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.