Super Bowl XVI was played 30 years ago today.
At least through 2009, it was the highest–rated Super Bowl of all time. I haven't seen the ratings numbers on the last two Super Bowls, but I'm pretty sure that, if either game had surpassed Super Bowl XVI in viewership ratings, someone would have mentioned it.
Last February's Super Bowl between Green Bay and Pittsburgh attracted the highest number of U.S. viewers of any Super Bowl — but that certainly was to be expected. I mean, considering the annual population growth rate, it would seem strange if the number of viewers did not increase as well.
Ratings, though, are something else. They are based on the share of viewers who watch at least part of the game at any given time while it is on.
In that category, I'm inclined to think Super Bowl XVI is still the undisputed champ — for a few reasons.
I was in college in those days, and I remember watching part of the game at a party at a classmate's home. My memory of that time is that it was unusually cold across much of the United States — it wasn't quite as cold as it had been two weeks earlier when the conference titles were decided, but it was cold enough — and many people were housebound by a blizzard. Consequently, lots of folks, even people who normally didn't watch football (or, perhaps, any sports event), may have had little choice.
If you're thinking that they would have had other TV options, you need to revisit the world of 1982. Cable TV did exist, but it was still limited in many ways, and the traditional networks still dominated. Likewise, video recorders existed, but they were still too expensive to be commonplace in most households.
The other networks virtually conceded the time slot to the Super Bowl, filling their schedules with reruns and B movies.
Let's cut to the chase here. Super Bowl XVI had a captive audience.
That was probably OK with most folks, though, because Super Bowl XVI was intriguing. It paired two teams who had never played in a Super Bowl before. That is an exceedingly rare occurrence. In fact, if you exclude the first Super Bowl, only one other prior game had been between two newcomers — and only one game since that time has been between two teams that had never been in a Super Bowl before.
Offensive–minded viewers probably figured Cincinnati would win. The Bengals' quarterback, Ken Anderson, was the league's MVP, engineering two impressive wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose 1970s dynasty was showing unmistakable signs of aging but who still commanded a great deal of respect.
Among quarterbacks, Anderson's top rival in the AFC that season was San Diego's Dan Fouts — and Anderson beat him twice, once during the regular season and once on a frigid January afternoon to win the AFC title.
Statistically, Anderson's leading rival in the NFC probably was Minnesota's Tommy Kramer — who, like Fouts, completed more passes for more yards than Anderson did. But Kramer's Vikings failed to make the playoffs.
Next in line from the NFC was the man Anderson would face in the Super Bowl, San Francisco's Joe Montana. He had the highest passer rating in the conference, but most of his numbers that year weren't too gaudy — except for his team's won–lost record, which went up from 6–10 in 1980 to 13–3 in 1981.
Defensive–minded fans may have figured San Francisco would win. The 49ers were second in the NFC in team defense, third against the pass and had beaten the Bengals in the 14th week of the season, holding them to only a field goal.
As it turned out, San Francisco did win the Super Sunday rematch, but, for most of that afternoon, its defense did not shine.
People often forget that Super Bowl XVI was the first in which the team that got the most yards and scored the most touchdowns did not win the game.
The Bengals, however, turned the ball over five times, and the 49ers' defense did rise, memorably, to the occasion with a thrilling goal–line stand in the second half. It didn't seal the deal — Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the final quarter, and San Francisco needed two Ray Wersching field goals to claim a 26–21 win — but it spoke volumes about the 49ers' team personality and desire to win.
And it turned out to be the dawn of a dynasty.
That desire to win carried the 49ers through the rest of the decade and into the next one. They added four more Super Bowl championships to their team resume in the next 13 years.
Talk about striking gold.