and 33 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. He was helped by the arrival of rookie WR Percy Harvin (60 catches, 790 yards) and the improved play of WR Sidney Rice (83 catches, 1312 yards), who both were selected to the Pro Bowl. RB Adrian Peterson rushed for 1383 yards and 18 touchdowns. The defense led the NFL in sacks, spearheaded by DE Jared Allen, and was second best against the run.

There was a record crowd for a Saints game of 71,276 at the Louisiana Superdome. It was the Vikings scoring first, however, on the initial series of the game as they drove 80 yards in 10 plays. Favre completed six passes for 47 of those yards and Peterson closed out the drive with a 19-yard touchdown run. New Orleans came right back on its first possession, however, going 76 yards in seven plays that ended with Brees throwing a short pass to Pierre Thomas out of the backfield that covered 38 yards for a TD.

It seemed certain to be a shootout when Minnesota responded with another scoring drive. Penalties helped the Vikings along, with a defensive holding call converting a third down and, after a 15-yard gain on a Favre pass to WR Bernard Berrian that took the ball into New Orleans territory, a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call following a short running play moved them to the 31. Favre threw to Harvin for 20 yards on a third-and-seven play and, on another third-down pass, he connected with Rice for a five-yard TD. The score was 14-7 after one quarter of action.

The pace slowed as the teams traded punts, but then on a third-and 10 play from his own 36 yard line, Brees passed to RB Reggie Bush for a 28-yard gain. Two runs by Pierre Thomas, surrounding an 11-yard pass completion to TE Dave Thomas, set up a nine-yard scoring pass to WR Devery Henderson. With the successful extra point, the game was again tied at 14-14.

The contest again settled down to the teams trading punts until late in the second quarter. The Vikings got a break when Bush muffed a punt deep in his own territory and LB Kenny Onatolu recovered for Minnesota at the ten yard line. Peterson ran for six yards, but then a handoff exchange from Favre to Peterson was fumbled and LB Scott Fujita grabbed it to end the threat. The score remained tied at the half.

New Orleans got off to a fast start in the third quarter when WR Courtney Roby returned the second half kickoff 61 yards to the Minnesota 37. Brees tossed a pass to Dave Thomas that gained 17 yards and three plays later Pierre Thomas put the Saints in front with a nine-yard touchdown run.

The Vikings came back with a nine-play, 80-yard series. The big plays were three Favre passes to TE Visanthe Shiancoe (pictured at right) that totaled 67 yards. Peterson carried for the last yard and, with the successful PAT, it again was a tie game at 21-21.

Following a punt by the Saints, Minnesota was backed up to its 10 yard line but put together another promising drive. Running effectively and getting 15 yards on a roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-and-four play, the Vikings advanced to the New Orleans 34. But in a second-and-eight situation, Favre was intercepted by Jonathan Vilma. Not only did the Saints get a takeaway, but the veteran quarterback suffered a leg injury (he returned to the contest).

New Orleans again had to punt on the final play of the period. Two plays into the fourth quarter, Harvin fumbled and NT Remi Ayodele recovered for the Saints at the Minnesota 12. Brees threw to Bush for a five-yard TD (thanks to a successful challenge by Payton, as the running back was originally ruled down at the one) and the home team was once more in front at 28-21.

Again the Vikings mounted a threat as Peterson ran for a 27-yard gain to midfield and, in a third-and-10 situation, Favre connected with Berrian for 30 yards to the New Orleans 20. But two plays later, another turnover undid a promising drive as Berrian fumbled when hit by CB Tracy Porter after catching a pass and Vilma recovered at the five.

The Saints went three-and-out on their next possession. Taking over at their 43 following the punt, the Vikings put together a seven-play scoring drive highlighted by Favre passing to Shiancoe for 16 yards on a third-and-six play and Peterson rushing for an 18-yard gain. It was Peterson finishing the series with a two-yard carry for a touchdown and Ryan Longwell again tied the score at 28-28 with the extra point.

New Orleans had another short series and punted. With 2:37 left in regulation, the Vikings again mounted a drive. On a third-and-eight play, Favre passed to Berrian for 10 yards and followed up with a throw to Rice for 20 that took the ball into Saints territory. RB Chester Taylor carried for a 14-yard gain, but the New Orleans defense stiffened and stopped two running plays before the Vikings were penalized for having too many players in the huddle. Facing a third-and-15 situation at the New Orleans 38, Favre, rolling to his right, threw an ill-advised pass that was intended for Rice but instead was intercepted by Porter. The game remained tied after four quarters and went into overtime.

The Saints won the toss and started off at their 39 after Pierre Thomas returned the kickoff 40 yards. A defensive holding penalty on a third-and-six play kept the series going and a nine-yard Brees completion to Henderson set up a fourth-and-one situation at the Minnesota 43. Taking the chance and going for it, Thomas dove ahead for two yards and New Orleans continued the advance to the Minnesota 22. From there, first-year PK Garrett Hartley (pictured at left) booted a 40-yard field goal and at 4:45 into overtime the Saints were winners by a score of 31-28 and on their way to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

The Vikings dominated statistically, outgaining New Orleans (475 yards to 257) and leading in first downs (31 to 15). However, they also fumbled six times, losing three of them, and turned the ball over a total of five times – it proved to be their undoing. The Saints turned the ball over once.

Drew Brees completed 17 of 31 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns with none intercepted. Devery Henderson led the New Orleans receivers with 4 catches for 39 yards and one TD. Pierre Thomas gained 38 yards on his two receptions that included a TD and rushed for 61 yards on 14 carries with another score.

For Minnesota, Brett Favre went to the air 46 times and completed 28 for 310 yards and a touchdown, but with the two big interceptions. Adrian Peterson (pictured below) ran the ball 25 times for 122 yards and three TDs. Bernard Berrian caught 9 passes for 102 yards and Visanthe Shiancoe contributed 4 receptions for 83 yards.

“I've felt better,” said a disappointed Favre afterward. “It was a physical game - a lot of hits. You win that and you sure feel a lot better.”

“It was as loud as I have ever heard it in the dome,” Drew Brees said. “It feels so good to know we have given our fans an NFC championship. We have another championship to go after in two weeks.”

Facing the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl (the first time the top-seeded teams in each conference faced each other for the title since 1993), the Saints finished off their climb to the top with a 31-17 win. They returned to the postseason in 2010 with a lesser record (11-5) and as a wild card, although still offensively potent, and were upset in the first round by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks.

Brett Favre (pictured below) returned for a twentieth season that proved to be disastrous – not just for him, but the team. His streak of playing in 299 straight games finally ended amid a rash of injuries, and it appeared that age had finally caught up to him. Beyond Favre, the offensive line and defense showed signs of decline and the Vikings sank to 6-10. By the end, Coach Brad Childress was already gone and Favre retired for good.

January 23, 2012

Past Venue: Nickerson Field

Boston, MA

Year opened: 1955
Capacity: 10,412, down from 21,000 when it was still being used for football

Nickerson Field, 1955 to date

Pro football tenants:
Boston Patriots (AFL), 1960-62
Boston Breakers (USFL), 1983

Postseason games hosted:

Other tenants of note:
Boston University, 1955 to date
Boston Minutemen (NASL), 1975
New England Tea Men (NASL), 1979
Boston Bolts (ASL/APSL), 1988-90
Boston Breakers (WUSA), 2001-03
Boston Cannons (MLL), 2004-06

Notes: Built on site of Braves Field using some segments of that stadium, including the right field pavilion and portions of the outer wall and entry gate, but the main grandstand, left field pavilion, and a smaller section of bleachers known as the Jury Box were demolished. Venue was given the name of the university’s previous athletic field, which pertained to William E. Nickerson, a member of the school’s board of trustees who donated that original facility in Weston, MA. The stadium was renovated to accommodate the arrival of the AFL Patriots in 1960. In a further renovation in 1968, the Braves Field light towers were taken down and the field was converted to AstroTurf. It has since been replaced with FieldTurf. Boston University officially dropped its football team in 1997, although a club team has since been formed, and the facility is mostly used for soccer and lacrosse.

Fate: Still in use

(top view shows original football configuration with grandstand still intact, lower view is more recent)

January 22, 2012

1989: Late Drive Gives 49ers Win Over Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII

Super Bowl XXIII on January 22, 1989 featured a rematch of two teams who had met in the Super Bowl following the 1981 season. The winning team in that earlier Super Bowl was the San Francisco 49ers, and under Head Coach Bill Walsh they had won a second championship in 1984. However, they had fallen short in the next three years, and it had been especially disappointing in 1987 when they put together the best record in the league but were upset in the Divisional round by the Vikings. There were questions about QB Joe Montana (pictured above), so outstanding in that first Super Bowl-winning year and beyond, but coming off back surgery in ’86 and challenged by younger backup Steve Young in 1988. RB Roger Craig had a great year (2036 yards from scrimmage), but star WR Jerry Rice was hindered by an ankle injury. The Niners were sputtering at 6-5 after eleven games of the ’88 season, but then won four of their last five to top the NFC West with a 10-6 record. Montana was at his best in the playoff run as San Francisco gained revenge on the Vikings at home and then dominated the Bears in the NFC Championship game at Chicago.

The AFC Champions, as in ’81, were the Cincinnati Bengals, now coached by Sam Wyche. They had made a dramatic jump from 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 in ’88. QB Boomer Esiason was the consensus league MVP and RB Ickey Woods rushed for 1066 yards and 15 touchdowns (followed by the “Ickey Shuffle”) behind an outstanding offensive line; backfield mate James Brooks contributed another 931 yards. WR Eddie Brown (53 catches, 1273 yards) and TE Rodney Holman (39 receptions, 527 yards) headed a good group of receivers. The defense was not as impressive but contained stars in All-Pro NT Tim Krumrie (who would be lost to a broken leg early in the Super Bowl) and two Pro Bowlers in the secondary, CB Eric Thomas and SS David Fulcher. The Bengals defeated Seattle in the Divisional playoff round and Buffalo for the AFC title, although there were concerns that Esiason was being slowed by injuries.

There were 75,129 fans on hand at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, along with the usual mammoth television audience, and they were anticipating a shootout between the two potent offenses. Instead, the first half was low-scoring. Both teams punted on their first possession before the 49ers, backed up to their own three yard line to start, put together a long 12-play scoring drive that covered 73 yards. Montana completed three passes along the way but, after reaching the Cincinnati 24, had three straight incompletions that included a drop by Craig. Mike Cofer kicked a 41-yard field goal to make it 3-0.

That was the score heading into the second quarter as San Francisco mounted another drive following a punt by the Bengals. Montana completed a pass to Rice that gained 30 yards to the Cincinnati 11. On third-and-eight, FB Tom Rathman ran for seven yards up the middle and was stopped at the two. However, following a bad snap, Cofer shanked the 19-yard field goal attempt.

The Bengals went three-and-out, and while Lee Johnson’s punt sailed 63 yards, WR John Taylor’s return was for 45 yards to the Cincinnati 46. The Niners moved backward from there, however, as a lateral to RB Harry Sydney lost 10 yards and Montana was sacked for a loss of two more. Craig broke off a 13-yard run on third-and-22, but fumbled and DE Jim Skow recovered for the Bengals at his own 41. Cincinnati moved into San Francisco territory, but DE Daniel Stubbs sacked Esiason for an eight-yard loss to the 50 on a third-and-ten play. Johnson’s punt pinned the 49ers back at their 11 and, in the battle for field position, Cincinnati came out ahead when Barry Helton’s 37-yard punt was returned to the San Francisco 44.

Esiason completed an 18-yard pass to WR Tim McGee and runs by Brooks and Woods got the ball to the 16. Jim Breech booted a 34-yard field goal and the score was tied at 3-3 going into halftime.

The Bengals started off the second half with a long scoring drive that covered 63 yards in 12 plays. Along the way, Esiason threw to WR Cris Collinsworth for 23 yards and Brooks for 20. An 11-yard completion to Collinsworth on a third-and-eight play moved Cincinnati to the San Francisco 22, but the drive stalled there and Breech kicked a 43-yard field goal that put the Bengals in front at 6-3.

On the first play following a punt by the Niners, Esiason was intercepted by rookie LB Bill Romanowski, giving San Francisco the ball at the Cincinnati 23. Cofer was successful on a 32-yard field goal that evened the tally at 6-6, but it didn’t stay that way for long. RB Stanford Jennings returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and, with the successful extra point, the Bengals were back in front at 13-6.

Down by seven points, San Francisco’s offense came alive as Montana finished out the third quarter with a 31-yard completion to Rice and started off the final period by going deep to Craig out of the backfield for 40 more to the Cincinnati 14. After a throw intended for Taylor was almost picked off, Montana completed a touchdown pass to Rice, who just managed to get the ball into the end zone and, with Cofer’s PAT, the score was even at 13-13.

Following a Cincinnati punt, Montana again passed for a long gain, hitting Rice for 44 yards to the Bengals’ 38. After Craig’s seven-yard run, the drive stalled and the 49ers came up empty when Cofer was wide to the right on a 49-yard field goal attempt.

Starting from their own 32, the Bengals moved methodically down the field. Esiason connected with WR Ira Hillary for 17 yards on a third-and-13 play, Woods had back-to-back carries that gained 17 more yards, and a pass to Brooks gained 12. Breech kicked a 40-yard field goal and the Bengals were up by 16-13 with 3:20 remaining in the fourth quarter.

An illegal block on the kickoff return started the 49ers off at their own eight yard line. Montana completed three straight passes to start off the series, gaining 22 yards. Craig ran twice and, on third-and-two, Montana found Rice for 17 yards. It was Montana to Craig for 13 yards down the middle, but after an incompletion the Niners were backed up due to an illegal player downfield on another pass play. Montana followed up by throwing to Rice, running a crossing pattern, for a 27-yard gain to the Cincinnati 18. San Francisco was now within field goal range, but Montana went to the air twice more. The first was to Craig for eight yards and, following a timeout, the second was to Taylor in the end zone for a ten-yard touchdown (Taylor’s only catch of the day, pictured below). The 49ers had gone 92 yards in 11 plays and, with the successful extra point, were up by four points with 34 seconds remaining on the clock.

After a short pass on Cincinnati’s first play, three passes fell incomplete, the last broken up by CB Eric Wright at the San Francisco 25, and the 49ers were champions by a score of 20-16.

The 49ers outgained Cincinnati by 452 yards to 229 and had 23 first downs to the Bengals’ 13. The highest-scoring team in the NFL scored no offensive touchdowns and was held to just 123 net passing yards as Esiason was sacked five times (to three of Montana). The 49ers turned the ball over twice, while Cincinnati had one.

Joe Montana completed 23 of 36 passes for 357 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted, and was at his best in the closing drive. Jerry Rice (pictured below) was the game’s MVP, however, as he had 11 catches for 215 yards (a Super Bowl record) and one TD. Roger Craig rushed for 71 yards on 17 carries and pulled in 8 passes for 101 yards. LB/DE Charles Haley accounted for two of the team’s five sacks.

For the Bengals, Boomer Esiason was successful on just 11 of his 25 throws for 144 yards and was picked off once. WR Eddie Brown was the club’s top receiver with 4 catches for 44 yards. Ickey Woods ran the ball 20 times for 79 yards.

The win in Super Bowl XXIII marked the end of Bill Walsh’s successful tenure as head coach of the 49ers. He chose to move exclusively to the front office and defensive coordinator George Seifert took over as coach for 1989. The result was the same – another NFC title and a win in the Super Bowl over Denver (and by a much larger margin).

Sam Wyche, whose job was in trouble after the losing year in ’87, was rewarded with a new contract for 1989. Much was expected of the Bengals, but they dropped to 8-8 and missed the postseason altogether.

January 21, 2012

1979: Steelers Withstand Dallas Rally to Win Super Bowl XIII

Both of the participants in Super Bowl XIII on January 21, 1979 had been regular contenders throughout the decade of the ‘70s. The Dallas Cowboys, coached by Tom Landry, were the defending champions and had made it to the postseason in all but one year from 1966 through ’78. They had been to the Super Bowl on four prior occasions and won twice. The Pittsburgh Steelers, under Head Coach Chuck Noll, had won back-to-back championships in 1974 and ’75 – defeating the Cowboys in the second instance – and were in the playoffs for the seventh straight year.

The Cowboys were considered a good bet to repeat when the 1978 season began, but had a 6-4 record after losing consecutive games to Minnesota and Miami. They didn’t lose again, finishing out the regular season with six straight wins for a 12-4 tally. They fought off the feisty Falcons to win in the Divisional round of the postseason and shut out the Rams for the NFC Championship. 36-year-old QB Roger Staubach was still one of the best in the game, second-year RB Tony Dorsett ran for 1325 yards, and the receiving corps of wide receivers Tony Hill and Drew Pearson and TE Billy Joe DuPree was very good (Hill and Dupree, as well as Staubach and Dorsett, were selected for the Pro Bowl). The “Doomsday Defense” no longer had retired safety Mel Renfro, but it did have DT Randy White, DE Harvey Martin, LB Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, and safeties Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris.

If any team in the league was more formidable than the Cowboys, it was Pittsburgh. The Steelers cruised through the schedule with a 14-2 record and easily defeated the Broncos and Oilers in the playoffs to win the AFC title. QB Terry Bradshaw (pictured above) had a MVP year, FB Franco Harris was typically steady with 1082 yards rushing, and WR Lynn Swann was a consensus first-team All-Pro as he caught 61 passes for 880 yards and 11 TDs. The “Steel Curtain” defense was as solid as ever and contained Pro Bowlers in DT “Mean Joe” Greene, DE L.C. Greenwood, MLB Jack Lambert, OLB Jack Ham, CB Mel Blount, and SS Donnie Shell.

Super Bowl XIII was played at the Orange Bowl in Miami before a crowd of 79,484. On the game’s first series, Dorsett ran the ball three times for 38 yards, but the Steelers got the first break as Drew Pearson fumbled when taking the handoff on a double-reverse and DE John Banaszak recovered at the Pittsburgh 47 yard line. It took the Steelers seven plays to score as Bradshaw passed to WR John Stallworth for 12 yards and TE Randy Grossman for 10, and finished off the series by hitting Stallworth in the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown.

The Cowboys drove into Pittsburgh territory on their next series, highlighted by a 26-yard pass down the middle of the field from Staubach to WR Butch Johnson. However, after advancing to the Steelers’ 39, Staubach was sacked twice for a total loss of 22 yards and Dallas was forced to punt. Pittsburgh advanced thanks to pass plays from Bradshaw to Harris that covered 22 yards and to Swann for 13, but Dallas LB D.D. Lewis intercepted a pass at his own 15 and returned it 21 yards.

Following a punt by the Cowboys, the Steelers turned the ball over again when Bradshaw fumbled while being sacked by Martin and DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones recovered for Dallas at the Pittsburgh 41. Three plays later, and on the last play of the opening period, Staubach connected with Tony Hill for a 39-yard touchdown that tied the score.

On the next series, Bradshaw fumbled when hit simultaneously by Henderson and LB Mike Hegman, who stripped the ball from the quarterback and ran 37 yards for a touchdown. It was 14-7 in favor of the Cowboys and Bradshaw had an injured shoulder. It didn’t keep Pittsburgh from responding quickly. On the third play of the next possession, Bradshaw threw a short pass to Stallworth who eluded CB Aaron Kyle and sprinted to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. With the successful conversion, the game was once more tied at 14-14.

The Cowboys had to punt again and Bradshaw immediately threw to Swann for a 26-yard gain to the Dallas 22, but Franco Harris lost eight yards on an end run and four plays later Hegman sacked Bradshaw for an eleven-yard loss. A 51-yard field goal attempt by Roy Gerela hit the cross bar and was no good.

With less than five minutes remaining in the half, Dallas drove into Steelers territory, but Mel Blount intercepted a pass at his own 16 and the Steelers capitalized. It took them five plays, highlighted by Swann pulling in a Bradshaw screen pass for a 29-yard and then grabbing another throw for 21 more. With the clock down to 26 seconds, Bradshaw rolled out and threw a seven-yard TD pass to RB Rocky Bleier and it was 21-14 in favor of Pittsburgh at halftime.

The teams traded punts to start the second half. In a critical series midway through the third quarter, the Cowboys started off with good field position at the Pittsburgh 42 following a short punt by Craig Colquitt and 12-yard return by Johnson. With a light rain falling, they drove steadily down the field, but on a third-and-three play at the 10, Staubach’s pass into the end zone was dropped by 16-year veteran TE Jackie Smith. Instead of possibly tying the game once more, the Cowboys had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Rafael Septien and trailed by 21-17.

The clubs again traded punts heading into the fourth quarter. Starting at their own 15, the Steelers put together an eight-play, 85-yard drive. The series was helped along by a 33-yard pass interference penalty called on CB Benny Barnes, who had gotten tangled up with Swann, and that moved the ball to the Dallas 23. Four plays later, Franco Harris ran up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown.

The following kickoff was squibbed and Randy White, in as a blocker for the kick return and with a cast on one hand, couldn’t hold onto the ball when hit by Pittsburgh safety Tony Dungy. LB Dennis Winston recovered the fumble at the Dallas 18 and, from there, Bradshaw immediately passed to Swann for a touchdown. It was 35-17 and there were less than seven minutes to play.

The Cowboys responded with an 89-yard drive highlighted by Staubach running for an 18-yard gain, throwing to Drew Pearson for 17 more, and Dorsett running 29 yards on a draw play. Staubach threw to Billy Joe DuPree for a seven-yard touchdown.

An onside kick was recovered by the Cowboys and Staubach threw to Pearson for 22 yards at the two-minute warning. On a fourth-and-18 play, the savvy veteran quarterback known for engineering comebacks completed a pass to Pearson for a 25-yard gain. Three plays later, he found Butch Johnson for a four-yard TD and, with the extra point, the margin was narrowed to four points. There were only 22 seconds left, however, and another onside kick was recovered by Bleier for the Steelers to seal the win. The final score was 35-31.

The statistics largely reflected the closeness of the score. Pittsburgh had the most total yards (357 to 330) and the Cowboys the edge in first downs (20 to 19). Dallas led by a big margin in rushing yards (154 to 66) but, thanks to Staubach being sacked five times for a loss of 52 yards, they had just 176 net passing yards to Pittsburgh’s 291 (the Cowboys got to Bradshaw four times, with 27 yards lost but also a fumble that led directly to a TD). Each team turned the ball over three times.

Terry Bradshaw, the game’s MVP, completed 17 of 30 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns with one intercepted. Lynn Swann (pictured at right), who had performed so well against the Cowboys in their previous Super Bowl meeting, was outstanding again with 7 catches for 124 yards and a TD. John Stallworth contributed 115 yards and two touchdowns on his three receptions. Franco Harris rushed for 68 yards on 20 carries.

For the Cowboys, Roger Staubach was also 17-of-30, but for 228 yards with three TDs and one picked off. Tony Dorsett ran for 96 yards in 16 attempts and caught 5 passes for 44 more yards. Drew Pearson gained 73 yards on his four catches.

“The thing I didn’t want to do was change the things that got us here,” said a happy Terry Bradshaw. “Play-action passes, throwing the ball, doing whatever it took to win - that was what made this team. We just needed to keep it up.”

“We tried hard, but we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had,” summed up a disappointed Tom Landry. “I said all along that turnovers and breaks would determine the winner. That’s what happened today. On any given day the Steelers are no better than we are.”

It was the last Super Bowl appearance for Staubach (pictured below), who retired following the ’79 season and had started in four along the way – he was the winning quarterback in two and the loser in two, but in both of those losses to the Steelers, he had kept the Cowboys in the game to the end.

The Steelers went on to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 1979. Dallas again topped the NFC East but was upset by the Rams in the Divisional round, who went on to win the conference title and face Pittsburgh.

January 20, 2012

1998: Doug Flutie Returns to NFL with Buffalo

The Buffalo Bills had the NFL’s 25th-ranked offense in 1997 with Todd Collins and Alex Van Pelt at quarterback. On January 20, 1998 they took a step toward addressing that problem by signing 35-year-old QB Doug Flutie to a two-year contract loaded with incentives.

The diminutive (5’9”, 180) scrambler with the big throwing arm had been an exciting player at Boston College and won the Heisman Trophy in 1984. His game-winning 50-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown pass on the final play of the game to beat the University of Miami (and QB Bernie Kosar) became an instant classic. But there were doubts that he could succeed in pro football with his short stature.

The Los Angeles Rams picked him in the 11th round of the ’85 NFL draft, but he signed with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals instead, who obligingly dealt away veteran QB Brian Sipe to open up the starting job for him. He struggled initially and also sustained a broken collar bone, but had a respectable year in which he threw for 2109 yards with 13 TDs and 14 interceptions and rushed for 465 yards.

Following the demise of the USFL, the Bears traded for his rights and he mostly sat on the bench (and drew the ire of veteran starter Jim McMahon). He got to start the season finale, a win, and a playoff game that was a loss. At the time of the players’ strike in 1987, Chicago dealt Flutie to New England. He started the last of the replacement player games for the Patriots and saw occasional action in 1988 and ’89, but failed to impress and was let go with Head Coach Raymond Berry suggesting that he try coaching.

Flutie didn’t try coaching – he went to the Canadian Football League instead and had a tremendous career. Over eight years, he was named the CFL’s outstanding player six times and led his teams to three Grey Cup titles. He played for British Columbia, Calgary, and Toronto and threw for over 41,355 yards, including a record 6619 in 1991 alone, and 270 touchdowns.

In ’97, Flutie passed for 5505 yards and 47 TDs in leading Toronto to its second consecutive Grey Cup title. While he was within sight of the CFL career records in passing yards and touchdowns held by Ron Lancaster, Flutie preferred to return to the NFL. He had been earning 1.1 million Canadian dollars per year ($700,000 American at the time).

“I always said that if there was a reason to go back it would be to play two more years and shoot for the record,” said Flutie. “But as far as I'm concerned that's probably behind me now. This (NFL) is my future.”

The Bills didn’t just add Flutie at quarterback, however. They also obtained QB Rob Johnson, a third-year pro who had been backing up Mark Brunell in Jacksonville and was considered to be a promising talent. The conflict with the younger quarterback added an element of drama to Flutie’s tenure in Buffalo and proved highly divisive to the team.

The Bills lost their first three games in ‘98, and Johnson was the starting quarterback. He led the team to a win over the 49ers but suffered a rib injury and Flutie took over. The result was four straight wins and six in ten games. The turnaround owed much to the veteran’s leadership skills and, even after Johnson was available again, first-year Head Coach Wade Phillips kept Flutie in the lineup. Buffalo’s record improved from 6-10 to 10-6 and the team returned to the playoffs, losing in the first round to division-rival Miami. While the numbers might have paled next to his CFL performances, Flutie still completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 2711 yards with 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and earned selection to the Pro Bowl. All in all, it was an impressive return to the NFL.

The Bills chose to keep both Flutie and Johnson, and restructured Flutie’s contract accordingly. It was a rockier road in 1999. While Flutie passed for 3171 yards and 19 TDs, against 16 interceptions, his yards per attempt dropped from 7.7 to 6.6 and the team did not score as readily. His arm was no longer as strong, defenses were catching up to his style of play, and in a controversial move, Coach Phillips chose to start Johnson in the Wild Card playoff game at Tennessee that the Titans won with a stunning kickoff return referred to as “the Music City Miracle”.

The bitter quarterback conflict continued for one more year. Johnson again moved ahead of Flutie on the depth chart, but was injured once more and the team’s performance improved with Flutie behind center. Johnson was far less mobile and prone to taking sacks, in contrast to the nimble veteran who also displayed superior leadership skills. Overall, the team’s record was a drop to 8-8 (4-1 in Flutie’s starts, 4-7 with Johnson) and Flutie ended the battle by moving on to the San Diego Chargers as a free agent. He had his highest passing-yardage season in the NFL with the Chargers in 2001 (3464) but eventually gave way to Drew Brees, finishing his career back with the Patriots as backup to Tom Brady in 2005. At age 43, he said good-bye to pro football by drop-kicking an extra point in the season finale.

Doug Flutie brought a unique style of play and a great deal of excitement to pro football. Despite his small stature and many detractors, his return to the NFL after a brilliant run in the CFL proved successful. He led the Bills to back-to-back winning seasons and was selected to a Pro Bowl. In all, he lasted 21 years as a pro quarterback, playing in three different leagues, an impressive feat in itself.

January 19, 2012

1968: Dick Nolan Becomes Head Coach of 49ers

On January 19, 1968 the San Francisco 49ers announced the hiring of 35-year-old Dick Nolan as head coach, succeeding Jack Christiansen. The 49ers had posted one winning record in the preceding six seasons and had most recently gone 7-7 in 1967.

Nolan, who had no prior head coaching experience, was most recently defensive coach for the Dallas Cowboys. He had been a defensive back on the University of Maryland team that won the national championship in 1953 and played professionally for the Giants, who drafted him in the fourth round, from 1954 thru ’61, with the exception of 1958 when he was with the Chicago Cardinals. Nolan started out as a defensive halfback (cornerback) and was converted to safety later in his career. He joined the Cowboys as a player-coach in 1962 and became a full-time coach in ’63, recognized as an architect of the “flex” defense along with Head Coach Tom Landry.

Said club president Lou Spadia, “Dick was a winner when he played for Maryland and the New York Giants. He also helped coach a winner at Dallas. We believe he can do the same thing for the 49ers."

There was talent on the 49ers, but as the record indicated, they had been an inconsistent team and unable to compete with division rivals like the Colts and Rams. QB John Brodie was an outstanding passer who reflected the team’s inconsistency. Smallish backup George Mira, a former University of Miami All-American, was a scrambler who could be exciting but was even more erratic, although he led the team to wins in the last two contests of the ’67 season. The team also had their 1967 first draft choice, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback out of Florida, Steve Spurrier, but it was not anticipated that he would be ready to challenge for the starting job. In the end, Nolan stuck with Brodie and was rewarded when the 33-year-old veteran led the NFL in pass attempts (404), completions (234), yards (3020), and completion percentage (57.9) while tossing 22 touchdown passes along with 21 interceptions.

The receiving corps was diminished by the loss of end Dave Parks, who played out his option and signed with New Orleans. However, flanker Clifton McNeil was acquired from the Browns prior to the season and had a career-year, leading the league in pass receptions with 71 for 994 yards and seven TDs. Veteran HB John David Crow was converted to tight end and pulled in 31 passes for 531 yards and five scores. The running game was centered around two 230-pound backs, FB Ken Willard and HB Gary Lewis, and Willard placed second among the league’s rushers with 967 yards. The line had talent, in particular in the form of All-Pro G Howard Mudd, as well as twelth-year C Bruce Bosley and OT Len Rohde.

Two members of the defense made the Pro Bowl – OLB Dave Wilcox and CB Kermit Alexander. There were solid veterans in tackle Charlie Krueger, LB Matt Hazeltine, and outstanding CB Jimmy Johnson as well.

Overall, the Niners went 7-6-1 and were third in the league in total offense. The defense set a club record for fewest yards allowed in a 14-game season

For 1969, the 49ers drafted TE Ted Kwalick from Penn State and Stanford flanker Gene Washington and seemed poised to possibly challenge in the tough Coastal Division. Instead, the team regressed to 4-8-2 and finished at the bottom. Injuries played a major role in the decline as Brodie missed time and Spurrier was forced into action (Mira had been traded to Philadelphia). Three starters on defense went down with knee injuries – LB Ed Beard, DE Stan Hindman, and FS Johnny Fuller. It was not all bad – Washington caught 51 passes in his rookie season and went to the Pro Bowl. Willard was still a solid runner who gained Pro Bowl recognition and TE Bob Windsor, fighting off the challenge of the highly-regarded Kwalick, caught 49 passes for 597 yards. Second-year pro Forrest Blue took over for Bosley at center and another second-year player, Woody Peoples, stepped into the lineup at guard. The team also added FS Roosevelt Taylor during the season, who had been discarded by the Bears. LB Frank Nunley played well in place of Beard and rookie DE Earl Edwards gained valuable experience.

The stage was set for the 49ers to make a move in 1970 in the newly-restructured NFL (and without the Colts in the same division). They went 10-3-1, the franchise’s best record since 1948 when San Francisco was in the AAFC, and won the NFC West for their first division title ever in their 25th season. Brodie had an MVP year, leading the league in passing and only being sacked eight times thanks to the performance of the offensive line. Gene Washington was also a consensus first-team All-Pro with his 53 catches for a league-leading 1100 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The defense came together in brilliant fashion. With an abundance of talent on the line, helped by the arrival of brash first draft pick DE Cedrick Hardman, Nolan rotated players in and out effectively. Wilcox and Nunley continued to star at linebacker, along with Skip Vanderbundt, and the backfield was bolstered by the addition of rookie CB Bruce Taylor, who provided the added bonus of leading the league in punt returns (12.0 average on 43 returns). Roosevelt Taylor provided veteran leadership along with the eventual Hall of Famer Johnson and SS Mel Phillips. The 49ers topped the NFL with a +17 turnover differential.

The turnaround on special teams helped – Taylor drastically improved what had been a major problem area in 1969 with his punt returning, and veteran PK Bruce Gossett, obtained from the Rams, increased San Francisco’s field goal production from a measly six in ’69 to 21.

After defeating the Vikings at Minnesota in the Divisional playoff round, the 49ers lost to Dallas at home in the NFC Championship game.

The Niners moved from Kezar Stadium to Candlestick Park in ’71 and again made it to the NFC title game. The division-winning record dropped to 9-5 and Brodie was more erratic, tossing 14 more interceptions (24) and six fewer TD passes (18) than in ’70. The line still protected him well, as he was sacked just 11 times. Gene Washington continued to be a top-rate deep threat and Kwalick emerged at tight end to rank second in the NFC with 52 receptions. HB Vic Washington provided much-needed outside speed, and both he and Willard rushed for over 800 yards apiece (811 and 855, respectively). The defense continued to be solid, ranking fourth overall, although the backfield starters Johnson and Taylor were nicked up by injuries. Once again, the 49ers won in the Divisional round, defeating the resurgent Redskins, and once more they lost to Dallas for the NFC title.

San Francisco won a third straight division title in 1972, this time with an 8-5-1 tally. Brodie went down with a broken ankle five games into the schedule, but the unproven Spurrier led the club to five wins and, when he faltered in the finale, Brodie returned to rally the 49ers into the playoffs. While still capable, both the offensive line and defense experienced injury problems. But it seemed as though they had finally solved the Cowboys when they led their postseason nemesis at home in the Divisional game by a score of 28-13 in the fourth quarter. Dallas QB Roger Staubach came off the bench to rally his team to a stunning 30-28 triumph, and with that, the postseason run of the Nolan coaching era came to an end.

The 49ers dropped to 5-9 in 1973. Both Brodie and Willard were benched after the team started slowly, the running game never improved, and Gene Washington and Jimmy Johnson suffered from knee injuries that robbed them of their effectiveness. The defense was afflicted by age and injuries.

It did not get better in 1974 and ’75 as the Niners went 6-8 and 5-9, respectively. Brodie retired after the ’73 season and Spurrier was injured in ’74, leading to instability at quarterback. The receiving corps remained strong, even after Kwalick jumped to the World Football League, and the running game benefited from the addition of backs Wilbur Jackson in 1974 and Delvin Williams in ‘75. The defense began to develop holes that proved difficult to fill. But the hole at quarterback ultimately became a chronic issue, especially as Spurrier failed to live up to expectations.

Nolan was fired following the 1975 season, the early promise of his tenure having not brought a championship nor continued success. The low-key coach’s overall record was 54-53-5, not including 2-3 in the postseason.

Nolan made a return to coaching in New Orleans, serving as an assistant in 1977 and then being elevated to head coach in ’78. As in San Francisco, he enjoyed some initial success as the Saints put together their two best records up to that time at 7-9 in 1978 and 8-8 in ’79. But when the club started off at 0-12 in 1980, he was fired once more. He returned to assistant coaching, most notably going back to Landry and the Cowboys for several seasons. His son Mike later served as head coach of the 49ers (and was named to the job 37 years to the day after his father was).

January 18, 2012

MVP Profile: Bob Griese, 1971

Quarterback, Miami Dolphins

Age: 26
5th season in pro football & with Dolphins
College: Purdue
Height: 6’1” Weight: 190

A multi-talented player in college, Griese was taken by the Dolphins in the first round of the 1967 AFL/NFL draft. When starting QB John Stofa was lost to a broken ankle, Griese took over and had a solid rookie season as he threw for 2005 yards and 15 TD passes for a second-year franchise. He earned selection to the AFL All-Star game in 1967 and ’68, but suffered along with a struggling team until Don Shula took over as head coach in 1970. The Dolphins went 10-4 and made it to the playoffs and the quarterback was selected for the Pro Bowl in the newly-merged league. Griese didn’t have the strongest arm, but it was accurate and he proved to be a good fit in Shula’s ball-control offense.

1971 Season Summary
Appeared in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Attempts – 263 [13]
Most attempts, game – 30 at Baltimore 12/11
Completions – 145 [11]
Most completions, game – 17 at Baltimore 12/11
Yards – 2089 [11]
Most yards, game – 232 vs. Pittsburgh 11/14
Completion percentage – 55.1 [6]
Yards per attempt – 7.9 [5]
TD passes – 19 [2, tied with Jim Plunkett]
Most TD passes, game – 4 vs. New England 10/17
Interceptions – 9
Most interceptions, game – 2 vs. Pittsburgh 11/14, at Baltimore 12/11
Passer rating – 90.9 [2, 1st in AFC]
200-yard passing games – 3

Attempts – 26
Most attempts, game - 4 (for 6 yds.) vs. Baltimore 11/21
Yards – 82
Most yards, game – 22 yards (on 2 carries) vs. Chicago 11/29
Yards per attempt – 3.2
TDs – 0

Postseason: 3 G
Pass attempts – 66
Most attempts, game - 35 at Kansas City, AFC Divisional playoff
Pass completions – 36
Most completions, game - 20 at Kansas City, AFC Divisional playoff
Passing yardage – 555
Most yards, game - 263 at Kansas City, AFC Divisional playoff
TD passes – 2
Most TD passes, game - 1 at Kansas City, AFC Divisional playoff, vs. Baltimore, AFC Championship
Interceptions – 4
Most interceptions, game – 2 at Kansas City, AFC Divisional playoff

Rushing attempts – 4
Most rushing attempts, game - 2 at Kansas City, AFC Divisional playoff
Rushing yards – 21
Most rushing yards, game - 12 vs. Baltimore, AFC Championship
Average gain rushing – 5.3
Rushing TDs – 0

Awards & Honors:
AFC Player of the Year: Sporting News
1st team All-NFL: AP, PFWA, NEA, Pro Football Weekly
1st team All-AFC: AP, UPI, Pro Football Weekly, Sporting News
Pro Bowl

Dolphins went 10-3-1 to finish first in the AFC East while leading the league in rushing (2429 yards). Won AFC Divisional playoff over Kansas City Chiefs (27-24) and AFC Championship over Baltimore Colts (21-0). Lost Super Bowl to Dallas Cowboys (24-3).

Griese suffered a broken leg five games into the 1972 season but returned in the playoffs as the team went undefeated and won the Super Bowl. They won again in ’73 and Griese was again selected to the Pro Bowl even though the offense ran the ball more than it passed. Injuries factored into a couple of lesser seasons in 1975 and ’76, with personnel factors also an issue, but Griese, now wearing glasses, came back strong in 1977 as he led the NFL in passing (87.8 rating), TD passes (22), and yards per attempt (7.2) – he was a consensus first-team All-Pro as well as Pro Bowl selection and MVP. He was selected to a sixth Pro Bowl in ’78 while leading the league in completion percentage (63.0) but injuries began to wear him down and ultimately ended his career in 1980. He ended up passing for 25,092 yards with 192 TD passes and the team went 92-56-3 with him behind center. The Dolphins retired Griese’s #12 and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1990. His son Brian followed him into the NFL.


MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself).

[Updated 2/10/14]
[Updated 11/28/14]

January 17, 2012

1988: Broncos Win AFC Title as Browns Fumble Away Last Chance

On January 17, 1988 the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns met for the AFC Championship for the second consecutive year. In the previous season’s meeting at Cleveland, QB John Elway led the Broncos on a 98-yard drive to tie the game in the fourth quarter and Denver won in overtime. The rematch would be at Mile High Stadium this time, and the Browns were hoping to turn the tables.

In the strike-affected 1987 season (one week wiped out, three with the teams populated by replacement players), the Broncos again won the AFC West with a conference-best 10-4-1 record (2-1 in the replacement games). Coached by Dan Reeves for the seventh year, the key to the offense remained Elway, who passed for 3198 yards and 19 TDs and became even more formidable when the team began using a shotgun offense. Wide receivers Vance Johnson, Ricky Nattiel, and Mark Jackson, known as “The Three Amigos”, were all capable of making big plays (Johnson was out for the game against the Browns due to a groin injury). The defense had been overhauled but had outstanding players in DE Rulon Jones and LB Karl Mecklenburg. Denver defeated the Houston Oilers in the Divisional round to move once again to the conference title game.

Cleveland, under Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer, had won the AFC Central for the third straight year at 10-5 (also 2-1 in games with replacement playes). The run-oriented offense featured RB Earnest Byner and FB Kevin Mack, but also had the conference’s top-rated quarterback in Bernie Kosar (95.4 rating). Byner had the most pass receptions, but deep-threat WR Webster Slaughter, possession WR Brian Brennan, and TE Ozzie Newsome were a talented group. The most notable players on “the Dawg Defense” were LB Clay Matthews and cornerbacks Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. The Browns had easily beaten the Colts in their Divisional game to advance.

It was sunny and in the 40s with 75,993 fans in attendance at Mile High Stadium. They saw the home team get an early break as DE Freddie Gilbert intercepted a deflected pass on the third play from scrimmage, giving the Broncos the ball at the Cleveland 18 yard line. RB Sammy Winder ran twice for 11 yards, lost one, and then Elway threw to Nattiel for an eight-yard touchdown.

The Browns turned the ball over again on their next possession as Mack fumbled when hit by FS Tony Lilly and CB Steve Wilson recovered for the Broncos at the Denver 40. Following a seven-yard scramble by Elway, RB Gene Lang broke away for a 42-yard gain to the Cleveland 11 and seven plays later, RB Steve Sewell ran for a touchdown from a yard out on a reverse. Two turnovers by the Browns had led to two TDs for Denver and it was 14-0 at just over 11 minutes into the game.

The Browns came back with a 13-play drive that covered 64 yards and stretched into the second quarter. Kosar threw to Newsome for a 25-yard gain on the first play and also hit for 19 yards to WR Clarence Weathers in a third-and-17 situation that moved the ball to the Denver 19. Cleveland got to the six yard line before having to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Matt Bahr, but had put together a good sustained drive and gotten on the board.

The Broncos responded with a scoring drive of their own, moving 80 yards in eleven plays. Elway (pictured at right) threw to Nattiel for 21 yards to the Cleveland one on a third-and-seven play and Lang went one yard up the middle to finish it off and, with Rich Karlis adding his third extra point, it was a formidable 21-3 margin for Denver.

Following a short three-and-out series for the Browns, the Broncos again drove into Cleveland territory. Elway again scrambled out of trouble along the way, taking off on an 11-yard run for a first down in a third-and-ten situation from his own 46. The drive stalled at the Browns’ 33 and a 50-yard field goal attempt by Karlis went wide to the left.

Mack started off the Cleveland series with a 13-yard run and Kosar threw to Slaughter for nine, but after moving into Denver territory, a 15-yard personal foul penalty moved the ball back to the Cleveland 42 and Brennan fumbled after catching a short pass and safety Randy Robbins recovered at the 48. Fortunately for the Browns, this time the Broncos came up empty on the takeaway and had to punt. Cleveland had a shot at putting three more points on the board after Kosar connected with Slaughter for 24 yards to the Denver 28, but Bahr’s 45-yard field goal attempt on the last play of the half was no good.

It was the turn of the Browns to capitalize on a turnover when, on Denver’s initial possession of the third quarter, FS Felix Wright intercepted an Elway throw and returned it 13 yards to the Broncos’ 35. Three plays later, Kosar threw to WR Reggie Langhorne for an 18-yard touchdown and, with the successful conversion, it was a 21-10 contest.

Still, the Broncos came right back. In a third-and-ten situation at his own 20, a scrambling Elway tossed a short pass to Mark Jackson who proceeded to sprint down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown. It seemed as though Denver had regained command, but the Browns put together an 80-yard drive of their own that took just five plays. The last three were pass completions by Kosar of 12 yards to Byner, 30 to Langhorne, and to Byner again for 32 yards and a TD. The score was 28-17 with just under seven minutes remaining in the period.

The Broncos had to punt following a short series and, starting from the Denver 42, Kosar (pictured at left) again passed the Browns down the field. This time it was nine yards to Mack (followed by a five-yard encroachment penalty on the Broncos), 16 to Slaughter, and eight once more to Mack before Byner ran up the middle for a four-yard touchdown. Suddenly, it was a four-point game in what had been an eventful third quarter.

The period wasn’t over yet and the Broncos went 59 yards in nine plays, highlighted by a 22-yard Elway completion to Jackson. Karlis was successful on a 38-yard field goal attempt and Denver led by 31-24 going into the final period.

Taking over at their own 14 following the kickoff return, the Browns put together an 86-yard drive in nine plays. The biggest along the way was a Kosar pass to Byner that gained 53 yards to the Denver 27. Three plays later, Mack ran for 14 yards to get the ball inside the ten and, on third-and-goal from the four, Kosar passed to Slaughter for a touchdown. Bahr added the extra point and the game that had seemed under control for the Broncos only a short time before was now tied at 31-31.

On the next possession, Elway came out passing and connected with Jackson for 23 yards, but the drive stalled at midfield. With fourth-and-one, the team lined up in shotgun formation but Elway punted, although his kick traveled only 18 yards. The Browns had to punt after their possession, giving the Broncos the ball at their own 25.

Elway threw to Nattiel for 26 yards and, after a three-yard carry by Winder and an incomplete pass, it was again to Nattiel for 26 more yards to the Cleveland 20. Following a time out, Elway passed to Winder three yards behind the line of scrimmage and the running back proceeded to go all the way to put the Broncos ahead by a touchdown.

With just under four minutes remaining on the clock, the Browns started at their own 25. Byner gained 16 yards up the middle and, after another short carry, Kosar threw to Brennan for 14 yards and again for 19, putting the ball at the Denver 24 at the two-minute warning. The Browns gained another five yards on an encroachment penalty and ran for six yards to the 13. Following an incomplete pass and another five-yard penalty on the Broncos, Byner took the ball and had a good gain with the end zone in sight before fumbling. DB Jeremiah Castille recovered for Denver at the three and, for all intents, it was all over (aftermath with Byner in foreground and pile untangling following the fumble pictured at top).

The Broncos ran the clock down with Elway maintaining possession all the way and punter Mike Horan took an intentional safety. After the free kick, Kosar’s last-gasp pass fell incomplete and the Denver Broncos were once again AFC Champions by a score of 38-33.

The Browns had the edge in total yards (464 to 412) and first downs (25 to 24). However, they also turned the ball over four times, including the play that came to be known simply as “The Fumble” at the end, while Denver had just one.

John Elway completed 14 of 26 passes for 281 yards with three touchdowns and an interception and also ran the ball 11 times for 36 yards. Ricky Nattiel caught 5 of those throws for 95 yards and a TD and Mark Jackson (pictured below) gained 134 yards on his 4 receptions that also included a score. Sammy Winder led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 20 carries while, with the one long run, Gene Lang added 51 yards on 5 attempts.

For the Browns, Bernie Kosar went to the air 41 times and completed 26 for 356 yards and three TDs with one picked off. Earnest Byner led the team in rushing with 67 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and also in receiving with 7 catches for 120 yards and a score - unfortunately, the fumble at the end overshadowed the rest. Kevin Mack also ran the ball 15 times and accumulated 61 yards.

“I’m enjoying it now that it’s over,” said Elway afterward. “It was a little nerve-wracking at the time.”

Said a dejected Earnest Byner, “We know that Denver practices stripping the ball every day. Every time you run the ball, they try to take it out of your hands. Maybe if I had pulled the ball in closer…well, I don’t know.”

“This football team would not have been in a position to win the game if it wasn't for Earnest Byner,” said Marty Schottenheimer in defense of his star running back. “I already told it to him. If it hadn't been for - for lack of a better word - Earnest's heroics, we wouldn't have been in the position to win.”

The Broncos went on to lose the Super Bowl to the Washington Redskins. They dipped to 8-8 in 1988 but won their third AFC title in four years in ’89. Unfortunately for them, they lost the Super Bowls in each instance. Cleveland again made it to the postseason in ’88, but as a wild card entry. They lost a close contest in the first round and Schottenheimer was forced to resign. Under Bud Carson in 1989, the Browns again advanced to the AFC Championship game, and again lost to Denver in a contest that was not as closely decided as the previous two between the clubs. The team faded from contention thereafter.