One more Earl Morrall-related post for the time being. Let’s revisit the scene of his greatest triumph, Super Bowl V. While Morrall may not have led his team to any actual points that day, he didn’t do anything to cost his team the game either. He entered the game with his team trailing and left the field as a Super Bowl winning quarterback. But it almost didn’t happen. Obviously the dramatic play of the game was the game-winning field goal with five seconds left. But in my opinion the single-biggest play came much earlier in the game.
With two minutes and 48 seconds left in the first half, the Baltimore Colts trailed the Dallas Cowboys 13-6. Dallas had completely shut the Colts down to that point. The Colts had failed to gain a single first down and their only score had come on a 75-yard twice-deflected TD pass caught by John Mackey (the Colts missed the extra point). Johnny Unitas subsequently threw an interception and the hit he took on the play broke some of his ribs. When the Baltimore Colts got the ball back at their own 48-yard line, it was Earl Morrall now taking the snaps from center. And Morrall proceeded to do something Unitas could not do: throw for a first down. Morrall did it twice, moving the ball to the Dallas two-yard line. Three straight runs netted zero yards and with less than 30 seconds left in the half the Colts faced a big decision. Take the easy FG or gamble and take a shot at tying the game? The Colts chose the gamble and lost when Morrall overthrew Michell in the end zone. 13-6 Dallas at the half.
More disaster ensued on the opening kickoff; the Colts fumbled it and Dallas recover at the BAL 31. Five plays took it down to the Baltimore two-yard-line leaving the ‘Boys on the verge of delivering the knockout punch. Then, on THE play of the game, Duane Thomas fumbled it back to the Colts. Or maybe it really wasn’t a fumble. The Cowboys Tight End, a guy named Mike Ditka, later remembered it this way:
We had a talented team that year and lost a game to Baltimore that we really shouldn't have lost, on a very controversial play. An official called a fumble on Thomas, but it wasn't a fumble. If I'm going to remember one play in a Super Bowl, that's the play I'm going to remember because it was a terrible call....I was on the ground, right beside the guy who picked up the ball. The guy who picked up the ball was our center, Dave Manders. The guy who fumbled it evidently was Thomas, but actually Duane really let the ball go when he heard the whistle blow. We felt there was no fumble on the play, and if we had scored then, it wouldn't have mattered what would happened later because the game would have been over.Regardless of what actually happened, the officials ruled Thomas had fumbled. The Colts remained unable to put points on the scoreboard, but their defense shut Dallas down the rest of the game and two Craig Morton interceptions, setting up a short TD run and an easy FG, gave the Colts exactly what they needed to win. But if Dallas had gone up 20-6 then it’s hard to see how they could have lost. A 14-point lead is all-but-insurmountable in Super Bowl history. And given the ineptitude of the Baltimore offense, it’s hard to envision a scenario where they scored two offensive touchdown. Even if the Colts still score that short TD off of a 4th quarter interception return they’d never get a second INT because Dallas would be protecting a lead. And with a late 4th quarter lead I’m sure Tom Landry could have sussed out that preventing Craig Morton from throwing another pass would have been the best way to ensure victory.
I submit to you then that Thomas’ fumble (or “fumble”), almost surely decided the outcome of Super Bowl V. If Dallas scores on that drive they go on to win that Super Bowl. So in my opinion that fumble is the single biggest fumble in NFL history. The most famous fumble in NFL history is of course “The Fumble”, i.e. Ernest Byner’s fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship Game. But Byner’s fumble only cost the Browns a chance at forcing overtime and a shot at the Super Bowl. Duane Thomas’ fumble (or “fumble”) cost Dallas an actual Super Bowl victory.
So what if Thomas doesn’t fumble? Well Dallas almost surely wins that game. And by winning Super Bowl V as well as Super Bowl VI we’d now be about that Cowboy team as one of the great teams in NFL history. And I think the reputations of two men in particular would have been affected in the most positive way by victory in Super Bowl V.
First, Tom Landry. Landry’s obviously one of the NFL’s all-time greatest coaches but you never see anybody consider him the greatest coach. Generally either Vince Lombardi or Paul Brown top the lists (see here and here). Lombardi’s got the 5 titles and the all-time best winning percentage while Brown’s got three NFL titles (and three AAFC ones) and his reputation as perhaps professional football’s most important innovator. Brown and Lombardi made their mark in the pre-merger NFL of course. Two more recent candidates I’ve seen others make cases for are Bill Walsh who won 3 Super Bowls and changed the shape of the game with the introduction of the West Coast Offense, and Joe Gibbs who won three titles of his own but with a different QB each time. (With three of his own Belichick of course might prove to be a popular candidate when he finally retires). And of course Don Shula’s another strong candidate, with all that winning more games than anybody else business, coaching in more Super Bowls than anybody else, and, oh yeah, the perfect season. Shula coached against Lombardi and kept on winning games after Walsh and Gibbs retired. (Super old school fans might go with George Halas or Curly Lambeau but I’m leaving them out of this.)
But Tom Landry never seems to make it into the conversation despite an incredible resume. Essentially, you look at three things when evaluating coaches: Wins, Influence on the Game, and Championships. When it comes to victories, Landry chalked up more wins than anybody but Shula and Halas. As for influence, Landry’s right up there with Brown and Walsh as one of the game’s great innovators. The flex defense, the shotgun, the use of computers, hiring a quality control coach, etc. And a few of Landry’s disciples went on to pretty good coaching careers, Dan Reeves, Mike Ditka and Gene Stallings. So no doubt what’s keeping Landry out of consideration from the top spot is the fact he “only” won two championships. Halas, Brown, and Lombardi won more in the pre-Super Bowl era. Walsh and Gibbs won three in the Super Bowl era. Like Landry, Shula won but two as well but he won 77 more games than Landry and his winning percentage is a lot higher.
But what if Landry notched that third Super Bowl title? Then he’s got as many NFL championships as Brown, Walsh and Gibbs, and one more than Shula. Only Noll would have more Super Bowls but Landry’s got 61 more wins and a higher winning percentage than Noll and Noll only won with the same corps of superstar players while Landry would have won titles with two different QB’s. As for Walsh and Gibbs, Landry coached more seasons than those two men combined. Here's something else. In their 1971 championship season, Dallas gave up only 18 points in their three playoff games. In 1970, they allowed only 26 points. That's pretty amazing. Just 44 points allowed in 6 playoff games combined. If Dallas goes up 20-6 in Super Bowl V giving that dominant defense a cushion to work with, and with the offense no doubt taking the air out of the ball to eliminate the chance of an INT, it's likely they don't give up anymore points the rest of the way. So now the Cowboys win back-to-back titles while giving up only 34 points total in the postseason. Would be talking about the greatest defense ever? They’d certainly be in the conversation. And the hands-on coach of that all-time great defense? Tom Landry. Now, I’m not saying only bad luck cost Landry that Super Bowl. The TD that could have been was set up by a fumbled kickoff return and Dallas’ only touchdown of the game was set up by an INT. Landry was the one who picked Craig Morton to start Super Bowl V for him even though a clearly superior QB in the person of Roger Staubach was sitting on the bench. But the Cowboys were this close to winning that game.
Landry’s third on the all-time wins list. He posted 18 straight winning seasons at one point. He was an innovator on both offense and defense. In addition to those titles he did win, he had four near misses going up against maybe the two greatest dynasties ever, the 60’s Packers and the 70’s Steelers. With three titles to his credit, including two back-to-back crowns, I really think a lot of people would be naming Landry as the greatest coach ever, not just one of the greatest.
The other guy hurt badly by the Super Bowl loss: the game’s MVP, outside linebacker Chuck Howley. Howley had such a great game that day he earned the MVP award despite being on the losing team. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that will never happen again. He also had another great Super Bowl the following season when his team won. So had his team won both, Howley would be the key defensive player for a dominant defensive back-to-back Super Bowl winning team. And Howley didn’t just rise to the occasion in the postseason, he made six All-Pro teams. Yet he can’t get a sniff of the Hall of Fame. He’s ever even been a semifinalist! He should be in anyway but if he’d been the MVP of the winning team he’d probably be a lot closer than he is now.
One final thought. It’s a lot more hypothetical but I can’t help but think the Cowboys win Super Bowl V in as convincing a fashion as they won it the next year if Landry had gone with Staubach. And if that had happened, then we might also be talking about Staubach as a strong contender for the title of greatest QB of all-time.