When the defending champion Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers square off Sunday afternoon in Miami's Orange Bowl, they should produce the biggest upset in Super Bowl history—a good football game. In the past, the NFL championship has often been something less than super. You had a team with no offense, or one fumble-struck by all the hoopla, or—worst of all—the Minnesota Vikings. For excitement, the Super Bowl has rivaled watching Terry Bradshaw battle baldness.
Not this time. At long last, the AFC and the NFC have both put their best teams forward. The Steelers and the Cowboys are the two best in pro football, with outstanding organizations, coaches, quarterbacks and defenses. It looks like a super Super Bowl.
No two Super Bowl teams have ever had better credentials. The Steelers were the winningest team in the NFL this season, with a record of 14-2. They now have a seven-game winning streak, but that is only the second longest in the league. The Cowboys have won eight straight. Pittsburgh won the AFC championship game by 29 points. Dallas responded by winning the NFC championship game by 28. Pittsburgh yielded only five points to Houston in the title game, but Dallas was even stingier, shutting out Los Angeles.
Pittsburgh and Dallas have been down the Super Bowl road before. In fact, Sunday's game marks the first rematch in Super Bowl history. In Super Bowl X three years ago in the Orange Bowl, the Steelers edged the Cowboys 21-17 in a game considered by many to be the most exciting of these affairs yet played. This time around, the Steelers and the Cowboys have an extra incentive. Not only will the winners get $18,000 apiece, as well as Super Bowl rings worth about as much as the $2,500 it cost Art Rooney to obtain the Steelers in 1933, but they will also become the first team ever to win three Super Bowls. Pittsburgh is perfect in Super Bowl play, winning Games IX and X. Dallas has a .500 record, winning Games VI and XII, losing V and X.
Pittsburgh and Dallas have the most stable, effective organizations in their respective conferences. They also lead the NFL in developing their own talent, although neither force-feeds rookies into its starting lineup. Only one rookie—Steeler Cornerback Ron Johnson—will be among the 44 starters in XIII. Both teams signed 42 of their 45 players directly out of college. Under Coach Chuck Noll, who suffered through a 1-13 season in his first year as coach in 1969, the Steelers have now qualified for the playoffs seven straight years, the longest such streak in the league. Under Tom Landry, who endured an 0-11-1 record in 1960, the first season for both Landry and the Cowboys, Dallas has made the playoffs 12 times in the last 13 years.
Ten Steelers and nine Cowboys will play in next week's Pro Bowl. The starting quarterbacks in that game will be the starting quarterbacks on Sunday—Pittsburgh's Bradshaw and Dallas' Roger Staubach. Both Bradshaw and Staubach set club passing records for touchdowns this season. Staubach led the entire NFL with a quarterback rating of 84.9. Bradshaw led the AFC with a rating of 84.8 and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Staubach and Bradshaw can each choose between throwing to a Pro Bowl wide receiver—Dallas' Tony Hill and Pittsburgh's Lynn Swann—or handing off to a Pro Bowl running back—Dallas' Tony Dorsett and Pittsburgh's Franco Harris.
And both Dallas and Pittsburgh have that mandatory ingredient of championship teams—an overpowering defense. The Cowboys' Flex Defense, Doomsday II, led the NFL in controlling the run, giving up just 107.6 yards rushing a game. Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain had the AFC's stingiest rushing defense, surrendering 110.9 yards on the ground per game. During Pittsburgh's current seven-game winning streak, the Steel Curtain hasn't allowed more than 100 yards rushing in any game. As for the bottom line—points—the Steelers gave up the fewest in the NFL, 195, while the Cowboys yielded the fewest in the NFC, 208.
When Dallas has the ball, the Cowboys will discover what Houston Coach Bum Phillips meant when he compared attacking the Steeler defense to "eating an ice-cream cone on a hot summer day. Before you get it all in your mouth, it gets all over you." In particular, Pittsburgh's jarring defensive backs, notably Safeties Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell, and its three linebackers—Jack Ham on the left, Jack Lambert in the middle and either Loren Toews or Robin Cole on the right—get all over end sweeps. The Cowboys will no doubt follow the example of most Steeler opponents and run Dorsett inside to his left, behind Guard Herbert Scott, their best offensive lineman. In other words, away from the left side of the Steeler defense, which is a roadblock composed of their two best defensive linemen, Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood, and Ham, who may be the best outside linebacker ever to play in the NFL.
This year Dorsett joined John Brockington and Lawrence McCutcheon as the only players in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of their first two seasons. Dorsett gained 1,325 yards, 318 more than he had in 1977. Against Pittsburgh, he may prove to be more valuable as a pass receiver than a rusher. In passing situations. Pittsburgh likes to double-team both wide receivers—in Dallas' case, Hill and Drew Pearson—with a cornerback and a safety. If Hill and Pearson become bottled up, Staubach will have to turn to his inside receivers—Tight End Billy Joe DuPree and running backs Dorsett and Preston Pearson. All things considered, the Cowboys may well invite double coverage on the wide receivers and then tantalize the Steelers with short stuff. DuPree caught 34 passes for 509 yards and nine touchdowns, while Dorsett and Preston Pearson caught 37 and 47 passes, respectively, and averaged better than 10 yards per reception.
On defense, Dallas hopes to shut down the Steelers' running game and force Bradshaw to throw the ball more often than he would like. He threw an average of 23 times a game this season; the Cowboys would love to make Bradshaw go to the air at least 30 times. One reason is that Dallas led the NFL in sacks this season with 58, and the Cowboys feel that Pittsburgh's offensive line is not impenetrable. In Super Bowl X, the Cowboys chased Bradshaw all over the Orange Bowl, sacking him twice and ultimately knocking him out of the game. On the play on which he was KO'd, however, Bradshaw completed what proved to be the game-winning 64-yard touchdown pass to Swann.
The Cowboys' best pass rush should come from 6'9", 270-pound End Ed (Too Tall) Jones, who ought to simply overpower 6'4", 240-pound Steeler Tackle Ray Pinney. Dallas also can count on Tackle Randy White to harass Bradshaw sooner or later. Against the Rams in the NFC championship game, White personally sidelined Running Back John Cappelletti and Quarterback Pat Haden with clean but vicious tackles; the week before, though, White was rudely manhandled by Atlanta's Mike Kenn and Dave Scott for three quarters before he asserted himself. White will wear a light cast to protect the left thumb he fractured in the game against Los Angeles. "It mustn't be too bad," observed a Cowboy official at the time. "Otherwise, he'd have just gnawed it off so it wouldn't bother his playing." Bad or not, when news of White's injury—and cast—was made public, Pittsburgh went from a three- to 3½-point favorite.
On the surface, Dallas' defensive strategy—keep Harris and running mate Rocky Bleier in check, and don't give Bradshaw all day to get his passes away—seems sound, particularly in light of the fact that Pittsburgh ranked 23rd in the 28-team NFL with an average rushing gain of just 3.58 yards. By contrast, the Cowboys led their conference in this department, gaining 4.45 yards per rush. The only type of runner that enjoyed any success against Dallas this season was a speedster who could get outside. Unfortunately, the Steelers don't have an outside speedster. Harris is a truck, and Bleier, who had a 1,000-yard season in 1976, is really just a guard playing running back.
"Teams have geared themselves to stop our running all year long because they know our backs don't have great speed," says Center Mike Webster, the first Steeler offensive lineman since 1965 to start in the Pro Bowl. "The 3-4 is particularly tough for us to run against because of the speed of the linebackers, but the Cowboys don't play a 3-4."
Maybe not, but Landry's Flex Defense presents other problems. Traditionally, Pittsburgh has taken advantage of the opposition's defensive speed by using more trap plays than any team in football. "The Steelers trap you getting off the bus," says one NFL coach. Traps are designed to lure defensive linemen into the backfield, where they can be blind-sided by a pulling guard or tackle. In the Flex Defense, however, the Cowboy linemen do a lot more reading—or delaying—than charging, so the Steelers often may find themselves with no Cowboys to trap.
Pittsburgh should have optimum success on the ground when Harris runs to his weak side. Most of the time, Bradshaw prefers to run these weakside plays to his left, behind the lead blocks of muscular 262-pound Tackle Jon Kolb. Dallas is more susceptible to attack here because Right End Harvey Martin, who has been playing on knees so rickety that Landry replaces him with rookie Larry Bethea on short-yardage situations, doesn't handle the run as well as Jones, his counterpart on the other side, and because the Cowboys' right linebacker, D.D. Lewis, is small at 215 pounds.
It is impossible to overestimate the worth of Franco Harris to the Pittsburgh franchise. Before 1972, when Harris was the No. 1 draft choice, the Steelers had never qualified for the playoffs. With Harris, they have been in the playoffs ever since. Harris averaged just 3.5 yards a carry this year but still had his sixth 1,000-yards-plus season, gaining 1,082. And in 310 carries, Franco—who once was labeled the Designated Fumbler—lost only one fumble; in 1977 he lost nine. If there is such a thing as a money ballplayer in Super Bowl XIII, Harris is it. He holds five career postseason records, including yards rushing and touchdowns. He also has the Super Bowl single-game rushing record of 158 yards, which he accomplished against Minnesota in 1975. Incidentally, Harris' best day as a pro came against Dallas in 1977 when he ran for 179 yards and two touchdowns as Pittsburgh romped 28-13.
While the Steelers' running game may have been relatively unproductive this year—at least statistically—Pittsburgh still ran the ball 40 times a game, ranking third in the NFL in total rushes. The ground game kept defenses so occupied that the Steelers were able to maintain ball control by passing—a real trick. One obscure statistic is very revealing: Pittsburgh led the NFL in first downs gained passing per pass attempt. Almost 40% of Bradshaw's passes, and 70% of his completions, produced Steeler first downs.
Unlike Staubach, Bradshaw calls his own plays, and he does a thinking man's job of mixing running and passing to keep defenses off-balance. Against Dallas, Bradshaw will undoubtedly go to the air on first down to take advantage of the Cowboys' concentration on stopping the run. When he does, Bradshaw will be exposing the biggest mismatch in the Super Bowl—the Steelers' magnificent wide receivers, Swann and John Stallworth, vs. the Cowboy cornerbacks, Aaron Kyle and Bennie Barnes. On obvious running downs, Kyle and Barnes are a risk at the sort of man-to-man coverage that the Steelers have come to expect from Cornerback Mel Blount, and now the rookie Johnson, too. When teams were beating Dallas in midseason (the Cowboys were 6-4 at one time), they isolated on the Cowboy cornerbacks with excellent results. Kyle was victim No. 1, but he improved considerably as the season progressed. Barnes has had foot problems, and he will be the one Bradshaw will try to take advantage of.
As a result, Barnes and Kyle will need help from Dallas' two All-Pro safeties. Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, or the linebackers—Bob Breunig, Tom Henderson and Lewis.
"The Cowboys are going to have to make a choice," says an NFL coach. "If they keep their linebackers in to stop Harris on obvious running downs, they'll have to play Swann and Stallworth one-on-one with their corners. But if they drop their linebackers into the pass coverage, the Steelers will run on them all day. Any team that runs the ball 40 times a game has a strong enough running attack to do that. The Cowboys are damned if they do and damned if they don't."
That dilemma will be the downfall of Dallas.
The NFC and the AFC are both represented by their best team, and the team from the better conference will win. The AFC's Pittsburgh Steelers. Say 24-16.