The Epic In Miami: San Diego 41 Miami 38 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff

With the NFL turning 100 this year, it’s impossible not to have great players, great coaches, or great games to look back on. The lasting image in the minds of fans everywhere was this epic shot of Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow being helped off the field by T Billy Shields and TE Eric Sievers.

It came at the conclusion of of one of the greatest games in NFL history and was the signature game in a Hall of Fame career.

Yet if we flashed you back to the early 1980’s the San Diego Chargers had the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL. The legend of “Air Coryell” had taken flight with Coach Don coming over from St Louis and took full advantage of the liberal passing rule changes of 1978.

Beginning in 1979 Dan Fouts set the NFL ablaze becoming the first QB since Joe Namath in ’68 to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. His 4,082 yards in ’79, 4,715 in ’80, and finally 4,802 in ’81 were all NFL records as the Chargers chased a championship. Fouts had the league’s best arsenal in acrobatic receiver John Jefferson, route running Charlie Joiner, and the aforementioned Winslow. This was the original “Greatest Show on Turf” as Charger games became all the rage to watch for their ability to score from anywhere at any time. The league struggled to defend them as:

  • The ’79 Chargers were 1st team since the ’70 merger to pass more than run (541 att/481 rush)
  • In ’79, Jefferson (61 rec/ 1,090 yds 10 TDs) & Joiner (72 rec /1,008 yds 4 TDs) became 1st set of 1,000 yd seasons in NFL history. Both made Pro Bowl
  • On 10/19/80 the Chargers were 1st team in history to have both WR and TEs over 100 yds in 44-7 win over NY
  • In ’80 became the 1st team in history with 3- 1,000 yard receivers (Jefferson 1,340 yds, Winslow 1,290, Joiner 1,132) All 3 were Pro Bowl & All Pro…also 1st in NFL history.
  • Chuck Muncie in 1981 set an NFL record with 19 TDs rushing.

Wes Chandler raced 56 yards for a score with a first quarter punt return. The score was 10-0 (SD)
Heinz Kluetmeier

Despite all the records the Chargers couldn’t win in the postseason. They fashioned a 12-4 record in ’79 which included a 35-7 pounding of the eventual champion Steelers. Only to lose 17-14 in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history to a depleted Oiler team. Vernon Perry intercepted Fouts a playoff record 4 times.

The Chargers bounced back in ’80 with an 11-5 record and homefield advantage where they bested Buffalo 20-14. Then fell at home in the AFC Championship 34-27 to the eventual champion Oakland Raiders.

Having fallen to the last two Super Bowl champions the Chargers were on the doorstep although the clock was ticking. Their championship window was closing and once the front office traded All Pro WR John Jefferson to Green Bay and Pro Bowl DE Fred Dean to San Francisco, it appeared shut.

Down in Miami, Don Shula had rebuilt the Miami Dolphins from the smash mouth back to back champions that won Super Bowls VII & VIII. Up until 1980 he still had Hall of Fame QB Bob Griese to lead his offense as a new “No Name Defense” emerged.

The Dolphins made the playoffs in ’78 behind Delvin Williams spectacular 1,258 yard season running the football. In that year Griese was injured for an extended period and the Dolphins won with backup Don Strock. He had a record of 5-2 while outperforming the vet tossing 12 TDs to only 6 interceptions. Griese had a more efficient season when it came to completion percentage and this hurt Strock.

He was hot & cold yet showed enough flash to get on the field but didn’t engender enough confidence to turn the offense over to him. When Griese returned from injury in ’78 and ’79 he always got his job back.

Then in 1980 Griese’s career ended with a shoulder injury early in the season. Shula worked in rookie QB David Woodley along with Strock as he searched for that perfect chemistry on offense. By this time Delvin Williams had moved on as Shula raised Larry Csonka from the dead and paired the two in the backfield to mixed results the season before.

Somehow in ’81 Shula willed the Dolphins to an AFC East title with “Woodstrock” and the combination of rookie FB Andra Franklin and solid RB Tony Nathan each rushing for 700 yards. This was a team of “no names” as Miami fielded only 1 Pro Bowl player on their entire roster in NT Bob Baumhower #73. Who were these guys??

This hodge podge group ranked 16th on offense and 15th overall on defense. It was a testament to Shula’s coaching they were even winning. Somehow they went 11-4-1 & made it into the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. Hosting a playoff game for the 1st time since 1973.

Their opponent would be the Chargers who were falling from the elite when they pulled a coup and traded for electrifying wideout Wes Chandler. On the strength of Dan Fouts’ record 4,802 yard season, the Chargers limped to a 10-6 record.

Limped?? Well yes their defense never recovered from the Fred Dean trade. In ’79 the Chargers were 5th overall in defense then were ranked 6th in ’80 while leading the NFL in sacks. Without their prime time pass rusher the Charger’s defense plummeted to a ranking of 27th. Consequently San Francisco, where Dean was traded to, rose to 2nd overall…yet I digress

Dean’s absence had an affect on both the Chargers defense in ’81 and what was about to happen as these two teams staggered into the ’81 AFC Divisional playoff…

 

A playoff game that nearly went to 6 quarters at 75* in high humidity that had everything. Multiple blocked field goals, a dramatic comeback from the home team after falling down 24-0 early. The Chargers fighting to stave off a valiant comeback only to have to make a dramatic drive themselves to tie it 38-38 just to go into overtime.

Fouts 433 yds passing was a playoff record until Bernie Kosar threw for 489 yards in an ’86 double overtime epic against the New York Jets.

Kellen Winslow’s 13 receptions established another as he went for 166 rec yards, 1 TD and the blocked kick to send the game into overtime. He left the game several times due to injury where he was suffering from cramps and dehydration.

Each team left it out on the field in one of the greatest games in NFL history. The toll it took on the Chargers having traveled cross country was immense. The following week they had to play in a 140 degree variance when they played the AFC Championship in Cincinnati at -59* wind chill. A game known as The Freezer Bowl. The coldest game in NFL history.

Hall of Fame Member Fred Dean & The Chancellor at the PFHoF in ’18. Ironically behind us was Dan Fouts & Kellen Winslow at a table.

The no name Dolphins had proven their mettle and would go on as one of the elite teams in the AFC, playing in 2 of the next 3 Super Bowls. As for the Chargers, the loss of Fred Dean had caused a season long collapse of their defense culminating in allowing Miami a season high of 478 total yards. It marked the 8th time San Diego’s defense allowed their competitors over 400 total yards in a game over the ’81 campaign.

Ultimately this spectacular game became the crowning jewel in the career of Coach Don Coryell and Air Coryell’s legacy. Having lost the ’80 and ’81 AFC Championship Games they fell back to the pack as other teams would rise to elite status. However this team was reincarnated as The Greatest Show on Turf resurrected their playbook winning Super Bowl XXXIV while becoming one of history’s greatest offenses two football generations later.

Yet this was The Epic in Miami… one of the great games in NFL history.

Dedicated to the memories of Don Coryell, Chuck Muncie, David Woodley, and Larry Gordon, Steve Sabol, and narrator Harry Kalas.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

 

Advertisements

SUPER BOWL XXIII RUNNER UP 1988 CINCINNATI BENGALS

Welcome to the second greatest turnaround in the history of the NFL…well next to the 1999 St. Louis Rams. Again…the question has to be asked: Can a team change its stripes?? From 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 and :34 seconds away from winning the Super Bowl…wow!! You have to realize this is before free agency where a star could be bought and brought in.

bengals headerThis team was led by a genius named Sam Wyche, easily one of my favorite coaches ever. And right before you scoff “He didn’t win a Super Bowl”. Don’t forget he was quarterback coach with a glistening Super Bowl XVI ring for coaching Joe Montana, ironically against the Cincinnati Bengals some 6 yrs earlier. So Sam Wyche is/was Bill Walsh the 2nd and I’ll explain.

Paul Brown owned and coached the Cincinnati Bengals and had Bill Walsh as his Offensive Coordinator, and Wyche was the heady backup quarterback. When Brown failed to make Walsh his successor he lost Wyche who joined Walsh in San Francisco and ironically they beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. Having been burned by not hiring his protégé’ and losing to him taught him a lesson. The next time Brown needed a coach he tapped into the Bengals past and brought back Sam Wyche, who had a keen offensive mind and unconventional ideas. So what turnaround am I speaking of?

Let’s take you back to 1987, where the Bengals had failed to live up to unfulfilled promise since Super Bowl XVI. They came close to making the playoffs in 1984 and 1986 yet failed to win on tie breakers in the last game of the season. Especially in 1986 when they drubbed the playoff bound Jets 52-21 in the finale. The Bengals went into ’87 with serious optimism yet kept being plagued with bizarre losses where the mistakes were blamed on their unconventional coach.

The most notable was in week 2, when beating the 49ers and Bill Walsh of all people, elected to run a play on 4th down rather than risk a punt block with 6 seconds left. Kevin Fagan (from the U) charged in and stopped James Brooks with 2 seconds to go. Montana hit Rice for a touchdown on the last play of the game. The 27-26 loss to San Francisco in Cincinnati cast a pall on the entire (4-11) 1987 season. Many losses when the unconventional coach had plays backfire in the 4th quarter earned the Bengals coach a nickname –“Wicky Wacky” Wyche and the team was the laughingstock of the league with reports that Wyche would be fired. He held on barely…

bengal sideEnter 1988, the mantra coined by Sam Wyche was ‘finish everything’, alluding to the 4th quarter collapses that doomed 6 Bengal games the year before. The draft brought a very important player…the talented and infectious Elbert “Ickey” Woods who teamed with James Brooks to help push the Bengals to the #1 offense in the NFL. More than anything, his touchdown dance “The Ickey Shuffle” and his personality changed the team chemistry from the doldrums of the year before.

Woods rushed for 1000 yards and 15 TDs. “Boomer” Esiason went on to be league MVP and his receivers Eddie Brown (The U) Tim McGhee and Cris Collinsworth were as effective as any trio in the league. Operating out of their “sugar huddle” and keeping opposing teams defensive specialists off the field, Cincinnati exploited mismatches to pile up points. They were the first team to play with a “no huddle” attack. On defense DT Tim Krumrie, OLB Reggie Williams, and SS David Fulcher were the undisputed leaders of an opportunistic defense. Throw in CB Eric Thomas, who made the Pro Bowl in ’88 and the late Lewis Billups made up a superior secondary along with FS and present NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots.

The team went from being a laughingstock to a 6-0 start and the league was reluctant to let go of the pigeonholed way they viewed both Coach Wyche and the team. Everyone was waiting for the Cleveland Browns and the Dawg Defense to overcome the injury to Bernie Kosar and catch them…yet no one could. The Bengals blew no 4th quarter leads and by the time they got to the playoffs they still weren’t respected.

Coach Wyche and his team that was laughed at the year before had become the scourge of the league. So much so that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle before Super Bowl XXIII ruled they weren’t allowed to run their “sugar huddle”. Why? Well because other measures were tried during the playoffs by Seattle faking injuries to get defensive replacements on the field. The Bengals still won 21-7 before besting Buffalo 21-10 in the AFC Championship.

Super Bowl XXIII, what a game? Would it have been a game had the Bengals not lost Stanley Wilson to a cocaine episode the night before the game? Would it have been a game if they could use their Sugar Huddle? Before you jump up and say no…don’t forget the ’88 49ers had a 6-5 record late in the season and only finished at 10-6 (worst record ever for a Super Bowl champion by the way) before getting hot in the playoffs. They were being held by a Bengal defense without a touchdown going into the 4th quarter.

bengals logoThat also includes losing Tim Krumrie to a severe broken leg in the 1st quarter. League against them, Niners against them…Stanford Jennings took back a kick 93 yards at the end of the 3rd quarter to give Cincy a 13-6 lead and they looked like they were going to be Super Bowl champs. Alas a Lewis Billups dropped interception on the following touchdown drive led to the 49ers scoring on the next play and eventually the game winning drive with :34 seconds left to play.

For the rest of my days I’ll forever believe Pete Rozelle cheated the Bengals and altered how the game would have been disallowing the “sugar huddle” in the Super Bowl.

They were 34 seconds away….from erasing a history that they didn’t deserve. Yet they did win the 1988 AFC Championship and I applaud them for an olympian effort to force the league to give them a respect that was earned.

Legends Of the Fall: James Brooks

From time to time you’ll find NFL teams trying to recreate what they once had and totally undervalue a current player on their roster. Never was this more evident than when the San Diego Chargers overreached for a big back to replace the aging Chuck Muncie. At first they signed late Ricky Bell who couldn’t stay healthy. Then they made one of the worst trades in NFL history, trading the multifaceted James Brooks to Cincinnati for FB Pete Johnson.

James Brooks burst onto the NFL scene in 1981 out of Auburn.

James Brooks burst onto the NFL scene in 1981 out of Auburn.

How lopsided was that trade in 1984?? Pete Johnson only played 3 games with the Chargers before being released. Brooks went on to play 8 seasons for Cincinnati gaining 9,459 combined yards and 64 touchdowns. During that time he ran for 1,000 yards on 3 occasions while compiling 5 seasons with over 1,200 yards from scrimmage. Not only did he make the Pro Bowl 4 times, he broke Johnson’s all time team rushing record and helped the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII.

Although they brought in another Auburn tailback in Lionel James, this was the end of the Air Coryell reign. Age and injuries derailed their effectiveness where Brooks played on with the Bengals through the 1991 season. Why would you trade a proven commodity that led the league in all purpose yards in his first two years?? One could speculate how Chargers ownership under Gene Klein was dreading impending contract demands. Don’t forget this was only 3 years removed from trading away WR John Jefferson and DE Fred Dean for the same thing.

JamesBrooks2Brooks was one of the toughest and most durable runners at 180 lbs in NFL history. His game was a speed game but he broke tackles when he ran inside traps. He took on linebackers and safeties. His best run ever was a 56 yard TD run against the Patriots in 1986 in which he broke several tackles and drug SS Roland James into the endzone.

James Brooks was a great performer whose numbers will fall just short of Hall of Fame consideration. His trade stands as a cautionary tale to GMs everywhere. He was one of a long line of Auburn running backs that came into the NFL starting with Joe Cribbs, himself, Lionel James, and Bo Jackson during the 1980’s. Yet it was Brooks who out rushed them all.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

’88 Cincinnati Bengals: What Is A Champion?? What Does One Look Like??

1988 AFC Championship Ring: Bengals 21-10 over Buffalo

Are you a champion only because you won the championship over your competition? Can there be another definition for one?? Are you to tell me that before 1985, Walter Payton wasn’t a champion? I remember Aeneas Williams firing up his Arizona Cardinals sometime around 1999, when he gathered his team and said “Champions aren’t born in the ring, they’re (only) recognized there”.  Why do I ask these questions, I think there are other definitions of a champion.  To show a champion’s will to win.  To not concede to the onslaught of another team even when you’re hopelessly behind. The greatest efforts of championship teams gone by weren’t games they won they were games that they lost.

On multiple occasions I heard Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith speak with the most pride on how they handled the ’94 NFC Championship Game.  They fell behind 21-0 in the last game before trying for the elusive Super Bowl 3-peat. Against the 1993 Pro Bowl defense (6 defensive signees) geared to stop them they fought on and came within a controversial call of coming back in that game, losing 38-28.

Jack Lambert and the Late Art Rooney Sr. spoke reverently of their beloved 1976 Steelers who did not win the Super Bowl.  This defense was the reason that the rule changes of ’78 took place to open the passing game. In an 8 game stretch to finish the ’76 season, the Steelers gave up only 28 points and shut out 5 of their last 8 opponents to catch the Bengals and make the playoffs. They lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Oakland Raiders 24-7 because BOTH Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, who each rushed for 1,000 yards in ’76, missed the championship game. Many including the Steelers themselves hold this team with a greater degree of pride than the 4 teams that did win it.

What are we getting at here? A champion is defined by the magnificence of their effort no matter the odds.  Our society loses sight of this from time to time.  Please don’t misunderstand this as though winning it all isn’t the ultimate, just saying that there are even greater stories of those who put in a monumental effort only to come up a tad short.  Yet they maximized all they could give…which is what we all teach to kids all over. Give all you can and that is all you can do… so without further adieu we bring you a story of one of those great champions in the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals.

SUPER BOWL XXIII RUNNER UP 1988 CINCINNATI BENGALS <————-CLICK LINK (Word 2007 Document)

This story is from an upcoming book.

Thanks for reading,

**TOMORROW’S ARTICLE: 2011 Minnesota Vikings preview**