This was the Super Bowl that propelled the big game into complete national consciousness, pitting two teams in a battle for not only the NFL championship, but for the right to be effectively labeled the “Team of the 70s.”
Having grown from its humble, half-empty stadium roots, Super Sunday was now the biggest sporting event in America, and the 13th installment gave a huge national audience a captivating contest.
After all, Super Bowl XIII featured 14 Hall of Fame players, more than any other. Additionally, it remains the only Super Bowl to have pitted two quarterbacks against each other who had both won multiple NFL championships.
Amplifying the pregame hype was Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, who had accurately predicted that the Cowboys would shut out the Rams (28-0 final) in the NFC Championship Game. Now, he was boasting the same outcome for the Steelers, going as far as to question the intelligence of Terry Bradshaw.
“He couldn’t spell cat, if you spotted him the 'C' and the 'A.' ”
He could sure spell w-i-n, though.
The Steelers stuck to their guns—the game is played on the field. And, what a game it was! The contest featured wild swings in momentum. With so many great plays, it’s difficult to choose which was the biggest:
Exhibit A: Bradshaw hit Stallworth deep for a touchdown in the opening minutes, setting an early tone and a clear message to the Cowboys that quarterbacking intelligence doesn’t require you to spell “cat.”
Roger Staubach quickly hit Tony Hill to tie the game. Then, a combination of Henderson and Mike Hegman stood up Bradshaw outside the pocket, ripped the ball from his arm and carried it to a lead, 14-7. Just like that, a message was sent to the Steel City: game on!
After being pocket picked by Dallas, it would be Bradshaw having the last laugh over the rival Cowboys and the bombastic Henderson.
Exhibit B: First, he hit Stallworth on a quick hitch, who turned upfield and sprinted to a 75-yard touchdown around the Dallas secondary. In the NFL Films' highlight reel of the game, they describe the great receiver as being “like a combination of sipping whiskey and white lightning—smooth, with a strong finishing kick.”
Exhibit C: Then, with a goal-to-go situation before halftime, the Blonde Bomber rolled to his right, but his pass was not in keeping with his nickname. Bradshaw sent a touch lob into the right corner of the end zone that was hauled in by Rocky Bleier. With two Cowboys covering the backup running back, Bleier made a monumental effort, leaping into the air and extending his arms to grab the pass over coverage. The spectacular effort gave Pittsburgh a lead they would never relinquish.
Exhibit D: After halftime, the pace of the game slowed until Roger Staubach led the Cowboys deep into Steelers territory nearing the end of the third quarter. On 3rd-and-goal, the quarterback found his Hall of Fame tight end wide open. Sadly for the accomplished Jackie Smith, Super Bowl history beckoned. He dropped the pass (see 1:46 of link), leaving four potential points lying on the grass.
A field goal cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 21-17. The drop seemed harmless with plenty of time left on the game clock, but it initiated a series of events that cost the Cowboys a third championship.
Exhibit E: In the fourth quarter, a deep bomb from Bradshaw to Swann resulted in a pass interference penalty at the Dallas 23-yard line. It appeared that the play could have easily been called incidental contact. Instead, Pittsburgh had prime field position and converted its good fortune. After jawing with Henderson, Franco Harris demanded the ball. He sprinted into the end zone on a play where an official impeded Dallas from making a potential touchdown-saving tackle.
Exhibit F: The bad luck continued when kicker Roy Gerela slipped on the ensuing kickoff, and the ball squibbed to Randy White. White’s broken left hand was casted, preventing him from properly gripping the football. Tony Dungy forced the fumble from White’s grasp. The Steelers recovered, and Bradshaw’s fourth touchdown pass (to Lynn Swann) subsequently sealed the deal.
Or did it?
Staubach hit Billy Joe DuPree, cutting the deficit to 35-24.
Then, the Cowboys recovered an onside kick. Drew Pearson caught two passes for nearly 50 total yards, and Dallas was in position to score again with just under one minute left in the game. A touchdown pass to Butch Johnson made the score 35-31.
Could the impossible comeback really happen?
After the mercy of one successful onside kick, another was not in the cards. Rocky Bleier covered the Cowboys’ second onside kick, and the Steelers won their third Lombardi Trophy.
So, which exhibit was the play of the game?
Historians cite Jackie Smith’s drop in assessing blame for the four-point loss, but this is a superficial analysis.
Had the tight end caught the ball, the entire dynamic (and order of events) would have unarguably changed. Nothing is to say that the Cowboys’ misfortunes wouldn’t have still occurred, or that the change in history wouldn’t have still favored the Steelers. Likewise, if the deficit before Dallas’s final score had only been a touchdown, it's likely that a far more desperate Steelers defense would have appeared at game’s end.
So, which play was the biggest?
The answer is Rocky Bleier’s touchdown. The play has gone down in Pittsburgh lore as one of the finest efforts in its rich Super Bowl history. His leaping grab, one of the better catches of his career, gave Pittsburgh a lead they would never relinquish after a back and forth first half. Teammates still question the herculean element of his effort, claiming the angle of the camera caused the leap to seem higher than advertised.
Naturally, Bleier’s vertical gets higher with each personal retelling of his story!