The First Good Super Bowl Game

The tenth Super Bowl was the first to reach a lot of milestones. It was the first to feature the notorious Up With People as the halftime headliner. It was the first matchup between two teams that had both previously won a Super Bowl. But most noteworthy is that Super Bowl X was the first Super Bowl to be a genuinely good game. Not just important, not just close, not just memorable, but good with a capital G and as many Os as you feel like.

The Steelers of 1974 celebrated their first world title for about 45 minutes, and then set their eyes on 1975 and their minds to shoring up their only weakness. Terry Bradshaw successfully converted himself from liability to strength, and was helped along by second-year receiver Lynn Swann, whose Pynchonian last name suggests his grace, but does not explain it. Once in the playoffs, they easily beat the Miracle on 33rd Street Colts and scored a weather-aided victory over the rival Oakland Raiders. The Dallas Cowboys were expected to fade from prominence but instead squeaked their way into the playoffs, and once there upset top-seed Minnesota on a play that became known as The Hail Mary, then followed that up with a bulldozing of the Los Angeles Rams. The stage was set, and the home television audience numbered a record-breaking 86 million.

The Cowboys were ready from the coin toss. On the opening kickoff, they ran a reverse play to rookie linebacker Thomas Henderson, which took them deep into Steeler territory. Kicker Roy Gerela hurt his ribs making the score-saving tackle. Dallas was unable to capitalize and had to punt, but got a second opportunity in even better position when Steeler punter Bobby Walton botched a snap, giving Dallas the ball on the 29-yard line. From there it took one play — a deep post route to Drew Pearson — for Dallas to become the first team to score against the Steel Curtain in the first quarter all year.

Dallas's game plan on defense was to shut down and smother running back Franco Harris, and this they did successfully, but this was not last year's Steelers team. A newly confident Terry Bradshaw hit Lynn Swann down the sideline, and Swann made an impossible jump to catch the first of his four receptions. Each of those four deserves a frame and a carded description in a museum. His second catch, which sailed for 53 yards, set up a field goal attempt to again tie it, but Roy Gerela, still sore, pulled the attempt wide. Dallas went to the half up 10–7.

Another Gerela miss in the third quarter ended up being a pivot point for the whole game. On seeing the ball go wide, Cowboy safety Cliff Harris gave Gerela a condescending pat on the head, as if to say "good job, good effort." Pittsburgh linebacker Jack Lambert took offense, and a small fracas started. It'd be fair to say that this bit of emotion helped the Steelers come back. The God of Small Things is never above pettiness.

With Joe Greene not at 100 percent, Lambert took over the defense, tackling everything in a white uniform. Lambert was only in his second year but already was showing the traits that made him an all-timer at middle linebacker. The renewed ferocity of the defense kept the score 10–7 through the end of the third quarter, and early in the fourth, Dallas had a punt blocked. It rolled through the end zone for a safety to cut the lead to 10–9. On the ensuing drive, the Steelers converted a field goal to take the lead for the first time on the afternoon. Gerela was sure to ask Cliff Harris if he saw it.

With the Cowboys now chasing the game instead of controlling, they went back to what had already worked, but when Staubach again looked for Pearson deep over the middle, safety Mike Wagner diagnosed the play and intercepted the ball, returning it all the way to the 7-yard line. Doomsday stood firm and held Pittsburgh to a chip shot field goal, keeping it a one-score game, but on a third-and-4 in Pittsburgh's next possession, Bradshaw sent a rainbow streaking to Lynn Swann for a 64-yard touchdown that has been in every NFL Films compilation since. After a missed extra point, the score was 21–10 in favor of Pittsburgh, and seemingly out of reach.

The touchdown play came at a price. A second after Bradshaw let go of the ball, defensive tackle Larry Kohl got to Bradshaw a split-second too late to stop the throw, but still leveled him. Bradshaw left the game with a 1975 concussion, roughly equivalent to seven modern concussions. When Staubach led a very quick-answering touchdown drive, backup Terry Hanratty was in for Pittsburgh, and heroics appeared unlikely. The Steelers called three running plays to land in fourth-and-9, and then, wary of trusting their inconsistent punting game, decided to run again. The conversion attempt failed, and Dallas had 1:22 left to run 61 yards, a task definitely within Staubach's capabilities. But though his first pass was complete, his next two deep shots were batted away by the Steeler secondary, and the last play of the game was a tip-drill interception by safety Glen Edwards.

This was a game without a loser — a game where the runner-up had no reason to feel ashamed. Neither coach was caught unprepared, neither defense was overwhelmed, neither offense was neutralized. After ten years of trying, there was finally a super game in the Super Bowl.

This piece originally published on Kit Talks Sports Facebook page.

Header image by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash
Header image layout designed by Christopher Rodgers