The most spectacular matchup of Super Bowl XIII will not take place in the body-battering pit, where such big-name, big-bucks players as Pittsburgh's Mean Joe Greene and L. C. Greenwood and Dallas' Randy White and Harvey Martin earn their keep. Rather, it will occur far downfield from the crash of pads and the clatter of helmets, deep in the Cowboy secondary, where the Steeler wide receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, will frequently collide with the cerebrations of Strong Safety Charlie Waters and the Kung Fu clout of Free Safety Cliff Harris.
"We've become a passing team," says Swann. A quick glance at the statistics confirms Swann's statement. In 1975, a season that culminated in a 21-17 victory over Dallas in Super Bowl X, the Steelers made 149 first downs by rushing and 125 through the air. This season the numbers were virtually reversed: 149 by passing and 133 on the ground. Swann caught 61 passes for 880 yards, while his opposite number. Stallworth, grabbed 41 for 798 yards. Between them Swann and Stallworth scored 20 touchdowns—double the number made passing by all of the Steelers' opponents.
But statistics are only results. They cannot explain themselves. To understand how they came into being, one must watch the players whose actions are tabulated. In the case of Swann, it's very hard to figure. Though the Steeler roster lists him as six feet, 180 pounds, it's clear from the first glance that either this guy is a fraud or the roster is lying.
"Well," says Swann, who actually is 5'10", "I like to think of myself as 'about' six feet." A dapper dresser in the Southern California mode, with a cherubic smile and a careful, unemphatic way of speaking, he scarcely comes across as one of the game's most feared and respected participants. Yet to see him leaping half a body length higher than two desperate defenders, or slanting his pass route to the inside where he is bound to be tenderized by a charging safety, one has to agree that he can think himself however tall he wishes.
January 22, 1979
"I can't remember the last time I ran an outside or a sideline route," said Swann last week at The Tin Angel, a Pittsburgh restaurant where he and Stall-worth were having dinner. "Both John and I run inside nearly every time. Sure, that's where you get hit the hardest. But when you can hang on during the hit, you've gained a lot more than yardage. You've played into the secondary's strength and won, and you leave them with a sinking feeling, you leave them scratching their heads."
Stallworth, like Swann in his fifth year as a Steeler, and also 26 years old, is cast more in the traditional mode of an NFL wide receiver: 6'2" and a lean 183 pounds. Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a graduate of Alabama A&M, Stallworth has been Easternized during his years with the Steelers. Off the field he wears sober, vested pinstriped suits and elegant though unassertive ties. He emulates Swann in the care with which he chooses his words, but there is a definite grain to the timbre of his voice, a deep, loamy reminder of his Cotton Belt roots.
"We're each of us about as quick as the other," Stallworth said, "and I guess we can both jump as high, though Lynn starts a little closer to the ground than I do," and he grinned wickedly across the table at his running mate, "but we catch the ball differently. Lynn always tries to take it against his body, to cushion it during the catch. I have more of a tendency to catch with my hands."
He raised the meat hooks in question, each about the size of a serving platter, and the technique was fully explained. "Lynn usually lines up on the strong side, which will put him opposite Charlie Waters in the Super Bowl, whereas I go to the weak side, against Cliff Harris. But we can and do flip-flop, and we also sometimes line up both on the same side. Depends on the defensive setup."
"Two of the passes I caught against Houston last week, I lined up on the weak side," Swann interjected. One, a diving catch to the inside, set up Harris' seven-yard run for Pittsburgh's first touchdown. The other was a 29-yard bullet from Terry Bradshaw for a touchdown in traffic, and it triggered the 54-second explosion of 17 Steeler points that ended the half and put the AFC title game out of Houston's reach.
"Strong side or weak side, it doesn't make much difference," said Swann. "John and I are both moving targets. It's up to Terry to hit us, and he's been sharp all season." In 1975, the year that produced the second of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl triumphs, Bradshaw averaged 147 yards passing per game; this season, his best ever, he raised that figure to 182 yards.
"What's happened is that we've developed a remarkable, almost undefinable rapport among the three of us," Swann explained. "The art part of any pass route is what happens during the last few moments of it, the last five yards or less. John and I are concentrating all the way out—taking the chuck or avoiding it, letting the route develop along the lines we've planned, practiced over and over, yet trying to make it seem like something it isn't. You have to do it to know what I mean: you don't know where all the defenders are, you only sort of sense them. But you know that Terry—if he's getting the pass blocking he should be getting—is seeing it all.
"Then when you turn and the ball is already in the air, you suddenly see what's been happening all along. I can tell just how much Terry has led me or faded me, just how much he's put on the ball or how much he's laid off. When the defender sees the ball in the air, he can tell those things, too, but not as quickly, because he hasn't been thrown at by a Bradshaw as often as I have. So if the ball comes a bit inside, or a bit short, or maybe a touch high, it's doing those things for a reason—and I go for it without any hesitation."
"What it's like," said Stallworth in the ensuing quiet, "it's like we all been there before."
Indeed, there is a kind of a Zen quality to a good passing combination that defies conscious analysis. How in the world of gravity can a quiet, thoughtful, soft-spoken young man of 5'10" outleap and outdive other men several inches taller and—seemingly—10 times as mean.
"Beats me," said Lynn. "At USC I was a long-jumper, but not all that much of one—about 25 feet. I could high-jump 6'3". I've always played basketball, though not so much recently—I've been too busy with other things. I guess most of it is timing. Again, it's the rapport with Terry: he knows where I'm likely to end up, and I know that wherever he throws the ball is the place to catch it. Speed isn't all that important to a wide receiver. Look at Raymond Berry, or Fred Biletnikoff. The things that count are quickness, concentration, body control and, of course, hands."
The Tin Angel is located on Mount Washington at the top of Pittsburgh's Duquesne Incline. Below, the lights of the city glow as brightly as San Francisco's from the Top of the Mark. At the junction of the three great rivers that provided Pittsburgh with its reason for existence—the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio—ragged ice floes ground and shattered. A Steeler fan stopped at the table and asked for Swann's autograph.
He signed a paper doily with a ballpoint pen: the capital S of the family name became the neck and back of a Picassoesque swan, its wing feathers spelling Lynn.
All-Pros Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris, the best safety combination in the NFL, are two of the Cowboys who will try to stop the Bradshaw-Swann-Stall-worth attack. In terms of football erudition, mutual admiration, constructive criticism and simple, good-hearted friendship, the two Dallas safeties are closer than most brothers. They room together in training camp and on the road; they hunt together; they pore over computer readouts of opposing offenses, quiz each other on the minutiae of game plans and act as each other's hardest critic once a game is done.
"We're so much alike," Waters told SI's Ron Reid as the Cowboys began preparations for the Super Bowl, "that we have to spend time away from each other so we can perform right on the field. When we criticize each other, we're hard—we can't kid each other, because our humor is liable to have a needle to it. If we take a verbal shot, we take a shot. We get hacked and really yell at each other. Sometimes the rest of the guys can't figure us out."
They are so much alike, in fact, that the captions under Harris' and Waters' mug shots were transposed in the NFC title game program.
Waters and Harris are company men, members in good standing of Tom Landry's Flex Defense—locally known as "The Machine" or "The System." As such, they submit, as do all good Cowboys, to long hours of homework—studying film and computer readouts. They hear defensive sets come in from the bench (just as Roger Staubach does on offense) and accept them on faith. Yet within those company-created bounds, where every component is supposedly built of interchangeable parts, there are considerable differences between them.
Waters—who like Harris is 30 years old—is an intense, quiet, analytical man who takes the game nearly as seriously as Landry himself. He is, in more ways than one, a "deep" defender.
"Charlie studies that computer output longer than anyone else on the team," says the more freewheeling Harris. "By game time he probably knows what the offense is up to more than they do themselves. He can expect a run and 'cheat' up to the line. Even though he's more restricted, in that he has to cover both run and pass, he studies so much that he can anticipate what a team will do in a given situation and play it accordingly. As the free safety, I have to wait a second before I decide whether to go for the ballcarrier or drop for a pass. He can gamble more than I can."
Waters, who came to the Cowboys nine years ago as an ex-quarterback and wide receiver from Clemson, believes that his balance is his greatest strength.
"It's not how hard you tackle," Waters says, "but how efficiently. If I've got the angle on a running back or a receiver, I'll hit him as hard as anyone can. But if I don't, I'll just try to bring the guy down. I study time-space relationships on the field. If a receiver explodes to a certain point where he thinks I'll hit him, and then I'm not there, I can use his own momentum to bring him down. I feel like I blend well with our defense. I don't do an outstanding job in any one area, but I'm as good as the players around me."
Such 19th century self-deprecation might be pleasing to Landry and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but it rides like a hair shirt on the back of mustachioed, wisecracking Cliff Harris. A free agent when he came to the Cowboys from tiny Ouachita Baptist University in southwestern Arkansas, Harris takes pride in his ability to hack it with pro football's most demanding team, and his skill at hacking up opposing ballcarriers as well.
Though he communes with the computer on a dutiful, pro forma basis, Harris also relies on some Kung Fu condition that Cowboy coaches call "Tiger's Eye Awareness"—the ability to react instantly to any movement around him. Like Swann in his freewheeling rapport with Bradshaw, Harris is a man who feels a situation more sensitively than he thinks it.
Still, like anyone in The System, Harris does spend some time analyzing the opponent: mainly, he concerns himself with the rival quarterback's head. "I study his emotional responses," says Harris. "How he reacts when he's intercepted, sacked, or after he completes a pass. We have access to tight films shot from the end zone, and watching them is almost like being in the game itself. I try to read the quarterback's emotions, and from that I try to figure out what he's feeling. It helps me."
Waters and Harris complement one another on that score. "Cliff is forceful where I'm yielding," says Waters. "He can often dictate what an offense will do. It's a territorial game for Cliff."
Harris says he loves the fact that Swann and Stallworth run a high percentage of inside routes. "The strength of my play is that I hit hard," he says. "If they run Swann or Stallworth inside, we have to make them pay."
Nonetheless, Harris admits that his job won't be easy. "A receiver is most vulnerable between the time his hands touch the ball and the time he cradles it away. Swann is the sort of receiver who tucks the ball in immediately. So he almost never takes a hard shot when he's vulnerable. The secret of not getting hit is control. O. J. Simpson has that kind of control; so does Tony Dorsett. And so does Lynn Swann."
For all the respect that Harris and Waters have for Swann, they avow even more for Bradshaw. "Bradshaw's smart," says Harris. "And he's strong enough to force a pass into the strength of our defense and still complete it."
This means that the Cowboys are certain to blitz Bradshaw more than is their habit. Can they make it work?
"That's what we did the last time we played them in the Super Bowl," Waters reflects. "But when you blitz, it's critical that you get to the quarterback quickly. If he has more than X plus 2 seconds, or whatever, you're in trouble. If you leave Swann one-on-one, and Bradshaw sees it, then you might as well forget it. And Terry, being the stud that he is, can hang in there like a big oak tree. Other quarterbacks start falling down when you come near 'em, but Terry never gets off balance."
Harris considers. Then he says, "What we'll try to do is confuse Bradshaw so that he'll throw into the strength of our defense. We'll double-cover Swann at times, single-cover him at other times, and we'll blitz!"
Harris assumes a learned, self-effacing demeanor under his piratical mustache. In a plummy voice he adds, self-effacingly, "I haven't studied their tight end, Randy Grossman, on film, but I know Stallworth has a lot of talent. When you double-cover, you hope the one guy you leave to handle the rest of it is strong enough to handle the lone guy. At Dallas we play the percentages. They're going to get X amount of yards through our weaknesses, and if the percentage is high enough we're in trouble."
A typical Pittsburgh pass pattern sends Swann deep, with Stallworth delaying a bit, then cutting across the middle, each coming from opposite sides. The speed of the two Steeler receivers—both run the 40 in about 4.6—coupled with the various kinds of passes Bradshaw throws could very well stretch the zones of coverage beyond the breaking point. Add to that the presence of Grossman, and you have a difficult puzzle to solve.
Harris pauses and contemplates. The mustache twitches. "We better get a great pass rush or our offense is going to have to score a lot of points."