Super Bowl X
Another in a series of stories about the 47 playoff games in Steelers history.*
Back-to-back puts Steelers among the elite
By BOB LABRIOLA
They have come to be the enduring characters of the epic that's known as Super Bowl X. Lynn Swann, thanks to the balletic catches he made to win the game's MVP award, and Jack Lambert, for imposing his own brand of frontier justice. NFL Films' presentation of the game made both of them famous, and the relentless nature of the 24/7/365 sports channels of today has kept them in the forefront by virtue of that footage.
What contemporary football fans accept as fact is interesting when viewed in the context of those final weeks of the 1975 NFL season, because back then, Lynn Swann had sustained a concussion in the AFC Championship Game and was no lock to play in the Super Bowl, and Jack Lambert was a second-year professional who wasn't real comfortable with the reputation being assigned to him.
"I think some people are blowing that a little bit out of proportion," said Lambert during the run-up to Super Bowl X about his growing reputation as a man meaner than Mean Joe himself. "Let's just say I'm an extremely aggressive ballplayer. I like contact. I like to hit people. That's what the game is all about. I've always liked contact sports. I think I got a bad-guy reputation at camp (in 1974). I really went all out to make the club, and I got into a lot of fights. I think Mike Webster and I went at it about twice every day. We were both trying to make the club, and we both like to go all out."
As for Swann, this was how he gauged his chances to play in Super Bowl X exactly one week before the game: "I'm not a doctor. I feel fine, but mentally I'm suffering. And if I'm suffering on Sunday I won't be playing. Obviously, I want to play, but the doctor will make the decision. He looks at my eyes every day and he looks in my ears and he takes my blood pressure and he takes my pulse. I get nauseated now and then. The symptoms are the same as being drunk. It would be a shame to play 23 games this season and not play in the Super Bowl. But it's just a game. It certainly doesn't mean as much to me as my health and my life."
In 1975, the AFC was the NFL's dominant conference, what with the 12-2 Steelers, the 11-3 Bengals and the 10-4 Oilers all being from its Central Division, while 11-3 Oakland ruled the West, and 10-4 Baltimore swept 10-4 Miami to earn the top spot in the East. In the NFC, the Vikings and Los Angeles Rams both finished at 12-2, but Minnesota being a three-time loser in previous Super Bowls had made people skeptical of that team. The Vikings were the NFC's top seed in this postseason, but by virtue of their win over the Steelers in the regular season, the Rams were considered the team to beat.
That's exactly what Dallas did in the NFC Championship Game, and by a resounding 37-7 at that, and so a Cowboys team most believed was still a year away, a Cowboys team that had missed the playoffs entirely the previous season, was matched against the defending champions. The Steelers were solid favorites going into Super Bowl X, and it seemed apparent they were the better team.
Even Noll didn't disagree. "Obviously, we're a more experienced team, and we've had more crises this year. The offense has performed better. We probably are a better team."
But even though he was coaching the favorite, Noll didn't tighten up, he didn't play the game not to lose. The Cowboys are remembered for playing that day in an unconventional manner, what with the reverse on the opening kickoff, but the Steelers also were aggressive in their approach.
That reverse on the opening kickoff didn't result in any points, but the tackle Roy Gerela had to make along the sideline injured his ribs and impacted his performance the rest of the day. The Cowboys actually took a 7-0 lead thanks to a takeaway resulting from Steelers punter Bobby Walden dropping a snap that allowed Dallas to take over at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. On the next play, Roger Staubach hit Drew Pearson on a medium-range crossing pattern, and the Cowboys receiver did the rest himself to give Dallas a 7-0 lead.
The play Terry Bradshaw called to tie the game came on a third-and-1 from the Cowboys 7-yard line. Dallas was expecting Franco Harris, but Bradshaw called a pass play to tight end Randy Grossman that the Steelers hadn't used since the exhibition game against the College All-Stars back in early August. This wasn't the only time the run-first Steelers went against form: they also attempted to convert a fourth-and-2 with a pass play later on, and the 64-yard bomb from Bradshaw to Swann for the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter came on a third-and-4.
Super Bowl X was a game whose outcome wasn't determined until the final snap of the ball, but it wouldn't have been so close if Gerela hadn't missed field goals of 36 and 33 yards, plus an extra point. But if Gerela hadn't missed those field goals, part of what made Super Bowl X memorable might never have happened.
Throughout the week leading up to the game, Cowboys safety Cliff Harris had been running his mouth about Swann probably being afraid to go over the middle because of the concussion sustained in the AFC Championship Game. Harris never got a shot at Swann, but he didn't waste an opportunity to mock Gerela after that second missed field goal.
In one instant, Harris was laughing and mockingly patting Gerela on the head after the miss, and in the next instant he was on the turf after being flung to the ground by Lambert
"I felt he jumped up in Roy's face, and that it was uncalled for, and somebody had to do something about it," said Lambert after the game. "We were getting intimidated, and we're supposed to be the intimidators. So, I decided to do something. I wasn't trying to get anyone fired up. I just play emotionally. Jack Ham plays and never says a word. I yell and scream a lot. Sometimes they don't pay any attention to me.
"I tackle somebody as hard as I can, and then I get up and go back to the huddle," added Lambert. "I don't like the idea of people slapping our kicker or jumping in his face and laughing when he missed a field goal. That stuff you don't need. Sometimes, it's like in hockey – you take a penalty to get things juiced up."
Afterward, Noll would say, "Jack Lambert is the defender of all that's right," but crediting Lambert's John Wayne imitation for this Steelers win is an oversimplification. Instead, when asked for the game's turning point, Lambert quickly pointed to the punt that Reggie Harrison blocked out of the end zone for a safety early in the fourth quarter that cut the Steelers' deficit to 10-9, and Mel Blount concurred.
"I never blocked a punt before in my life," said Harrison. "I charged in and hit the upback with my arm. Then there was nobody in front of me, and (punter Mitch) Hoopes had just taken his first step. There was no way they could stop me. I tried to hit it down, so I could fall on it for six points. All I was thinking about was six points."
They didn't get their six points there, but the two points came with a momentum swing that had the Steelers dominate a 12-minute span of the fourth quarter and take control of the game.
The Steelers defense threw a three-and-out at Dallas on the Cowboys' first offensive possession after the safety, and then the offense drove for a 36-yard field goal from Gerela to give Pittsburgh its first lead of the game. On the second play of the ensuing Cowboys possession, Mike Wagner intercepted a Staubach pass, and another Gerela field goal made it 15-10. Then, another three-and-out keyed by L.C. Greenwood's sack of Staubach led to that 64-yard bomb from Bradshaw to Swann to make it 21-10.
The Cowboys closed to 21-17, and then Gerry Mullins recovered Dallas' onside kick with 1:48 to play. But Bradshaw had been knocked out of the game with a concussion on the 64-yard touchdown to Swann, and the Steelers were having trouble running out the clock.
Pittsburgh gained little on three running plays, and Dallas used a timeout after each one, to set up a fourth-and-9 at the Cowboys 41-yard line. Because Walden already had fumbled one snap to lead to Dallas' first touchdown and almost had another punt blocked, Noll elected to run the football one more time. He preferred to take his chances with his defense rather than his special teams, even though a special teams play in the form of Harrison's blocked punt had turned the game in the Steelers' favor.
"We had already botched one punt, and they can score a touchdown on a blocked punt," said Noll. "I had confidence in our defense. We were giving them the ball with no timeouts, and I figured our defense could do it."
The defense did it, and when it was over and Art Rooney Sr. had hoisted his second Lombardi Trophy following his team's 21-17 win, Swann was hailed as the MVP for a performance that would come to define grace and athleticism by a wide receiver, and Lambert was anointed as the new sheriff in town.
"I don't like the word dynasty," said Andy Russell at the conclusion of his 11th season with the Steelers. "We don't win things for that. We win for today. But I'll say one thing: The pro football being played today is the best that's ever been played. It's a lot better than when I came into the league 13 years ago. And we're the champions. So, draw your own conclusions."