Have you ever seen a Civil War reenactment? To the naked eye, all the elements seem to be there, but if you're paying close attention, you'll find little things that undermine the authenticity. Look! There's the wheat field where the original battle took place. And those guys under that tree, they look just like real Union soldiers. And over there, behind that fence, it's the Rebels. Hey, wait a second, that Confederate general is drinking a Mountain Dew!
Same goes for Sunday's game in Heinz Field -- two of the baddest and best uniforms in all of sports, yellow flags littering the field, Terrible Towels waving in the stands, and, of course, cheap shots. Plenty of cheap shots. Why, you'd almost think it was 1976, when Oakland and Pittsburgh were perennial playoff foes, rivals not because of proximity but mutual hatred.
Ultimately, though, the renewal of the rivalry lacked something, and I'm not talking about a Raiders' touchdown. What the game needed was more Sistrunk. Otis Sistrunk. Some Snake, Swann and Steel Curtain, too. Maybe even a defamation lawsuit, a couple fluky bounces and some semi-lucid Al Davis paranoia. In short, the way it used to be.
Maybe I'm just being nostalgic for my childhood, but sometimes I miss the NFL of the '70s. Then again, there are plenty of reasons why it's better to be a fan today than it was when I was growing up.
Given the season, then, how 'bout if we conduct a hypothetical Turkey Bowl between the eras to decide once and for all which one is better? Let's kick things off with the most obvious upgrade for the 21st century fan.
HDTV and satellite
'70s: 27-inch tube TVs; no remote control; susceptible to lost reception because of intemperate weather; just three games each Sunday.
21st Century: 40-inch, crystal-clear images; every game available with just the push of a button (and a not-unreasonable chunk of loot to DirecTV); Tivoing to watch on your schedule; the only snow on the screen is the stuff falling from the sky.
Touchdown, 21st Century!
Score: 21st - 7, '70s - 0.
'70s: Virtually non-existent (and until the 21st century, owners had to total their scores manually by adding up the stats in the next day's paper).
21st Century: Transcending its early days as something exclusively for nerdy statheads, now, a booming industry, played by roughly half of all football fans with instantaneous updates on your laptop or mobile phone. For many, the excitement for the fantasy draft day now rivals -- if not exceeds -- the Super Bowl. On the downside, it does create ethical dilemmas, such as, is it wrong to root for your fantasy players if they're playing against the real team you root for?
Touchdown, 21st Century. What?! They went for two and missed? Funny, 'cause the two-point conversion didn't even exist in the NFL until 1994. Proof that change isn't always good.
Score: 21st - 13, '70s - 0. This has the makings of a rout …
'70s: Genuinely funny "Tastes great, less filling" ads featuring sporty celebs like Bob Uecker, Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus. Plus, a keg's worth of un-ironic ads with jingles that proclaimed "Weekends are made for Michelob" and "Tonight, let it be Lowenbrau." Nice.
21st: Overly hip or overly dorky guys having their odd fantasies come true, like when a pulling off a bottle cap instantaneously transforms a sunny day into an icy blizzard. Aren't those cool dudes in their $40 T-shirts gonna freeze?
Score: 21st - 13, '70s - 7. And we got ourselves a ballgame!
Access to highlights
'70s: Brent Musberger would roll through 'em at the half on "The NFL Today," and if you were lucky, you'd see a play or two from the games out of your area on the late local news. Otherwise, you'd have to wait for Howard Cosell's three-minute halftime segment on Monday Night Football. On the bright side, what a three minutes they were.
21st Century: In-game cutaways from the game you're watching; instant highlights on NFL.com; better yet, RedZone shows not only every score, but goes to the game in which a team might score; lengthy highlights of every game every half-hour for 72 hours on NFL Network, ESPN and beyond.
You don't need to see the highlights to confirm this one.
It's another touchdown for the 21st Century, making our score: 21st - 20, '70s - 7.
'70s: No such thing back then. The league was dominated by a handful of teams all decade long (over a ten-year stretch, the Super Bowl was won by Miami, Dallas, Oakland or Pittsburgh). How much you enjoyed the lack of parity was likely dictated by whether you rooted for one of the 'haves' or 'have nots.' That's why a list of the ten best teams of the Super Bowl Era would have to include the Cowboys, Dolphins and Raiders of the '70s (with the NFC Central's perennial bully, the Vikings, just missing out). It's also why, when the subject of 'best team ever' is debated, the correct answer is the '70s Steelers: even in an era that featured some of the best teams to ever play the game, Chaz Noll's fellas still stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Quick sidebar -- I'd be remiss if I didn't offer my official list of the Ten Best Teams of the Super Bowl Era:
1. 1975-79 Steelers: Four Lombardis, six years, zero debate.
2. 1981-89 49ers: Starring the best QB of the last 30 or so years.
3. 1966-67 Packers: The toughest team to place on a 'Super Bowl era' list because they fell off the table after those first two seasons; then again, they'd won three more titles earlier in the decade.
4. 1972-1982 Cowboys: Only two titles, but came very close against Pittsburgh in two Super Bowls, then went to four straight NFC Championship games after the second loss to the Steelers.
5. 1992-95 Cowboys: Could've been more had it not been for Switzer; then again, could've been fewer had Neil O'Donnell not forgotten which team Larry Brown played for.)
6. 2001-08 Patriots: Three titles in four years is remarkable … but Spygate, the Tuck Rule and David Tyree keep Belichick's modern dynasty from ranking higher.
7. 1971-73 Dolphins: Undefeated is undefeated … plus, they repeated the following season.
8. 1982-1993 Redskins: Testament less to the fluid roster, especially at QB, than the one constant during their run: Joe Gibbs.
9. 1971-1980 Raiders: Six out of seven division crowns, culminating with a win in Super Bowl XI; two losses to Pittsburgh in the AFC title game, and another in Denver featuring an awful call at the goal line.
10. 1990-93 Bills: Norwood gets a little too much abuse, given that his infamous kick was a 47-yarder. Still, if he hits that one, they might've gone on a dynastic roll.
Also receiving votes: Vikings (1968-1980); Bears (1984-1990); Giants (1986-1990); 'Colts (2003-present); Steelers (2004-present).
Flag on the field. Delay of Game, Dameshek. My apologies. Let's get back to the action.
21st Century: Virtually impossible to predict outcomes week-to-week; in just the past month, the Browns have beaten the Saints and Patriots, the Cowboys destroyed the Giants, and the Vikings beat the Cardinals (I kid Brett Favre!). If you look at the big picture, though, the parity isn't all that prevalent. While it's true there have only been two teams to win at least two Super Bowls since the turn of the century (New England and Pittsburgh), the playoffs almost always include the same handful of teams: Indianapolis, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New England, Philly, Green Bay and the Giants.
The ruling on the field: Touchdown, '70s.
Score: 21st - 20, '70s - 14.
'70s: John Facenda. Curt Gowdy. Myron Cope. Jack Buck. Charlie Jones. Jim Murray. Pat Summerall. Don Meredith. Howard Cosell.
21st Century: As this column indicates, it includes me. No need to say anything more on the subject.
Ouch! That was more brutal than when Bo steamrolled the Boz …
Score: '70s - 21, 21st - 20.
Instant replay review
'70s: Only the curmudgeonly members of the old school would try and mount an argument in favor of officiating without replay. It's interesting, though, to consider that even if it had existed, it probably wouldn't have reversed three of the most controversial calls of the decade.
» No way a ref could conclusively say the ball hit Frenchy Fuqua, not Jack Tatum, before Franco Harris caught the deflection (which would've negated the play based on the rules of the day).
» Instant replay wouldn't have reversed the roughing-the-passer call against the Patriots' "Sugar Bear" Hamilton that set up the Raiders' winning touchdown in the two teams' 1976 playoff game.
» Oilers WR Mike Renfro may or may not have gotten both feet in bounds in the 1979 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, but the replay doesn't show he clearly possessed the ball before going out-of-bounds.
21st Century: Take note, Bud Selig -- if you've got the technology available, you must use it. In most cases, it's correctly confirmed or reversed the call on the field. But in spite of its existence, the Tuck Rule still happened. Troy Polamalu's obvious interception in the 2005 playoffs at Indianapolis was irrationally reversed. There's still too much unnecessary subjectivity from the ref, who is naturally inclined to uphold his own original call. In other words, the replay system is far from flawless. And it takes way too long.
The '70s bend but don't break. The 21st Century comes away with a field goal.
Score: 21st - 23, '70s - 21. This one's coming down to the wire…
Method for congratulating a victorious coach
'70s: Two players carrying the head coach out on the shoulders, acknowledging him as a king among men, elevating him to pigskin royalty.
21st Century: The Gatorade bath was clever when Harry Carson first started the tradition 25 years ago. Now, it's unoriginal at best, and at worst, it's potentially lethal. Throwing a few gallons of an icy beverage over the head of an unsuspecting, high-strung, older man is a coronary waiting to happen.
For the last play of this hypothetical matchup, let's go to the late, great Jack Fleming, whose call of the Immaculate Reception you've heard at least 1,972 times …
It's down to one big play, fourth down and 10 yards to go. The '70s quarterback is running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it downfield, and there's a collision! ... And it's caught out of the air! The ball is pulled in by the 1970s! The '70s are going for a touchdown!
And that's it! The '70s win it!
Final score: '70s - 28, 21st - 23.