Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw played the game of his life today, throwing four touchdown passes and leading the Steelers to a 35-31 victory over Dallas in Super Bowl 13.
And while the defending champion Cowboys refused to die quietly, scoring two touchdowns in the final 2 minutes 21 seconds to rattle the bettors, they will forever remember this world championship as the game of the dropped pass and questionable tripping call.
The Steelers became the first team ever to win three Super Bowls, and could thank Bradshaw's 318 yards and four scores passing, both figures breaking Super Bowl records. He won the honor as most valuable player and his team regained American Conference supremacy over the National in the National Football League title game.
As usual, Bradshaw's main men were wide receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, the elegant end who drew a pass interference penalty on Benny Barnes -- that tripping call -- that will be widely debated for a long time. Swann also caught the winning touchdown pass, an 18-yard leaping catch that broke the game open midway through the fourth period. In all, he caught seven passes for 129 yards; Stallworth three for 115 yards and two touchdowns before missing nearly all the second half with a leg cramp.
The key dropped pass involved another classy receiver, 16-year-veteran tight end Jackie Smith. The old Cardinal had been rescued from retirement early in the season by the Cowboys, and he will become a private citizen again now with the memory of a dropped touchdown pass etched in his brain forever.
That deadly drop came when the Cowboys were threatening to create a 21-21 tie late in the third quarter. On third and three from the 10, Smith was wide open in the middle of the end zone.
Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach fired and hit him right in the hands as Smith skidded low to catch the ball. "I don't remember much about it, except I dropped it," a disconsolate Smith said.
"You just feel like you let a lot of people down. You're so disappointed in yourself. You can't redo it, so I don't know what to tell you. As the ball was coming, I was trying to get down to catch it against my chest. I guess I just wasn't in the right position."
Instead of a tying touchdown the Cowboys had to settle for Rafael Septien's 27-yard field goal that cut the Steelers lead to 21-17 with 2:36 left in the third period.
"Sure it was one turning point," said Cowboy Coach Tom Landry. "If we get that touchdown, our players would have been hopping up and down, really fired up. But that didn't lose the football game for us."
No, instead most of the Cowboys were pointing an accusing finger at field judge Fred Swearingen, who called Barnes for interfering with Swann on a long pass down the right side of the field with the score 21-17 and the Cowboys trying to get the ball back.
Televised replays indicated the Cowboy wrath was justified. Swann seemed to bump Barnes with an elbow before Barnes tripped on Swann's feet and Swann tripped over Barnes as the ball arrived.
"It was a judgment call on a pass play," Swearingen told a pool reporter after the game. "The two players bumped before the ball was even close to them, perhaps before the ball was thrown. They were both looking back and the defender went to the ground.
"The Pittsburgh receiver (Swann) in trying to get to the ball, was tripped by the defender's feet. He interfered with the receiver trying to get the ball. It was coming to him in that direction, and I threw the flag for pass interference."
Barnes disagreed, vehemently, both on and off the field.
"I was so hopping mad," he said. "I darned near cussed him (Swearingen) out and I came close to hitting him. I think he knew he was wrong. I had the right of way on the football. He (Swearingen) said I swung my foot back there. It was a stupid call."
Landry said: "I don't think it was a good call, because of the type of play it was. It was an alley oop, where both guys are going for the ball, and you'll have collisions on those things. If they pushed each other, there should be a call. If they didn't, they shouldn't. I don't think there was a push."
But for the Steelers, there was a big gain, 33 yards, and a vital first down at the Cowboy 23-yard line.
Said Swann: "My hands are clean. Sure he made the right call."
The Cowboys were squawking over another penalty a few moments later. On third and four from the Cowboy 17, Bradshaw was sacked by Thomas Henderson for a 13-yard loss. But officials had ruled the play dead for delay of game against the Steelers, a call that pushed the ball back only to the 22 instead of the 30, and gave Pittsburgh another third-down play, instead of a field-goal attempt of 47 yards.
"I didn't hear a whistle until after I had knocked Bradshaw down," said a subdued Henderson. "The same guy (Swearingen) made that call too. Who is that guy?"
The Cowboys knew who the fellow was who came bursting through the hole on the next play -- he had just exchanged words with Henderson -- but they still couldn't stop Franco Harris on a classic trap that went 22 yards for a touchdown. That made a 27-17 Pittsburgh lead with 7:10 left in the game.
The Cowboys gave the football right back on the ensuing kickoff. Tackle Randy White fielded a short Roy Gerela squib kick and was popped by Tony Dungy, 60 pounds lighter than White.
White was playing the game with a cast on his broken left thumb ("that's no excuse," he said later) and fumbled the ball. Dennis Winston recovered for Pittsburgh at the Dallas 18, and Bradshaw wasted no time taking advantage.
On first down, he sent Swann out on a quick slant. "They were doubling me," Swann said. "Barnes had me deep to the outside and (Cliff) Harris had me inside. I think he was waiting for a shorter pass so he could drill me. Instead, I just angled deeper and went by him. Terry made a perfect throw."
Swann made one of his gorgeous leaping catches in the end zone, Gerela added the extra point and the Steelers, on two touchdowns within 19 seconds, held a 35-17 lead with only 6:51 left.
The Cowboys kept swinging, getting on the board twice more -- driving 89 yards on a seven-yard Staubach to Billy Joe Dupree pass with 2:23 remaining and, after recovering an onside kick, producing a four-yard scoring throw from Staubach to Butch Johnson with 22 seconds to play.
But Rocky Bleier ended any Dallas hope of a miracle finish when he recovered Septien's next onside kick. Bradshaw fell on the football twice as the final seconds ticked down.
"Did I do all that?" Bradshaw asked innocently when someone showed him a statistic sheet.In all, he completed 17 of 30 passes for the 318 yards that broke the record of 250 yards set by Bart Starr of Green Bay in the Super Bowl against Kansas City.
Bradshaw had that record in the bank by halftime, when he had 11 completions for 253 yards, including touchdown passes of 75 yards (trying a Super Bowl record) and 28 yards to Stallworth. Bradshaw's seven-yard throw to Bleier on a rollout with 26 seconds left provided a 21-14 lead at intermission.
Bradshaw endured one very embarrassing moment, when linebacker Mike Hegman, with Henderson as a strong accomplice, stripped him of the football and ran 37 yards for a second-period touchdown for the Cowboys' only lead (14-7) of the day.
Bradshaw suffered a slightly sprained left shoulder on that play. The quarterback appeared woozy on the sidelines, but he came back and said afterward, "It certainly wasn't anything that was going to keep out of the game."
He assessed "I've never thrown the ball this well. Never ever." And Swann was saying the Steelers never have fielded a football team quite like this one, even in the 1974 and 1975 seasons capped by Super Bowl successes.
"It's probably the greatest season of satisfaction we've ever had," he said. "We feel the '78-79 team is the best team that ever played in Pittsburgh. We played better offense, we had a quarterback who has become a great leader and a defense that has always been something special."
And did Swann have anything special to say to Henderson, the chatterbox linebacker who had taunted Pittsburgh all during the pregame build-up, or Harris the safety who had threatened to knock his socks off if he dared catch the ball?
"I'm at that point where I could say you could probably blast every player on the Dallas team for opening their mouths," he said. "I'd just rather let the results talk for themselves."