Defining Moments

Publish date:

When you think about the 1985 Super Bowl-champion Chicago Bears, the image that immediately pops into your mind isn't Walter Payton carrying the football 22 times or Willie Gault's 129 receiving yards. It's not Reggie Phillips' 28-yard interception return for a touchdown and it's not even Jim McMahon thumbing his nose at Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

No, more than two decades later, the singular image that flashes into our minds when we think of the Bears' 46-10 destruction of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX in New Orleans is the Fridge, massive defensive tackle William Perry, lugging his 390 pounds of blubber over the goal-line for a third-quarter rub-it-in touchdown.

That one play told you everything you need to know about the Bears. They didn't just want to beat you, they wanted to humiliate you and laugh at you and then steal your girlfriend after the game.

These are the iconic images of the Super Bowl. The snapshots frozen in our collective consciousness that stand alone and, in a way, are more memorable than the games themselves. Pro football, more than any other sport, defines its stars by their performances in championship games. We dismiss Dan Marino, one of the greatest passers in history, because he didn't win a Super Bowl, and we embrace Doug Williams, a journeyman of modest accomplishment whose one magical quarter just happened to be on the game's greatest stage.

The image of Perry waddling across the goal-line is the defining moment of Super Bowl XX and also of the historic Chicago Bears franchise.

Here -- in reverse chronological order -- is a look at the rest of the Top 10 defining moments in Super Bowl history. Some define a player, some define a team, some define an era. All are etched forever in our memories.

The Escape

Eli Manning simply would not go down. No matter how many guys tore at his jersey and grabbed at his shoulder pads and tugged at his legs, Manning refused to hit the deck. Until that moment, Eli was Peyton Manning's kid brother and it was hard to imagine anything -- even a Super Bowl championship -- would change that.

But Manning's determined escape from a sea of Patriots defenders and 32-yard third-down miracle to a leaping David Tyree with stickum on his helmet not only kept alive the game-winning touchdown drive Sunday, it elevated Manning into an icon. And that play, that impossible, miraculous, death-defying, season-saving play, became the defining moment not only for the Giants but for underdogs everywhere who refuse to believe they have no chance to win.

The Tackle

Only the most hard-core football fans remember who caught the ball. And only the most hard-core football fans remember who made the tackle.

What made Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta after the 1999 season such a defining moment for the league had little to do with the Rams or the Titans. It was all about the tackle. With the Rams up by seven, the Titans with the ball at the Rams' 10-yard-line, the clock at 0:06, the entire season resting on one play, a Rams linebacker made a Spaulding Guide tackle on a Titans receiver, stopping him as he stretched the football out a few agonizing inches from the end zone.

The names have become footnotes. For the record, Mike Jones was the linebacker, Kevin Dyson the receiver. Neither was a star. Jones was out of football by 2003, Dyson by 2004. The tackle transcended its participants. It carried football back to its simple roots, back to the days when the game was played by steel workers and railroad men during their Sundays off from work. Back when pro football didn't mean billion-dollar TV contracts or endorsements or six-hour pre-game shows. It just meant running, blocking and tackling.

The Sacks

It took Reggie White nine years to win a playoff game and 14 pro seasons to reach a Super Bowl. By then, his credentials were etched in stone. White was the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history. But without a ring, his career was hollow, and although his playoff production was good -- seven sacks in his first 10 postseason games -- it was hardly overwhelming.

Then came Super Bowl XXXI against the Patriots in New Orleans after the 1996 season. After a quiet first half, White sacked Drew Bledsoe three times in the span of 13 second-half pass plays to help the Packers secure their 35-21 win.

White had shed a decade and a half of frustration with an overwhelming second half, a stretch that defined his career as more than just the greatest lineman in history but a champion as well.

The Kick

The Bills' four Super Bowl losses came against three teams in four stadiums by a variety of scores with varying circumstances. Yet one play defines them all. Scott Norwood's missed field goal.

Norwood's 47-yard field goal attempt -- wide right - came against the Giants at the end of Super Bowl XXV in Tampa after the 1990 season, but it symbolizes the unprecedented Super Bowl failures of the Bills from 1990 through 1993. It defines a franchise.

The Drive

Joe Montana had already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. He had already won two Super Bowls and taken the 49ers to the playoffs seven times in eight years. If he hadn't rallied the 49ers from a 16-13 deficit in the final 3½ minutes of Super Bowl XXIII in Miami after the 1988 season, he still would have been a Hall of Famer.

What The Drive did was elevate Montana from mere mortal Hall of Famer into a legend. With the Bengals needing only one stop to win the Super Bowl, Montana drove the 49ers 92 yards in two minutes, 46 seconds, completing eight of 10 passes for 97 yards (an illegal man downfield penalty allowed Montana to throw for more yards than the length of the drive). His 10-yard TD to John Taylor with 34 seconds left gave the 49ers a 20-16 win and Montana's third Super Bowl triumph and defined the career of the greatest quarterback who ever lived.

The Conversion

The Redskins trailed the Dolphins 17-13 with 10 minutes left in Super Bowl XVII after the 1982 season in Pasadena when Joe Gibbs decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Miami 43.

It was a risk, no doubt. If the fourth-down play failed, the Dolphins would have a short field, the clock on their side, and most likely their third Super Bowl championship in 11 years.

The ball went to John Riggins, who bulled his way over left end for a yard. And 42 more. Touchdown Redskins.

The Skins would go on to win two more Super Bowls in the next decade, but the first one signaled the franchise's return to prominence after more than 40 years without a title. And the image of Riggins -- the ultimate no-frills back -- turning that 4th-and-1 into the game-winning touchdown remains the defining moment in the franchise's 75-year history.

The Leap

Lynn Swann soared in the air, snared a Terry Bradshaw bomb, came down at the 5-yard-line and ran into the end zone with the critical touchdown catch in the Steelers' 21-17 win over the Cowboys in Super Bowl X in Miami following the 1975 season.

Swann's 64-yard Super Bowl catch has grown to such mythical proportions that it's easy to forget that he really wasn't that productive a player. That's what one catch can do, if it wins a Super Bowl. Define a wide receiver so convincingly that he makes the Hall of Fame despite never having 900 yards in a season and surpassing 50 receptions just once.

The Guarantee

Nobody remembers that Joe Namath didn't even throw a touchdown pass against the Colts in Super Bowl III. Nobody remembers that the real heroes for the Jets were Matt Snell, who rushed for 121 yards; George Sauer, who caught eight passes for 133 yards; and Randy Beverly, who intercepted two passes. Nobody remembers that in his career, Namath lost 31 more games than he won and threw 47 more interceptions than touchdowns. And nobody certainly remembers that in 33 career games against winning teams after the Super Bowl season, Namath had a 2-31 record.

No, we remember the guarantee and the final score, 16-7. That makes Namath's guarantee the ultimate defining Super Bowl moment. Because for the rest of his career, he had no other moments at all.

The Beginning

By 1966, Max McGee was 34, a year from retirement, three years removed from his last big season. He had just four catches that year, just 14 in his last two seasons. But in the first Super Bowl -- played before the game was even called the Super Bowl -- McGee recalled the greatness of his past.

Just 12 minutes into the game, McGee made a one-handed snag at the Chiefs' 23-yard-line of a short Bart Starr pass over the middle and ran into the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown -- the first in Super Bowl history. McGee finished with seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns as the Packers blasted the Chiefs, 35-10.

McGee caught just three more passes the rest of his career, but it didn't matter. With his improbable one-handed catch at the L.A. Coliseum, McGee gave the Super Bowl its first defining moment. And still one of its greatest.