The last time the National Football Conference won a Super Bowl, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were in office, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were alive, the Dow Jones was ready to break 1,000 for the first time, The Godfather was just a book, Elizabeth Ray just a secretary and Watergate just an apartment complex. That was Jan. 16, 1972 in New Orleans, where the Dallas Cowboys pummeled the still-developing Miami Dolphins 24-3. Since then it has been all AFC, with Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland winning the last five Super Bowl games. But now, at last, the NFC seems to have a super team in the Super Bowl. Once again it is Dallas, and this Sunday night in the New Orleans Superdome the Cowboys are expected to put an unhappy ending to the Cinderella story of the 1977 Denver Broncos by stampeding them right out of Super Bowl XII.
In keeping with Super Bowl tradition, the Cowboy-Bronco game will be decided by defense, and few defenses have been more extolled than Denver's rambunctious 3-4 alignment, the Orange Crush. But the truth is, Dallas' Doomsday II defense is better. Dallas veterans call it the best Cowboy defense ever. And against Denver, Doomsday II's clear superiority at putting pressure on the quarterback should give the Cowboys all the edge they need to win.
The two quarterbacks—Dallas' Roger Staubach and Denver's Craig Morton—were team-mates on the Cowboys from 1969 to 1974. During that time Staubach took away the starting job that Morton had inherited from the retired Don Meredith. Morton led Dallas to the 1971 Super Bowl, which the Cowboys lost to Baltimore 16-13, while the less-experienced Staubach rode the bench. During the first half of the following season Coach Tom Landry gave Morton and Staubach almost equal time, with such predictably disastrous results that, after the seventh game, Landry made Staubach No. 1. Staubach responded by guiding Dallas to 10 straight wins and its Super Bowl victory. "They were both championship quarterbacks," Landry said recently. "Both could throw and both were leaders. But the one thing that tipped the scales was Roger's mobility. I made the right decision for the Dallas Cowboys."
That was not the end of the Morton-Staubach saga. The next year Staubach separated a shoulder in the exhibition season, and Morton came off the bench to quarterback Dallas into the playoffs. But when the team floundered under Morton against San Francisco in the opening round, Landry brought in Staubach. Staubach led a magnificent winning rally, and Landry rewarded him with the starting assignment in the NFC championship game against the Redskins the following week. Most of the Cowboys felt it was a bad decision, and a rusty Staubach confirmed that by playing poorly in a 26-3 loss. Landry didn't make the right decision for the Dallas Cowboys that day. But the issue of who was going to be quarterback in Dallas was settled forever. Morton asked to be traded, and in 1974, after forcing the Cowboys' hand by signing with the World Football League for 1975, he was exiled to the New York Giants.
January 16, 1978
Morton's predicament in Dallas was hardly helped by his life-style. In addition to his ability, Staubach was simply too much Landry's type of person to be denied the No. 1 job. Compared to Meredith, Morton was a dedicated football player, but compared to Staubach he deserved his nickname—"The Prince of Greenville Avenue," a popular strip of nightspots in Dallas.
That was the "old" Morton. The "new" Morton has settled quietly in Denver with his bride, and has "accepted Christ into my life." The reformed Morton also plays for a reformed coach. Before getting the head coach's job in Denver, Red Miller—Broncomaniacs want Red to change his name to Orange—spent 17 years as an NFL assistant, the last four as the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. "I had just about made up my mind to be the best assistant coach I could," Miller admits. He was even turned down for the head coaching job with the WFL's Chicago Fire. Everywhere Miller went, though, he proved himself a brilliant offensive strategist as well as a coach who could relate to his players.
But his dedication was always in question. He was known as "Good Time Red Miller" and, as one Denver writer put it recently, "Darkness would sometimes find him out of bounds." Miller was determined to land a head job. "I stopped drinking about a year and a half ago," he says. "I haven't had a thing since." When the Broncos clinched the AFC West title in Houston in December, Miller smuggled eight cases of champagne aboard the team plane for a surprise celebration for his squad. He may have been the only person on board who didn't touch a drop.
While Denver's main weapon is its Orange Crush defense, the Broncos became Super Bowl contenders only when Miller, who serves as his own offensive coordinator, put some direction into the offense. The Denver attack is best described as realistic. Not blessed with a strong offensive line, the Broncos play cautiously, rarely gambling in their half of the field. And Morton has executed Miller's conservative philosophy perfectly. Often intercepted in the past, Morton had only eight passes picked off in 14 games this year.
Like Denver, Dallas also restyled its offense this season. However, comparing the Denver offense with Dallas' attack is like comparing the Bronco Belles with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Denver ranked 12th on offense in the 14-team AFC. Dallas, which ranked first in the NFC in 1976, was a far stronger first in 1977. "This is the most explosive team I have ever played for," says 13-year Offensive Tackle Ralph Neely, who was on both the Don Meredith-Bob Hayes and the Duane Thomas-Calvin Hill teams. The Dallas defense also ranked No. 1 this year, the first time a Super Bowl team has achieved that double since undefeated Miami did it in 1972.
"The big difference now is our running game," says Staubach, pointing out that last year's top Cowboy rusher, Doug Dennison, gained just 542 yards while this year NFC Rookie of the Year Tony Dorsett got 1,007 despite playing only about half the time the Cowboys had the ball. "Tony is very explosive. He had the longest runs in Cowboy history this season [84 and 77 yards]. Once you do something like that, everyone knows you can do it. It enables us to use play-action passes much better."
Play-action passes, which start as if they are running plays, are an offensive staple for both Dallas and Denver. There are other similarities in the two attacks. Denver's Haven Moses and Dallas' Drew Pearson are carbon-copy receivers: each is able to go deep and each is also particularly adept at running precise patterns 12 to 15 yards downfield.
Both teams run almost solely behind the strong side; wherever the tight end lines up, that's where the runner will normally head. The Broncos favor their right side, preferring to follow 260-pound Guard Paul Howard and 280-pound Tackle Claudie Minor. They did just that for six straight plays and two first downs while killing the last 3:08 against the Raiders in the AFC championship game. The Cowboys have no such preference, running to either side.
The Cowboys may well try to surprise Denver with a play Landry devised this year for 3-4 defenses. It starts with two tight ends, one of them going in motion back toward the center. After snapping the ball, Cowboy Center John Fitzgerald lets the defensive nose tackle slip unopposed into the offensive backfield, where he is promptly blind-sided by the in-motion tight end. Dorsett then takes a hand-off up the vacated middle. Against Philadelphia that play produced Dorsett's 84-yard touchdown romp.
Ultimately, the outcome of Super Bowl XII will hinge on the war between Doomsday II and the Orange Crush. They are almost exact opposites. Dallas uses a variation of the traditional 4-3 alignment, Denver the 3-4. The heart of the Orange Crush is its four linebackers—Tom Jackson and Bob Swenson on the outside, Randy Gradishar and Joe Rizzo on the inside. They probably comprise the fastest linebacking corps in the history of the pro game. Gradishar is the slowest of the four, and he runs 40 yards in a speedy 4.8 seconds.
Dallas counters with five linebackers, or so it sometimes seems to opponents. Philadelphia Coach Dick Vermeil described Dallas safeties Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris, the game's best pair, as "two extra linebackers making tackles at the line of scrimmage."
Waters likes to ride his motorcycle without a helmet, but it is Harris whom the Cowboys call "Crash." Waters plays with pain. He played one whole season with a broken arm that was held together with a pin. In fact, he rebroke it one day while putting his shirt on. Harris, though, is considered the tougher of the two. Cowboy players measure opponents' toughness by how they get up—if they get up—after being hit by Harris. Dallas Cornerbacks Aaron Kyle and Benny Barnes say that in the interest of self-preservation they always try to upend their man before Harris arrives. Crash doesn't distinguish between friend and foe when he tackles; in Dallas' opening game this year, Harris twice knocked out Kyle with tackles.
The Cowboy defensive backs get a lot of help from their front four, which this year led the NFC with 53 sacks. Harvey Martin, the NFC's defensive player of the year, topped the NFL in individual sacks with 23. Next to him on the right side is Randy White, whom Waters calls "the manster—half man, half monster." White is the strongest Cowboy ever, and very mean. Landry says, "I never thought I'd see another Bob Lilly in my lifetime, but Randy White can be another Bob Lilly for us." White was acquired with the No. 1 draft pick Dallas got from New York in return for Morton.
Ed (Too Tall) Jones and Jethro Pugh handle the left side. Jones, who will play opposite the mammoth Minor, dominated the scrimmage line in Dallas' playoff wins over Chicago and Minnesota. However, Too Tall has yet to develop into a great pass rusher. "I've been getting better," he says, "but when I get to the quarterback, Harvey or Randy are already sitting on him."
For their part, the Broncos do less than a championship job of protecting Morton. Denver quarterbacks have been sacked 50 times this year, the third-highest total in the NFL. One reason for this is that Miller has instructed his quarterbacks to eat the ball rather than risk an interception. Another is that Morton has never been much of a scrambler. If the hip condition that hospitalized Morton before the Oakland playoff game flares up against Dallas, Morton may well be a sitting duck for the Cowboy front four. Interceptions are unquestionably costly, but then so are sacks. Bud Goode, a statistician whose computer service is bought by many NFL clubs, claims the sack is too often underrated. His Univac computer says that dropping the quarterback is worth three points to the defense.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, they have trouble sacking opposition quarterbacks themselves—the lone chink in their defensive armament. With only three down linemen, the Broncos don't apply great pressure and they often leave big gaps between the rushers. Against Oakland's hobbled Ken Stabler, this shortcoming made little difference. But Staubach can—and does—run effectively. He should be able to keep two or three drives alive by moving around until he finds an open receiver—or by running for a first down. In a tight defensive struggle, this may be all the Cowboys will need to break the Broncos.
At least it's something to think about until Sunday night.