HISTORY SUGGESTS THAT this one was a thriller -- it was the only
Super Bowl decided in the final seconds, on Jim O'Brien's field goal,
which gave the Colts a 16-13 victory over the Cowboys. I tried as
hard as I could to pump some hoo-rah into my story, but it wasn't
there. The game was a downer.
For one thing, the old AFL vs. NFL rivalry was dead. The team from
the AFL, now called the AFC (it would take me a good five years to
switch to that designation), was a transplant. How could the AFL
diehards accept it? ''Representing the American Football Conference,
the Baltimore Colts.'' Uh- uh. It wouldn't play. Those old
ideological wars -- Jets vs. Colts, Chiefs vs. Packers -- were too
fresh in the memory.
All the pregame angles were negative. Baltimore's Johnny Unitas
was 37 and near the end of the line. He was coming off one of his
statistically worst years. The Colts' owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, had
filed a league complaint over the Dolphins' hiring away of his coach,
Don Shula. Backfield coach Don McCafferty replaced Shula. It wasn't
quite a one-for-one exchange. McCafferty's nickname was Easy Rider.
The Cowboys had lived through rumors about a potential drug
scandal involving ''unnamed players.'' Wideout Lance Rentzel had been
arrested on a morals charge. The quarterback battle between Craig
Morton and Roger Staubach was a joke; in one game coach Tom Landry
had them alternating on every play.
The fans didn't buy the game, either. Tickets could be had from
scalpers for face value half an hour before kickoff in the Orange
I remember one stick-out interview during the week, though. A
writer had found Cowboy halfback Duane Thomas, the NFC Rookie of
the Year, sitting by the beach outside the team's hotel in Fort
Lauderdale. Thomas was just staring out at the ocean. The writer
asked him what he was thinking.
''I like the water,'' Thomas said. ''I think about where I am.
Just now I was thinking about New Zealand.''
''Yes, it's a good place to retire.''
''But it's only your rookie year.''
''That,'' Thomas said, ''is the best time to think about it.''
In one of the mass interviews, someone asked Thomas if this was
the ultimate game.
''Well, they're playing it next year, aren't they?'' he said.
''That's my alltime favorite Super Bowl quote,'' Pete Rozelle said
recently. ''If it's the ultimate game, would they play it again next
Thomas, it turned out, was Landry's scapegoat in the Cowboys'
defeat. Leading 13-6 on their first possession in the second half,
the Cowboys reached the Baltimore two, first down. Thomas was
stopped, but he twisted for an extra yard . . . and he fumbled on the
second effort. Landry cited that as the ''big play.''
''If he had scored, they would have had a lot of catching up to
do,'' he said, ignoring the facts that three Morton interceptions,
one of them a ball that Dan Reeves should have held on to, had set up
O'Brien's last-minute field goal; that there were 10 turnovers,
total, in the game; and that the Cowboys had only two first downs in
the second half after the Thomas fumble.
Why had Landry laid the blame on Thomas? Probably to take
pressure off Reeves, who was a player-coach, and Morton, who had
taken enough heat during the season. Thomas was a rookie; he could
take it. To this day Thomas feels bitterness about being blamed for
the loss, and a year later he would become one of the weirdest
central figures of any championship game.
This is an article from the Jan. 2, 1989 issue