It is the one great irony of professional football that magnificent games such as San Diego's wonderful, woeful 41-38 overtime AFC playoff victory over Miami are almost always decided by the wrong guys. Decided not by heroic, bloodied men who play themselves to exhaustion and perform breathtaking feats, but by men in clean jerseys. With names you cannot spell, and the remnants of European accents, and slender bodies and mystical ways. Men who cannot be coached, only traded. Men whose main objective in life, more often than not, is to avoid the crushing embarrassment of a shanked field goal in the last 30 seconds.
There, at the end, in a moist, numbed Orange Bowl still jammed with disbelievers after 74 minutes and 1,030 yards and 79 points of what San Diego Coach Don Coryell called "probably the most exciting game in the history of pro football," was Dan Fouts. Heroic, bloodied Fouts, the nonpareil Charger quarterback. His black beard and white jersey crusted with dirt. His skinny legs so tired they could barely carry him off the field after he had thrown, how many? A playoff-record 53 passes? And completed, how many? A playoff-record 33? For a playoff-record 433 yards? And three touchdowns?
Ah, Fouts. The real Smilin' Jack of Air Coryell. The guy Otto Graham says activates "the greatest offense" in pro football history. (Outrageous comparisons are a dime a dozen around the Chargers these days.) Smilin' Dan takes his offensive linemen—Billy Shields, Doug Wilkerson, Don Macek, et al.—to dinner after a no-sack day and sets NFL passing records with every other breath. If he'd only pay his union dues, what a terrific fellow Fouts would be. Fouts should have decided this game.
Or Kellen Winslow. There, at the end, his magnificent athlete's body battered and blued by a relentless—if not altogether cohesive—Miami defense, Wins-low had lo be carried off. Time after time during the game he was helped to the sidelines, and then, finally, all the way to the dressing room, the last man to make the postgame celebration. Staggering, sore-shouldered, one-more-play-and-let-me-lie-down Winslow, looking as if he might die any minute (the only sure way he could have been stopped), catching, how many? A playoff-record 16 passes? For a playoff-record 166 yards?
Winslow is listed as the tight end in the San Diego offense. The Dolphins know better. Like the 800-pound gorilla, Winslow plays just about wherever Winslow wants to play: tight end, wide receiver, fullback, wingback, slotback. Even on defense, as Miami discovered when he blocked what would have been the winning field goal and thereby spoiled what Dolphin Guard Ed Newman called—another drum roll, please—"the greatest comeback in the history of professional football." Winslow should have decided this game.
Or there, on the other side, Don Strock, the gutty, heroic, 6'5" Miami relief pitcher. Strock coming in with the Dolphins submerged at 0-24 and not only matching Smilin' Dan pass for pass, but doing him better than that for so long a stretch that it looked for sure the Dolphins would pull it out. Throwing (42 times, 28 completions) for 397 yards and four touchdowns, and getting Miami ahead and into position to win at 38-31, and then at the threshold of victory twice again at 38-38.
Strock was raised in Pennsylvania, where he watched the immortal (more or less) King Corcoran quarterback the Pottstown Firebirds ("I learned by watching King Corcoran that you can't learn anything by watching King Corcoran," he says), and he used to be quite the mad bomber. He is called "Stroke" for the artful way he can cut an angle with his long, precise passes. But now he's 31, a golden oldie amid Don Shula's miraculous youth movement, and in his 10th year as a Dolphin it is his business to bail out 23-year-old child star David Woodley, the youngest playoff quarterback-starter ever. He did so again Saturday when Woodley suffered a first-quarter malaise—sacks, misfires, interceptions—right out of Edgar Allan Poe. In the end, breakdowns not of his doing cost Strock exactly what Newman said it would have been—the greatest playoff comeback in the NFL's history. "Strock," said Fouts, "was awesome." Strock should have decided this game.
Fittingly, all of the above helped make it what Fouts himself called "the greatest game I ever played in." (See? It's catching.) But, typically, none of them had even a bit part in the final scene. Overtime games almost always come to that because in overtime the objective shifts to a totally conservative aim: The first team close enough tries a field goal. Be cool, play it straight, pop it in. Thus, after a day-into-night parade of exquisite offensive plots and ploys—including a spectacular fleaflicker Shula called from the bench, Strock throwing 15 yards downfield to a button-hooking, well-covered Duriel Harris, who quickly lateraled to Tony Nathan for a 40-yard scoring play that ended the first half to bedlam noise—the final blow was a comparative feather duster, struck by a former 123-pound weakling in a dry, spotless uniform. After the haymakers that had kept the old bowl rocking for almost four hours, it was a finishing jab that buckled the Dolphins. A tidy little 29-yard love tap that Rolf Benirschke put slightly right of center, 13 minutes and 52 seconds into overtime.
Two years ago Benirschke, son of a German-born animal pathologist, almost died from the effects of an intestinal illness known as Crohn's Disease. He lost 50 pounds, and his courageous comeback after two operations, which left his stomach zippered with a massive scar, has been well chronicled. He is a placekicker (soccer-style, of course). It takes nothing away from him, however, to say that the denouement last Saturday evening was more negative than positive, not a question of which team would deliver the knockout punch, but which team's kicker would not miss one more easy field goal.
Six minutes into the overtime Benirschke missed a 27-yarder that would have won it then and there. "I must have rushed to set up," he was to say later, "but that's no excuse." After the overtime kickoff Fouts had driven the Chargers 79 yards in 12 plays to the Miami eight, and Benirschke went in and duck-hooked the kick to the left. "Fortunately," he said, "I got a second chance." The Dolphins' Uwe von Schamann (who was born in West Berlin) had two chances, too. He missed both.
From doing everything wrong at the start to doing everything right for almost three quarters, Miami had lost its touch again when ahead 38-31 with less than five minutes to play in regulation time. Strock had just put together the kind of drive Shula had schemed up beforehand (before, that is, the shock of 0-24 and the need to dust off Strock and such gaudy acts as the fleaflicker that Coryell hadn't seen "since high school")—a 13-play expedition that consumed seven minutes and had the Dolphins on the San Diego 21, in good shape for some clinching points. But there Fullback Andra Franklin was stripped of the ball by Defensive Tackle Gary Johnson and Linebacker Linden King, fumbling it away, and Fouts quickly charged his team 82 yards to the tying touchdown—a nine-yard pass to Tailback James Brooks.
Back came Miami, driving all the way to the San Diego 25 in less than a minute. Stopping the clock with four seconds to play, Shula sent in von Schamann to try a 43-yarder. Uwe is no stranger to pressure: Four times this year, under like circumstances he has rammed through game-winners. The snap was high, but Strock got it down in good order. Apparently, however, von Schamann kicked too far up on the ball and it did not rise quickly enough. Wins-low, a defensive ringer, a padded Wilt Chamberlain lurking at linebacker, leaped and batted it away.
Von Schamann went down to the far end of the Dolphin bench, away from everybody, and meditated as the overtime started. After Benirschke's life-giving miss, he got his second chance. A weak San Diego punt and a 21-yard Strock pass to Jimmy Cefalo got Miami into field-goal range once more.
On fourth down at the Charger 17, in went von Schamann. The snap was true, the hold good—but in his eagerness to get under the ball, von Schamann dipped his left side a little too much and his right foot, sweeping across, scraped the ground behind the ball. Von Schamann turned away disgustedly almost as soon as he finished his follow-through. Dolphin Tackle Eric Laakso said such kicks have a "distinctive sound," and even though you don't see them the sound "gives you a sick feeling." The ball disappeared into a sea of dirty white shirts.
Afterward, von Schamann said that although he knew he would "find the answers" for his failures, he had none now. He was appropriately philosophical. The irony is that such crucial games are so often decided by such a disproportionately small number of specialized plays and players; that the field-goal kicker's importance is so exaggerated at those times. Doubly ironic for the Dolphins was that, almost 10 years ago to the day, they had won such a game: the longest game in playoff history, a double-overtimer in which Kansas City's Jan Stenerud missed, and then Miami's Garo Yepremian made, the winning field goal.
It is also true that Miami—that is to say, other players making other mistakes—had dug itself into a ghastly hole to begin with, one 10 placekickers could not have dug them out of. Sipping coffee in his office on the eve of the playoffs, Shula had said the Dolphins could not afford to let San Diego "have anything quick, anything cheap." Which is exactly what they did, with a comedy of errors that even included the failure to cover a kickoff. The kick, wind buffeted, dropped between two lines of Miami receivers and the Chargers recovered it, setting up a touchdown.
Miami had gone off a three-point favorite, more a reflection of Shula's reputation, said one league man, than anything else. On paper, Miami seemed weakest where San Diego was strongest, most especially in the passing game. Air Coryell had Fouts; Miami had a suspect secondary that one local columnist at mid-season had given, en masse, "the turkeys of the year award." A high-scoring game did not augur well for the Dolphins; they had gotten 24 points or more only seven times in 16 games. San Diego had turned the trick 11 times.
But always, figures are relative. Two croutons make little impact on a Caesar salad. Two wives are an overabundance. From early on Shula had seen "something special" about this Miami team, and despite having failed again to advance in the playoffs (the Dolphins have not won a playoff game since the 1973 season), and despite so heartbreaking a finish, the defeat was "something we'll be able to handle," he said, because obviously his is a team on the come.
For San Diego, on the other hand, the future would appear to be now. It has been a year of wrenching acrimony and thrilling vindication for Coryell. He has lost star players (John Jefferson, Fred Dean) and suffered withering criticism. A man with a rival club said that San Diego lacked "the one thing Miami has—character." Coryell himself had seemed beaten down by the implications. He told a San Diego writer the week of the game how tough it had been, losing four out of the five playoff games he had coached; how it took "two or three months" to "get over the depression." As the Dolphins went ahead in the fourth quarter, he could be seen hunched over, hands on knees, his eyes looking despairingly at the scoreboard, as if a new depression had already begun.
But as Fouts said later, this is a "more mature" San Diego team that "seems to get better with adversity." The drive to the winning field goal over Miami was as good an indication as any of what Air Coryell is now capable of, and it was all the more impressive because it came at a time when Miami was apparently the stronger team.
In that 74-yard advance from the Chargers' 16-yard line, a semblance of order returned to San Diego's attack. "We ended the game as we began it," said Fouts, noting key catches and the fact that he had almost unlimited time to work his will on the reeling Dolphin defense. Fouts's linemen picked up the Miami stunts and moved the Dolphins around like pinballs, caroming them from one blocker to another.
The field-goal setup was a beauty. Wide Receiver Charlie Joiner, in motion, cut across the field at the snap and saw that Miami had switched from a three-deep to a two-deep zone. He broke his pattern and split the defense up the middle. Fouts looked right, then left, then saw Joiner—"and I had all the time in the world to get it to him." The play covered 39 yards to the Miami 10, and Coryell immediately sent in Benirschke. Lights out, Miami.
Struggling off the field afterward, the redoubtable Winslow grasped Charger Publicist Rick Smith and whispered, "I feel like I've been to the mountain top."
"You're there, Kellen, you're there," said Smith.
"No," said Winslow, barely audible. "Not yet. Not quite."