Legendary Days: Clint Longley Saves Dallas On Thanksgiving

Within every team there are players harboring Walter Mitty fantasies about answering the call and stepping off the bench and having a great game in the absence of a star player. Yet rarely does it happen and even less so in an important game. Enter Clint Longley…

Clint Longley lets one rip.

In 1974 the Dallas Cowboys were a team in transition. This was the twilight as the stars faded from the team known as “Next Year’s Champions” and developing shooting stars which would see the Cowboys be anointed “America’s Team.” Running backs Calvin Hill & Walt Garrison, Hall of Fame DT and 1st draft pick in team history Bob Lilly, SS Cornell Green were all in their final season in Dallas. Even former starting QB Craig Morton who had been embattled in competing for the starting job for years with Roger Staubach had been dealt away in week 6.

The football gods would have Morton and Dallas meet again in an upcoming Super Bowl …*ahem* but that is another story for another time.

Yet this aging team staggered into their annual Turkey Day Bowl where they would face NFC East nemesis Washington. George Allen’s “Over The Hill Gang” was 4-3 with Tom Landry’s group dating back the last 3 years. One of which Dallas was Super Bowl VI champions and they split with the Redskins then. Where was the 1 win lead by Washington gained?? Knocking off the defending champion Cowboys in the 1972 NFC Championship Game 26-3.

So this team had Dallas number and they knew each other inside and out. In fact the Redskins had beaten Staubach and company 2 weeks before this fateful match-up.

When you look back this could have been the most important game in Cowboys history. Having leaned on a rookie that was one of Gil Brandt and the Cowboys’ brass “finds”, did it lend to a more relaxed attitude toward younger players?? Remember it was the next season in 1975 where they threw caution to the wind and they went into the season with 12 rookies on the roster. “The Dirty Dozen” and they made it all the way to Super Bowl X. This was when names like “Too Tall” Jones, Henderson, Randy White and Harvey Martin stepped to the fore leading to 3 Super Bowls in a 4  year period where they became known as “America’s Team.”

Another reason this game was so important in Cowboys history, the very next year Dallas found themselves in a hopeless situation in the ’75 playoffs in Minnesota. After converting a 4th and 17 to the 50 yard line with :44 left. Staubach hit Drew Pearson with “The Hail Mary” to win that game 17-14. Why are we mentioning this here?? Well Staubach asked Pearson to adjust the “16 route” to the same “in and up” referring to this famous touchdown the year before between Longley and Pearson. With this 2nd miraculous playoff finish (1st the comeback in 72 against San Fran) Staubach was now known for them and ascending to legendary status.

Upon further review, another of Gil Brandt’s finds came across this where you can see Longley must have been a special player at Abilene Christian. He was on the AP Little All America 2nd team right next to Walter Payton

Notice all the future Cowboys that came off this All America team from small schools.

Yet for one brief moment when America was watching, Clint Longley had one of the most improbable rags to riches individual Cinderella games in NFL history.

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Legendary Days: The 1981 NFC Championship Game – The Birth of Camelot

With Dwight Clark’s passing a few weeks back it was nearly impossible to not think back to his signature play and this game. The Catch ushered in an era where the 49ers became the NFL’s signature franchise and brought Dallas down a notch. A win 2 weeks later in Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac gave Bill Walsh the platform to showcase his genius, The West Coast (Paul Brown’s) Offense, and launch an era he coined “Camelot”. Joe Montana became one of the NFL’s newest faces and would dominate the decade.

Dwight Clark as he will appear forever in the minds of fans everywhere.

Going into the ’81 NFC Championship the 49ers were an organization that not only hadn’t won a championship in their 36 year history. They were 0-3 against Dallas in the postseason. Even worse is they had left 2 NFL Championships on the table by celebrating victory prematurely then succumbing to huge comeback defeats.

In 1957, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and the Million Dollar Backfield bolted to a 27-7 3rd quarter lead in a playoff with the Detroit Lions. Detroit battled back and won 31-27. Then in ’72, a revenge minded 49er team fresh from back to back defeats in the first two NFC Championship Games to Dallas jumped to a 28-13 3rd quarter lead. Amid the taunts and trash talk Landry replaced ineffective QB Craig Morton for Roger Staubach. In another classic meltdown Dallas stormed to win 30-28.

Each of these losses crippled the franchise as they went into a tailspin for a decade both times.

Now here was a 3rd trip to the summit for an organization fighting for respect. Why would this generation’s group get over the hump where previous teams had failed?? This was the dreaded Dallas Cowboys they were 0-3 against in the postseason.

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The Chancellor & former 49er Earl Cooper at PFHoF ’16

At the time Hall of Fame Coach Tom Landry was the Bill Walsh / Bill Belichick of his era having taken the Cowboys to the postseason 15 of the last 16 years. Not only had he won 2 Super Bowls, his teams was playing in a championship game for the 10th time with this tilt out in Candlestick. The NFL up to this time hadn’t seen this type of extended success. Not nearing 2 decades worth. Well a berth in Super Bowl XVI was at stake and all he had to do was get past this bunch of no names out in California. Consensus at the time by the national media cited that he would:

Eric Wright’s clutch tackle on Drew Pearson saved the game but Dwight Clark’s catch remains it’s signature. Prestige is much like momentum. You can’t exactly define it yet you know it once you feel it and see it. The mantle of prestige and esteem the Cowboys held transferred to the 49ers the moment Clark came down with the football. From that point on the buzz from NFL media in print and television began with Bill Walsh and his organization. His West Coast offense became the dominant offensive approach for the next four decades.

Epilogue:

For those of us old enough to have watched this game and remember those years it was a unique time in NFL history. A young Chancellor of Football was watching this frozen in -63 wind chill in Columbus, Ohio. These were bigger than life characters that were shaping how I viewed the game and learned of all those making history. When we lose Dwight Clark, who was one of those figures, a piece of us go with them. Things won’t be the same but thanks for the memories. Thankfully former 49er Coach Steve Mariucci shared this on Twitter.

Mariucci was a beneficiary of the prestige borne of The Catch. They were a well oiled and running dynasty 16 years in when he succeeded George Seifert in 1997. Hmmmm…isn’t that the same 16 year mark when Landry had the Cowboys in San Francisco back in ’81?? For irony…. Mariucci and the 49ers also lost the NFC Championship Game that year. Yet that story…can be told at another time.

Thanks for the memories Dwight Clark. RIP

Dedicated To The Memories of: Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Freddie Solomon, Bob McKittrick, John Ayers, Fred Quillan, Keith Fahnhorst, Ernie Stautner, Larry Bethea, Harvey Martin, Ron Springs, narrator Harry Kalas, Ed Sabol & Steve Sabol

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Legendary Days: The 1990 NFC Championship Game – The Death of Camelot

There is an old axiom when it comes to boxing when you hear someone say “styles make great fights” meaning opposing styles colliding provide great theater. Never was this more evident when it came to the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants of the 1980’s. The identity of the men from Gotham was a blood thirsty defense led by Lawrence Taylor, arguably the greatest defensive player ever. Joe Montana had ascended to legendary status as he led the NFL’s most efficient offense to 4 Super Bowl titles that decade. They would meet in a fitting crescendo that still has ramifications to this day.

Leonard Marshall clobbers Joe Montana and knocks him out of the 1990 NFC Championship Game. He doesn’t return to action until the final game of the 1992 season against the Detroit Lions.

If you travel to 1978 the Giants and 49ers met in what was a forgettable season for both. New York won 27-10 out in Candlestick during the 4th week. Yet they only won 3 games the rest of the stanza while San Francisco only won twice. Both began by hiring coaches in 1979 in Bill Walsh and Ray Perkins which set the course as each regime rose to prominence in the decade to come.

The next step was the selection of franchise quarterbacks, first Phil Simms in New York in round one and Joe Montana in the third. Each turned to the draft for the same spark on defense a few years later when the Giants selected LB Lawrence Taylor and Walsh’s selection of FS Ronnie Lott both in the 1st round in 1981.

Walsh and company ended an 8 year playoff drought with a 13-3 record and homefield advantage as Montana and company had come of age. New York defeated Dallas 13-10 to earn their first trip to the NFL postseason in 18 years. Then after a 27-21 upset of the defending NFC Champion Eagles in the wildcard round, New York was one step away from the NFC Championship Game and traveled west to face San Fran.

Going into it were the questions could NFL Defensive Player of the year Lawrence Taylor get to Joe Montana?? Could the finesse passing game take down the Giants’ hard rock defense?? Walsh’s team was shattering the NFL paradigm by passing first to set up the run. Contrary to popular belief was the fact it was San Francisco’s defense ranked #2 to the Giants at #3.

Montana was 20 of 31 for 304 yards for 2 TDs in a 38-24 win under the lights. Up next came the NFC Championship with Dallas & The Catch, then a Super Bowl XVI trophy and all the prestige that came with it. Walsh became the toast of the league and christened with his “genius” label. Joe became one of the faces of the NFL and would be one for the decade of the 1980’s.

Taylor was the toast of New York.

The vanquished?? Well New York Defensive Coordinator Bill Parcell’s unit collapsed giving up a season high 38 points. They had only given up 30 once the entire year up to that point. As is the case when teams come up short in the playoffs, their knocked off kilter for a couple of years. Parcells succeeded Perkins after a 4-5 season in ’82 and was nearly fired after a disastrous 3-12-1 rookie year in ’83. Yet all the while Walsh was one of the NFL’s faces as the 49ers bounced back and came within a couple bad penalties from winning the NFC Championship a 2nd time in 3 years. They fell to Washington 24-21 yet the media felt validated in the moniker they anointed Walsh with….”genius.”

Parcells bristled at the attention Walsh and the 49ers “finesse” approach to the game was getting. It only intensified in ’84 as they went 15-1 and threatened to go undefeated. New York rebounded as Phil Simms finally emerged from the shadows and became a 4,000 yard passer and the Giants returned to the playoffs. Another NFC playoff loss to Joe and the Niners 21-10 relegated the Giants to the NFL’s jr varsity as Walsh and Joe went on to hoist another Lombardi trophy.

However over the years Parcells kept building a team of brute force. Although they had been effective he drafted 6-4 240lb OLB Carl Banks who was a blue chip strong side ‘backer. Brought in 288 lbs DE Leonard Marshall to replace a 259lb Gary Jeter. He kept building upon his defense and relying on a straight forward power rushing attack.

Finally in the 1985 playoffs, the Giants #2 ranked defense held Montana and the 49er offense out of the endzone for the first time in a 17-3 Wildcard win at home. For the first time ever Parcells and the Giants beat the Niners in the 80’s and in the locker room he scoffed “What do you think now about that west coast offense?” In a bit of irony he wound up coining the name Walsh’s offense would come to be known forever.

However the Giants were manhandled in Chicago 21-0 on the road to the eventual champion Bears. Both teams were built in the same old school fashion. You win with brute force on the line of scrimmage with a heavy front 7 and a strong offensive line with an offense that relied on the run. Yet the Giants sent alarm bells off all around the NFL when they already had a strong defense yet spent their first 6 picks in the first 3 rounds all on defense.

They fortified their defensive line with 6’4 280 lbs DE Erik Dorsey, NT Eric Howard who stood 6’4 275, 250 lb ILB Pepper Johnson along with crafty CB Mark Collins who was nearly 5-10 200 lbs. Collins turned into one of the Giant defense’s greatest assets as he blanketed Jerry Rice and was the best in history covering him. This gave the Giants a tremendous advantage for years to come.

In the ’86 playoffs the Giants defense had come of age and starting with a 49-3 devastation in the NFC Divisional Round it became clear the pendulum had completely swung. Jim Burt knocked Joe Montana out with seconds to go in the 1st half as Taylor returned an interception 34 yards to swell the score to 28-3. In an embarrassing fashion Walsh’s squad was hammered into submission. Physically beat down unlike any game they had seen since they rose to prominence.

This forced the 49ers to finish what they started in the ’85 draft when they started drafting to fortify their lines and bigger running backs to deal with the Bears and Giants. In ’87 it took shape however it came to fruition as they won Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV after the ’88 and ’89 seasons. Walsh had stepped down after the XXIII championship and former DC George Seifert took over head coaching duties. Mike Holmgren and the 49er offense had elevated their offensive play to one of near perfection. Walsh’s legend only grew even in his departure for creating the offensive system which allowed his 49ers to become the team of the decade.

Going into 1990 pundits were debating not only were the 49ers the best ever team but was Joe Montana the best ever quarterback?? The same could be said of Jerry Rice as he had assaulted the record books and had also been a Super Bowl MVP. On their way to back to back championships they had set the NFL record with 18 consecutive road wins. Now they had the chance to win 3 straight Super Bowls where it would leave no doubt. They began the season with a 10-0 record and…

Waiting for them who also began 10-0 was the Giant team that had learned how to win from the 49ers and had taken it up a level. Now the more powerful rebuilt 49ers who had a 2-3 record (0-2 in the playoffs since ’85) staring them down. Were they lucky they hadn’t met the Giants in the playoffs in both ’88 and ’89?? Would they even have won back to back had New York had a shot at them??

In week 12 each team was 10-1 when they met in San Francisco on a Monday Night. In the 2nd highest watched MNF in history the 49ers beat the Giants 7-3 in a slugfest where the Giants inability to score a touchdown on offense did them in. In 3 shots inside the redzone they could only score 1 field goal. Yet to a man the Giants relished another shot at San Francisco. Finally they would have their chance in the NFC Championship Game. For the decade the record between the two stood at 2-2 and they would meet in the last chance to halt “Camelot’s” greatest procession into history.

 

In the collective gasp after the Leonard Marshall hit you knew everything had changed. The silence that befell Candlestick Park as Montana writhed in pain on the ground for several minutes was palpable. Unlike most games where the network would take a commercial break, a nationwide audience sat glued to the football version of a tragic event. The greatest ever quarterback whose nimble feet that had deftly dodged trouble in and out of the pocket forever in January’s past had been viciously taken down. The Camelot that Bill Walsh had so eloquently stated of that era ended in that moment. The final kick by Matt Bahr for the 15-13 win was just icing on the cake made by a ferocious defense in one of the greatest games in NFL history.

The era closed with the Giants holding a 3-2 edge in postseason games although the Niners were team of the decade. Over the next 26 years coaches from both sides made it to the Super Bowl 14 times with Bill Belichick (8) Tom Coughlin (2) Mike Holmgren (3) and Jon Gruden (1). This doesn’t include Bill Parcells’ 2nd Super Bowl triumph 1 week after this game vs Buffalo in XXV. Much has been made of the Bill Walsh coaching tree but take a look at the one stemming from Parcells’ group. Its second to none and it all started with a championship win over Camelot in 1990.

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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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