"Vince, how did you miss Waddy on that post route? I mean he was wide open."
Super Bowl XIV
The Steelers and the Cowboys. In the Seventies, they were like Ali-Frazier. Two great champions with perfectly contrasting styles. And in ’79, with both teams again the best in their respective conferences, it looked like we were all set for Ali-Frazier III. Our third Pittsburgh-Dallas Super Bowl in five years. But the L.A. Rams, a 9-7 team just one game better than mediocre, a team that scored just 14 more points than they allowed, stunned the ‘Boys in the playoffs and denied us our football Thrilla’ in Manila. After beating the Bucs 9-0 in the dullest NFC Championship game ever, L.A. advanced to their first Super Bowl ever. As the worst Super Bowl contestant ever. Just compare the Rams to the 12-4 Steelers, defending champs, +158 in point differential and looking for their fourth championship in six years. Having these Steelers play the Rams? Like Emmitt Smith described his time as an Arizona Cardinal, “a diamond among trash”. To be fair the Rams had been one of the best and most talented teams in the league for much of the decade; only the lack of a quality starting QB held them back year-after-year. But by 1979 age and attrition had taken their toll and the Rams hadn’t exactly upgraded the quarterback position with new starter Vince Ferragamo (who?). No surprise the oddsmakers made the Steelers 11-and-a-half point favorites.
Quiz time! Can you guess what the following table shows?
Look closely at Super Bowl XIV. Does that help?
Ok, time’s up. That table shows the number of lead changes in every Super Bowl (I used a strict Vegas-style definition of lead change: one team takes the lead after trailing, there can be an intervening tie). Super Bowl XIV featured SIX lead changes! That’s two more than the first 13 Super Bowls combined! Thirty years later and Super Bowl XIV still holds the record for lead changes! Only two of 42 Super Bowls have had as many as four lead changes. Only six have even had as many as three. Instead of the expected blowout, the Steelers and the Rams gave the country the most exciting back-and-forth Super Bowl yet played. And yet, when people make their list of great Super Bowls, where the hell is this one?
The Rams gave Pittsburgh everything they could handle. For three quarters, every single time Pittsburgh scored the Rams immediately answered with a score of their own to either tie the game or take back the lead. It was unbelievable. The Rams led after one quarter. The Rams led at halftime. On the opening drive of the second half Pittsburgh scored on a 47-yard TD bomb to Lynn Swann. But the Rams came right back with a 50-yard bomb of their own followed by a 24-yard halfback option TD pass to take the lead right back (they missed the extra point to add a little thrill). Pittsburgh got the ball back and Terry Bradshaw threw a pick. He got the ball back again, drove his team into field goal range, and threw another interception, his third! It was crazy. Was the Steelers dynasty really unraveling right before our eyes? That last pick did stick L.A. back at their own 4 but on the final play of the third quarter an end-around netted the Rams 13 yards, a first down and seeming momentum. To this day my number one memory of that game is this: the Rams offensive players en masse sprinting down to the other end of the field as the teams changed sides to start the fourth quarter. They were so confident they were going to pull off the biggest upset of the decade. And why not? They led 19-17. They had led at the end of each quarter. Ferragamo (who?) hadn’t turned it over once while Bradshaw was averaging one pick per quarter.
But in the final 15 minutes, either through superior talent or some sort of collective residual Super Bowl memory, the Steelers entirely erased the memory of those first three quarters. Big plays turned the game decisively in Pittsburgh’s favor. First, a sack of Ferragamo helped force a punt. Three plays later, Bradshaw hit John Stallworth deep for a 73-yard TD to put Pittsburgh back on top, 24-19. After the teams exchanged punts, the Rams took possession with perhaps one last chance for a game-winning TD drive. Ferragamo moved his squad from its own 16 into Pittsburgh territory. On third-and-thirteen he hit Billy Waddy for 15 yards to keep the drive alive, 32 yards from paydirt with under 6 minutes to play. This just wasn’t just looking like the best Super Bowl ever. For one very brief moment, everything was suddenly set up for one of the all-time most memorable games played anytime, anywhere, in any sport. The aging dynasty trying to squeeze out one last championship. The underachieving underdogs trying for an upset for the ages. The seemingly endless swings of momentum with the tension slowly building all game until maybe a classic final drive. And then pop! All the air went out of the balloon. Ferragamo (who?) didn't see a wide open Waddy on the post route and instead tried to hit Rod Smith over the middle. Jack Lambert made him pay and picked it off. Comeback killed. No more lead changes. Two plays later Bradshaw-to-Stallworth 45-yarder to set the Steelers up in scoring position and Franco Harris scored a few plays later with 1:49 left. Ballgame. Fittingly four fourth quarter plays(alliteration), two defensive, two offensive, made all the difference. The sack, the pick, and the two bombs to Stallworth.
When people think about the Steelers in the Super Bowl they inevitably remember the classic Super Bowl XIII shootout with the Cowboys. Or maybe the Super Bowl X clash with Dallas and Swann’s transcendent performance. And for longtime diehard Steelers’ fans Super Bowl IX has a special place. A horrible game but the franchise’s first title ever after over 40 years of futility. Few remember a 12-point win over a crummy Rams team. But Super Bowl XIV had more lead changes than those other three games combined. It stayed competitive until the final minutes. And it was the last hurrah for arguably the greatest team in NFL history. Maybe not the best Super Bowl ever, but a forgotten classic.
The Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part I
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part II
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part III
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part IV
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part V
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VI
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VII
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VIII
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part IX
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part X
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Conclusion