January 26, 2016

1976: Boryla Unlikely Star as NFC Rallies to Win Pro Bowl

There were 32,108 fans in attendance at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans for the Pro Bowl on January 26, 1976, a Monday night. The coaches were Chuck Knox of the Rams for the NFC and Oakland’s John Madden for the AFC. The league had to dig deep to find a second quarterback for the NFC behind Jim Hart of the Cardinals. Philadelphia’s Mike Boryla (pictured at right) made the roster because Minnesota QB Fran Tarkenton, who was originally selected, had to drop out due to a sore arm and QB Roger Staubach of the Cowboys, chosen in his place, was forced to skip the game due to injured ribs suffered during the preceding week’s Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. Archie Manning of the Saints, Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski, and James Harris of the Rams all backed out, leaving Boryla as the next available substitute. In his second season, he had been underwhelming, completing 87 of 166 passes (52.4 %) for 996 yards with twice as many interceptions (12) as TD passes (6) and started just five games in competition with the veteran Roman Gabriel.

The first quarter was scoreless as both teams missed field goals. Kansas City’s Jan Stenerud was wide to the right on a 46-yard try following the AFC’s first possession and Jim Bakken of the Cardinals was short on a 50-yard attempt that concluded a long series by the NFC in which his St. Louis teammate, Jim Hart, completed two 17-yard passes, to Minnesota WR John Gilliam and HB Terry Metcalf of the Cards.

The AFC had the ball in a series that extended into the second quarter. Pittsburgh FB Franco Harris ran effectively, with a long carry of 15 yards, and Cincinnati QB Ken Anderson threw to WR Lynn Swann of the Steelers for 11 yards to the NFC 11 on the final play of the opening period. However, a sack by LB Isiah Robertson of the Rams cost the AFC seven yards and a 35-yard field goal attempt had to be aborted when punter Ray Guy of the Raiders, the holder, couldn’t handle the snap.

The NFC punted following the next possession and WR Billy “White Shoes” Johnson of the Oilers, who initially bobbled the kick, returned it 55 yards to the NFC 33. On second down, HB Lydell Mitchell of the Colts reversed field and ran 20 yards to the 11 and, while the drive stalled at that point, Stenerud kicked a 20-yard field goal for the game’s first points.

Neither side was able to generate much offense until , with 1:31 remaining in the first half, the AFC took possession at its 45 following a punt and Houston QB Dan Pastorini threw to WR Cliff Branch of the Raiders for 32 yards on first down. After reaching the NFC 18, Stenerud kicked another field goal from 35 yards to put the AFC up by 6-0.

There was still time for the NFC and, following a short carry by FB Chuck Foreman of the Vikings on first down, Hart passed to Detroit TE Charlie Sanders for 28 yards to the AFC 43. However, Hart’s next throw was intercepted by Pittsburgh LB Jack Lambert, and on the next play Pastorini went long for his Houston teammate, WR Ken Burrough, for a 64-yard touchdown. Stenerud added the extra point and the AFC took a 13-0 lead into halftime.

The teams exchanged punts to start the third quarter, with Guy booting one that hit the replay screen that hung 90 feet above the playing field – the first player to ever do so in the Superdome. The play having been ruled dead as a result, Guy’s re-kick traveled 50 yards and the NFC proceeded to drive 62 yards in nine plays. Metcalf ran for 14 yards on first down and he and Foreman got the ball to the AFC 29 before Hart completed a short toss to Gilliam. The advance was blunted at that point and Bakken came on to score the first points for the NFC with a 42-yard field goal.

The AFC drove into NFC territory on a possession that featured Anderson running for nine yards and then tossing a lateral to Buffalo HB O.J. Simpson for another 13. But the AFC was forced to punt and the NFC responded with an 80-yard advance in 11 plays. Foreman broke away for a 26-yard gain and on a third-and-four play he caught a pass from Hart for 10 yards to the AFC 35. Three plays later Hart converted another third down with an eight-yard completion to Philadelphia TE Charle Young. Foreman lost a yard on the next play but Metcalf ran for 19 yards to set up a Hart pass to Foreman in the end zone for a four-yard TD. Bakken’s try for the extra point was blocked by DT Joe Greene of the Steelers, but the AFC lead was narrowed to 13-9.

As the game entered the fourth quarter, the AFC advanced to the NFC 31, but came up empty when Stenerud missed a 48-yard field goal attempt. But a short NFC series ended in a punt that Johnson gathered in at his ten yard line and returned 90 yards for a touchdown, setting a Pro Bowl record. Stenerud converted and the AFC had a seemingly comfortable 20-9 advantage.

On the NFC’s next play from scrimmage, HB Lawrence McCutcheon of the Rams broke away for a 41-yard gain (also a new Pro Bowl high) and, while he fumbled at the end, Los Angeles WR Harold Jackson recovered to maintain possession at the AFC 28. Runs by St. Louis FB Jim Otis and McCutcheon moved the ball to the AFC 13, but Hart threw two incomplete passes and Bakken’s 31-yard field goal attempt missed to the left.

The AFC punted after its next series and, with 5:39 remaining to play and the ball at the NFC 36, Mike Boryla came in at quarterback. After a running play and an offside penalty, Boryla connected with WR Mel Gray of the Cardinals for 25 yards. An incompletion and a three-yard McCutcheon run had the NFC facing third-and-seven, and another pass drew a 20-yard pass interference penalty on Pittsburgh CB Mel Blount. Two plays later, Boryla threw to Metcalf in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown and, with Bakken adding the point after, it was a four-point contest with the clock down to just over three minutes remaining.

The AFC went three-and-out on the ensuing possession and the NFC used razzle-dazzle to again move into scoring position. Returning the AFC punt, a lateral by Green Bay WR Steve Odom to CB Lem Barney of the Lions resulted in a 50-yard return to the AFC 30. Boryla overthrew Foreman on first down, but the AFC drew an offside penalty, and the next throw to Foreman in the flat picked up 26 yards to the AFC eight. Two plays later, it was Boryla to Gray for an eight-yard TD and Bakken’s extra point provided the final three-point margin. The NFC held on to win by a final score of 23-20.

Despite starting slowly on offense, the NFC ended up with the edge in total yards (389 to 325) and first downs (22 to 14). Each team turned the ball over once, and while the AFC recorded two sacks and harassed the opposing passers consistently, the NFC had more sacks with five.

Jim Hart completed just 10 of 28 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown while giving up an interception, and in relief Mike Boryla was four-of-eight for 73 yards and two TDs with none picked off. Chuck Foreman led the NFC with 85 yards on 13 rushing attempts and Lawrence McCutcheon contributed 75 yards on just seven carries. Foreman also led the club in pass receiving with 5 catches for 48 yards and a score. DE Cedrick Hardman of the 49ers was credited with three of the NFC sacks.

For the AFC, Dan Pastorini was successful on five of 12 throws for 133 yards and a TD with one picked off and Ken Anderson was four-of-12 for 48 yards. O.J. Simpson rushed for 52 yards on 10 attempts and Franco Harris (9 carries, 48 yards) and FB John Riggins of the Jets (10 carries, 47 yards) were right behind. With the one long scoring TD, Ken Burrough topped the team with four pass receptions for 96 yards. Thanks to the two long punt returns, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson (pictured above) edged out Boryla for game MVP honors.

“The whole thing was very unexpected, being here and all,” said Mike Boryla. “I didn’t get called until Monday.”

Boryla’s unexpected participation and strong performance didn’t portend better things to come in his career. While he saw more action in 1976, again in combination with Roman Gabriel, the results again were not strong. With Head Coach Dick Vermeil choosing to pursue a different direction (the Eagles obtained QB Ron Jaworski from the Rams in ’77), Boryla was dealt to Tampa Bay but, beset by injuries, he saw little action and retired. His Pro Bowl appearance ended up being the high point of his pro career.

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