The Soul of The Game: “Mad Dog” Mike Curtis

Back when The Chancellor of Football was first developing his love for the sport, most of the stories of great players captivated me. When it came to the savagery of Mike Curtis it was also emblazoned by this photo.

Mike Curtis nearly beheads Roman Gabriel.

Mike Curtis nearly beheads Roman Gabriel.

This sack of Roman Gabriel completely captures the visceral side of pro football. Back then you had images like these that accompanied the stories made Curtis bigger than life in the Punt, Pass, and Kick book series. Ironically the Colts during his time evolved from being known as an offensive team into a defensive one.

Baltimore rose to prominence with the 1958 NFL Championship on the arm of Johnny Unitas. Yet as the 60’s were concluding Unitas was aging and the defense came to the fore. Never was this more prevalent than the 1968 season Unitas missed with an elbow injury and the Colts defense set the record for fewest points in a season with 144. Curtis, an All Pro Outside Linebacker was one of the leading reasons why.

In the vignette you can see Curtis aggressive tackling and hitting. You saw him head hunt on several tackles. All he cared about was getting the runner down.  His intensity is what led those Colts defenses. In fact he was the leader of one of modern history’s finest defense. In my series to find out the greatest defenses in NFL history, his 1971 Colts unit came in at #6.  They allowed the 2nd fewest yards per game mark in the NFL since 1970 with 203.7 yards. With only 140 points allowed, it would have been an NFL record had the ’69 Vikings not broken their old scoring record of 144 with 133.

Led by “Mad Dog” Mike Curtis, Fred Miller, Bubba Smith,  and Rick Volk, this was a record setting defense that was overshadowed and forgotten in the aftermath of Super Bowl III. Even though they came back and won Super Bowl V. Then made it to the AFC Championship Game and nearly made it to Super Bowl VI. They once held the record for fewest points allowed in a season and by 1972 held the #2 & #3 spots. They were led by their Hall of Fame Linebacker who was definitely a Soul Of The Game defender.

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SUPER BOWL VI CHAMPION 1971 DALLAS COWBOYS

By the way…”America’s Team” used to be called “Next Year’s Champions” ’til they won this ring in Super Bowl VI, 24-3 over the Miami Dolphins in New Orleans.

superbowlviThis ended an odyssey of multiple championship and playoff losses between the years of 1966-1970. The Green Bay Packers escaped Dallas twice in the NFL Championship games in ’66 and ’67. Losses to the Cleveland Browns in 68 & 69 kept the Cowboys from further glory. The worst was still to come…

Thanks to the merger in 1970, Dallas’ playoff nemesis Cleveland moved over to the AFC where they struggled. Dallas had played the Vikings in the 1968 Playoff Bowl in Miami and knew they could handle them, yet they were struggling too. One of the new pieces Dallas added to the puzzle was Duane Thomas, a slashing, elusive runner who provided a missing element to the Cowboys arsenal. However the Cowboys were intact with a veteran laden team and seemed destined to ascend to their first world championship. So what happened?

Well they made it to Super Bowl V in Miami where they faced the Baltimore Colts, another team that had moved over to the AFC. These two pre-merger NFL antagonists were embroiled in a defensive struggle where Dallas clearly outplayed the Colts and were poised to take a 20- 6 3rd qtr lead when Duane Thomas fumbled at the 1 yard line. Are you kidding me, the 1 yard line? Nothing demoralizes a team than to drive the length of the field& come away without points, especially, in a game where they’re hard to come by.
You can’t hurt your team worse than that Duane. The silent treatment that followed in 1971 was something Duane put everyone through when he didn’t get a raise from Tom Landry / Gil Brandt, who remembered that fumble. How can a player who ….sigh…you get the picture.

super-bowl-logo-1971The defense, which had a series of let downs in previous championship games played brilliantly. Doomsday knocked Johnny Unitas out of the game, in fact the Colts first touchdown was a fluke double tipped pass. They even blocked the extra point and kept the Colt point total to 6 until deep in the 4th quarter. Chuck Howley (Super Bowl V MVP & only time losing player received the award) and the Cowboys defense forced 7 turnovers yet the offense could only eek out 13 points to lose on a last second field goal 16-13.

superbowl-trophyNow comes the day, Super Bowl VI, football’s version of the Brooklyn Dodgers (many times the bridesmaid) finally has their day in the sun. This time they had an ace up their sleeve. Just like young ace pitcher Johnny Podres of those Dodger teams, the Cowboys had Roger Staubach who was unburdened by those losses since it was Craig Morton (Super Bowl V) and Don Meredith quarterbacking those other 60’s playoff defeats.

It was Johnny Podres that finally pitched the Brooklyn Dodgers past the Yankees for the ’55 World Series after 8 years of championship disappointment. In winning Super Bowl VI for Dallas, Staubach ended a 6 year odyssey for the Cowboys.

The Cowboy’s defense that day held the Dolphins (who would go on to win the next two Super Bowls including an undefeated season) to just 3 points and Duane Thomas didn’t fumble at the 1, he scored from the 3. Couple touchdown passes from Staubach to Mike Ditka and Lance Alworth and the Cowboys finally clutched the prize.

I never heard it expressed but I would suspect that the chase to get that championship made obtaining this one sweeter than a team winning it without those near misses. I do remember Bob Lilly describing in “America’s Game” that the day after Super Bowl VI he felt empty. That the chase was over and the greatest day of his life as a football player was over. Aside from losing the ’72 NFC Championship game to the Redskins the week after the famous playoff comeback vs. the 49ers, it seems that could be said for the Dallas roster that had been fighting to win it all since the mid 60s.

Did they get old? maybe…They exhausted their tank in that win over the Miami Dolphins and shedding that label…”Next Year’s Champion’s” Looking at Dave Edwards pic wearing his ring…you can seriously see the pride in the accomplishment.

Dedicated to Dave Edwards & Tom Landry..

SUPER BOWL V RUNNER UP 1970 DALLAS COWBOYS

Well they made it to Super Bowl V in Miami where they faced the Baltimore Colts, a former NFL team that had moved over to the new AFC. These two pre-merger NFL antagonists were embroiled in a defensive struggle where Dallas clearly outplayed the Colts and were poised to take a 20- 6 3rd qtr lead when Duane Thomas fumbled at the 1 yard line. Are you kidding me, the 1 yard line?

sbv4Nothing demoralizes a team more than to drive the length of the field & come away without points. Especially, in a game where they’re hard to come by.
You can’t hurt your team worse than that Duane. The silent treatment that followed in 1971 was something he put everyone through when he didn’t get a raise from Tom Landry / Gil Brandt, who remembered that fumble. How can a player who ….sigh…you get the picture.

The defense, which had a series of let downs in previous championship games played brilliantly. Tom Landry’s defense knocked Johnny Unitas out of the game, in fact the Colts first touchdown was a fluke double tipped pass. They even blocked the extra point and kept the Colt point total to 6 until deep in the 4th quarter.

super-bowl-logo-1970If ever a team left a great defensive effort on the field, this was it. Has there ever been another NFL championship, or Super Bowl, where a team held its opponents two QBs to less than 50% completion rate and lost the game?? The Doomsday Defense forced 7 turnovers. Three of these were interceptions, two by MVP Chuck Howley.

Twice they stopped Colt scores in the red zone. In the 4th quarter!!  One was an end zone interception by Howley at the start of the period. The other when S Cornell Green forced Eddie Hinton to fumble at the same 1 yard line Duane Thomas had in the 3rd. They had finally broken the Colts offense until their anemic offense gave the game away with Morton’s interception. You could feel the angst when Bob Lilly threw his helmet after Jim O’Brien winning field goal.  Had they brought a semblance of an offense they would have won this game.  They would have to wait another year for a chance at the title.

SUPER BOWL V CHAMPION 1970 BALTIMORE COLTS

When you think of the old Baltimore Colts, the first flashback that comes to mind are the black and white films with Johnny Unitas leading the team in the 1950’s. Then another thought stirs up images of Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell and the mid 1970’s version with Head Coach Ted Marchibroda. You follow-up that thought with the green and yellow Mayflower trucks moving the team to Indianapolis in the middle of the night in 1984. Yet sandwiched between the first and second of these events is the most forgotten champion in modern football history. The 1970 Baltimore Colts.

The bauble won for becoming the first champion of the post AFL/NFL merger.

The bauble won for becoming the first champion of the post AFL/NFL merger.

There are varied reasons why this team is so overlooked when you think of this franchise.  Did you know this is the only Super Bowl winner where the franchise was sold just one year later?? Before the 1972 season, Robert Irsay (Los Angeles Rams) and Carroll Rosenbloom swapped franchises.

Carroll had one of the most successful tenures as an owner in NFL history. Yet after losing Super Bowl III, one of the landmark games in league history, he lost Head Coach Don Shula to the Miami Dolphins after the 1969 season.

The last ring won by John Constantine Unitas and Carroll Rosenbloom.

The last ring won by John Constantine Unitas and Carroll Rosenbloom.

So is it ironic or part of the story that his last game as Colts owner, was a 21-0 loss to Shula’s Miami Dolphins in the 1971 AFC Championship Game?? Another twist was it was played in the Orange Bowl which had been the site of Super Bowl III.

Another reason this champion wasn’t remembered is there wasn’t a main powerful character. Yes the Colts had an aging fading John Unitas at quarterback. In 1970, he finished with a career low 51.7% completion percentage, and was the only qb to win the Super Bowl in a year he threw more interceptions (18-14) than touchdowns. He was 3 seasons removed from 11 straight Pro Bowl seasons and 5 player of the year awards.

By this time he was getting by on inspiration and finding the touch at the right time. As was the case in the first ever AFC Championship Game. Clinging to a 20-17 lead late in the 4th,Unitas had reserve WR Ray Perkins motion from the backfield and lofted a perfect sideline floater just past Raider CB Nemiah Wilson for the decisive touchdown. It was the only touchdown he threw in the game as he went 11 of 30 for 245 yards.

Super Bowl V was the first NFL championship game not played on natural grass.

Super Bowl V was the first NFL championship game not played on natural grass.

It was echoed in Super Bowl V as he went 3 for 9 for 88 yards with 2 interceptions and 1 TD before being knocked out of the game. The lone touchdown was the bizarre 75 yarder to John Mackey where the ball bounced from Colt Eddie Hinton and Cowboy Mel Renfro first. So the late Earl Morrall had to come off the bench to save the Colts season just as Unitas tried to in Super Bowl III.

The game was played at a frantic pace with 11 total turnovers in what was nicknamed The Blunder Bowl. The Colts outlasted the Dallas Cowboys, they didn’t beat them. A last second interception by Mike Curtis put them in position for Jim O’Brien to win it with a field goal 16-13.

Another reason they weren’t remembered were they were coached by the late Don McCafferty. He was the hand picked successor once Don Shula departed for Miami having been the long time Offensive Coordinator. By the time we make it to 1972 the Colts were winless in their first five games. General Manager Joe Thomas wanted Unitas benched. When McCafferty refused he was fired.

super-bowl-logo-1970Less than 1 1/2 years after winning Super Bowl V, Carroll Rosenblom was no longer the owner, John Unitas was no longer the quarterback, Don McCafferty was no longer the coach, and the magic was gone from 33rd Street in Baltimore. The romantic era starting with the 1958 NFL Championship Game win over the Giants, ended with the 1971 AFC Championship loss in Miami.

In many ways the Super Bowl V championship had a lifetime achievement feel more than a best of the league feel. Would they have won Super Bowl VI had they rematched with the Cowboys?? How different would have Don McCafferty’s legacy been had they won it? As a matter of fact, the Dolphins split their games with the Colts in 1970 and 1971. Would the Colts even make it to Super Bowl V had the Dolphins been able to get past Oakland in the ’70 playoff game??

Epilogue: Carroll Rosenbloom’s Rams won the NFC West 5 times from 1973-1978 but lost the NFC Championship 4 times. He died from a heart attack and drowned before the 1979 season when the Rams did make it to Super Bowl XIV. Which left the team to his wife…. Georgia Rosenbloom who later remarried. Georgia Rosenbloom-Frontiere.

Don McCafferty died of a heart attack in 1974 after he had coached the Detroit Lions for one season.

John Unitas remains one of the greatest players in NFL history and was the first to throw for more than 40,000 yards. A staple at Baltimore Ravens games well into the 2000s. Unitas passed away on Sept 11th, 2002.

Bubba Smith, the giant Defensive End  passed away in August 2011. Smith played the majority of his career in Baltimore and stated in 2007 “Super Bowl III, I still haven’t gotten over it.”

Earl Morrrall, the journeyman quarterback who was player of the year in 1968 with Unitas out. Was with the team when they lost Super Bowl III. Afterward he would duplicate his 1968 with a great performance leading the Dolphins to the undefeated season in Bob Griese’s absence. He won 2 more Super Bowls (VII & VIII) with Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins. Morrall died last month on April 25, 2014.

To these men I dedicate this article to… they were a champion. NFL champions for 1970.

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Top Ten Super Bowl Games

When it comes to Super Bowl games, is it a curse or a blessing to have the last game of the season be great?  Funny how those games tend to give me the worst levels of anxiety from football withdrawal once they’re over.  This list is about the games that were the most exciting that left you wanting more football.  One where the outcome was in doubt

  1. Super Bowl XXXVIII- Patriots 32 Panthers 29:  Best ever played! We had a 0-0 defensive slugfest going when Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme gave us a preview of the 4th quarter each throwing TD passes for a 14-10 halftime score.  Then the defenses were getting ripped apart as each team scored  three times in the highest scoring quarter in Super Bowl history with 37 points.  Five TDs in the 4th quarter?? This was epic! In Carolina’s case it was 3 TDs which included a record 85 yard TD from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad.  Brady set record for completions with 32 of 47 for 354 yards and 3 TDs for the game with Delhomme 16 of 32 for 323 yards 3TDs and get this, a higher QB ranking.  Adam Vinatieri won it with a last second field goal but this one took your breath away.
  2. Super Bowl XXXII-Broncos 31 Packers 24: Remembered for John Elway finally becoming a champion came in one of the hardest hitting Super Bowls of all time.  Terrell Davis rushed for 157 yards and 3TDs in an MVP performance while Dorsey Levens ran for 90 yards for Green Bay.  Brett Favre kept firing back and threw for 3 TDs and the game came down to its final play.
  3. Super Bowl XLIII- Steelers 27 Cardinals 24: Cardinals in the Super Bowl?  Oh, sorry about that.  This game had wild swings of momentum and the best finish ever. Once Arizona figured out how to move the ball on Pittsburgh’s #1 ranked defense, they were poised to take a 14-10 lead when James Harrison intercepted Kurt Warner and rumbled 100 yards for a TD on the last play of the first half.  Steelers 17-7 was the 14 point swing here.  Larry Fitzgerald got hot, catching 7 for 147 and 2TDs including a 64yarder to give the Cardinals their first lead with 3:24 left in the game.  Then Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes answered for the Steelers with a drive and then touchdow for the ages.  Holmes back of the endzone toe tap catch with :10 left was the best game winner ever.
  4. Super Bowl XXV- Giants 20 Bills 19: The drama came down to a final missed field goal, but the escapism this game provided the country at the outbreak of the Gulf War was tremendous.  Contrasting styles of the methodical, plodding Giants and the K-Gun flash of Buffalo made it interesting also.  New York played keep away by possessing the ball for over 40 minutes.
  5. Super Bowl XIV- Steelers 31 Rams 19: You have to admit when you were watching this game it was like the Steelers couldn’t make the Rams go away.  Backup Vince Ferragamo and the Rams stood toe to toe with the defending champions and wouldn’t flinch.  Halfback option passes for touchdowns, 10 plays of 20 or more yards including 5 plays of 39 or more. This game had 1 tie and 7 lead changes!  Terry Bradshaw shook off 3 interceptions and took a 4th quarter lead with a 73 yard TD to John Stallworth, then came back to him for a 45 yard gain to set up the last touchdown.  The latter came after the Rams were driving to retake the lead and Lambert picked off Ferragamo inside his own 20.
  6. Super Bowl XXIII- 49ers 20 Bengals 16: Best showcase of safeties in a game of defense.  David Fulcher of Cincinnati and Ronnie Lott of the 49ers were all over the place with Fulcher playing the better game. With a sack, a forced fumble, a touchdown saving tackle at the 2 which resulted in a missed field goal, and 7 tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. Fulcher was the game’s MVP had it not been for Jerry Rice’s heroics.  After losing Tim Krumrie to a broken leg the Bengal defense put in a Herculean effort to hold back the 49ers but Joe Cool prevailed again. Montana threw for 357 yards and led the famous 92 yard TD drive in the waning seconds to win it.  What would have happened had Lewis Billups not dropped that interception in the 4th quarter?
  7. Super Bowl XIII- Steelers 35 Cowboys 31: The battle of champions with the winner to be crowned Team of the Decade for the 1970s and the first Super Bowl to conclude in prime time. This time Dallas was the defending champion and we had the highest scoring first half in Super Bowl history with 35 points (Steelers 21-14 lead), longest TD with Stallworth’s 75 yard TD from Terry Bradshaw, surprise defensive TD with Hollywood Henderson and Mike Hegman.  The famous dropped TD pass of Jackie Smith was a signature play but the Cowboys started to really move the ball on Pittsburgh in the 4th scoring two late TDs.  It was Bradshaw’s first 300 yard passing game and both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were the first tandem to go over 100 yards in the same Super Bowl. Game had everything and I haven’t talked about Staubach, Dorsett, Tony Hill or Franco Harris yet.
  8. Super Bowl XXXIV- Rams 23 Titans 16: Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf with Marshall Faulk  were on the edge of blowing out the Titans, but couldn’t do it.  The scrappy Titan defense kept forcing them to try field goals instead of the accustomed “Bob and Weave” TD celebration.  The late Steve McNair and Eddie George finally got going in the second half and in a game of the tortoise and the hare started their methodical comeback.  Dominated the second half in points and time of possession, rallied to tie it at 16-16.  Yet MVP Warner then threw a 73 yard TD to Isaac Bruce to take a lead that would come down to the frantic last Titan drive.  The imge of Kevin Dyson stretching for that last yard being tackled by Mike Jones is burned into the memory.
  9. Super Bowl X- Steelers 21 Cowboys 17:  The best of the first ten Super Bowls by far.  All except with that “Up With People” halftime show…yikes!! “Hollywood Henderson” , a linebacker on a reverse with the opening kickoff??  Almost broke it too had Roy Gerela not made the tackle and bruised his ribs.  Doomsday shut down Franco Harris, yet couldn’t stop MVP Lynn Swann whose 4 catches for 161 yards and a 4th quarter TD.  The Steelers kept missing field goals and the game remained close.  The defenses held the offenses in check but Roger Staubach was able to hit Drew Pearson on the first TD allowed by the Steelers for the entire 1975 season.  The Steelers sacked him seven times but Roger kept firing until the bitter end.  Pittsburgh gave the ball to the Cowboys on downs allowing 3 shots from midfield for the win.  The final pass intercepted by Glen Edwards as time expired.
  10. Super Bowl V- Colts 16 Cowboys 13: This game had to be fun to watch. It was like a drunk on rollerskates.  Eleven turnovers, Johnny Unitas knocked from the game. Duane Thomas fumbled at the goal line when Dallas could have taken a commanding lead.  Johnny Unitas’ 75 yard touchdown to John Mackey bounced off two other players.  A 4th quarter come from behind victory by the Baltimore Colts based off of interceptions by “Mad Dog” Mike Curtis and Rick Volk setting up the Colts in Cowboy territory for a Tom Nowatzke TD and last second field goal by Jim O’Brien.  How could anyone have watched this game and had a clue who would win. LOL  Now get this for the last bit of humor; Chuck Howley, Cowboys linebacker wins the MVP and was on the losing side of the ledger and wouldn’t accept the award.  Bubba Smith, Colts defensive end refuses to wear the ring, and Bill Curry who played center said he looks upon his ring with “mixed feelings”.  Laughably sloppy… one day I’ll sit down and watch it since I was one at the time.