Analysis  

 

Immaculate Reception, Hail Mary headline top plays of the '70s

Take your pick. Throw all the most scintillating and historical plays in the history of the NFL into a big bag and, believe it or not, you have about a 50 percent shot of pulling out one from the 1970s.

Seriously, that many huge moments came from a single snap of the football in 1970-79. The zany ("Holy Roller"), the ridiculous (Garo's volley folly) and the relevant (Earl Campbell bulldozing the Los Angeles Rams) -- all were a part of the disco decade.

NFL Exposure

Decades Week: Best of the 1970s

Take a look back at some of the most memorable images of the 1970s.

And exactly zero of those made our list of the five biggest plays of the '70s.

Yes, as part of NFL Network's "Decades Month," we continue to highlight the ultimate highlights from the past. Last week, we pulled the top five plays of the '60s. There were some tough omissions, but truthfully, that list was a cakewalk compared to this week's assignment.

Tom Dempsey's 63-yard record breaker is nowhere to be found, nor is Rob Lytle's fumble in the 1977 AFC Championship Game (... well, it should've been called a fumble). Shoot, Stabler-to-Casper -- i.e., "Ghost to the Post" -- ain't on this list, either.

On that note, if you feel we missed a big play from the era that brought "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "CHiPs" to the public consciousness, feel free to invade our mind on Twitter: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Now, let's get to it!

5) The call that called for instant replay

Instant replay did not initially come about until 1986 (until it was discontinued in 1992 ... only to return in 1999). Yet, the true genesis of this grand, zebra-goes-under-hood evolution came in the 1979 postseason, when one of the most controversial plays in playoff history went down at Three Rivers Stadium.

It was the AFC Championship Game, and for the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers were hosting the Houston Oilers for the right to advance to the Super Bowl. Houston was out for revenge, having been sent packing the year before in a 34-5 blowout. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was on a mission to claim its fourth Lombardi Trophy of the '70s.

The game was an absolute dandy, as hard-fought as this level of contest gets between division rivals. Late in the third quarter, the Oilers were down 17-10, but they were on the move. Houston QB Dan Pastorini lobbed a beautiful ball toward the back right corner of the end zone ... just over cornerback Ron Johnson, and right into the hands of receiver Mike Renfro. The Oilers wideout appeared to drag his feet before the end line, but it was thisclose. The other circumstance that made it hard to rule was the fact that Renfro slightly -- oh, so slightly -- juggled the ball before fully securing the catch.

All of those factors paled in comparison to the referee's ruling -- or non-ruling. He literally made no call. After what seemed like an eternity, the entire officiating crew huddled up before eventually deciding Renfro did not catch the ball. Steelers fans erupted; millions at home smelled home cookin'.

Pittsburgh kept the 17-13 lead and never looked back. After ousting the Oilers 27-13, the Steelers went on to beat the Rams two weeks later, winning their fourth Super Bowl title in six years.

As for the Oilers, they would never make it back to the AFC title game again. In fact, many cite this depressing result as the very beginning of the end for the franchise's Houston existence (despite the fact it hung around town for another 16 years). And nearly every NFL historian considers the Renfro non-catch the jumping-off point for the instant-replay movement.

(By the way, it was a bad call.)

4) Sea of Hands

In 1974, the Raiders' "Commitment to Excellence" hadn't really taken hold, and Al Davis had yet to truly make his mark on the NFL. No, the 1970s, at least up until that point, had belonged to the Miami Dolphins, who were in the midst of one of the most successful runs in NFL history.

Don Shula's group made the Super Bowl in 1971, went undefeated in 1972, repeated as Super Bowl champs in 1973 and had just completed another regular season with double-digit wins. Some pundits, however, saw the great elephants approaching the walls of Rome. Prior to the '74 campaign even beginning, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield -- three of the Dolphins' best offensive weapons -- had announced that they would be leaving the NFL for the newly formed WFL in 1975. So the 1974 postseason carried something of a "last hurrah" feel for Miami.

The Dolphins and Raiders faced off in what was perhaps the most entertaining divisional playoff game since the round's inception during the postseason expansion of 1967 -- a seesaw affair from stem to stern. Late in the fourth quarter, Miami QB Bob Griese led his team down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. Oakland, trailing 26-21, needed a response from its own quarterback (and that season's NFL MVP), Ken Stabler.

"The Snake" went to work. On a day that saw him complete 20 of 30 passes for 293 yards and four touchdowns, Stabler moved his team 61 yards in just 1:26 -- but he simultaneously used up all three timeouts by continually utilizing the middle of the field. Suddenly, the Raiders had a first-and-goal at the Dolphins' 8-yard line. In a condensed field, any pass was bound to attract a lot of defensive attention -- a sea of hands, if you will.

Dropping back to pass, Stabler felt pressure from left defensive end Vern Den Herder. As Stabler stepped up, he saw Clarence Davis running across the shallow part of the end zone. Stabler tried to hit Davis in stride but was tripped up as he let fly. Out came a wobbler that landed right in the hands of Davis -- and Dolphins LB Mike Kolen. As Davis attempted to secure the leather on his left shoulder pad, Miami safety Charlie Babb hit him from the front side, knocking the little running back a little silly -- but also pushing the ball further into his possession. Touchdown, Raaaaaaaaaaaaaiders.

No Super Bowl three-peat for Miami -- or the NFL, for that matter, as the feat still hasn't been accomplished to this day.

3) 'He's got to be the sickest man in America'

The line quoted above might not be equivalent to Al Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles?" on the grand sports spectrum, but Verne Lundquist's call of Jackie Smith's fateful drop in Super Bowl XIII is arguably the most poignant call in NFL history. It also represents one of the most historic plays in NFL history.

Pittsburgh is now known as "The Team of the '70s." But heading into Super Bowl XIII, Chuck Noll's group had won just two Lombardi Trophies in the decade -- tied with both Miami and Dallas. And the Cowboys had the Steelers in an absolute dogfight on that day; it was a true championship bout that still remains the greatest Super Bowl ever. After all, this was the first Super Bowl rematch (Pittsburgh had nipped Dallas three years prior in Super Bowl X), it had three first-half lead changes and it featured two clubs looking to lay claim to an era. And if that wasn't enough, consider the fact that this game involved 20 Hall of Famers, including 14 on the playing field.

With that as a backdrop, Dallas was marching down the field in the third quarter, trailing 21-14. Facing a third-and-3 from the Steelers' 10, the Cowboys eschewed going for a first down and took a shot off play action. Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith (one of the aforementioned Hall of Famers) was wide open in the middle of the end zone -- so open that Roger Staubach took a little something off the pass. Smith slid to make the catch, but with the tight end perhaps misjudging the velocity of the throw, the ball caromed right off his chest. The 16-year veteran sat on the grass in stunned disbelief, stricken with the notion he had blown a huge opportunity.

He had.

Dallas was forced to settle for a field goal that made it 21-17, but the Cowboys could never fully close the gap. The final score: 35-31 -- a margin of defeat that cruelly reflected the four points lost on Smith's astounding gaffe. Sickest man in America, indeed.

2) Hail Mary

You've probably seen the play 100 times -- and then some. But if it weren't for divine intervention three years prior (more on that below ...) and Dwight's legendary leap six years later, what happened at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota on Dec. 28, 1975 might have gone down as the most memorable moment in NFL history.

Roger Staubach's famous moon shot to his favorite receiver, Drew Pearson, came on second down from the 50 with 32 seconds left. With his Cowboys trailing the Minnesota Vikings 14-10, Staubach pump-faked to his left to influence deep safety Paul Krause. Then he turned to his right and unleashed the bomb to Pearson, who had sold Vikes cornerback Nate Wright on an out route but hadn't really lost him going deep. As Wright fell to the ground, the ball almost did the same, with Pearson barely corralling it between his forearm and hip. Next thing everybody knew, No. 88 was trotting into the end zone to give the Cowboys a miraculous 17-14 win.

Of course, conversation of this play routinely brings forth great debate on one front: Whether Pearson pushed off on Wright. But there are so many more layers to this spectacular play (and its aftermath). Consider:

» This was arguably the best Vikings team in franchise history. Coach Bud Grant's club cruised to a 12-2 record, with quarterback Fran Tarkenton earning NFL MVP honors. The Vikings are still looking to secure their first Lombardi Trophy.

» Staubach was nowhere close to being a Hall of Fame quarterback at that point. Yes, he'd won the Super Bowl in 1971, but he lost almost all of '72 to injury and produced his worst full season two years later. After the "Hail Mary" game, however, Staubach was the best quarterback in pro football until he retired, posting the NFC's highest passer rating three years in a row from 1977 to '79.

» These '75 Cowboys ended up playing in Super Bowl X, propelled by a nucleus that included 12 rookies. This same group won Super Bowl XII two years later and, one year after that, fought Pittsburgh in the greatest Super Bowl of them all (yes, the one detailed just above).

» In order to even have a shot at the Hail Mary, Staubach had to convert a fourth-and-17 earlier in the drive. Pearson was the man on that play, as well.

» Postgame, Staubach quipped that, after throwing the ball, he "closed his eyes and said a 'Hail Mary.' " Thus was born a football term that will live as long as the game is played.

1) The Immaculate Reception

Maybe "The Catch" gives this play a run for its money, but in my book, Franco Harris' crazy grab off a two-man (allegedly) deflection in the 1972 divisional round is the most famous play in NFL history.

With 22 seconds left, the Steelers trailed the Raiders 7-6 in front of the home folks at Three Rivers Stadium. Facing a fourth-and-10 from his own 40-yard line, Pittsburgh QB Terry Bradshaw took the snap and retreated into a seven-step drop. Just as Bradshaw completed his drop, the pocket caved in, forcing "The Blonde Bomber" to escape to his right. Raiders were bearing down on him from all directions; Bradshaw sidestepped left to avoid the grasp of defensive end Horace Jones, then zinged a rocket over the middle in the direction of running back Frenchy Fuqua. As the ball arrived, so did Oakland safety Jack Tatum.

What happened next is a topic of enormous controversy.

The ball appeared to carom off both players (key word: appeared) and toward Harris, who was trailing the play some 15 yards back. The rookie running back caught the ball just north of the turf (we think) and took it 40-plus yards to the house.

The NBC audience was in shock. Apparently the officials were, too, as they were unsure if the play was even legal. If Bradshaw's pass had only deflected off Fuqua's shoulder pad ... no dice. That was "illegal touching" in those days, as rules didn't allow for consecutive touches by different offensive players. After a controversial conference and phone call in one of the dugouts (Three Rivers was the Pittsburgh Pirates' home, too), the officials ruled the play legal.

Steelers win.

Raiders head coach John Madden was incredulous. Ditto Al Davis, who felt the league -- always against him, in his mind -- had stolen the game from his club. And fans across the country were not sure what to think, other than that they had just seen the zaniest play to decide a playoff game ... like, ever.

Would the Steelers' dynastic run have emerged without this first-ever playoff win? Would the Raiders instead have become the team of the decade with a more favorable bounce (or ruling)? Who knows? It seems fair to assume one thing, though: If the NFL could only show a single play from its 94-year history to sell the game, the Immaculate Reception would probably be it.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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