Super Bowl reflections: Terry Bradshaw


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is taken from the official game program for Super Bowl XXXIII between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, which was played on January 31, 1999 in Miami.

By January, 1979, Terry Bradshaw already had led the Pittsburgh Steelers to two Super Bowl Championships. He had the rings to prove it. But unlike Bart Starr and Bob Griese, quarterbacks who were treated like royalty after guiding their teams to victories in back-to-back Super Bowls, Bradshaw was seen as somehow different. He just did not seem to have the right stuff. He was talented enough. No one in the league threw a more powerful pass than Bradshaw, who could sting a receiver's hands 50 yards downfield. At 6 feet 3 inches and 220 pounds, he was the ideal size and he was naturally gifted, all right. But he was a little rough around the edges. After eight NFL seasons, he still had not been selected to a Pro Bowl.

Even his coach, Chuck Noll, doubted Bradshaw on occasion, benching him at various times for Terry Hanratty and Joe Gilliam, though that ended in 1974, Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl season. Bradshaw's teammates wondered about their quarterback as well. When he once called a power sweep on third-and-30, two offensive linemen threatened to punch him unless he changed the play. At least partly because of his down-home speech patterns, Bradshaw was referred to as "Li'l Abner," a backwoods cartoon character, even as he led the Steelers to their first NFL championship in 1974.

The most valuable player in the Steelers' Super Bowl IX victory was running back Franco Harris, who rushed for 158 yards in their 16-6 triumph over Minnesota. One season later, when the Steelers repeated in Super Bowl X, wide receiver Lynn Swann was named most valuable player for his spectacular performance in a 21-17 victory over Dallas.

Bradshaw performed well in both games, passing for 3 touchdowns with no interceptions, and he outplayed two future ProFootball Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach. Still, he was taken for granted.

"Imagine yourself sitting on top of a great thoroughbred horse. You sit up there and you just feel that power. That's what it was like playing quarterback on this team. It was a great ride."
-- Bradshaw on the Steelers

With their Steel Curtain defense and powerful running game, the Steelers of the mid-seventies were able to win with the quarterback in a supporting role. Bradshaw didn't seem to mind. He was happy just to be with a championship team.

That changed by 1978 as Bradshaw and the offense were required to carry more of the load. A rules change that prohibited contact with receivers five yards beyond the line of scrimmage suddenly opened up the passing game, and the Steelers tilted their playbook in Bradshaw's direction.

He responded by passing for 28 touchdowns (10 more than his previous career high) and was named the NFL's most valuable player by the Associated Press.

Even so, when Bradshaw arrived in Miami for Super Bowl XIII-a rematch with Staubach and the Cowboys-he found his old stereotype waiting. Dallas linebacker Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson told reporters: "He [Bradshaw] is so dumb, he couldn't spell cat if you spotted him a C and an A."

"It was like, 'What do I have to do to prove myself?'" Bradshaw says. "We had a great season [14-2], I played better than I had played my whole life, and it was like 'So what?' [Henderson] makes a comment and all of a sudden people are writing 'Terry's a dummy' again."

"We all thought it was out of line," Steelers running back Rocky Bleier says. "Terry had overcome a lot and really had come a long way that year. I think we all realized it was just [Henderson's] way of getting attention. But Terry handled it the right way. He let his performance speak for him."

In other words…
Hey, Hollywood, spell this:

Bradshaw passed for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Steelers defeated the Cowboys 35-31 in a wildly entertaining Super Bowl that was not decided until Pittsburgh smothered Dallas's onside kick with 22 seconds remaining.

The two teams combined for 6 turnovers, 9 touchdowns, and a dozen plot twists in the highest-scoring Super Bowl to that time. There was the poignant image of Dallas tight end Jackie Smith, playing in his first Super Bowl and final game at 37, dropping a certain touchdown pass while sliding in the end zone, his fists clenched in frustration.

But ultimately the game will be remembered as Terry Bradshaw's coming-of-age party.

"Actually, that whole season was like a coming of age for me as a quarterback," Bradshaw says. "It all built up to that game and when it came, I was ready."

Bradshaw's 318 passing yards represented a career high. The 4 touchdown passes established a Super Bowl record at the time. More than anything, the free-wheeling game plan broke a pattern of conservative title games.

The rivalry between the Steelers and Cowboys was so fierce and the emotion so high that neither team was satisfied merely landing a jab. Every play was a roundhouse swing aimed at the opponent's jaw-and a frightening number connected.

The Cowboys, the defending Super Bowl champs, sacked Bradshaw 4 times. Henderson stripped him of the ball on one of those occasions, and linebacker Mike Hegman turned the fumble into a 37-yard Cowboys touchdown. That play put the Cowboys ahead 14-7 and sent Bradshaw to the bench, grimacing with a bruised shoulder.

The Steelers appeared in shock as they came off the field. The Cowboys had the lead and the momentum.

Bradshaw quickly turned that around. Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, he went back in the game. Just three plays later, he hit wide receiver John Stallworth with a 75-yard touchdown pass to tie the score. A short time later, Bradshaw passed for another touchdown, this one 7 yards to Bleier, as the Steelers took the lead for good.

"I don't think any other quarterback could have done what Bradshaw did to us."
-- Dallas defensive end Harvey Martin on Super Bowl XIII

But Bradshaw's finest moment came in the fourth quarter, when he made an inspired play call. The Steelers were leading by a tenuous margin of 21-17. They had third-and-9 at the Dallas 22, and Bradshaw correctly anticipated a blitz. So he called a quick trap play to Harris when the Cowboys were expecting a pass. The defense was caught flatfooted as Franco blew past for a touchdown.

Dallas fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and on the next play, Bradshaw went for the kill. He threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Swann, putting the Steelers ahead 35-17. The Cowboys, led by the indomitable Staubach, rallied with two late touchdowns, but it was not enough.

"I don't think any other quarterback could have done what Bradshaw did to us," Dallas defensive end Harvey Martin says. "We knocked him down, almost had him out at one point, but he came back. He deserved the MVP and everything he got after that game."

"Funny thing about the call to Franco," Bradshaw says. "The play before that, Henderson roughed me up and Franco was hot about it. I thought, 'Franco's mad. This is the perfect time to give him the ball.' I never saw him run so hard. He went through that line like a big ol' truck.

"That's what I liked about playing quarterback. Chuck let me call my own plays. I loved being creative and sensing what's going on. Stallworth would come back to the huddle and say, 'Brad, I got this guy on a corner route.' Next play, we're going for it. Bam, six points. Man, that's fun.

"That's missing from the game today. These quarterbacks execute the plays, but they don't make decisions. The coaches took that away from them. That would be like taking away my heart and soul. Let me look in Franco's eyes and see that fire and say, 'Hey, man, you want the ball? Here it is.' It's an emotional game. You need to let that emotion work for you."

There was no shortage of emotion when the Steelers played the Cowboys in those days. Each team was trying to stake its claim as the "Team of the Seventies." Dallas had won Super Bowls VI and XII. Pittsburgh was victorious in Super Bowls IX and X, the latter a hard-fought victory over Dallas in which a hard tackle by defensive end Larry Cole knocked Bradshaw unconscious in the closing minutes.

"We didn't like the Cowboys," Bradshaw says. "No disrespect to coach [Tom] Landry, who was a great coach, or Roger, who was a great player, someone I really respect. It was the image projected by the organization. It was all the hype about them being 'America's Team.' We resented it. I think most teams did.

"I liked their offense, though. They did a lot of exciting things. They were one of the few offenses I stood on the sidelines and watched because they were so good. They had a lot of weapons, especially when they added [running back Tony] Dorsett. I knew going into that game that we'd have to make some big plays to win because they were going to score."

Bradshaw completed his 4 touchdown passes to three different receivers: 2 to Stallworth, 1 each to Swann and Bleier. The Steelers averaged 6.2 yards a play and successfully converted 9 of 15 third-down situations. Bradshaw was the whole package. He called the plays, made the throws, and led the offensive charge against an accomplished Dallas defense.

One year later, Bradshaw repeated as the Super Bowl MVP, leading the Steelers to a 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. In his four Super Bowl appearances, all victories, Bradshaw threw 9 touchdown passes, including 1 in the fourth quarter of each game.

Now 50, Bradshaw is married with two daughters and lives near Dallas. He is co-host of the Emmy Award-winning FOX NFL Sunday pregame show. He has come a long way fom his days as Li'l Abner.

"For years, I watched Terry and was amazed at his natural talent. But for a long time, there was something missing," says Joe Greene, the former Steelers defensive tackle who landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "He wasn't having any fun. He was putting too much pressure on himself. That [1978] season was the first season when he seemed to enjoy himself. He was comfortable with the offense and comfortable with himself. He gave the whole team confidence."

"I don't know if I gave the team confidence. I know they gave me confidence," Bradshaw says. "It was a great feeling, looking around the huddle, knowing that whatever I wanted to do, I had the guys to do it. Here, Franco, you run with the ball. Here, Lynn, you catch it. Okay, John, Rocky, it's your turn.

"Imagine yourself sitting on top of a great thoroughbred horse. You sit up there and you just feel that power. That's what it was like, playing quarterback on that team. It was a great ride."

* Reprinted with permission by