For a moment, Roger Staubach pretended not to remember. Ever the gentleman, the Hall of Fame quarterback and Naval Academy graduate was in Denver last month on business, but he was not looking to remind Broncos fans that he destroyed their dreams thirty-four years ago.
“I don’t even remember that game,” he said with a smile when I asked about Super Bowl XII. “That was a long time ago. In Denver, I don’t like to talk about it.”
The nostalgia that surrounds the Broncos’ first trip to the Super Bowl tends to skip quickly over the final game. Up until then, 1977 was a magical year. The Orange Crush defense gave up the third-fewest points in the 28-team NFL and led the Broncos to a 12-2 record.
Veteran Craig Morton, in his first season in Colorado after being acquired from the New York Giants, provided stability, if not brilliance, at quarterback. He was named the Associated Press comeback player of the year after starting all 14 games at age 34. He had gone 2-10 as a starter for the Giants the season before, prompting widespread speculation that he was finished.
In Denver, his offense was built on a four-headed running game consisting of Otis Armstrong, Lonnie Perrin, Rob Lytle and Jon Keyworth. But Morton also threw for 14 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, improving his passer rating from 55.6 the year before to 82.0.
When the Broncos reached their first Super Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 15, 1978, they met Staubach’s Cowboys in a championship matchup of quarterbacks who had been rivals for the Dallas starting job several years before.
“Playing against Craig, I was really uncomfortable,” Staubach said. “We came out of college together. We actually played in the College All-Star Game. Four years later, I joined the Cowboys. Don Meredith retired and Craig took over. He was good to me. He had some injuries, we battled back and forth and I got a chance to start. He was a starting quarterback too, so it could have gone either way.
“I got the chance to stay in Dallas. He went to the Giants and then went to Denver and had an MVP(-type) season. They were a great team with the Orange Crush. We were in that crazy dome. It was the first indoor Super Bowl, in New Orleans, in that dome, and it was loud. In the first quarter, we fumbled a punt on the 1-yard line. If Denver recovers . . . .
“So we actually got some turnovers from Denver. Our turnovers, it seemed like, we recovered. So the first quarter, even I — I mean, coach (Tom) Landry said, ‘Get these guys under control,’ and I said, ‘Hey coach, I gotta get under control. I can’t hear anything.'”
The game was a mess. Unaccustomed to the noise level of the Superdome, both teams played as if the ball was dipped in butter. Cowboys receiver Butch Johnson fumbled on the game’s first play, a double reverse, but recovered his own miscue.
As Staubach mentioned, wide receiver Tony Hill fumbled a Broncos punt at his own 1-yard line later in the first quarter, but he, too, fell on it before the Broncos could recover. Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett fumbled on his own 19 a few plays later, but center John Fitzgerald recovered.
The Broncos were not so lucky. Morton threw two early interceptions that led to Dallas scores and an early 10-0 lead. It could have been worse. Two more Morton interceptions led to failed field goal attempts by Cowboys kicker Efren Herrera.
Morton threw half as many picks in the first half as he had all season. Add three fumbles and the Broncos, who had been plus 12 in turnovers during the regular season, had an incredible seven giveaways by halftime on their way to a 27-10 loss. After nearly throwing his fifth interception early in the second half, Morton was replaced by Norris Weese.
“It just was our day and our defense played great,” Staubach said. “People love Craig Morton in Dallas. He’s a really good guy and he was a great player. Obviously, they were pulling for me, too, but it was a weird time in my life because I’m playing against a guy that left Dallas, so if we would have lost, it would have been even a double whammy for me. But we won and it was a good win for us. I mean, the Orange Crush had a great year that year.
“It was our second Super Bowl win. I’ve learned to be humble. I won two and lost two. (Terry) Bradshaw and the Steelers are a bunch of Taliban, actually. You’ve got to stay humble. But we had a really good team in ’77.”
Now 70, Staubach sold his real estate firm, The Staubach Company, to Jones Lang LaSalle four years ago. But he remains active in the business. It was a JLL event that brought him to Denver, where he and Peyton Manning regaled some of the firm’s clients with football talk and one-liners.
A year after their victory over the Broncos, the Cowboys went back to the Super Bowl with arguably an even better team. But they met the Steelers in the first Super Bowl rematch and lost to them for the second time, 35-31.
“I think about that a lot,” Staubach said. “It kind of determined the team of the ’70s. We were in five Super Bowls in the ’70s. I quarterbacked four of them. Actually, Craig was hurt a lot in that (first) game (Super Bowl V) when we lost to Baltimore on that field goal, 16-13.
“Pittsburgh was really a good team, and so were we. We were the only NFC team in the ’70s to win a Super Bowl. We won two of ’em. The AFC dominated, and then in the ’80s it changed with New York and San Francisco.
“There were a lot of key plays in the game, things that happened. One of the tough calls was that Lynn Swann interference call.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Cowboys defensive back Bennie Barnes was called for pass interference after he and Swann collided. Replays showed Swann ran into him. The Cowboys thought it should have been ruled incidental contact. The penalty gave the Steelers a first down at the Cowboys’ 23-yard line. Pittsburgh converted the opportunity into a touchdown, stretching its lead to 28-17.
“You can’t blame anything on the referees, by the way,” Staubach said with a smile. “But at that time we were kind of in charge. We had the momentum in the third quarter. It was 21-17. I threw kind of a low pass to Jackie Smith that would have tied the game.”
That turned into one of the more famous plays in Super Bowl history. Smith was a veteran tight end who had been named to five Pro Bowls earlier in his career as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. By Super Bowl XIII, he was a month from his 39th birthday. Wide open in the back of the end zone, his feet went out from under him as he dropped Staubach’s throw. A touchdown would have tied the game at 21. Instead, the Cowboys settled for a field goal and never got closer.
Staubach explained that when the play came in from the sideline he thought it was a mistake. The call was a goal-line play featuring three tight ends but the Cowboys had the ball at the 11-yard line. Staubach called timeout and walked to the sideline. Landry admitted the mistake, Staubach said. But, barred from changing personnel on the field without running a play, he decided to stick with the call.
From the goal line, the play called for Smith to run an 11-yard route to the back of the end zone. Had Smith run that route from the 11, he would have ended up right at the goal line and “the ball would have been right there,” Staubach said.
But with Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert blitzing, Staubach had to release the ball in anticipation of Smith’s move. Instead of turning at the goal line, Smith drifted toward the back of the end zone, closer to the position where he was supposed to end up when the play was run from the goal line. “He was all alone, nobody was anywhere near him,” Staubach recalled.
By the time Smith turned, the ball was on him, lower than he expected. His feet went out from under him and he dropped it. The play could have tied the game at 21. Instead, the Cowboys settled for a Rafael Septien field goal and never got closer.
“He just got killed for that,” Staubach said of Smith. “It was just a good game and it was a tough loss. The Steelers were a really good team. That was our best team. We had Dorsett. Besides Drew Pearson, we had Tony Hill and Butch Johnson, Billy Joe (DuPree). We had a great offense that year. We led the NFL in offense.
“So that really gave the Steelers the ’70s. Kind of put us into a ‘Really good team of the ’70s,’ but if you voted for the team of the ’70s, it was . . . what was the name of that team again? Oh, yeah, Pittsburgh.”
Staubach laughed. “No, they were really good. They beat us and it was a heck of a game.”
Long before head injuries became a serious legal liability for the NFL, Staubach’s career ended with his retirement after the 1979 season. He was still near the top of his game, having led the Cowboys to an 11-5 record with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But he had suffered multiple concussions and decided discretion was the better part of valor.
More than 30 years later, Staubach is mentally sharp with a dry sense of humor. I asked what he thought of all the lawsuits that have been filed against the league claiming inadequate treatment of and attention to head injuries.
“Well, I don’t think they did anything intentionally, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m not involved in any of these lawsuits. There’s like 80 of them or something like that in the NFL. It’s a serious issue with the litigation right now.
“I really didn’t have a thorough CAT scan until my last year, and I had eight concussions. They would test you out. I never went back into a game when I was knocked out. I’m talking about concussions where I’m knocked out. But I played the next week.
“Fortunately, I didn’t have them real close (together). My last year I had two, but they were like four games apart. That’s where you really worry. Sometimes it’s not just getting knocked out, it’s just slapping your head and knocking things around.
“The helmet-to-helmet, some of the rule things, using your helmet as a weapon, at least two of my concussions, with Dave Robinson and L.C. Greenwood, were helmet-to-helmet. L.C.’s, I actually had a lump under my helmet when I woke up.
“So they’re doing some good things and they still maintain the integrity of the game. They definitely are protecting the quarterback more. I don’t even remember having a roughing-the-passer penalty. A lot of these guys average two a game. These quarterbacks are a little more wussy than we were.”
Just so there’s no misunderstanding, this last was a wisecrack, said with a smile.
“But they’re doing the right things and it’s going down to college and into the high schools and kids,” he said. “My first concussion — I had one in high school, one in college and with the Cowboys I had about eight of ’em. They’re studying if they lead into other problems and there probably are some things they’re doing that are showing that . . . .
“Concussions definitely aren’t good and they are trying to benchmark them and keep you out of the game and make sure you’re back. They’re doing the right things, I think, now, versus — and I don’t think it was intentional in the past, I just think it was, ‘Hey, it’s just a concussion, no big deal.'”
Before Staubach’s visit to KOA ended, Dave Logan asked about the quarterbacks he liked to watch most after he retired.
“I think watching the game you just have that feeling when a guy steps on the field that he’s going to make things happen,” Staubach said. “If they’re behind, that some way he’s going to win that game. That’s when I feel real strong about a quarterback.
“I saw that when Dallas got (Troy) Aikman back in the ’90s. I think he was fantastic. But now, you watch Peyton Manning get out there, or Tom Brady. John Elway. I mean, John’s going to figure out a way to win the game.
“There’s a lot of quarterbacks that have that confidence. You’ve got to have the physical talent. You’ve got to throw with a little velocity because there’s not a weak guy on defense. But the big thing is having your teammates believe in you because you can’t do it by yourself. If you can transfer your ability to your teammates, getting their confidence, that’s the differentiator in the Elways and the Peyton Mannings and the Bradys.
“I think I was able to transfer my confidence to my teammates. The quarterback is more than just the physical. It’s the confidence, it’s the leadership, it’s being able to get your teammates to believe, ‘Hey, we’re going to figure out how to win this game.'”
Roger the Dodger ought to know.
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