Legendary Days: The Freezer Bowl- 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor perspective at -59*.  Do you realize that is 90* below freezing?? This was where Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed for good and became the ultimate lesson on why achieving home field advantage is so important.

It was a hard earned lesson and we covered this in the championship rings for Cincinnati… so this one is being told from the Chargers’ perspective

Head Coach Forrest Gregg carried off by his Cincinnati Bengals players.

One man happened to be involved in both games.  Hall of Fame Tackle Forrest Gregg started for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he went into coaching where he was the Bengals head man when they advanced to the ’81 AFC Championship Game. The winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI in frozen Pontiac Michigan, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

A frozen Dan Fouts.

Coming into 1981 the San Diego Chargers had been the vanguard of the new passing offenses that dominated with the rules of 1978, which liberalized the passing game. Head coach Don Coryell had revived the passing attack with many of Sid Gillman’s principles from the old AFL Chargers and forged a passing game that became the scourge of the league.

Now the head slap was outlawed on the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass protection, and receivers weren’t allowed to be hit after 5 yards. Offenses had been liberated from the thunderclap of defense which had dominated both the AFL & NFL since the mid 60’s.

Dan Fouts became the 1st QB to challenge and break Joe Namath’s all time record 4,007 yards passing when he broke it with 4,082 in 1979. Then he pushed it to new heights throwing for 4,715 yds in 1980, and finally 4,802 in 1981. However his Charger teams fell short of greatness by short circuiting in the playoffs. First they stumbled in a mind numbing 17-14 upset loss at home to the Houston Oilers in ’79, then again to the arch rival Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC Championship Game.

Also a loss at home in sunny San Diego. In all reality this team was losing it’s prime and not capitalizing on the championship window that was before them.

Armed with 3, 1,000 yard receivers in TE Kellen Winslow, WR Charlie Joiner, and now WR Wes Chandler, it was interesting to watch individual battles. Fouts led the league with 33 TDs, the late Chuck Muncie led the league with 19 rushing TDs to go with his 1,144 yards and James Brooks had nearly 900 yds from scrimmage and 6 more scores. Nevertheless they fell to 10-6 and had to go on the road in the ’81 playoffs.

One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 76* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 divisional thriller. The other was The Catch in the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas the following week. Yet earlier on January 10, 1982 San Diego’s 2nd straight road affair took them to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time.  There were heated buses outside Riverfront Stadium in case fans needed to get warm. A Sports Illustrated article the following week reported 43 fans suffered heart attacks at the game.

Temperature difference withstanding, the divisional game against Miami went into 6 quarters in high humidity, so the Chargers were exhausted.

It was the end of an era for Charger power. Sure they made the playoffs in 1982 but so did everyone else in the strike shortened year where 16 teams were in a single elimination tournament. Proof?? They beat a Pittsburgh team in the 1st round that had been shut out twice by non playoff teams. In one of them they lost to Buffalo 13-0 and finished the day with -2 yards passing. Yes that is with Terry Bradshaw….yet I digress

Age and injuries caught up to the Chargers as well as AFC West opponents to their air attack. John Elway and Marcus Allen came in and the balance of power shifted toward the Broncos and Raiders. In 3 of the next 5 years, Fouts watched those teams play on the Super Bowl stage he so desperately wanted to lead the Chargers to. He retired after the 1987 season and when you look back to the 2 AFC Championship Games lost it was this one that produces the most what ifs.

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Legendary Days: Ken Stabler’s Last Great Comeback

A few short weeks ago we lost Ken Stabler and it was felt by football fans everywhere. In my article describing why he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I cited the great moments he had as one of the reasons. He had so many famous 4th quarter finishes they had nicknames: The Holy Roller, The Sea of Hands, and The Ghost To The Post to name a few. However the one most people forgot about was his last great comeback.

Stabler celebrating a score in Super Bowl XI.

Stabler celebrating a score in Super Bowl XI.

John Madden, Fred Biletnikoff were gone and many holdovers from the 70’s were being phased out in 1979. Tom Flores was now the coach and Oakland was about to miss the playoffs for the second straight year. Only the second time this had happened in 12 years. They traveled to New Orleans where both teams at 7-6, clung to fading playoff hopes.

The Saints had a shot at finishing with their 1st ever winning season. They had Pro Bowlers in QB Archie Manning, RB Chuck Muncie, TE Henry Childs, and WR Wes Chandler. Now on a Monday Night they were going to show the nation and the rest of the NFL they were to be taken seriously. They came out firing and took a 28-14 halftime lead on Oakland. The Raiders looked like an aging team as the Superdome was raucous from the 1st half heroics, then it got even louder early in the 3rd quarter:

…and just like that Stabler brought the Raiders back from 35-14 to the greatest comeback win in Monday Night history 42-35.  The Snake had gone 26 of 45 for 295 yards and 4 touchdowns, 3 of which were thrown in the 4th quarter alone.  On a Monday night in December 1979, Stabler turned back the clock with an unbelievable performance.

RIP Kenny Stabler

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Mark Clayton’s Magic Night

When you mention receiving records in the NFL, the name that sits a top several categories is Jerry Rice. However there have been great performances and incredible stats gathered by other receivers. What gets lost are the records that were broken by others just before Rice came into the league.  One such record was set by Mark Clayton of the Miami Dolphins.

Clayton on his final touchdown romp.

Clayton on his final touchdown romp.

You need to understand the Dolphins had played in Super Bowl XVII at the end of the 1982 season. The late David Woodley struggled in the second half of that loss completing just one pass. The following draft Don Shula moved to upgrade not only his quarterback, Dan Marino in the 1st round, but began to look to upgrade one of the league’s slowest receiving corps in the draft. Clayton was selected in the 8th round from Louisville in the same ’83 draft.

Thus began the genesis to one of the NFL’s greatest offenses. Clayton began slowly as a reserve catching just 6 passes in his rookie year. He teamed with fellow reserve WR Mark Duper to form the core of what would be Shula’s new passing game. All three played with a chip on their shoulder all year long as they assaulted defenses on a week to week basis. While Marino shattered the all time record for touchdowns thrown in a season, he was within 58 yards of Dan Fouts yardage record going into the finale vs. Dallas.

Overshadowed by the records Marino was eclipsing, Clayton entered the finale just 2 touchdowns shy of an even longer standing record. Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch’s record of 17 TD receptions which had stood since 1951. He would have to do it against a Dallas Cowboy team that needed a win to make the playoffs.

Clayton had scorched the NFL’s 7th rated pass defense for 4 recpts 150 yards and 3 touchdowns. His two 4th quarter touchdowns allowed him to set the new record at 18 TD receptions. . His record stood until Rice broke it in 1987. Then Randy Moss pushed the record to 23 in 2007. In fact only Sterling Sharpe in 1994, Rice, and Moss are the only receivers to amass 18 touchdowns in a single season. Just 4 receiving seasons in 65 years.

Clayton, Duper, Marino

Clayton, Duper, Marino

Clayton’s 1984 season of 78 rec. 1389 yds 18 TDs was among the greatest in history. He had a good career with 5 Pro Bowl seasons, 5 – 1,000 yard seasons while finishing with 582 catches 8,974 yards and 84 touchdowns. He did leave his imprint on the game and his signature moment was his record breaking Monday Night in 1984.

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The Freezer Bowl – 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor at -59*. This was where  Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed.

One man that happened to be in both games was Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg. He was the starting Tackle for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he was the Head Coach of the Bengals in 1981 when they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. In a game where the winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

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From the perspective of the ’81 San Diego Chargers

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One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 81* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 thriller. The other was The Catch or the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas later that same day.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time. Cincinnati won the game and went on to Pontiac, Michigan to face the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. Yet it’s hard to forget -59* below zero.

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Thanksgiving Day 1980: Shortest Overtime in NFL History – Bears vs Lions

Once upon a time there was a championship team in Detroit. However that was back in the mid 1950s. For the next 25 years the Lions were one of the NFL’s bottom feeders. They made the playoffs only 1 time between 1957 and 1979.

Enter Billy Sims.

The 1978 Heisman Trophy winner was the Lions 1980 #1 draft pick. Billy Sims

The 1978 Heisman Trophy winner was the Lions 1980 #1 draft pick. Billy Sims

The Lions struck gold in drafting the former Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma. He hit the NFL running and the excitement the team generated had the entire Motor City abuzz.

After a 5-1 start, the Lions fell back to earth losing 4 of their next 6 games. Detroit’s mid-season swoon had begun with a 24-7 loss in Chicago. The Bears had been to the playoffs in 1979 but they came into Thanksgiving having lost 4 of their last 5 games. With the Lions 7-5 and the Bears 4-8, each team entered desperate to keep their playoff hopes alive.

So as the rest of America settled into turkey and stuffing, the Lions and Bears hit the field in the Silverdome. Would Detroit establish themselves as the team to beat in the NFC Central??  Or would the Bears right the ship and save their season??

In spectacular fashion the Bears had scored on back to back plays and overtime lasted all of :16 seconds. Thanksgiving dinners were ruined all over the state of Michigan. Athough the Bears swept the Lions they would finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs. The Lions were home for the postseason where 9-7 was not enough to get in either. The Minnesota Vikings stole the division on a Hail Mary.

Dave Williams scored 1 of his career 8 touchdowns in spectacular fashion in the shortest overtime in NFL history. If you’re going to be known for one thing, have it happen when all of America is watching.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Corey Dillon Belongs In The Hall of Fame

There are many NFL fans who miss true talents around the league and just focus on their team. That narrow focus can keep one from seeing a Hall of Fame talent at work. That doesn’t mean an overlooked player should miss the call to the hall if he doesn’t garner great media attention. It’s about what they accomplished on the field and how well their peers respected their exploits.

Dillon was a violent runner.

Dillon was a violent runner.

Did you know that at one point Corey Dillon owned the greatest single game rushing performance and the #6 performance in NFL history?? Not Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, LaDanian Tomlinson, nor Adrian Peterson or any great back you’ve ever watched accomplished that . Well, you have to be in your mid fifties at least to say you saw someone perform to that high a level. That was when OJ Simpson held sway in the NFL. You’d have to be in your fifties!!

Not only that, his 6th place (at the time) performance stood as the NFL’s rookie rushing record at 247 yards in a 1997 game against the Tennessee Oilers. That record Dillon broke had been Jim Brown’s. Each of these have since been broken but it was the manner in which they were set that sets them apart.

Unlike the shifty make ’em miss running style of most halfbacks, Dillon struck like the hammer of Thor. He was a passionate violent runner that thrived on contact. Once he positioned a defender to one side, he’d forearm, stiff-arm, or shoulder right through them. He made a joke of arm tackles and if you wanted to tackle him, your heart had better be in it.

Dillon's passion led to frustration as the Bengals piled up losses.

Dillon’s passion led to frustration as the Bengals piled up losses.

For years media pundits painted him with the broad brush of that of a malcontent. Yet let me ask: If you were one of the best talents in the league, how frustrated would you be with a team that couldn’t get you any help?? In 1999 Inside The NFL broadcast their show from Cincinnati asking “Why can’t the Bengals tun it around?? Were they the JV of the NFL??” They interviewed player after player and the only one whose eyes burned fire with frustration were Dillon’s.

For an instant you could peer into his soul and you understood him completely. For all the hard work to make it to the NFL, then play for a franchise that couldn’t field a better team. He was toiling in anonymity loss after loss. All those childhood dreams of playing in a Super Bowl were dying an agonizing death.

It looked like 2000 would be no different as the Bengals started out 0-6. They had only scored 34 points while being shut out 3 times when the Denver Broncos, just two years removed from back to back championships, came to town. The heavens opened up and the football god’s touched Dillon, allowing his fury to be unleashed in the greatest rushing display in NFL history.

Inside The NFL Perspective:

Did The Chancellor of Football say the greatest rushing display in the history of pro football?? Absolutely!! Listen, on a day when the Bengals completed just 4 passes, Dillon got off on a defense focused squarely on him. As for the record of 278 yards being broken twice by Jamal Lewis and Adrian Peterson, we will put them side by side in a minute. You have to remember the football world was still reeling from Walter Payton’s death. We were just 1 week short of the 1 year anniversary of his passing. As for the record comparison:

  • 2000 Corey Dillon 22 car. 278 yds 2TDs
  • 1977 Walter Payton 40 car. 275 yds 1 TD
  • 2003 Jamal Lewis 30 car. 295 yds 3TDs
  • 2007 Adrian Peterson 30 car. 296 yds 3TDs

However a closer look and Corey lost 6 yds on 6 of his carries. So in essence he ran for 284 yards in 16 carries or 17.75 yards per rush!!! Yikes!!! Best in history by a wide margin… It was Corey who wiped Jim Brown and Walter Payton from the record book, proving to a generation those records weren’t unbreakable. Payton’s record had stood for 23 years.

Dillon finished the 2000 season with a team record 1,435 yards rushing. Don’t forget he had two games against the  record setting Super Bowl champion Raven’s defense that ranked #2, and two more vs. Tennessee’s ranked at #1. What would he have done had he played in a less stout division defense-wise??

What would he have done behind a line like the Dallas wall with Larry Allen??

In 7 years he only played once with a Pro Bowl lineman.  That was T Willie Anderson in 2003. By then he was splitting time with Rudi Johnson. In that same year Chad Johnson (Ocho Cinco) made the Pro Bowl. Other than that he played with NO Pro Bowl players for all that time. In those circumstances he ran for 1,000 yards in 6 of 7 seasons. In stark contrast Emmitt Smith’s line had 16 Pro Bowl Linemen and TEs between 1991-1995 alone. But alas he was traded to the New England Patriots for a second round pick when he failed to rush for 1,000 in 2003.

What did the Patriots get??

Try the driving force for their back to back championship season of 2004. He wasn’t just a member of that team. Dillon ran for a Patriots team record 1,635 yards and 13TDs & was the closer for the best of the three champions in their dynasty. He had 9 100 yard performances that year and the playoff clinching win came against Cincinnati. Where he received the game ball from Bill Belichick.

The Patriots went on to win Super Bowl XXXIX 24-21 which validated the career of Corey Dillon. For his career he rushed for 11,241 yards and 82 TDs. Dillon is one of a select few to set the franchise record in rushing for multiple teams. As the argument heats up about the candidacy of other power runners like Eddie George and Jerome Bettis, neither showed the exhibition of power and speed Dillon displayed. Not to record breaking levels. He had 7 1,000 yard seasons and was a world champion. What could have become of Dillon’s career had he more talent around him??

One of history's best power runners.

One of history’s best power runners.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you Corey Dillon.