In the beginning, when I was starting my personal lucky streak covering every Super Bowl the first 47 years the game was played, my theory was that the contestants came in so tightly wound that the slightest error would so over-tighten the offending team that it lost its poise and, subsequently, the game.
That’s not the case anymore. Players come in less awed, with tougher mind-sets. No more of that “feeling out” process that opened so many early Super shows. Now they just stomp their feet and sling it.
No telling how many yet-unseen thrills still wait to unfold in Super Bowls — including Sunday’s 50th anniversary game in the San Francisco Bay area. Of course, South Florida’s 10 ties New Orleans for the most grand games hosted by any area.
And those 10 Super Bowls played in Miami haven’t been notable just for the football history they made. Almost all of them wound up either close or in a style of victory befitting a true champion.
Exhibit A: If San Francisco’s 49-26 rout of San Diego in Super Bowl 39 on Jan. 29, 1995, wasn’t the most exciting in Super Sundays, it assuredly was one of the niftiest displays of offense by one of the niftiest quarterbacks. Five words said it all: Steve Young. Six touchdown passes.
The obvious reason for South Florida’s league-leading catch of Super Bowls is top-of-the-line weather. Not a single Super Bowl has been fought out in weather that would even be classified as “chilly” in any northerly area. Temperatures range between 55 and 75 for most Super Bowls. And, hey, anything any Miami Super Bowl fans ever thought was rain was just sweat flying off a ballplayer — except maybe that day Peyton Manning and the Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl 41.
“I wouldn’t be coaching in Green Bay if I didn’t like cold weather,” coach Vince Lombardi said before his Packers won both the first game in Los Angeles and the second in Miami. “But I have to say, playing in Miami saves a hell of a lot of bag-packing.”
Plus, he added dryly, it spared him a lot of complaining from his players, who glorified in their own sweat while they were rolling over Kansas City 35-10 in the opening extravaganza in L.A. and then Oakland 33-14 in Miami’s first Super Bowl.
Bart Starr was happily hurling footballs, not snowballs, through the Raiders in Miami’s first Super-hosting. Starr completed 13 of 24 passes for 202 yards.
Incidentally, the game still wasn’t officially called the Super Bowl. We — the media — called it that because it fit. What self-respecting newspaperman would choose the title AFL-NFL 1968 World Championship Game over Super Bowl for a headline?
After the second championship game, the name not only stuck, it became a globally famous brand. But the first decade of Super Bowls was not a gentle one in a larger human context. John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. all died in the 1960s, and all died in violence.
NO ORDINARY JOE
It was up to Super Bowl 3 to offer a bit of surcease to that decade, and the New York Jets surely did that when they upset the Baltimore Colts 16-7 on Jan. 12, 1969. That was the first victory by the then-American Football League over the then-National Football League. In the 1970 merger the “League” designation for each group would change to “Conference” and all fall under the umbrella of National Football League, but for the most significant upset in pro football history, in that memorable ’69 Super Bowl, it was two different leagues.
Dwight. D. Eisenhower, our 34th president, died that year at the age of 78 and the venerable Saturday Evening Post shut down after 131 years of publication. For one day, though, Super Bowl 3 was the biggest headline of all — the biggest it would ever be.
The NFL’s supposedly savvier Colts were favored by seven points. Earl Morrall, the Colts’ quarterback, was supposed to play the prime hand in shutting Joe Namath’s big yap, the one that had proclaimed at the Miami Touchdown Club banquet earlier in the week, “I guarantee we will win the game.”
Morrall, after all, had already been elected MVP that ’68 season in the “better” league. But Namath in the Super Bowl made Morrall look like a sandlotter in tattered jeans. When coach Don Shula finally switched from Morrall to sore-armed Johnny Unitas, it was all over but the pouting, and underrated coach Weeb Ewbank became one of the most celebrated men in the history of his profession.
“I thought all along we’d win,” Ewbank said finally when some of the shouting had quieted down. “But I figured I’d be taken for a damn fool if I said it. Besides, our players already believed it.”
They believed even more deeply when they led by 16 before the Colts even hit the scoreboard. It wasn’t even a contest for three quarters while Namath was proving the complete quarterback. On the Colts sideline, the usually bland-faced Ewbank was grinning like a mule eating briars.
“Toward the end of the game, I almost wished I’d gone ahead and predicted we’d win,” he said through a gigantic smile in the postgame dressing room mob scene.
It looked as though Miami was acquiring a copyright on Super Bowls when the Orange Bowl furnished the setting for Baltimore to beat Dallas 16-13 despite fumbling five times in super-ragged Super Bowl 5 in ’71.
Things were happening all over. That was the year Russia listed its ban on long hair. Vice president Spiro Agnew hit three spectators with his first two tee shots at a golf tournament, and Joe Frazier outpointed Muhammad Ali in their first fight.
After that, Miami had to wait awhile to play Super host again. Other metropolitan areas with Super-sized stadiums had caught on to the monetary spoils that Super Bowls brought in, and the general blizzards of publicity surrounding them.
Five years passed before Miami nailed its next one. And it was a hit, along with others that year, such as movies Marathon, Network and All the President’s Men, not to mention Romanian sprite Nadia Comaneci winning three gold medals in the Montreal Olympics.
STEEL CURTAIN RISES
The ’76 championship — Super Bowl 10 — was a hit in its own right. It came at a time when the NFL needed one. Some recent title matches had come up short of pizzazz.
The Steelers’ Ernie Holmes got into showtime mode before anybody else. He didn’t care for Miami’s laid-back air, or any kind of Miami air for that matter. “This place is for people with arthritis,” Holmes said. “It’s no place for champions. As a champion, I’d like to have some hip-hip hooray going into another championship game.”
There was plenty of hip-hip hooray to go around for the Steelers in Super Bowl 10. Steeler Glen Edwards’ interception of Roger Staubach in the fading seconds effectively finished off the most competitive Super Bowl yet.
Lynn Swann caught four Terry Bradshaw passes for 161 yards — one for 64 yards, one for 53, another for 32. And all the while, Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood and Mike Wagner and their Pittsburgh playmates were freezing Staubach’s trigger finger.
In ’79, Miami landed its fifth Super Bowl in the game’s first 13 seasons. South Florida had everything to offer — warmth, seeming millions of available hotel rooms, and a workable Orange Bowl Stadium that seated 80,000. But other metropolitan centers were beginning to chafe over this tourist prize going to Miami so regularly.
I wouldn’t be coaching in Green Bay if I didn’t like cold weather. But I have to say, playing in Miami saves a hell of a lot of bag-packing.
Pittsburgh (name ring a bell?) outlasted Dallas 35-31 in that ’79 game, Super Bowl 13. That one answered a number of questions, such as: Why does the game so seldom live up to the hoopla? Are offenses too uptight and coaches too cautious?
A resounding “no!” met both questions in Super 13 in the Orange Bowl. Bradshaw set a personal record with 318 yards passing and struck on touchdown passes of 28 and 75 yards to John Stallworth, seven yards to Rocky Bleier, and a final 18 yards to Swann.
It would be 10 years before the game came back far South, and that involved a measure of behind-the-scenes politics involving then-Dolphins owner Joe Robbie and Miami politicos. Robbie wanted the city to build him a stadium. The city refused.
Robbie retaliated by backing off his incessant pitches to the NFL for Super Bowls in Miami.
When the game returned, this time to Robbie’s new stadium in Miami Gardens, San Francisco beat Cincinnati 20-16 in one of the great finishes. The Bengals led 16-13 and it looked all over but the pouting when the 49ers took over with less than two minutes and 92 yards to go. At that point, a little sideline episode would wend its way into Super Bowl lore.
Just before the 49ers took over for the last time, Niners quarterback Joe Montana looked into the stands and then elbowed a teammate. “Hey, that’s John Candy up there,” Montana announced.
The actor in the stadium must have been more nervous than the quarterback on the field. Montana drove his offense 82 yards to the Bengals’ 10, then flipped a scoring pass to John Taylor.
No Super Bowl surpassed that for shock termination, certainly not Miami’s seventh, eighth and ninth title matchups — San Francisco 49, San Diego 26 in 29, Denver 34, Atlanta 19 in 33 and Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17 in 41 — didn’t come close for sheer suspense.
CLASSY MOVE BY ELWAY
But John Elway fooled everyone in Super Bowl 33 in 1999, and he did it with immense class.
A minute and 23 seconds remained when Elway was announced as the Most Valuable Player in Denver’s 34-19 rout of Atlanta. Elway had the Broncos in every position to score again. He was too much of a gentleman to even try. He took a knee for one play and then trotted to the sideline, a night’s work done. He was content to let Bubby Brister finish out the game and also to let Montana’s all-time Super Bowl yardage record stand. Just 22 more yards, and Elway, with 336, would have surpassed Montana’s record set in the first Super Bowl played in Robbie’s stadium.
“What would have been the point of that?” Elway asked later.
Miami’s next Super Bowl was a wet blanket by comparison. Heavy rains drenched Indianapolis’ 29-17 runaway over Chicago in the 41st Super showing in 2007. The Bears never had a shot against either the downpour or the Colts, not even when Devin Hester shocked everybody with his 92-yard opening kickoff.
Manning’s time was not long in coming. Two dozen members of the Manning family, including his celebrated quarterback father Archie and brother Eli, sat in as Peyton chewed up 247 yards passing through an evening so wet you wouldn’t ask your bitterest rival to try to throw in it.
I’ve always been a Dan Marino man when it comes to passing, but Manning did it so beautifully it’s hard to make any kind of case for anybody else over him.
At one point, Manning so confounded the Bears that the redoubtable Brian Urlacher snatched off a Colts player’s helmet and hurled it downfield. Urlacher should have penalized but what would have been the point? Facing Manning was punishment enough.
The 10th Super Bowl played in South Florida — Super Bowl 44 — marks the last time the game came to the area. It was a classic battle of franchise quarterbacks with Manning and Drew Brees going at it.
But it was a surprise onside kick to open the second half that tilted the game toward the Saints. By the time Tracy Porter returned an interception of Manning 74 yards for the final score, the issue was all but decided.
Hall of Fame sportswriter Edwin Pope joined the Miami Herald in 1956 and covered the first 47 Super Bowls, including all 10 in South Florida. Pope, 87, is now retired but still follows the big game.