Super Bowl X: A Retrospective on the Thrilling Final Drive

We have finished reviewing the first 50 Super Bowls, and if you want to relive those games, I suggest to you some homework: Ed Benkin’s The First 50 Super Bowls. Great stuff there that you’ll want to relive over and over.

But for now, we’re going to do something a little different. I’m going to take a moment in Super Bowl history and expound on it. I’m going to go through a drive or quarter or something that I can break up into little pieces and we can examine it closely. This means that these episodes will be fairly short, but that’s okay.

Reliving Final Drive of Super Bowl X

Today, we are going back and looking at the final two minutes of Super Bowl X between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys. We begin with Dallas having scored a touchdown to cut their deficit to 21-17, and they are kicking off. The Cowboys have Toni Fritsch kicking it, and he kicks to his left.

Guard Gerry Mullins falls on it at the Dallas 42. Surprising that the Steelers had a guard on their “good hands” team, but hey, it worked out.

Now, keep in mind that Terry Bradshaw has been knocked out of the game with a concussion, and that Terry Hanratty has stepped in his place. Chuck Noll obviously does not trust Hanratty as far as he can throw him, because he will not let Hanratty throw the ball. The Cowboys have all three timeouts left, so simply running the ball is not going to kill the clock.

Franco Harris takes the first carry and loses two yards, and Dallas calls their first timeout with 1:41 left. Hanratty then tries the hard count before handing off to Harris to get those two yards back, and Tom Landry calls his second timeout with 1:33 left.

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. All the Steelers need here is a first down. It’s third-and-10. A first down wins the game automatically because all the Steelers have to do is fall on the ball three times. But Noll has no trust in Hanratty, so he calls a run instead of a pass that could win it. This time it’s Rocky Bleier running up the gut for a yard. The Cowboys call their final timeout with 1:28 to go.

Bad Decision?

Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier, CBS’s announcers for this game, prepared for a punt. “They’ll probably have everybody but the coaches going after this kick,” Brookshier said. But instead, Noll sends back out his offense.

He doesn’t want the punt to be blocked, I get that. But the chances of the punt being blocked are not as high as the chances of Dallas going 60 yards in 80 seconds. And if he’s going to go for it, why not try a pass? Everyone except for Steelers announcer Jack Fleming knows that the clock stops after change of possession. Whether you run or pass, you either win the game by getting the first down, or you lose possession and the clock stops either way.

But instead, Noll calls a simple running play where Bleier runs for two yards and that’s it. “That’s one we’ve got to ask Chuck Noll about,” Summerall says. There’s now 1:22 left on the clock. Dallas has quite a bit of time to work with, and great field position at their own 39. They’ve got to go 61 yards in 1:22. “Gotta work the sidelines,” Summerall says.

But now it’s the Cowboys making bad decisions instead of the Steelers. Roger Staubach gets a low snap from the shotgun formation which came because the shotgun was new at the time and not practiced well enough. He picks up the low snap and scrambles with it.

He gets a first down, but he has the opportunity to step out of bounds and instead stays in. That’s at 1:10. It takes all the way until 50 seconds – a full 20 seconds later – for Dallas to get their next snap away. That’s how much time Staubach lost there.

But it gets worse. After another low snap, Staubach throws to former Steeler Preston Pearson. He catches the ball and pivots, not toward the sideline but away from the sideline! He makes it to the Steelers 38. He could have stopped the clock at 40 seconds, but instead it took the Cowboys another full 20 seconds to get their next play off.

Since they’ve got such little time left, Staubach has no choice but to throw to the end zone. He got a third low snap and almost got sacked to end the game. But he evaded tacklers and managed to launch the ball to the end zone, where it fell incomplete. The next play, with 12 seconds left, he threw to the right corner of the end zone, but Percy Howard can’t quite get it as it is batted away.

With three seconds to go now, Staubach has his pass tipped and intercepted by Glen Edwards, and that’s the ballgame. The Steelers win Super Bowl X, 21-17.

So, looking back at this, it’s clear that Chuck Noll screwed up, but the Cowboys screwed up even worse. Had the Cowboys known basic clock management, they would have had plenty of time at the end, and Staubach wouldn’t have had to be trying Hail Marys from the 38.

Likely the Cowboys would have gotten down farther for a good shot at the end zone. If Staubach and Pearson step out of bounds like they should have, there’s an extra 40 seconds on the clock. That’s massive. That’s game-changing. It didn’t help that the Cowboys moseyed around before getting the next snap off. Yes, Chuck Noll was wrong; he should have punted, or at the very least tried a pass.

But the Cowboys blew this one by not knowing how to do a late-game clock situation. If Staubach had 40 more seconds, I bet NFL history is different today. The Cowboys have six Super Bowl wins, the Cowboys are the team of the seventies, and the Cowboys have the largest comeback in the first 50 years of Super Bowl history with an 11-point comeback. Just step out of bounds, guys!

I’ll have more episodes just like this one coming up, and hopefully I’ll also be able to interview some people on their Super Bowl memories. If you’re interested in talking to me about your Super Bowl memories, email me at [email protected]. All I ask is that you pick only one Super Bowl to go over. Thank you, and until next time, so long!

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    Lombardi Memories is a show that takes you back in time, into January or February, to the greatest one-day spectacle in all of sports. This is the every-other-Tuesday podcast that looks back at each and every one of the 50-plus Super Bowls and tells the story of who won and why.  Tommy A. Phillips is your host on this Super Journey.  He’s an author of multiple NFL books.  You can purchase below.

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    2 thoughts on “Super Bowl X: A Retrospective on the Thrilling Final Drive”

    1. Do you think there was pass interference on Percy Howard in the second to last play in the end zone? For sure if Dallas had managed the final 1:22 better they would have won. I just re-watched the whole game and I was surprised to see how slow and calm they were in the final drive much unlike today’s NFL.

      Reply
      • Under the rules they were playing with at the time, probably not. That may have been a totally different call if it had happened in Super Bowl XIII, a short three years later, when they started getting tougher on defenders. I think they could have called it, but they probably made the right call at least as it pertained to the 1975 rulebook.

        It really is hard to believe how slow they were. Did they not run two-minute drills in practices in that era? I don’t know, but how different NFL history would be if they did!

        Reply

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