Super Bowl XIII (Steelers vs. Cowboys): An Ultimate Recount of the Game

Today we have Super Bowl XIII, which was held on January 21, 1979, in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida between the three-time AFC champion and two-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the five-time NFC champion and defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys.

As always, we have a pop quiz, and then homework at the end of the episode. The pop quiz question for today is: what unusual special teams feat was accomplished in both this Super Bowl and also the next Super Bowl between the Cowboys and Steelers? That would be Super Bowl XXX, which had something that also happened in this game. The answer will come at the end of the podcast.

Prelude to Super Bowl XIII

The NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978. That would remain the season length for the next 42 years, with the exceptions of the 1982 and 1987 seasons, both of which were affected by player strikes. The NFL also added a second wild card to each conference, meaning that the two wild cards would play in a wild card game, and the three division champions got first-round byes.

Learn more about the first NFL Wildcard Playoff Weekend here.

The Steelers romped right through their first 16-game schedule, winning their first seven games and going on to win 14 of 16 games. They had little trouble in the playoffs, dispatching Denver 33-10 and beating up on Houston 34-5 in the AFC Championship Game. They were led by quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who threw for 2,915 yards and 28 touchdowns. Running back Franco Harris ran for over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. Receiver Lynn Swann led in all receiving categories with 61 catches for 880 yards and 11 touchdowns, but John Stallworth was right behind him with 41 catches for 798 yards and nine scores.

Dallas’s road to the Super Bowl was much more of a bumpy ride. After starting out 2-0, the Cowboys lost four of their next eight games and sat at only 6-4 at midseason. But they turned things around, winning all of their final six regular-season games, and most of them by big margins. The Cowboys then got by Atlanta 27-20 in the divisional round before beating Los Angeles 28-0 in the NFC Championship Game.

The Cowboys were led, as they were a year before, by quarterback Roger Staubach, who threw for 3,190 yards and 25 touchdowns. Running back Tony Dorsett ran for 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns. Running back Robert Newhouse had another 584 yards and eight scores. The Cowboys had five players catch at least 34 balls, with Preston Pearson leading in catches with 47, and Tony Hill leading in yards with 823.

Super Bowl XIII: First Quarter

Chicago Bears founder George S. Halas tossed the coin, which came up heads. The Cowboys won and chose to receive. Receiver Butch Johnson took the kickback to the 28. Running back Tony Dorsett ran it twice to start the game, and he took the ball into Pittsburgh territory at the 47. After running back Robert Newhouse was stopped for no gain, Dorsett took a pitch from quarterback Roger Staubach and made a first down at the 34.

On the next play, however, the Cowboys tried a trick play. Receiver Drew Pearson fumbled when trying to get the ball from Dorsett, and defensive tackle John Banaszak recovered for Pittsburgh.Running back Franco Harris tried a couple of runs, going nowhere to start the drive.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw converted on third down, finding receiver John Stallworth for a first down at the Dallas 40. Stallworth made a one-handed grab on the next play, but he was out of bounds, so it was incomplete. Running back Rocky Bleier ran it for a couple of yards, then Bradshaw found tight end, Randy Grossman, for a first down at the 28. Bradshaw went back to the air on the next play, finding Stallworth in the left corner of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown, and putting Pittsburgh up 7-0 early.

Cowboys running back Larry Brinson took the next kickoff back to the 28. Staubach threw incomplete on first down, and Dorsett gained four on second down. From the shotgun, Staubach found Johnson on third down for a first down at the Pittsburgh 42. Dorsett took a pitch for four, but Steelers defensive end Steve Furness and linebacker Loren Toews sacked Staubach back in Dallas territory. Defensive end Dwight White added another sack on third down, and the Cowboys were forced to punt. Punter (and backup quarterback) Danny White’s kick was returned to the 30 by receiver Theo Bell.

Harris ran for five, then he caught a third-down pass for a first down in Dallas’s end of the field at the 43. Bradshaw then went play-action to receiver Lynn Swann, and he got thirteen more yards to the 30. But on the next play, linebacker D.D. Lewis picked off Bradshaw and returned the pick 32 yards into Pittsburgh territory at the 35.

Newhouse took a pair of runs for very little, and Staubach threw incomplete on third down. Danny White punted it back down to the 38. Harris started Pittsburgh’s new drive with a run through a big hole for nine yards. He looked to have a first down on the next play, but a holding call brought it back. He ran for five yards on the next play, setting up third-and-long. Defensive end Harvey Martin brought the pressure, sacking Bradshaw and forcing a fumble. Defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones picked up the loose ball, giving Dallas great field position. Three plays later, Staubach fired to receiver Tony Hill for a 39-yard touchdown, and the Cowboys tied the game at seven at the end of the first quarter.

Super Bowl XIII: Second Quarter

 Defensive end Larry Anderson returned the ensuing kickoff to the 27. Bradshaw threw a pass for Grossman, and he made a diving catch for a first down and ten yards. Harris ran it on the next three plays, and he got another first down. Bradshaw had a couple of passes fall incomplete, then he was under immense pressure again. Linebacker Tom Henderson – known as “Hollywood” by Cowboys fans and “Loudmouth” by Steelers fans – sacked Bradshaw and forced a fumble. Linebacker Mike Hegman scooped up the loose ball and returned it 37 yards to put Dallas out in front, 14-7.

The following kickoff went for a touchback. The Steelers handed it to Harris a couple of times, and he got five yards on two carries. Bradshaw then went long for Stallworth, who caught the pass and broke away from the Dallas defense. Stallworth ended up going 75 yards for a touchdown, tying the record for the longest touchdown in Super Bowl history, and the Steelers tied the score at fourteen.

The Steelers defense came out on fire after that score, tackling both Newhouse and Dorsett for losses. Staubach fumbled after a sack, but center Tom Rafferty fell on the loose ball. The Cowboys were forced to punt, and Bell took it back to the 48. Bradshaw immediately came out firing, hitting Swann for a first down at the 22. The Steelers got a first down on a holding penalty, but they got nothing on their next two plays. On third down, the controversial Henderson sacked Bradshaw back at the 33. Kicker Roy Gerela came out to try a Super Bowl record 51-yard field goal, but it bounced off the left upright just above the crossbar, and the score remained tied.

Dorsett and Newhouse took a handoff each, then Staubach dropped back in the shotgun and fired to running back Preston Pearson for a first down at the 45. He followed with a pass to Hill for another first down at the Pittsburgh 44, and the game went to the two-minute warning. Out of the timeout, Staubach threw a screen to Dorsett, who got a first down at the 32. After a minor scuffle between the two teams, Staubach got too aggressive and had his pass picked off by defensive back Mel Blount.

The Steelers got good field position when the Cowboys were called for a personal foul on Blount’s return. They gave that position back right away with a holding penalty, but then Bradshaw and Swann hooked up on consecutive plays for big gains. The first one went 29 yards to the Dallas 37, and the second one Swann hauled in for 21 yards down to the 16. Harris took it further down inside the 10, then Bradshaw found Bleier on the right side of the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown with less than half a minute left in the half. The Steelers went to the Orange Bowl locker room holding a 21-14 lead.

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    Super Bowl XIII: Third Quarter

    The second half started out rather uneventfully. The Steelers went three-and-out on their first possession. The Cowboys got a couple of first downs on a holding penalty and a Staubach scramble, but they soon had to punt as well. Their defense forced a second Steeler three-and-out, and Johnson took the kickback to the Pittsburgh 42. Staubach then tried a flea flicker, but his pass for Hill fell incomplete. He got a first down on a pass to Preston Pearson at the 29 before Dorsett ran for a first down off the right side of the line. Dorsett further ran it down to the 10, and an incompletion set up third-and-two.

    Tight end Jackie Smith, after an entire career of playoff futility in St. Louis, was playing in his final career NFL game. He had the chance to catch the tying touchdown, but he dropped a pass from Staubach despite being wide open and having absolutely no one around him. Kicker Rafael Septien made a 27-yard field goal, but the Cowboys still trailed, 21-17.

    Super Bowl XIII: Fourth Quarter

    The Steelers continued to struggle on offense, though. Bradshaw completed one pass to Bell for a first down, before getting sacked by defensive tackle Randy White on a third down. As the third quarter began, Staubach threw a flare pass to Dorsett for a first down. But on the next third down, Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene batted down a Staubach pass, and the Cowboys were forced to punt. The Steelers got the ball back at their own 14.

    Facing third down early in their next drive, Bradshaw fired to Grossman for a first down at the 25. He then went to Swann for fourteen more yards to the 39, before Harris ran for about a five-yard gain. Swann was open downfield on the next play, and Dallas defensive back Benny Barnes purposely tripped him to avoid a big gain. The result? A 33-yard penalty. Bradshaw followed by throwing to Swann at the Dallas 20. A couple of plays later, Harris plowed right up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown, putting the Steelers up by eleven.

    Gerela decided to squib the following kickoff, and it bounced to Randy White. The defensive tackle had a hard time handling the ball, and it came free after a hit by Steelers defensive back Tony Dungy. After a pileup that took around five minutes to sort out, Steelers linebacker Dennis Winston came out of the pile with the ball. On the very next play, Bradshaw fired an eighteen-yard touchdown pass to Swann, who made a great catch. The Steelers had two touchdowns in a matter of seventeen seconds, and their lead swelled to 35-17.

    Dallas went into desperation mode at this point. Staubach scrambled for a first down to the 28, then he fired to Drew Pearson for a seventeen-yard gain. Dorsett took a draw play for 28 yards, then Staubach hit tight end Billy Joe DuPree for a first down at the 16. In the middle of the announcement that Terry Bradshaw had unanimously been named Super Bowl XIII MVP, Staubach threw to Pearson to get down to the 7, then to DuPree for a touchdown. The Cowboys closed within eleven with 2:27 to go.

    Septien went with the onside kick, and defensive back Dennis Thurman recovered for Dallas. Staubach came right back out and threw his second-down pass to Drew Pearson for a first down at the Pittsburgh 30. That brought on the two-minute warning. Furness sacked Staubach and the Cowboys got forced into a fourth-and-eighteen. But Staubach was not finished; he fired to Drew Pearson on that fourth-down play for a first down. He then found Dorsett down at the 4, before firing incomplete. On his next pass, he found Johnson in the middle of the end zone for a touchdown. The Cowboys were now within four, but there were only 22 seconds left.

    For the second onside kick, Septien tried kicking it down the middle. Bleier was waiting there to fall on the ball for Pittsburgh, and that was it. The Steelers had won Super Bowl XIII, 35-31, and they were now the first team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls!

    Super Bowl XIII: Aftermath and Awards

    The MVP may have been Terry Bradshaw, but a good case could be made for Lynn Swann. He would be my pick for the player who would have won MVP if not for Bradshaw himself. Bradshaw was named MVP for his 318 passing yards and four touchdowns. It was the first 300-yard game of his career. Both Swann and Stallworth went over the century mark, with Swann catching seven passes for 124 yards and a score.

    Who was the MVP of the losing team? That would have to be Staubach. He threw for 228 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort. Would the Cowboys have won if Bleier doesn’t fall on that onside kick? Who knows, but I wouldn’t have wanted to bet against Staubach.

    The Least Valuable Player was Jackie Smith. He dropped a touchdown pass which cost his team four points. And, of course, the Cowboys lost by four points. While Smith had a great career, this one drop is what he’s most remembered for, sadly enough. There’s no guarantee that the Cowboys would have tied the game if he caught it, though. Pittsburgh would have definitely played the last few minutes differently up by 14 instead of up by 18.

    The best player you’ve never heard of? That’s almost impossible to pick since the 1970s Steelers and Cowboys are the best-known teams of all time. Everyone knows every player on these teams, offense, and defense. I will have to pick Steelers linebacker Dennis Winston, who recovered the fumble on the kickoff in the fourth quarter. You’ve probably heard of him, too, but he’s the best one I can come up with who isn’t as well-known.

    As for the biggest play of the game, it had to be that fumble recovery, which immediately led to a Pittsburgh touchdown and an 18-point lead. If Dallas just has to come back from down 11, it’s a totally different ballgame. Roy Gerela deserves a lot of credit for squibbing the ball effectively. In a few weeks, we’ll see another kicker do that to great effect in Super Bowl XVI.
    The biggest play no one remembers is Benny Barnes tripping up Swann for a 33-yard penalty. That set up Pittsburgh’s fourth touchdown, a run by Harris. You never know whether the Cowboys would have stopped the Steelers without that penalty, but it certainly gave a big boost to the Steelers’ chances. Maybe they don’t even need that onside kick which they recovered late in the fourth quarter.

    And that is the answer to today’s pop quiz question. In this Super Bowl, the Cowboys recovered an onside kick. In the next Super Bowl played between the Steelers and Cowboys, the Steelers recovered an onside kick on a bold move by Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Bill Cowher. The Steelers nearly pulled out that game, and if they would have, Cowher would have gotten all the credit. But that’s another game for another time.


     Your homework today is to get this book: The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, The ‘70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne. I think the title of the book speaks for itself; this book is all you need to learn about Super Bowls X and XIII. You can find it on Amazon here: 

    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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