Today we have Super Bowl XVI, which was held on January 24, 1982, in the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions. The game was between two first-time Super Bowl teams: the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals and the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
If you’re looking for the full story of this 1981 season, pick up my Great Eighties book and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about that year and the rest of the eighties.
As always, we have a pop quiz, and then homework at the end of the episode. The pop quiz question for today goes like this. In Super Bowl XVI, we had two first-time Super Bowl teams collide with each other, meaning one of them had to win in their first appearance.
In the first 15 Super Bowls, how many games were won by first-time Super Bowl teams? You can count the Super Bowl I champion Green Bay Packers in your tally. The answer will come at the end of the podcast.
Prelude to Super Bowl XVI
The Cincinnati Bengals finished 6-10 and in last place in the AFC Central in 1980. But head coach Forrest Gregg had a plan in place, and in just his second year he got his team to a 12-4 record and a first-place finish in the AFC Central. The Bengals were at 5-3 at midseason but went on a tear in the second half of the season. They won five straight games before a loss to San Francisco, before beating Pittsburgh for a season sweep as well as Atlanta to finish as the #1 seed in the AFC.
Quarterback Ken Anderson threw for 3,754 yards and 29 touchdowns, completing 62.6% of his passes, with only ten interceptions. He was an easy pick for NFL MVP. Amongst his receivers were tight end Dan Ross, who had 71 catches for 910 yards and five touchdowns, and Cris Collinsworth, a rookie wide receiver who caught 67 passes for 1,009 yards and eight touchdowns.
The third leading receiver was running back Pete Johnson, who caught 46 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns. Johnson also led the team in rushing with 1,077 yards on 274 carries, scoring 12 times on the ground. On defense, the Bengals were led by defensive backs Ken Riley, Louis Breeden, and Reggie Williams, each of whom had at least four interceptions (Riley had five).
In the divisional round, the Bengals got by the Bills 28-21. Then, at the AFC Championship Game, the Bengals and Chargers faced each other in the coldest game by wind chill in NFL history. With the wind chill around minus-57 degrees Fahrenheit, the Bengals froze out the Chargers 27-7 to advance to their first Super Bowl.
Over in the NFC, it was a two-team race between the Cowboys and 49ers for conference supremacy. After a 1-2 start, the 49ers got on a roll, winning seven games in a row, including a 45-14 pasting of the Cowboys. After a close loss to the Browns, the 49ers won their final four games, including a 21-3 beating of the Bengals. The 49ers got by the New York Giants in the divisional round 38-24, before one of the greatest games in NFL history.
In a back-and-forth battle in San Francisco, quarterback Joe Montana led his team on a late drive and threw one of the most improbable touchdown passes ever. Receiver Dwight Clark came down with “The Catch” to give the 49ers the lead in the final minutes of the game. The 49ers then stopped the Cowboys by coming up with a fumble recovery, and they advanced to their first Super Bowl.
This 49ers team was all about Montana and Clark. Montana threw for 3,565 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. He completed 63.7% of his passes, for a passer rating of 88.4. Clark was his leading receiver with 85 catches for 1,105 yards.
When it came to catching touchdowns, though, it was receiver Freddie Solomon leading the way with eight scores, and tight end Charles Young with five (Clark had four). The 49ers were a pass-heavy team; their leading rusher Ricky Patton rushed for just 543 yards. Earl Cooper had 330, and no other player reached the 300-yard mark.
This year’s Super Bowl was in Detroit, a rather strange place to hold a Super Bowl until you realize that the Lions play in a dome. The temperature was freezing outside, and Vice President George H. W. Bush was on his way to the stadium. As it happened, his motorcade slowed down the 49ers team busses, and the players started to worry if they’d get there in time. Head coach Bill Walsh started cracking jokes about the equipment managers throwing touchdown passes.
Walsh was so good at knowing the temperature of his team. He is viewed by many these days as a mad scientist who was all about numbers. That wasn’t him at all. He was an empathetic, authentic person who connected to each and every one of his players.
Super Bowl XVI: First Quarter
This game didn’t start out all that great for the 49ers. After Bengals kicker Jim Breech kicked the first kickoff out of bounds, his second kick was mishandled by rookie running back Amos Lawrence. The Bengals’ Don Bass knocked the ball out of his hands, and defensive back John Simmons recovered for Cincinnati.
Anderson threw to receiver Isaac Curtis for about seven yards, and Johnson ran for a first down from there. Anderson then threw on the run, getting the ball to Ross for a first down at the 5. But that’s when the San Francisco defense stepped up. First, defensive end Jim Stuckey sacked Anderson for a loss of six. Then, defensive back Dwight Hicks stepped in front of an Anderson pass and picked it off, returning it to the 32.
Montana started his first drive with a screen pass to running back Ricky Patton for eight yards. He then found Clark for a first down at the 44. Montana hit Solomon for eight yards before the 49ers went with a reverse flea-flicker. After three flips of the ball, Montana had it back, and he gunned it downfield to Young for a first down at the 33.
Cooper ran for a first down at the 23, and running back Bill Ring went for another eight. Montana then hit a wide-open Solomon for a first down at the 1. Set up there, Montana dived over the top on a quarterback sneak to score the game’s opening touchdown and make it 7-0.
Anderson started the next drive with a screen to Johnson for four yards. He went back to Johnson on the next play, before scrambling with the ball himself for a first down at the 30. Two plays later, he scrambled again, getting to the 39. Johnson picked up the first down on the next play.
Anderson went deep for Collinsworth, but defensive back Eric Wright knocked the ball away at the last moment. The Bengals ended up having to punt, and punter Pat McInally got away the ugliest 53-yard punt you’ll ever see.
Super Bowl XVI: Second Quarter
The 49ers had to punt, and the Bengals got the ball back in great field position, at midfield, to start the second quarter. Johnson ran for four, then Anderson hit Collinsworth for a first down inside the 30. An illegal contact foul gave Cincinnati another first down. Anderson went back to Collinsworth, finding him at the 5 for what looked like a first down.
However, Wright knocked the ball out of Collinsworth’s hands, and defensive back Lynn Thomas recovered for San Francisco. Had this play happened in today’s NFL, it likely would have been ruled an incomplete pass. As it was, the 49ers had the ball back, but deep in their own territory at their own 8.
It was time for Montana to work. He rolled to his right and found an open Solomon for a first down at the 32. He then scrambled for seven more, before Cooper took a toss, broke a tackle, and found his way into Cincinnati territory at the 47. On the next third down, Montana found Clark for a first down at the 32. Patton ran for about nine yards up the middle, before picking up the first down. The 49ers then tried a reverse to Clark, but he was stopped for no gain.
However, linebacker Jim LeClair got called for piling on, and that penalty gave San Francisco a first down. Montana immediately took advantage, throwing to Cooper on the left side of the field for an 11-yard touchdown, and San Francisco now led 14-0. It was a 92-yard drive, the longest in Super Bowl history.
After a mishandled squib kick, the Bengals got the ball back at their own 2 after an illegal block in the back. Anderson completed a pass for a first down to Ross, but after that, the Bengals had to punt. San Francisco took over at their own 34. Montana fired to Clark for a first down at the Cincinnati 49. Patton then ran for the next first down. Montana went back to Clark for the third first down of the drive.
With a minute to go, Cooper ran down to the 16, and Walsh called timeout with 54 seconds left. After a quarterback sneak by Montana to get a first down, he threw to Solomon to get down to the 5. That set up a 22-yard field goal by kicker Ray Wersching, and with 15 seconds left in the half, the 49ers figured to go into the locker room with a 17-0 lead.
But Wersching tried another squib kick. This came from having knowledge of how bouncy the ball could get on the Pontiac Silverdome turf. The 49ers played at Detroit early in the season, and that’s why Wersching thought that bouncing the ball could be beneficial. This time, he kicked it on the ground, and running back Archie Griffin mishandled it.
49ers’ defensive back Rick Gervais knocked the ball out, and linebacker Milt McColl recovered it at the 4. With five seconds left, Walsh sent Wersching back out. The Niners got called for a false start, but after that Wersching nailed a 26-yard field goal to make it 20-0 at halftime.
Super Bowl XVI: Third Quarter
The Bengals got the ball to start out the second half, and they finally put something together on offense. Running back Charles Alexander took a pitch for a first down at the 29. On a third down, Anderson found receiver Steve Kreider for 18 yards and a new set of downs.
Johnson ran for six, then the Bengals pulled a flea-flicker, which Anderson completed to Curtis. A late hit on the Niners gave the Bengals more yardage. Facing third down after that, Anderson scrambled in for a touchdown up the middle, and the Bengals pulled within 13.
Three punts followed, two by San Francisco. After the second of those Niner punts, the Bengals started out at midfield. Cincinnati committed a personal foul and Anderson got sacked by Niners defensive end Fred Dean, and the Bengals faced third-and-long. Anderson launched a long pass downfield for Collinsworth, almost like a Hail Mary of sorts.
Collinsworth made the catch over his shoulder, and the Bengals got a first down inside the San Francisco 20. Anderson was sacked by linebacker Jack Reynolds, but he came back with a pass to Ross to get down to the 5. The Bengals got a first down at the 3, setting up one of the most famous series in Super Bowl history: the goal-line stand.
On first and second downs, Johnson tried runs up the middle, and he was held back at the 1. Reynolds made a great tackle on second down to knock him back. On third down, Anderson threw to his right to Alexander, but linebacker Dan Bunz kept him out of the end zone by inches. Finally, Johnson was stuffed on fourth down, with Reynolds making another play to keep him out. The 49ers took over on downs, as the third quarter came to an end.
Super Bowl XVI: Fourth Quarter
What goes forgotten about this goal-line stand is that it was the right decision by Bengals head coach Forrest Gregg. The Bengals forced a quick three-and-out and got the ball back at their own 46 after a punt.
They then went right downfield and scored. Johnson ran across midfield, then Anderson hit Collinsworth for a first down at the 38. Anderson then hit Ross over the middle for nine. San Francisco got called for pass interference, and Ross followed with a catch near the 5-yard line. Two plays later, Anderson hit Ross for a four-yard touchdown, and the Bengals pulled within six.
But the thing about this was, it never felt like the 49ers were ever in any danger. On second-and-15, Montana fired a 25-yard pass to receiver Mike Wilson, then got another first down on a pass interference flag on Bengals defensive back Ken Riley.
Patton ran for a first down to the Cincinnati 41, and a few plays later it was Montana who snuck for a first down. The clock ticked away, as the Niners kept running it. They didn’t get a touchdown, but all they needed was a field goal. Wersching converted a 40-yard field goal with 5:25 left, and the Niners now had a two-score lead.
On the Bengals’ first play on the new drive, Anderson was picked off by Wright. He returned it to the Cincinnati 21, before trying an ill-advised lateral that the Niners were fortunate to recover.
The 49ers did pretty much nothing more than just run the ball and chew clock. They got one first down along the way, and the clock made it down to the two-minute warning. Wersching made a 23-yard field goal to make it 26-14. It was his fourth field goal of the day, tying Green Bay’s Don Chandler for the most in a Super Bowl, a record that still stands today.
While Montana was being announced as the game’s Most Valuable Player, the Bengals tried a desperation drive. This drive was unique in that the 49ers’ defense managed to keep the Bengals in bounds after every single completion. First, Anderson threw to Curtis for 22 yards. He then found Ross for a first down at the Niners 38. Ross caught one for nine more yards, then Collinsworth hauled in one. Anderson found Kreider down at the 3, but at that point, there was less than half a minute on the clock.
Anderson hit Ross over the middle for a three-yard touchdown with just 16 seconds left. The Bengals had to try an onside kick, but Clark made another great catch, this time of the kickoff, and the Niners held on to win, 26-21. For the first time ever, the San Francisco 49ers were Super Bowl champions!
Super Bowl XVI: Aftermath and Awards
The Nielsen television rating for this Super Bowl was 49.1, the highest-ever in Super Bowl history. What that number means is that 49.1% of all television sets in the United States were tuned in to Super Bowl XVI.
What’s more, is that the Super Bowl had a 73 share. That meant that for every television that was on, 73% of them were watching the Super Bowl and only 27% were watching something else.
The Niners won their first Super Bowl on their first try, something only three other teams had done. That is the answer to today’s pop quiz. Three teams before the Niners won their first Super Bowl – the Green Bay Packers in I, the New York Jets in III, and the Pittsburgh Steelers in IX.
Montana won Super Bowl MVP for his 157 yards passing and two touchdowns, one throwing and one rushing. If I were to pick a second-best player on the Niners, I’d go with Jack Reynolds. He had one sack, but more importantly, he had two tackles on that goal-line stand. You may wonder, why does that goal-line stand matter if the Bengals scored anyway?
Because it enabled the 49ers to eat more clock. If the Bengals score on that goal-line situation, then they would have had a lot more time to try to complete the comeback. That’s why “Hacksaw” Reynolds deserves consideration for MVP.
Dan Ross is my pick for the best player on the losing team. The Bengals’ tight end caught a Super Bowl-record 11 passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Ross’s 11 catches remain the record for a tight end at the Super Bowl. His performance is one of the best in a losing effort in the history of the Super Bowl.
The Least Valuable Player, who was it? I’d have to go with Pete Johnson of the Bengals. He averaged only 2.57 yards per carry, rushing 14 times for 36 yards. That’s not going to get it done on the ground. The Bengals couldn’t run, and Johnson couldn’t score on three attempts near the goal line. The lack of a running game doomed the Bengals in this one.
The player no one remembers who was best in this one? How about Ricky Patton of the 49ers? He rushed for 55 yards in this game, and he was the leading rusher of all players in this Super Bowl. Patton also caught a pass for six yards. He was a nice change-of-pace in the pass-oriented Niners offense.
The biggest play of this game was the goal-line stand. I know, I know, the Bengals eventually scored anyway but making that stand not only chewed time off the clock, it also gave the 49ers a lot of energy. Sometimes the biggest plays are the intangible ones.
The best play no one remembers is Montana’s 25-yard completion to Wilson on second-and-15 with his team up only six in the fourth quarter. That pass helped put the Niners in field goal range to put away this game. Can you imagine if it had gotten to third-and-15? The Bengals would have been in a great position to make the comeback from down 20-14. This play was very important to the Niners salting this one away.
Finally, for some homework, here’s an easy one. Gary Myers wrote a book called The Catch: One Play, Two Dynasties, and the Game That Changed the NFL. It tells the story of how the 49ers and Cowboys went in opposite directions after Dwight Clark made the famous catch to win the NFC Championship Game. This book is entertaining from start to finish. I highly recommend it.
For now, we’ll put the 49ers dynasty aside, and instead move over to a different NFC team who was building a dynasty of their own. I’m talking about the Washington Redskins. We will see the Redskins in both of our next two episodes, starting in two weeks with their battle against the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. My website is tommyaphillips.com; there you can find all my books, including my new release Penn State Bowl Games: A Complete History. Until then, so long!
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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