Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Super Super Bowl

They've been playing the Super Bowl for nearly half a century now.

There have been a handful of Super Bowls in which two teams met for the second time. The Super Bowl that was played 30 years ago on this day was one of those occasions.

The Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins met 10 years after they met the first time — in January 1973 when the Dolphins capped a perfect season with their victory over the Redskins.

(The record for the most matches between the same two teams belongs to the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have squared off in three Super Bowls.)

In the decade that had passed, the Dolphins had returned to the Super Bowl once and the Redskins had not been back at all. I do not recall either team being the favorite to play in the Super Bowl before the season began.

Maybe the Dolphins were. In those days, the Dolphins were sort of like the Patriots are today. They ruled the AFC East and, thus, were always in the playoffs. I imagine, though, that, if I could go back in time and read the preseason assessments, Miami would have ranked below several other AFC teams.

And the Redskins had rarely been a factor in the NFC East in the previous 10 years. Perhaps expectations were higher than I remember, but Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys still commanded a lot of respect in their division. Not content merely to qualify for the playoffs, the Cowboys had been in six NFC championship games since the last time the Redskins had played in the Super Bowl — and had advanced to three Super Bowls.

Anyway, I had my doubts that Super Bowl XVII really brought together the two best teams — in large part because an eight–week players' strike wiped out nearly half of the regular season.

The teams played only nine games each; under normal circumstances, they would have played 16.

And that, I always felt, skewed the final results.

The Dolphins and Redskins might have wound up in Super Bowl XVII, anyway, but I always doubted it, especially with the playoff system that the NFL used to compensate.

The NFL seeded the top eight teams in each conference — and two of the teams who made it to the playoffs through this system, the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, had losing records.

Their records were 4–5; if they had played the full schedule, they might well have finished with winning records — but they might not. The Browns had four winning seasons in the previous decade so they were pretty good possibilities, but the Lions had only one winning season in the previous 10.

A pretty good case can be made that neither would have been in the 1982 playoffs if the full schedule had been played. But, as it was, those teams became the first sub–.500 teams to make the playoffs.

No team with a losing record had ever made the NFL postseason before, and it would be nearly three decades before another one did. That is a pretty compelling argument that the entire strike–shortened season deserves an asterisk.

In spite of my misgivings, though, I have to admit that the game was rather entertaining.

The Dolphins led by a touchdown at intermission, thanks to a 98–yard kickoff return by Fulton Walker, but the Redskins put a clamp on Miami in the second half, and the Washington offense, behind a line nicknamed "The Hogs," scored 17 unanswered points in the second half.

MVP John Riggins, who rushed for 166 yards, scored the fourth–quarter touchdown that put Washington in front for good.

And I'll say this for Super Bowl XVII.

Even if neither team really belonged in the game, as I say, I have to admit that it was entertaining, especially with all the nicknames for groups (like "Killer Bees," "Smurfs" and "Fun Bunch") and individuals (like "Diesel" for Riggins and "Downtown" for teammate Charlile Brown).

Interestingly, the next time Washington won a Super Bowl was in another strike–altered season five years later.

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