Almost everywhere across the pro football landscape last weekend there was a heartfelt vote for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was difficult not to show sympathy for a team so snake bitten that it had suffered its whole long life, 40 years, without a single championship and, despite the kindliest owner in all sportsdom, had acquired little more throughout its history than curious draft choices, holding penalties and halfbacks certain to drown on a sprint through a car wash. Even if you do not get dewy-eyed about Cinderella stories—particularly ones with a 40-year-old Cinderella—there seemed no finer way to ring out a so-so year than by cheering the Steelers on to victory.
But after weeks of favoring her with bountiful blessings, the fairy godmother suddenly failed to touch Cinderella with her magic wand. Instead, she strung along with the inexorable Miami Dolphins, that acquisitive bunch of opportunists that she has been dating steadily. And so it is the Dolphins who will now meet Washington in the Super Bowl. They repeated as American Football Conference champions by hanging a 21-17 defeat on the Steelers in Pittsburgh's bedsheet-bedecked Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday.
It was Miami's 16th consecutive victory, and for all those sign-carrying zealots who witnessed the Steelers' first home defeat this season this was a greater cause for limiting New Year's Eve alcoholic euphoria in Pittsburgh than the W.C.T.U. could ever hope to dream up. It was also one fine game—a dandy little looking-glass war—which ultimately turned on Miami's extreme reluctance to lose and a few ill-timed Steeler mistakes. To the very end, it seemed that Pittsburgh might be able to employ the same kind of wicked lightning that it had used in the last seconds to execute the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 23. But Miami's well-publicized No-Name Defense precluded another miracle by twice intercepting Terry Bradshaw in the waning minutes of the game.
"The Dolphins have got a lot of talent and their defense is the toughest type to play against," Pittsburgh Center Ray Mansfield had said earlier in the week. "Against a defense that relies on a few great individuals, you'll get dropped for some big losses, but once in a while you can also break for a big gain. But those guys on Miami never get out of position, and you never break a big play against them. Of course, we're a lot like Miami. Both of us have disciplined defenses with just a few stars and everybody doing what he's supposed to do."
Mansfield's analysis turned out to be a generally accurate one, but Miami probably won the war because it also won the celebrated battle of stars between Larry Little, the Dolphin who may be the best offensive guard in the game, and Mean Joe Greene, the Steeler tackle who may be the best defensive lineman.
Greene is used to being double-teamed and, while he admits that the ploy once frustrated him, he has grown to understand that such personal concentration helps the team. "It's not important who makes the play, but just that the play is made," he says. "I think that's the basic reason for our success—we're unselfish. And when anybody double-teams me, it's going to help someone else up front."
Little was so proficient, however, that he was able to handle Greene by himself, almost never requiring backup blocking support. Not once did the Steelers sack a Miami quarterback, and twice when the Dolphins drove to a first down in a fourth-and-short situation near the Pittsburgh goal they actually elected to run straight over Greene. Little, who explained that he had been "in a deep concentration bag" all week, understood the stakes of his man-to-man match. "I know if I don't do the job on him, we won't win the game," he had said. "If I do, we'll win. I have a lot of pride and I can't see myself getting beat."
This is certainly not to suggest that the awesome Greene was the man who cost the Steelers the game. Overall, if only occasionally, the Steelers showed the effects of a championship debut by suffering lapses of poise and concentration. In contrast, the Dolphins showed a penchant for the gamble—but with a cool head and steady hand. Miami was not afraid to risk fourth-down runs instead of playing it the usual dull NFL way and taking the easy field goal. "You have to go for the short ones if you want to be the champ," Coach Don Shula said.
The first Dolphin touchdown came with Miami trailing 7-0 and stalled near midfield. Punter Larry Seiple looked up, saw no Pittsburgh rush, and decided to run. When he finally was stopped, he had gone 37 yards to the Steeler 12 and the Dolphins were on their way. "It wasn't in the play book, and I never thought of it until the situation opened up," Seiple said afterward. Two plays later, Earl Morrall tossed a nine-yard swing pass to Larry Csonka to tie the score.
Pittsburgh went back on top 10-7 and forced Shula to replace Morrall with Bob Griese in the second half. Griese got the Dolphins moving, but showed the effect of his long injury-induced layoff by throwing an interception to Pittsburgh Linebacker Jack Ham. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the play was nullified because End Dwight White had jumped offside. The drive restored, Jim Kiick ran behind Little on fourth down for a first down at the two. Two plays later, Kiick carried the last two yards for his first touchdown and now Miami led, 14-10.
On this drive the Dolphins were able to do what Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll feared the most—use up great chunks of time. The Steelers checked Miami's offense for most of the unseasonably warm afternoon, but the two relentless ground-oriented marches, which both ended in Kiick touchdowns, consumed almost 15 minutes. Only once in the second half were the Steelers able to control the ball for a substantial stretch of time.
Ironically, Pittsburgh's fate may have been sealed at the very culmination of its own impressive first-quarter touchdown drive. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who had spent much of the week before the game flu-struck in the hospital, steered the Steelers 48 yards, keeping every play on the ground. At the last he called his own number, and from the Miami three rolled out to the left. Just short of the goal line he was hit convincingly by Free Safety Jake Scott and the ball popped into the end zone, where Tackle Gerry Mullins loomed out of nowhere and fell on it for a Pittsburgh touchdown.
In view of the previous week's melodrama, when Bradshaw had beaten Oakland with a last-second desperation pass to Frenchy Fuqua that ended up as a ricochet touchdown to Franco Harris—the Feast of the Immaculate Reception, Steeler Color Announcer Myron Cope has called it—the Dolphins could have been excused for wondering if all the angels in heaven were perched on the Steeler shoulder pads. Bradshaw himself was getting especially cozy with the mystical. "Even with the flu, it's been a good week for me," he said before the game. "I got all my learning down and I'm throwing the ball well. I've been in high spirits all week. Before San Diego and Oakland and now again, I've had this feeling. It's kind of like ESP and it's that we can't lose."
As Mullins fell on Bradshaw's fumble, however, Bradshaw fell hard to the Tartan Turf. Still woozy with the flu, he was eventually required to stay on the bench for half the game. In his absence, Terry Hanratty, the old Notre Dame ace, was recalled from oblivion. While he did lead the team in one drive that ended with Roy Gerela's 14-yard field goal, the offense generally bogged down under Terry II. By the time Noll finally returned Bradshaw to action midway through the last quarter the Dolphins were on top 21-10.
At this point, in a piece of business that seemed to be lifted from some other era, Bradshaw—still in "tough pain"—promptly threw four straight, gorgeous completions for 71 yards and a touchdown, the score coming on a spectacular one-handed grab by Al Young. Outside of this brief stretch, the Steelers hardly completed a pass of consequence in the whole game, but this mad burst brought them back to 21-17, and with more than five minutes left it seemed that members of Franco's Italian Army, Gerela's Gorillas, Russell's Raiders, Frenchy's Foreign Legion and all the other Steeler subgroups were to be served victory again. But the two interceptions—by Linebackers Nick Buoniconti and Mike Kolen—doused what ESP and miracle dust were still about.
The Dolphins' gutsy victory supplies further vindication for a team that has been beset by skeptics. While Miami has now won 16 in a row, the most any team ever won in one season and only one game short of the all time streak (compiled over parts of two seasons), the Dolphins have been pooh-poohed for waltzing through an easy schedule. Which they have. Which isn't their fault. The performance against Pittsburgh is something else again, though, for it demonstrates that the Dolphins can beat a good opponent when the schedule provides them with one.
The game also returned young Griese to the fore. He had missed virtually all of nine games with a serious ankle injury, but came back with style when Shula decided to replace Morrall. Griese completed only three of five passes, but one was a clever look-in to Paul War-field that went for 52 yards and led to the go-ahead Miami touchdown. In counterpoint, the game was something of a disappointment for Pittsburgh's brilliant rookie of the year, Franco Harris, who dropped a pass and failed to ignite a big play as he had in previous games. But Harris and Mercury Morris (see cover) of the Dolphins each ran for 76 yards to tie for rushing honors.
Perhaps an omen of Harris' misfortune came the day before the game when his flag-waving army—having recently commissioned Arnold Palmer and Frank Sinatra—decided to go airborne with a bombing raid on the William Penn Hotel, where the Dolphins were domiciled. A press release stated that "a light aircraft, carrying two of the army's crack officers, dropped 2,000 leaflets on the hotel," urging surrender. "This leaflet will guarantee safe passage out of town to any member of the Miami Dolphins," the leaflet read, "if presented to a member of Franco's Italian Army. Surrender now and enjoy life with your loved ones rather than face destruction on the field of battle at Three Rivers Stadium."
The propaganda value of this blitz was considerably muted when pilot error or a pernicious wind carried 1,999 of the 2,000 leaflets past the William Penn and on to McKeesport or Aliquippa or somewhere. Nor is there any record of the one leaflet which found the hotel target ever reaching Dolphin hands.
Miami did find some delightful Miami weather in Pennsylvania, however. Pittsburgh, which hardly qualifies as a tropical oasis, favored the Dolphins with temperatures in the 60s, and instead of the rain that was forecast there were only clouds and even occasional sunshine.
Shula and some other members of the Dolphin traveling party wore hand-painted neckties that featured a dolphin leaping over goal posts. These ties were the handwork of little Garo Yepremian, the bald-headed field-goal kicker from Cyprus who stands 5'8" and weighs 175. Kicking and painting neckties is the safe kind of work for 5'8" Cypriots. Nevertheless, on a kickoff in the third quarter, when it appeared that Preston Pearson might break away on the runback, Yepremian hedged right into the violent ruck near the sideline and managed to discombobulate Pearson enough so that he ended up being "tackled" by an onrushing teammate.
It's tough for armies and Cinderellas alike to win against odds like that.