Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The First Wild Card to Win It All

It might have been appropriate if the New York Jets had won the AFC championship on Sunday.

Why? Well, because it was 30 years ago today that a wild card team first won a Super Bowl.

If the Jets had beaten the Steelers on Sunday, the Super Bowl would have been played between two wild–card teams. I don't think that has ever happened before.

Four other wild–card teams have won Super Bowls since the Raiders did it 30 years ago, and three of them have done so since the dawn of the 21st century.

But, even in 1980, wild cards weren't new to pro football. They had been part of the playoff landscape for a decade by the time the Oakland Raiders defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in New Orleans on Jan. 25, 1981. And a wild card made it to the Super Bowl for the first time five years later.

But until this day 30 years ago, no wild card team had ever won a Super Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys came close back in Super Bowl X (which was also played in New Orleans), but they eventually lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What seemed to surprise people the most about the Super Bowl that was played 30 years ago today was not necessarily the fact that the wild card won it — although that was surprising.

It was the relative ease with which the Raiders cruised to a 14–0 lead at the end of the first quarter — and ultimately prevailed, 27–10. When you consider who they were playing, that was positively stunning.

The Eagles had been one of the NFL's elite teams in the 1980 season, racing to an 11–1 start. Ron Jaworski was the top–ranked quarterback in the NFC. The Eagle defense kept all its opponents from scoring more than 24 points (and held most of their foes under 20) until Dallas scored 35 against Philly on the final day of the regular season.

The Raiders, on the other hand, caught just about everyone by surprise. They had made a lot of changes during the offseason, and I think most observers just wanted to wait and see how all the new parts would function together. They got off to kind of a sluggish start (2–3) and had to deal with the loss of their starting quarterback to a broken leg, but then Jim Plunkett came in, the Raiders won six in a row, and Oakland actually finished tied with San Diego atop their division.

But San Diego was awarded the division crown on a tiebreaker — which meant that, when the teams played for the AFC title, the game was played in San Diego. When they played there in the second week of the season, the Raiders lost in overtime. When the AFC title was on the line, however, Oakland surged to a 21–7 lead in the first quarter and never looked back.

It was more of the same two weeks later when the Raiders and Eagles faced each other in the Super Bowl.

The Eagles came into the game favored by three points. That surprised me because I really felt that most people believed the Eagles would win by a wider margin.

But that, of course, was not what happened.

When the game was over, everyone praised the Raiders' performance — and the Raiders did deserve that praise — but I recall less attention being given to what may well have been Jaworski's worst performance as a pro.

It was certainly his worst performance on a postseason stage. He completed fewer than half of his passes and was intercepted three times.

And by the time he threw his only touchdown pass in a Super Bowl, the Raiders had built a 24–3 fourth–quarter lead.

It was the greatest defeat, I have no doubt, of Jaworski's career.

But the flip side was that it must have been the pinnacles of the careers of the many castoffs whose careers were revived by Al Davis. The Raiders' bombastic owner picked up guys like Plunkett, Kenny King, John Matuszak and many others who asked only to be given a chance to prove that they could still contribute.

Plunkett threw three touchdown passes — two to Cliff Branch and one to King that covered 80 yards, a record that still stands. He was named the game's MVP.

What became of the team that cut Plunkett earlier in 1980? Well, I guess you could say they did all right.

That would be the San Francisco 49ers, An up–and–coming quarterback named Joe Montana emerged as their quarterback in 1980 and wound up taking San Francisco to — and winning — four Super Bowls in the '80s — starting the next year.

But that's another story.

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