For all of those gaudy things that happened throughout the afternoon, memories of the 1976 Super Bowl will keep going back to the Pittsburgh Steelers' Lynn Swann climbing into the air like the boy in the Indian rope trick, and coming down with the football. He didn't come down with very many passes last Sunday, really, only four, but he caught the ones that truly mattered. That is why it will seem that he spent the day way up there in the crisp sky, a thousand feet above Miami's Orange Bowl, where neither the Dallas Cowboys nor even a squadron of fighter planes could do anything to stop him. When it was all over Lynn Swann and the Steelers had won 21-17 and had repeated as the champions of professional madness.
The thinking beforehand was that Pittsburgh could win this game only if Franco Harris trampled over and through a thing called the flex defense of the intellectual Cowboys who, in the meantime, on offense, would do enough weird things to the hard-hat Steelers to capture the day and write a perfect finish to their storybook season. Essentially Dallas stopped Harris, however, and the winning of Super Bowl x was left up to Swann and the indomitable Terry Bradshaw, who seems to collect concussions and championship rings with equal facility. Just for good measure there also was a defense that could probably take apart an attacking tank battalion if it had to. But mainly it was Swann, keeping Pittsburgh in a game that looked to be swaying, early on, toward the underdog Cowboys. It was Swann, soaring above the Cowboys' Mark Washington at the sideline, who fielded a Bradshaw pass of 32 yards and made the drive that put Pittsburgh back in the contest late in the first quarter. Until then Dallas had done everything but cause the Orange Bowl floats to disappear.
And in the fourth quarter it was Swann who would make the biggest catch of the day, a 64-yard touchdown heave from Bradshaw, who didn't realize until much later, after his head stopped rattling, that he had passed for a touchdown. This was the play that put the Steelers safely ahead 21-10. Only a few impossible last-minute deeds by the Cowboys could have changed the outcome of Super Bowl X, and though they were dead game and scored one more touchdown they just were not quite a good enough football team to pull it off.
That last catch of Swann's has to be dwelled on, for it had Super Bowl trophy and $15,000 to each Steeler written all over it. There was so much to the play—so much that could have happened, and so much that did. It ended with Swann catching a rocket from Bradshaw that traveled at least 70 yards in the air, Swann jumping and taking it on the Dallas five-yard line and gliding in for the touchdown, and Bradshaw barely conscious on the ground after being decked by Cliff Harris on a safety blitz. For those who collect trivia, the name of the play was a "69 Maximum Flanker Post."
January 26, 1976
The play began with the Steelers trying to protect a lead of 15-10 with just over three minutes left in the game. It was third down and four to go at the Steeler 36, and Dallas wanted the football badly. There was still plenty of time for Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson to conjure up some of that witchcraft they used on the Minnesota Vikings.
Perhaps we'll never know what possessed Bradshaw to call 69 Maximum Flanker Post when the world had a right to expect Pittsburgh to try only for the first down, the percentage move to keep the ball. It may be that Bradshaw is not as dumb as it has become numbingly popular for his critics to suggest. One could certainly say he remembered Swann at just the right time.
So instead of giving the ball to Franco Harris, Bradshaw faded back to throw the long one—a wild gamble, it appeared. Alas, Dallas had figured it properly; the blitz was on, and D.D. Lewis came storming at Bradshaw from his blind side, with Cliff Harris right behind him. For a fleeting instant it seemed that Lewis would reach the quarterback before he could release the ball, causing either a sack or a fumble. But Bradshaw, possibly just sensing Lewis, took a step to his right. Lewis missed him by a hair. That gave Bradshaw enough time to unload the pass.
In the next instant Cliff Harris destroyed Bradshaw with a whack the 80,197 in the stadium might have heard if their attention had not been turned to the flight of the ball and the blur of Swann's footrace with the Cowboys' Mark Washington. Washington will have to live with the knowledge that he covered Swann as well as anyone could have but could not leap as high or as deftly at the right time.
Finally, it was a beautifully thrown ball, a perfectly run pass route and a marvelous catch, all three at the most splendid moment—for Pittsburgh—of a rather important football game.
Players who are involved in such heroics seldom have much to say afterwards that would give them more meaning. Swann said,' 'All I did was run under the ball." He thought for a moment and figured there must be more to it than that. He remembered that earlier, referring to another pass, Cliff Harris had told him, "You're lucky you didn't come back on that ball because I'm gonna take a shot at you. You better watch your head."
Intimidation. The Cowboys had planned to be intimidating in this game, something the Steelers are famous for. And the Cowboys were at first, not just with their tricks and execution but with enough hard hitting that they led 10-7 through three full quarters of play.
Swann's head was as much a factor as his hands and speedy legs. It was not even known whether he would be able to play in the Super Bowl because of a mild concussion he had suffered in the American Conference title game against Oakland. "I honestly didn't know until a couple of minutes before the kickoff whether I'd play," he said. "I felt fine and I wanted to, but 1 wasn't sure I would." Coach Chuck Noll was sure, just as sure as he was that the Steelers could not beat the Cowboys without throwing.
As for Bradshaw, he could only try to recall what reality was like. "I got hit right here," he said, pointing to his left cheek. "They were coming. I could feel them coming. I don't know how I got the ball off. I was hearing bells or something on the ground."
Bradshaw did not know what he had wrought. People bent over him as he lay there, but he wasn't hearing them. They told him when they led him to the sideline. They told him when they sat him down, and a couple of minutes later they were telling him again that he had done this terrific thing as they walked him toward the dressing room.
"I was in the locker room and the game was just about over when I understood it," said Bradshaw.
There were enough bizarre events throughout the game to daze the most ardent fan. Dallas took a 7-0 lead, the touchdown resulting from a blunder on the part of Bobby Walden, the Steelers' punter. He had a good snap from center and he simply dropped it. The Cowboys' rush blanketed him and it was Dallas' ball at the Steeler 29. In one play the Cowboys scored, and the way they did it suggested that Coach Tom Landry had something very sinister in store for the Steelers for the rest of the afternoon. Drew Pearson ran a crossing pattern over the middle and was wide open. Staubach laid the ball in beautifully and it was six points. The Steelers' safety, Mike Wagner, who claimed the fault was his because he misread the play, would have his revenge later.
Pittsburgh tied it up 7-7, with Bradshaw starting on his 33 and giving the ball to Harris and Rocky Bleier, who nibbled away to the Dallas 48. Then came a 32-yard pass to Swann down the right sideline, on which he made his first award-winning catch of the day, one more carry each by Bleier and Harris to the Dallas seven, and finally a scoring pass to Tight End Randy Grossman.
Dallas came back with a field goal by Toni Fritsch to go into the lead 10-7. It could have been 10-10 at the half, but Pittsburgh's Roy Gerela missed a field goal that wasted Swann's next sensational performance, a tumbling, juggling catch of a 53-yard Bradshaw bomb.
It was not until the fourth quarter that either team scored again. This time it was two points for Pittsburgh as Reggie Harrison flashed in to block Mitch Hoopes' punt, slamming the ball out of the end zone for a safety. Dallas 10, Pittsburgh 9. The Steelers finally went ahead when Gerela, who by then had missed another field goal, knocked one through from the 26-yard line.
So it was a 12-10 game, with less than half of the final quarter left, when Wagner got his revenge. Staubach dropped back from his 15 to try the same type of pass Drew Pearson had caught for the touchdown. Wagner reacted as if he and Staubach had concocted the play together. He lurked just out of Pearson's sight, and when the ball arrived Wagner slipped in front of him, picked it off and went screaming down to the Dallas seven. To the credit of the Dallas defense, it held the Steelers to Gerela's second field goal, but Pittsburgh was now ahead 15-10 and never lost the lead. Next came Swann's dramatic touchdown catch to make it 21-10, followed by a Staubach to Percy Howard pass of 34 yards, which concluded the scoring at 21-17.
As for all that mischief in the waning moments of the game, it started when the Steelers decided to use up time by running on fourth down instead of punting. But the clock stopped when Dallas took over near midfield, leaving 1:22 to play and giving Staubach and Drew Pearson an excellent chance to produce their old miracle. The Steelers' weird decision may best be explained by a little scene that was taking place in a booth upstairs. A frantic Pittsburgh assistant coach began hollering at Art McNally, the NFL's Supervisor of Officials. From the opposite side of a plexiglass divider covered with brown paper he shouted something on the order of, "The clock stopped, McNally! Hey, McNally, they're not running the clock!"
To which McNally calmly replied, "The clock always stops when the ball changes hands." Evidently the Steeler brain trust was so pleased that Dallas had used up all of its time-outs on defense that they had forgotten the rule, and now they could only be aghast at their folly. And that is really what gave Dallas its last chance to take the game back from Lynn Swann.
Even without the excitement on the field, there were enough trappings to make the game memorable—for one thing, it was surely the first time a press box ever had Raquel Welch hanging around in it. But the Cowboys, apparently determined to start things off with a flair, had the audacity to run a reverse on the opening kickoff. Preston Pearson handed the ball off to Tom Henderson, an ebullient special-team rookie, and after Henderson had galloped 48 yards right past the Steelers' bench, everyone knew this was going to break the mold of those Super Bowls of the past.
Dallas started right off doing things that enraged the Steelers' emotional leader, Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert. "They mess up your head too much," Lambert had said before the game. "If they beat you, you feel like you've been tricked instead of whipped. I hate teams like that."
For most of the afternoon Lambert looked as if he hated everybody in white. The Steelers didn't draw a penalty the entire game, but it was not because Lambert didn't try, particularly on one very visible occasion. Gerela had missed a field goal in the second quarter and Dallas' Cliff Harris was so pleased by this development that he slapped Lambert on the helmet and then said thank you to Gerela. No one could tell whether it was a playful pat on Lambert's helmet, but they did see Lambert grab Harris and throw him down.
Referee Norm Schachter stepped in and began moving Lambert backwards, warning him that he had better cool off. "I smiled," Lambert said, thereby revealing a facet of his character hitherto well masked. This was the same Lambert who earned the reputation of being the best and meanest of the game's linebackers, and it is the same Lambert who mentioned he did not like the place where the Steelers were headquartered in Miami, as compared to where the Cowboys were staying, which was at a beach-front hotel in Fort Lauderdale. "I hope the sharks eat Staubach," he said.
In the end it wasn't the sharks that got Roger Staubach but the Pittsburgh defense. Some of the old heroes of their front four, like L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White, led the assault that sacked Staubach seven times. That happened to be a Super Bowl record as was the 161 yards that Swann accumulated on his four pass receptions. Just as important, Staubach was harrassed considerably on a few other occasions and could not move his team as successfully as he had been able to in the early going.
It was somewhat in character for the Cowboys not to realize what a spectacle the game had been. They reacted to the loss with a humor and graciousness that reflects Landry's control of the squad.
"I don't care what kind of catch a guy makes if he beats me," Mark Washington said. "Swann just beat me one time too many."
Staubach said, "We had our chances. Overall, Pittsburgh is the best, but it was a good season."
"Was it exciting?" Jean Fugett said. "I guess it was. I guess maybe we can't play a dull game."
Neither can Lynn Swann. And the combination of Dallas being there and Swann rising to the occasion—up, up and away—made it something for everybody in Miami to take home to think about until next year. Who said the Super Bowl is dull?