Pittsburgh's John Stallworth goes up for a pass, defended by Dallas safety Cliff Harris.
January 18, 1976
For two nights Lynn Swann lay in a Pittsburgh hospital, the victim of a concussion that he suffered in the American Football Conference title game in which the Steelers defeated the Oakland Raiders, 16-10.
Set upon by Oakland safeties Jack Tatum and George Atkinson, the hospitalized wide receiver pondered his future, wondering if his professional career was finished, only two years after he earned All-America honors at the University of Southern California.
One week elapsed and when the Steelers arrived in Miami for their date with the Dallas Cowboys, Swann was listed as a doubtful starter.
When his teammates worked out, Swann stood on the sidelines, a spectator. Doctors examined him daily and told him at midweek that another severe blow to the head could result in permanent damage. He could play, said the medics, but the final decision was Swann's.
The player engaged in light workouts, mostly running and trying to perfect his timing. He continued as a questionable performer almost until the eve of the game, when his decision was made for him.
The decision-provoking incident occurred in, of all places, the camp of the Cowboys, where safetyman Cliff Harris was quoted as saying, "I'm not going to hurt anyone intentionally. But getting hit again while he's running a pass route must be in the back of Swann's mind. I know it would be in the back of my mind."
Swann read the Harris quotes and all doubts vanished. Announcing his decision to play, the swift Steeler said, "I'm still not 100 percent. I value my health, but I've had no dizzy spells. I read what Harris said. He was trying to intimidate me. He said I'd be afraid out there. He needn't worry. He doesn't know Lynn Swann. He can't scare me or the team. I said to myself, 'The hell with it, I'm gonna play.'
"Sure, I thought about the possibility of being reinjured. But it's like being thrown by a horse. You have to get up and ride again immediately or you may be scared the rest of your life."
As late as Saturday, the day before the January 18, 1976, extravaganza at the Orange Bowl, quarterback Terry Bradshaw reported that Swann was dropping passes, and that Lynn confessed, "I felt stiff. I couldn't get loose. I had no concentration."
The decision made, Swann recaptured his customary mobility, his leaping agility, his concentration and prehensile hands when the whistle sounded to signal the start of Super Bowl X.
Four times Swann caught Bradshaw passes, one on a 64-yard touchdown play, for 161 total yards.
"The first catch," wrote one journalist, "was incredible, the second unbelievable, the third was merely a standard, difficult, professional reception, but the fourth was a blazing touchdown that earned Swann most valuable player honors."
Swann's heroics also helped the Steelers engrave a second consecutive championship on the Vince Lombardi trophy in the form of a 21-17 victory before 80,187 spectators.
The first reception, a 32-yarder along the right sideline in the first quarter, was particularly significant to Swann.
"It seemed to boost me," he reported. "I never had a day in my life when I felt so loose."
In the second quarter, Bradshaw and Swann combined on a 53-yard pass play, again to the right side.
In the third quarter, Swann caught a 12-yard pass and he completed his theatrics with 3:02 remaining in the fourth quarter by catching a 59-yard Bradshaw pass and scampering the five remaining yards to score the deciding touchdown.
Wasn't it a gamble, somebody asked Chuck Noll, throwing deep to Swann on a third-and-four situation from the Pittsburgh 36-yard line?
"We felt we could slip a few bombs in during the day," explained the Steelers' coach. "We missed by inches on a couple of others."
"Bradshaw called a pass route on the touchdown play, but I mainly just ran right up the middle," explained Swann. "I thought I could beat (cornerback) Mark Washington because I'd been beating him all day. The safetymen didn't give Washington any help. Washington played a pretty good game, but I made a couple of pretty good catches on him in the first half.
"Nobody hit me to hurt me. They just hit me hard enough to make me get up and make another catch.
"Cliff Harris came over to me once after a play and said I was lucky because he just missed me with a hard shot. He said he was going to come after me when I went across the middle and I told him to come ahead because if anyone got hurt it was going to be him. He hits hard, but there was no trouble."
The 6-foot, 180-pound speedster attributed his leaping ability to his basketball experience, revealing that he could dunk a ball when he was a junior in high school and stood only 5-10.
"It always makes me feel good when our passing game plays such a big part in a victory," said Swann. "We're a running team, we're known as a grind-it-out team and we win with that. But the passing game was really clicking today."
Bradshaw completed nine of 19 passes for 209 yards while the Cowboys' Roger Staubach hit on 15 of 24 for 204 yards.
Bradshaw did not see Swann haul down his long pass. At the snap of the ball, D.D. Lewis crashed across the line from his linebacker position. Bradshaw, anticipating the blitz, ducked under Lewis. He gained the time necessary to fire the pass, then was crushed to earth by Harris. When Swann caught the ball, Bradshaw was flat on his back, unconscious.
Revived, he was assisted from the field in an unsteady condition. Only when he reached the clubhouse did Bradshaw understand what had happened.
Thirty minutes after the game, following an extensive medical examination, Bradshaw was able to face the media.
"I got hit from the blind side and heard bells ringing," he reported. "I wanted to go deep all day. It was my call all the way. I barely got the pass away. They were coming on a double blitz. I got hit on my left cheek.
"Our strategy was to run with the ball, then mix the plays. I decided to throw more on first down and then throw some more. I had lots of time, great protection and felt we were in control of the game even though we were trailing most of the game."
Swann's performance on a sunlit, 56-degree afternoon was not extraordinary. He had caught 49 passes, more than any other player on either team, during the regular season and had scored 11 touchdowns to help the Steelers to a 12-2 record, matching the marks of Minnesota and Los Angeles.
In the AFC championship game, he caught two passes for 45 yards before he was injured.
Compared to the Steelers' methodical march to Miami, the Dallas route was less expected and far more dramatic. The Cowboys compiled a 10-4 regular-season record, second to St. Louis' 11-3 in the Eastern Division, to qualify as the NFC's wild card team.
With 24 seconds remaining in the divisional playoff game and trailing Minnesota, 14-10, the Cowboys pulled out a stunning, 17-14 upset when Staubach connected with Drew Pearson on a 50-yard "Hail Mary!" touchdown pass.
The following week, again the underdogs, the Cowboys defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 37-7, as Staubach threw four TD passes, three to Preston Pearson, in the NFC title game.
Climatic conditions in Super Bowl week commenced on a sour note. Wind and rain drove the temperature downward. Hotel pools were deserted and bars were jammed and, at Miami Lakes Inn, where the Steelers were quartered, defensive tackle Ernie Holmes was developing an advanced case of cabin fever and the mean disposition that goes with it.
"I'll be glad to leave here," he grumbled. "I feel like eating palm trees. I don't like this place. It's for people with arthritis. They come here to play golf and to die."
Holmes was not alone in his dislike of Miami conditions. The demand for Super Bowl tickets was unprecedented, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced, and some folks were paying up to $150 for tickets that turned out to be counterfeit.
Those who were swindled by fast-buck artists could sympathize with others who arrived with tour groups in the days immediately preceding the game.
An estimated 5,000 persons flew into Miami as members of junkets conducted by Super Tours International. Air transportation, hotel accommodations and tickets to the game were wrapped up in an attractive package selling for between $375 and $500. Hotel facilities were readily available, but tickets were in short supply.
According to one visitor from Pittsburgh, "First, we were to get our game tickets when we boarded the plane. Then, they told us the tickets would be distributed the day before the game to prevent forgeries. Then, they told us the tickets would be waiting for us on the bus on the way to the stadium."
Some ticketless tourists shelled out exorbitant sums for ducats. Some slouched grumpily before hotel TV sets, assuring themselves they could have done as much at home for considerably less expense. Others angrily accosted travel agents in hotel lobbies, bringing riot squads on the double.
Authorities estimated that the swindle may have aggregated $1.5 million.
As one who had suffered at the hands of the Steelers a year earlier, Fran Tarkenton had some pre-game thoughts on the Pittsburgh defense.
"Their defense is the most dominating in football," declared the Minnesota quarterback. "It is also the most frustrating.
"I doubt they're the greatest pass-rushing line that has played the game, but against the run they might be.
"Their linebackers play the pass as well as any I've ever seen. The Cowboys are playing the best football they've ever played. They probably played their best game against the Rams, and they played very well against us.
"The Steelers have geared themselves to the offense that depends on Franco Harris. Dallas should be fairly successful in defensing the Steelers."
The Cowboys, with their celebrated "flex" defense, were considered admirably structured to halt the run. Against the Rams they had permitted only 22 net yards rushing.
To Staubach, the game shaped up as a struggle "between our offense and their defense. The Steeler defense represents the biggest challenge we've faced all year. I probably run too much, but that's just my instinct. I've always run when a play breaks down. I'd like to be more like Tarkenton. He scrambles and throws, picking receivers downfield. I don't have the ability to do that. When I scramble, I usually run."
Staubach cited the Cowboys' shotgun formation as another asset "because it gives us more time and confuses the defense. We use it only on third-down plays. I've learned to look for a receiver and hit him whenever possible. I've tried to scramble in such situations, but have come up short of a first down too often."
Bradshaw, whose season passing statistics were only a shade less imposing than those of Staubach, saw the game in this manner: "We'll see a formation and run a play and see if they give us the defensive front four that we expect. If they do, fine; we'll know where we stand. Then we'll run another play to see how they react. If they don't react the way they normally would, we'll throw our first pass and see what they do on their coverage.
"If they do what our scouting reports say they will, fine. If they don't, we'll change things on the sideline. This could go on all afternoon."
Bradshaw planned to send Harris into the line and control the tempo of the game, which he followed faithfully on the Steelers' first possession as Harris carried on four of the first five plays before Bobby Walden attempted to punt from the Pittsburgh 40-yard line.
The snap from center was low, however. Walden bobbled the ball and was tackled on the 29 by Billy Joe DuPree, a Dallas tight end playing on the special teams.
"I just took my eyes off the ball," Walden explained. "It happens to every punter once in a while. You try not to press after something like that, but sometimes you don't succeed."
Staubach wasted no time in capitalizing on the break. On the first play he fired a 14-yard pass to Drew Pearson crossing up the middle and the wide receiver raced into the end zone without being touched. Toni Fritsch's extra point gave the Cowboys a surprisingly easy 7-0 lead with only four minutes and 35 seconds elapsed.
The touchdown marked the first time in the season that Pittsburgh had yielded points in the first quarter.
The Cowboys retained their lead for about five minutes, or only until Bradshaw, mixing running plays by Harris and Rocky Bleier with the 32-yard pass to Swann, moved the Steelers from their 33 to the Dallas 7.
On a third-and-one, Bradshaw reasoned correctly that the Cowboys anticipated a running play and called instead a pass play to Randy Grossman. The reserve tight end faked a block, then headed diagonally for the end zone where he caught a pass that, with Roy Gerela's PAT, knotted the score at 7-7.
In eight plays, the Steelers had moved 67 yards under the steady hand of Bradshaw, who had completed the only two passes he attempted.
The scoring play was a novelty for Noll. In his Pittsburgh coaching career, when the Steelers were deep in opponents' territory, Noll used the three tight-end offense with guard Gerry Mullins lining up in the tight end position.
"Early in the game we ran out of that formation to give them a look at it," revealed Grossman. "Then we threw the pass."
After the kickoff was returned to the Dallas 35, Staubach resorted almost exclusively to the ground attack that featured Robert Newhouse and Doug Dennison. An illegal-motion penalty helped stall the drive early in the second quarter, but Fritsch kicked a 36-yard field goal to send the Cowboys ahead again 10-7.
Midway through the quarter, Staubach mounted another Dallas drive from his 48-yard line. In six plays, four of them passes, the Cowboys advanced to the Pittsburgh 20, where the Steeler defense stiffened abruptly.
Newhouse lost three yards at left tackle and then Staubach was sacked twice, once by L. C. Greenwood for 12 yards and once by Dwight White for 10. Mitch Hoopes punted 39 yards and the Steelers took over at their 6 with 3:47 remaining until halftime. But that was time enough for Bradshaw to unleash one more threat.
In eight plays, including the 53-yard Bradshaw-to-Swann pass on a third-and-six from the 10, the Steelers drove to the Dallas 19 with 32 seconds remaining. A pass intended for John Stallworth fell incomplete and, on fourth-and-three, Gerela's 36-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the score sailed wide to the left.
Although the Cowboys enjoyed the lead at halftime, statistics favored the Steelers. The AFC champions held an edge in first downs, 10 to 8; total net yards, 194 to 98; net yards rushing, 92 to 51; net yards passing, 102 to 47. In passing, Staubach had completed six of 10, Bradshaw six of 11.
The break that the Steelers had been looking for occurred in the third quarter when cornerback J.T. Thomas intercepted a Staubach pass and returned it 35 yards to the Dallas 25. Behind three Harris smashes, the Steelers moved to a first down on the 14, but a two-yard loss by Bradshaw and two incomplete passes brought the Pittsburgh field goal unit onto the field again. Once more Gerela's 33-yard kick faded to the left.
"Nobody was more disappointed than I over missing those two field goals," said Gerela. "The wind may have been a factor, but I didn't hit them too good, either."
Defending his teammate, center Ray Mansfield reported: "Roy couldn't even practice before the game. He kicked about seven balls into the stands and the fans kept 'em. We finally had to steal a football from the Cowboys so he could practice."
At 3:52 of the fourth quarter, and with Dallas still leading, 10-7, the momentum of the game made a 180-degree turn in a most unexpected fashion. When Hoopes attempted to punt from the Dallas 16, reserve running back Reggie Harrison blocked the ball, which rolled out of the end zone for a Steeler safety, cutting the Cowboys' lead to 10-9.
"I don't know what happened," replied Harrison when asked to explain the play. "I just came up the middle. I knew I was going to block that one, it was mine. I was always afraid to block a kick before for fear of being kicked myself."
Harrison did not escape unscathed. Opening his mouth, he displayed a cut on his tongue. "I'm going to put a $1,000 bill on it and see what happens," he joked.
From the area of the Dallas bench, Landry saw that "they rushed 10 men and somebody missed a block. I don't know who it was. We probably just brush-blocked Harrison and he made the big play. That's what usually happens on a blocked punt."
In Harrison's football career -- in high school, at Northeast Oklahoma Junior College, at the University of Cincinnati and in the NFL -- he had never before blocked a punt. He was astonished over his accomplishment.
"I was yelling and screaming so much that when I went to the bench I didn't realize that we got some points," he related. "We were losing and we were supposed to win and I was all messed up in my head. The next thing I remember we were lining up to kick off and I looked at the scoreboard and we were winning by 12 to 10. I asked Jimmy Allen what had happened."
What had happened was that the Steelers, after the safety, had taken the free kick and driven to the Dallas 20, from where, on fourth down, Gerela had booted a 36-yard field goal.
On the Cowboys' next possession, Staubach attempted a first-down pass to Drew Pearson that was intercepted by safetyman Mike Wagner, who returned the ball to the Dallas 7.
Three plays later, Gerela kicked an 18-yard field goal and the Steelers, with eight unanswered points, enjoyed a 15-10 lead.
Still, one touchdown was all the Cowboys needed to regain the lead and they had more than six minutes in which to do it.
They failed on their next possession and Hoopes punted to Glen Edwards, who returned the ball to the Pittsburgh 30. Two line smashes picked up six yards and then Bradshaw connected with swift-gliding Swann on the 64-yard scoring play. Gerela's conversion kick hit the upright, but the Steelers had a 21-10 lead with 3:02 remaining.
"I reached for the ball, but missed it," said Washington, placed in the uncomfortable position of trying to cover Swann single-handedly. "You feel some pressure when the safety blitz is on and you're out there by yourself. Nobody can cover Swann adequately under those conditions."
Fighting the clock was nothing unusual for Staubach and in less than a minute, the Cowboys were on the scoreboard again. Starting on his 20-yard line, Staubach passed to Charle Young for seven yards, to Drew Pearson for 30, to Preston Pearson for 11, and then, after a two-yard sack, to Percey Howard on a 34-yard TD play. When Fritsch converted, the Cowboys were within four points, 21-17.
A Dallas on-side kick failed and the Steelers began their next series at the Cowboys' 42 with one minute and 47 seconds to be played. The Cowboys called a timeout after each play.
Franco Harris lost two yards at left guard and 1:41 remained.
Harris regained the two yards on a right end sweep and there was 1:35 to go.
Rocky Bleier hit left guard for one and the time was down to 1:28 with a fourth-and-nine situation at the Dallas 41.
Certainly, the Steelers would punt, hopeful of pinning the Cowboys deep in their own territory. But punter Walden made no move to come on the field. Noll preferred to take his chances on a running play, rather than risk a blocked punt or a long runback, and then turn the game over to the Steelers' defense.
When Bleier picked up only two, fourth-down yards, the Cowboys took over on their 39 with 1:22 remaining.
As a starter, Staubach turned left end for 11 yards, then passed to Preston Pearson for 12 and the Cowboys were at the Pittsburgh 38. Time remained for deep passes only. A receiver may be unable to get out of bounds on a sideline pattern but any completion short of the end zone could result in the receiver being tackled before he could cross the goal line. The odds against Dallas' success were astronomical.
Staubach's first pass, intended for Drew Pearson, was overthrown. The second, intended for Howard, fell incomplete. The third, intended for Drew Pearson, was intercepted by safety Glen Edwards, who returned it 30 yards to the Pittsburgh 33 as time ran out.
Postmortems were pointed and plentiful by players of both teams. Jack Lambert, middle linebacker for the Steelers, reported that "there was some rough stuff going on out there that we didn't need. After Gerela missed one of his field goal tries, Cliff Harris came over and slapped him on the helmet. Sure that stirred me up, but I was stirred up before that. In the first half we were being intimidated and the Steelers aren't supposed to be intimidated. We were just plain being pushed around. But we made some changes and took control of the game physically in the second half."
According to defensive tackle Joe Greene, "Lambert was the fellow who held us together when things weren't going good. He spearheaded us. He made the licks that got us going."
Greene was forced to sit out the second half because of a pulled groin muscle and turned the job over to Steve Furness.
Preston Pearson, a member of the Steelers' Super Bowl IX team, conceded that he had "a little dispute" with Lambert. "But Jack's always a very zealous linebacker," he noted. "You can't let him abuse you physically. I don't like to be pushed around, but nothing came of it."
Howard, whose first pass reception as a pro turned out to be a Super Bowl touchdown, expressed criticism of the officiating in the last, frenzied seconds when Staubach fired a pass intended for him.
"The pass I'll always remember is the one I didn't catch," said the rookie from Austin Peay University. "When I saw the pass coming, I knew it was mine. But I never got to touch the ball because this guy (Mel Blount) hit me and he didn't have a chance to go for the ball. I was expecting a flag to be thrown and so was he because he got up, looking around everywhere for a flag. I guess the officials didn't call it because three Steelers were around me and they didn't see it."
Staubach, victim of a Super Bowl-record seven sacks, paid tribute to the Pittsburgh rush. "They did a good job rushing the shotgun," said Roger. "I didn't do well from it, but you're always in a negative situation when you use it. I had good protection, but their secondary and linebackers made it tough. They didn't get to me until I ran out of the pocket."
About Wagner's interception, which set up the field goal making the score 15-10, Staubach commented, "I didn't even see Wagner. He wasn't supposed to be there. I bet Golden Richards (wide receiver) was wide open, but I didn't see him either. Golden was Wagner's responsibility. Wagner just guessed, and guessed right."
In addition to the seven sacks, Staubach entered the record book with two touchdown passes, giving him four in two Super Bowl games. He also set records by fumbling three times and recovering twice.
Landry cited the blocked punt and Swann's receptions as the two major reasons for the Cowboys' second Super Bowl setback.
"The blocked punt reversed the game's momentum," said the Dallas coach.
On Noll's decision not to punt late in the game, Landry said, "It was a judgment a coach must make. Noll has always had a lot of confidence in his defense. I've seen him do it before. Of course, when they didn't make it, it gave their defense a chance since we had good field position. I was a little surprised by the move, but at the end we had no timeouts remaining and we couldn't get the ball out of bounds."
Pittsburgh players were unprepared for Noll's decision to pass up the punt. "I couldn't figure it out," conceded linebacker Andy Russell. "I didn't know what his plan was. But don't ask me to second guess the fellow. I won't do that."
Noll had his reasons.
"The move left them with no timeouts and needing a touchdown to win," he explained. "If they had needed a field goal, then it would have been different. But we had them in a must-pass situation and I like for my defense to have a team in that kind of spot.
"Our defense did just what we thought it would do. They came up with a pass interception. I would prefer to turn a situation like that over to the defense instead of taking a chance on getting a punt blocked."
When Staubach was firing last-second passes toward the end zone, somebody wanted to know, was Noll worried that the Cowboys would pull out a miracle victory as they did in the playoffs against Minnesota?
"We're not Minnesota."