THERE WERE NEW PASSING rules in 1978. Receivers now had freer
access to their downfield routes, and interference was called
tighter. And did this produce the wide-open brand of football the
NFL's Competition Committee so dearly desired? It did not. The
explosion wasn't to come until a year later. NFL coaches took a
wait-and-see approach before turning their offenses loose. The
passing yardage, per team per game, increased less than seven yards
from 1977, when defense ruled the land.
It took the Steelers in Super Bowl XIII to show what really could
be accomplished under the new rules. They were returning to Super
Bowl competition after a two-year absence. Oakland had knocked them
out of the playoffs in 1976, when their runners had been hurt. Then
the Broncos put it to them after the '77 season. The Steelers were
older and more wary. You got that feeling being around them during
the week -- they were no longer the charming roughnecks of their
first two Super Bowls. They were like a boxer who had been hit a few
Usually I was assigned to cover the AFC club, but this time I had
free rein. I spent more time around the Cowboys than I ever had
before. They had some genuine characters. What, an NFC team with a
real personality? Unheard of. Left defensive tackle Larry Cole was a
true original -- he should have been a Raider.
Cole was the president and sole surviving member of The Zero Club.
At its height, the membership had consisted of Cole plus defensive
end Pat Toomay and guard Blaine Nye. The Zero Club was devoted to
boredom and total inactivity.
''When you're bored and inactive, time passes more slowly,'' Cole
explained to me. ''So by cultivating boredom you can add years to
your life expectancy.''
I was interviewing Cole during picture day at the Yankees'
spring-training field in Fort Lauderdale. A Zero Club member in good
standing, he was stretched on his back on the grass, arms folded
behind his head, eyes closed, enjoying the Florida sunshine.
Earlier he had gone around with a tape recorder, conducting mock
interviews with other Cowboy players:
''Tell me, which bus do you feel is better suited to take you back
to the hotel, bus Number 1 or bus Number 2?''
''Bus Number 1,'' said backup safety Randy Hughes.
''Why is that?''
''Because bus Number 1 gives 110 percent. It has the desire and
ability to succeed.''
But 10 minutes of that had tired Cole out, and he had retreated to
the traditional Zero Club posture: prostrate.
Cole, a strawberry blond from Granite Falls, Minn., was a fairly
predictable target for some of the Cowboy pranksters. One time, when
Dallas was playing the Cardinals, they decided to take Cole to a
tattoo parlor in downtown St. Louis. They were going to have a plow
and the motto BORN TO RAISE WHEAT tattooed on his hip. Finally they
had to give up on the idea because they couldn't get Cole out of the
tattoo-parlor bathroom, where he had fallen asleep. ''We had a
Zero Club reunion when we played in San Francisco last year,'' Cole
was telling me. ''Nye was retired and living in the Bay Area. Toomay
was playing for the Raiders. Nye didn't make it because the
15-minute drive was too long. Toomay forgot about it. I fell asleep.
It was a perfect Zero Club reunion.''
A radio reporter approached us as I was talking to Cole.
''Excuse me,'' he said to me. ''Could I get your name and
affiliation?'' He never said a word to the recumbent Cole.
''Ah,'' Cole said, opening one eye to watch him leave. ''Total
neglect. A ( perfect Zero Club interview for me.''
Dallas was the defending Super Bowl champ. The Cowboy defensive
line was at its zenith. Dallas was No. 1 in the NFL at stopping the
run, while the Steeler rushing game had slipped to ninth in the AFC
and was next to last in yards per carry. Something would have to be
This, to me, was one of the marks of greatness of those Steeler
teams. When they had to switch gears, they did. The Cowboys stuffed
the Pittsburgh running game -- they allowed the Steelers only two
first downs on the ground -- but Terry Bradshaw threw for 318 yards,
the most yards passing in a Super Bowl until Joe Montana and Dan
Marino staged their shootout in '85. Bradshaw hit John Stallworth for
a 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter, after connecting with him
for a 28-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
He put the ball up for grabs in the final period and got a very
chintzy tripping call out of it -- Benny Barnes was whistled for
interference while covering Lynn Swann. The 33-yard penalty on Barnes
set up a Steeler touchdown.
Oddly enough, that's one of the two plays that stood out in this
game. The other, which was also a negative, was Jackie Smith's drop
in the end zone of a pass that could have brought Dallas to a 21-21
tie in the third quarter.
In the last quarter Bradshaw threw for his fourth touchdown, to
Swann. (He had hit Rocky Bleier earlier in the game.) That passing
performance set a Super Bowl record for TDs; it was tied by Doug
Williams last January. The Steelers opened a window on the future.
Under the new rules, even the tough- guy teams could overbalance
their attack, air to ground, and come up winners.
Roger Staubach got the Cowboys into the end zone twice in the
final 2 1/2 minutes to make the score a respectable 35-31. I had run
my own poll during the weeks before the Super Bowl and had come up
with only three people who favored Dallas: Jet quarterback Richard
Todd (''but I liked Denver last year''); New Orleans coach Dick
Nolan, who had once been a Dallas assistant (''Cowboys, out of
loyalty''); and Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge, whom I had
interviewed in the locker room after the Tide's big Sugar Bowl win
over Penn State (''I'm a Staubach fan and a Landry fan'').
Of all the people who picked Pittsburgh, not one had said,
''They're going to open it up. . . . Bradshaw's going to throw for
300 yards.'' The idea seemed farfetched. It was the Steelers' emotion
that was going to do it, or their defense, or their toughness. To
say they were going to win it through the air seemed an insult.
Cliff Harris, the Cowboys' All-Pro free safety, said he used to
lie awake nights thinking back on how Bradshaw had shredded the
Cowboy defense, which had been ranked No. 5 in the NFL against the
pass that season.
''Finally I couldn't stand it any more and I called him up,'' he
said. ''I woke him up in the middle of the night. I asked him, 'What
did you see? What were your primary reads -- the free safety, the
weakside linebacker, or what?'
''He said, 'Well, I'd look for Swann, and if he was covered I'd
look for Stallworth, and if he was covered I'd look for Franco
''He was serious. I said, 'Oh no, there's got to be more to it
than that.' ''
Historically, an era was drawing to a close, the Dallas-Pittsburgh
era. The Cowboys would never again reach the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh
would go only once more, the next year. We didn't see it at the
time, but both teams were getting old. There were 23 players on the
combined squads who were 30 or older, 16 of them starters.
Joe Greene was on the downside. So was L.C. Greenwood. Staubach
was 36. Stars aged; they would never be replaced. We felt that these
teams were invincible, the organizations so powerful they would stay
up there forever. History proved us wrong.
THERE WERE NEW PASSING rules in 1978. Receivers now had freer