Unheralded NFL Games From the 1970s

For every great and historic game in NFL history, there are undoubtedly hundreds of other games that were probably just as exciting. They just did not possess the ramifications that many of those historic games did.  For the next several Pigskin Past programs, I will try to talk about and re-explore some of those thrilling games. The first of these unique games occurred way back in 1972, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Below you can listen to the full episodes or read the full blog post from Pigskin Past.

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Throughout his days, Joe spent some time as a sportswriter and has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s.  Joe is also a proud member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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Joe Zagorski
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1972 Vikings vs Rams

In 1972, pro football was still primarily a running game. The rules dictated that to be so. Heck, even the playing fields lent themselves to run the ball first, throw the ball second. That was because the hash marks were changed in ’72 to be placed closer to each other, thus closer to the middle of the field. This in turn allowed more room along the sides for running backs to run sweeps. There were more running backs in 1972 who gained at least 1,000 yards rushing in one year than any other year before.

All of which makes the game on November 19, 1972, between the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams so unique. It would be the highest-scoring game of the year for both of those teams, as Fran Tarkenton of the Vikings threw for 319 yards and four touchdowns. For his part, Roman Gabriel of the Rams would complete 25 passes in the game, which at that time was his second-highest career total ever in that category.

The productivity was spread all around. Minnesota fullback Bill Brown caught five passes worth a career-best 116 yards. Brown scored three touchdowns in the game, including a spectacular 76-yard catch and carry from Tarkenton. On that play in the third quarter, Brown ran down the middle of the field, caught the ball at the Vikings 45-yard line, bounced off of Rams linebacker Jim Purnell and Rams defensive back Jim Nettles, then sprinted untouched the rest of the way to stride into the Los Angeles end zone.

Minnesota wide receiver John Gilliam was similar to Tarkenton, in that both men were new to the Vikings…sort of. Gilliam had just been traded from St. Louis to Minnesota, while Tarkenton actually began his career in Minnesota, way back in 1961, in the inaugural year of the Vikings. But Tarkenton was traded to the New York Giants, and he spent five years there from 1967 to 1971. In 1972, however, he was akin to a prodigal son, and he was back in Minnesota. Gilliam caught four passes in the game at Los Angeles, worth 105 yards. One of his receptions was a 66-yard bomb from Tarkenton for a score.

Not to be outdone, Rams wide receiver Jack Snow snared eight of Roman Gabriel’s passes, worth 112 yards. Los Angeles actually outdid Minnesota in the category of first downs, (25 to 14) and total yards (426 to 375).  The Rams held a 20-10 lead at halftime. Both offenses ignited in the second half, however. The Vikings managed to outlast Los Angeles by the sounding of the final gun, 45-41. It was a scoring fest that was several decades before its time. Today, we barely take a second look at boxscores with that amount of points. But in 1972, such a large amount of scoring was unheard of.

The Vikings-Rams game was a game where the defenses, both of which were very good during that era, failed to keep pace with what the opposing offenses were doing, namely, throwing the ball. You have to realize that both the Vikings and Rams’ defenses knew how to fill gaps along the line of scrimmage and stop running plays. And most of their defensive linemen were fairly adept at employing a solid pass rush.

But when it came to covering wide receivers and setbacks coming out of the backfield…well, that’s where a debate can be made and asserted. What was unusual was the fact that the Vikings’ effort to stop the Los Angeles running attack in this game was poor. Practically nobody expected that to occur. Minnesota permitted 191 rushing yards to the Rams, which included 104 from Willie Ellison. A combined incredible 11 touchdowns were scored in this game.

It is important to note that both the Rams and the Vikings were each experiencing subpar seasons in 1972. Los Angeles’s record following this loss to Minnesota was 5-4-1, and the Vikings owned a 6-4 mark after they edged the Rams. It is important to note that neither team would win their division or make the playoffs in 1972. Nevertheless, their respective rampant passing efforts made this game one of the most unheralded and unique of the decade.

If you like this game between the Vikings and Rams, you should check out our article covering “one of the best games of the 60s” between the Vikings and Rams back in 1969.

1979 Chargers vs. Oilers (Playoffs)

This next installment of the great but still largely forgotten games of the NFL’s modern past can debatably be labeled as one of the greatest playoff upsets of all time. It was truly upsetting to the loser, believe me. The 1979 San Diego Chargers were considered by most pro football experts to have one of the most explosive passing attacks in NFL history, and certainly up to that time in history.

Their roster included the likes of quarterback Dan Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow, and wide receiver Charlie Joiner. All three of them have a bust in Canton, Ohio. The Chargers registered a total of 411 points in 1979, one of the highest marks in the league. San Diego, as the AFC Western Division Champion, was slated to be at home for their first-round playoff game against the Houston Oilers. The Chargers were declared as 8 and ½ point favorites over Houston.

The Oilers were much more adept at employing their running game than their passing game. But that would not really matter when these two teams met on December 29. That is because practically everyone who might touch the ball on any given play in Houston’s offense was injured.

Starting quarterback Dan Pastorini was too banged up to play. Standout wide receiver Ken Burrough was also unable to suit up. And what was perhaps the biggest shortcoming of all, their superstar running back Earl Campbell would not be able to play either. Added to that, most of Houston’s reserve players hardly saw any action at all during the regular season. All in all, the Oilers looked like they richly deserved to be labeled as extreme underdogs.

But by halftime, however, an undeniable feeling was being felt by those in the stadium and those who were watching this playoff game on television. Houston actually took a 10-7 lead into their halftime locker room. How did they do that? Well, they first spotted the Chargers a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 1-yard dive by Clarence Williams. Surely more touchdowns were just around the corner for the Oilers.

Houston would have to wait sometime before they crossed their opponents’ goal line, however. A 1-yard run by reserve Houston running back Boobie Clark, and a 26-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch gave the Oilers the lead. Another running back, Lydell Mitchell of San Diego, reclaimed the lead for the Chargers on an impressive 8-yard run for a touchdown.  Mitchell broke a couple of tackles en route to the score.

By this time, rookie Houston defensive back Vernon Perry was already having the game of his life. He set an NFL record by intercepting an incredible four passes in this game. He also blocked a Chargers field goal attempt and ran it back some 57 yards. One of Perry’s interceptions set the Oilers up for what turned out to be the game’s winning touchdown.

The game-deciding play came about on a third-and-11, 47-yard scoring toss from reserve quarterback Gifford Nielsen to wide receiver Mike Renfro. The throw was a medium-range heave across the middle of the field. Renfro was running a basic slant pattern. By the time he finished the play, he had made one of the greatest and most substantial plays of his career. Once he caught the ball, he immediately managed to turn his body around and run against the flow of the pursuing San Diego defenders.

Along the way, he broke one attempted tackle, then outraced three other Chargers defenders. Somehow, someway, Renfro was able to sprint to the corner of the end zone for the score.  Renfro’s score gave Houston a 17-14 lead. Nothing much for San Diego to really worry about, however. That is because the entire fourth quarter and a portion of the third quarter still remained to be played. And the Chargers, as previously mentioned, had one of the most dynamic and explosive offenses in the entire NFL in 1979.

But try as he might, Dan Fouts was unable to complete enough of his 47 passing attempts to reclaim the lead. As it turned out, no scoring from either team occurred during the fourth quarter. It was a head-scratcher to be sure. Houston’s 17-14 triumph over San Diego was proof positive that the old adage about any team being able to beat any other team, even with numerous injuries, was still worthy of being repeated. With this upsetting victory, the Oilers sent one heck of a statement all across the NFL landscape.

We also have an article on the Houston Oilers of the 1972 and 1973 seasons, two years I’m sure the franchise would like to forget, as well as an article from Football Is Family covering a little history about the Tennessee Titans (Houston Oilers) if you are inerested.

1975 - Baltimore Colts vs. Miami Dolphins

 Dynasties in pro football come and go. Some teams stay on top for a long time, while others only manage to make it to the summit for only a brief amount of time before they fall back down to mediocrity and/or failure. Throughout the latter 1950s and most of the 1960s, the Baltimore Colts reached the top in the NFL, in the form of World Championships in 1958, 1959, and 1970.

But by 1972, the Colts had gotten old, and they suffered the fate of so many previous dynasties…they began to lose. And lose. And lose some more.

In 1974, the team could only generate two wins, which was “good enough” to be tied for the worst record in the entire league.  But in 1975, a rookie head coach named Ted Marchibroda took over the reins of the team. At first, it appeared as if the Colts would just repeat their typically poor performances, as evidenced by their 1-4 record to start the year.

Then a miracle occurred. Baltimore started winning, and they continued winning. Game after game after game, the Colts began to beat teams that nobody really felt that they could beat. Included in some of those upsets were victories over division rivals Buffalo, Miami, the New York Jets, and New England. Other big triumphs in this nine-game winning streak included wins over Cleveland and Kansas City.

No victory during the 1975 season, however, was more memorable than Baltimore’s 10-7 win at old Memorial Stadium against the Miami Dolphins on December 14. It would mark the Colts’ eighth straight win, and it would enable them to play for the AFC Eastern Division title the following week versus New England.

The drama of that second Dolphins game was off the charts, however. For lovers of defensive football, this game was a true gem. The game was scoreless at halftime, and even though both teams managed to drive up and down the field, neither was able to accomplish much when they got anywhere near their opponents’ red zone. Baltimore placekicker Toni Linhart missed a field goal in the first half, which would have given the Colts at least some semblance of control in this matchup.

    Don Strock started at quarterback for Miami, and he did not have a really good game. He would complete just eight passes in 19 attempts for only 97 yards. Nevertheless, Strock was able to lead the Dolphins on a scoring drive in the third quarter.

    The Colts defense was having their best performance in years, but they were still unable to stop the swiftness of Miami tailback Mercury Morris, who swept to his left to score a 3-yard touchdown. Morris totaled 96 yards rushing in the game on 21 carries. If the Dolphins’ No-Name Defense could halt Baltimore for the remainder of the second half, Miami would go a long way into obtaining their sixth-straight playoff year.

    As the fourth quarter neared its end, it appeared as if the Dolphins were going to accomplish that task. By this time, the cold December air had mixed with the moisture at the nearby Chesapeake Bay, which created a dense fog, which shrouded the environs of Memorial Stadium. The scene just added even more drama to what was happening on the field.

    The Colts were deep in their own territory, and they desperately needed a touchdown and an extra point conversion to tie this game. A field goal did them no good. It was all or nothing. So they started driving for the Dolphins’ goal line. Baltimore quarterback Bert Jones mixed his runs and his short passes as well as he did all game long during this pressure drive. The Colts converted several key third downs on this drive.

    Thanks to the running and pass receiving of tailback Lydell Mitchell, Baltimore was drawing near to the Miami endzone. Mitchell was great at catching a ball when emerging from the backfield, and it was that talent that enabled the Colts to complete their best drive of the game.   With time running out in the fourth quarter, Mitchell ran a sweep to his right and bowled over two Dolphin defenders from six yards out to score the tying touchdown.

    No more scoring occurred in the remainder of the fourth quarter, so this nail-biter went into sudden-death overtime.  Back in 1975, the NFL’s overtime rules stipulated that the first team that scored any points whatsoever would be declared the winner. Today, both teams get at least one chance to have the ball…unless a touchdown is scored by the first team to have the ball. The overtime rules in 1975 were much more dramatic…and much more final.

    Baltimore took the ball during the overtime period and piggybacked onto their scoring drive earlier in the fourth quarter.  Coach Marchibroda inserted a two-tight end offense near the goal line, and Lydell Mitchell powered over on an end sweep to his right. The game thus went into overtime.

    The fog was getting really dense by this time, but it did not affect Baltimore in a negative way. The Colts offense just drove downfield again, and they set up Toni Linhart for a 31-yard field goal attempt. Linhart’s kick was good, and as the fans streamed onto the field, the 1975 Baltimore team took a giant step towards winning the AFC Eastern Division, which they would do the following week by beating New England. But winning that week 13 game versus Miami would give the Colts players memories to last a lifetime. It was one of those unheralded games that helped to make the 1970s such a memorable decade in the NFL.

    Speaking of Baltimore Colts, check out our article covering the 1967 Colts, possibly the greatest team to ever miss the NFL playoffs.

    1970 Oakland Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins

    This series on unheralded NFL games attempts to recall a game that stands out for a particular team.  When talking about the Miami Dolphins, well, there are plenty of games to choose from that are still being talked about today.  Both of their Super Bowl victories come to mind, and perhaps their epic Christmas Day victory in the AFC Playoffs over the Kansas City Chiefs in 1971.  Also, that infamous Hook and Lateral playoff game versus San Diego in 1981.  But I decided to focus on a game from 1970 as one of the most unheralded games of the Dolphins’ past.  Ask any Dolphins fan when they played their first playoff game, and who they played in that game, and you’re likely to get a blank stare.  That is because few people ever recall the game that this Pigskin Past program is about.

    The date was December 27, 1970, to be precise.  Miami would play Oakland at the Oakland Coliseum.  It had rained all during the day prior to game day, and the field was not covered.  Nor had the field dried.  As a result, both teams would be playing this playoff matchup on a bog…a quagmire if you will.  Both teams were affected equally, as both teams had their share of fast wide receivers who would fail to get decent traction all game long.

    Don Shula was in his first year in 1970 as the Dolphins head coach.  He managed to get them a wild card berth in his very first year in Miami, with a pretty impressive 10-4 record.  Now Shula had been to many playoff games in his past, but this would be the very first one in the history of the Dolphins.  They were easily one of the youngest teams in all of pro football.  But Coach Shula had them growing up rapidly. 

    They perhaps stunned the more experienced Raiders by jumping to a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter when Miami quarterback Bob Griese hit star wide receiver, Paul Warfield, across the middle on a slant pattern for a 16-yard touchdown.  Oakland tied the game just before halftime when Fred Biletnikoff snared a 22-yard scoring pass from Raiders signal-caller Daryle Lamonica. 

    The second half of this game would determine which team had the resolve to advance to the AFC Championship Game the following week.  In a tight matchup such as this, it is often one key mistake that tells the tale as to who wins and who loses.  That is exactly what happened in the third quarter.  Bob Griese threw only one interception in this game, but it was easily the costliest mistake of the year for him.  Griese threw for the far sideline, but Oakland cornerback Willie Brown stepped in front of the intended receiver, made the interception, then raced 50 yards untouched for a big Raiders touchdown.  That is exactly what Oakland needed…a chance to take the lead and gain some momentum on their foes from the Sunshine State.

    The Raiders followed that gift up with another touchdown.  It occurred in the fourth quarter when Lamonica threw caution to the wind and heaved a long, deep bass to wide receiver Rod Sherman, who was sprinting down the near sideline on a fly pattern.  Sherman somehow managed to get a step ahead of a younger (and probably faster) Miami cornerback, Curtis Johnson.  Sherman snared the ball without breaking stride, then ran the rest of the way into the Dolphins’ endzone.  Oakland now owned a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.  Sounds like victory is almost theirs, doesn’t it?

    Well, not so fast my friends as Lee Corso always says. Coach Shula would have made the offseason pure hell for his players if they did not try their darndest to come back in this game.  And come back they did.  Journeyman Miami wide receiver Willie Richardson caught only two passes in this game, but one of them was good for a fourth-quarter touchdown from seven yards out.  The Dolphins were now trailing just by a 21-14 score.

    Unfortunately for Shula and his Dolphins, they were unable to recover their subsequent on sides kickoff attempt after Richardson’s score, and the game ended.  The Raiders would once again advance to another championship game, while Miami would go back to Florida, nursing their wounds.  But the Dolphins gained a lot of experience in this, their first-ever playoff game.  It would be an experience that would take even further during the next few years…all the way to the Super Bowl.

    Miami Dolphins' Super Bowls of the 1970s

    Enjoy these “unheralded games” from the 1970s?  The Dolphins made the list twice.  And speaking of the Dolphins in the 70s, you can learn about their visit to the Super Bowl 3 times in a row.  Check them out below:

    More Posts From Pigskin Past

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