The 21st Pro Bowl on January 24, 1971 was played under a new format. The annual all-star game that came into being following the 1950 NFL season (an earlier version of the game, called the Pro All-Star Game, was played following the 1938 to ‘42 seasons) had featured a pairing of Eastern vs. Western players. With the merger between the AFL and NFL having come to full fruition for the 1970 season, expanding the league from 16 to 26 teams, the participants now represented the new American and National conferences. Coaches for the two squads were from the losing teams in the conference championship games, which were John Madden of the Oakland Raiders for the AFC and San Francisco’s Dick Nolan for the NFC.
There was a disappointing crowd of 48,222 fans in attendance at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. They saw the defenses dominate the first half. Following a scoreless first quarter, the AFC got on the board first on a 37-yard field goal by Kansas City’s Jan Stenerud. The NFC responded with a 13-yard field goal by Fred Cox of the Vikings and the score remained tied at 3-3 at halftime.
Early in the third quarter, with San Francisco’s John Brodie at quarterback, the NFC put together a six-play, 84-yard drive. Brodie completed a pass to WR Gene Washington of the Vikings for 31 yards and then connected with his 49er teammate, also a wide receiver named Gene Washington, for 24 yards. That set up a throw to Minnesota HB Dave Osborn, who was open for a 23-yard touchdown. Cox added the extra point.
The NFC got a break on defense when CB Mel Renfro of the Cowboys tipped a Lamonica pass that Green Bay LB Fred Carr intercepted, and that led to a 35-yard field goal by Cox to extend the NFC lead to 13-3. Later in the period, a fumble by Chicago WR Cecil Turner on a punt return gave the AFC favorable field position, and they nearly cashed in when Lamonica threw to Oakland WR Fred Biletnikoff, who caught the ball in the end zone but was ruled to have come down out of bounds. They were forced to settle for a field goal by Stenerud from 16 yards.
Prior to Turner’s fumble, he and Renfro stood side by side on punt returns, but afterward Coach Nolan told Renfro to handle deep kicks and Turner to move forward. It paid off significantly when, a minute into the fourth quarter, Renfro (pictured at top) returned a punt by Kansas City’s Jerrel Wilson 82 yards for a TD. Forced to hurry his kick due to the rush, Wilson booted a line drive that bounced before Renfro grabbed it and headed down the field, cutting to his left and getting a good block by Chicago LB Dick Butkus on CB Zeke Moore of the Oilers. With Cox adding the extra point, the sensational return opened up a 20-6 lead for the NFC.
That was it until, with five minutes remaining, Renfro fielded another punt by Wilson and ran 56 yards for a touchdown. Again Cox converted and that provided the final tally in a 27-6 win for the NFC.
The NFC had more total yards (337 to 146) and first downs (17 to 11) in what was largely a defensive show. There were a total of seven turnovers, four by the AFC.
John Brodie completed 10 of 26 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown and Fran Tarkenton was 8 of 13 for 69 yards, giving up an interception. Dave Osborn (pictured at left) led in rushing with 45 yards on 10 carries and in receiving yards with 58 on four catches that included a TD. Gene Washington of the 49ers was right behind with 57 yards on two receptions while TE Charlie Sanders of Detroit pulled in five passes for 44 yards. Mel Renfro, with his two punt return touchdowns as well as good play on defense, was named the outstanding back of the game and Fred Carr the game’s outstanding lineman.
Daryle Lamonica, who was harassed heavily by the tough NFC defensive line, had an especially rough passing day, successful on just four of 21 throws for 50 yards, and he was picked off twice. Bob Griese was better with 9 completions in 14 passes for 86 yards, but he was also sacked five times for losses totaling 56 yards. Larry Csonka topped the AFC with 44 rushing yards on six attempts. Marlin Briscoe had three catches for 35 yards and Miami WR Paul Warfield was right behind with 32 yards on his two receptions.
“Actually, it was a pretty even game,” said Coach Nolan of the NFC. “Renfro’s great punt returns were obviously the key things, but I thought Brodie and Fran Tarkenton both called a good game.”
Following the NFC’s win in the first AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, the AFC won the next three. The AFC vs. NFC format for the game remained until the 2013 season, when it was altered again to have the selected players divided up by appointed team captains rather than play for their conferences.