I have enjoyed reading about the play of the teams, but my focus is on something even more important. I analyze the strategy used by the teams in games where it made the difference in the outcome of the contest. By strategy, I mean decisions that coaches and players had time to dwell upon before selecting a specific option.
Strategies include, but are not limited to:
Going for one or two point conversions
Using a specific type of defensive or offensive or special teams play
Directing players to get out of bounds to save time or to avoid getting out of bounds to use up the clock (also known as time management)
Attempting a field goal or going for the first down or touchdown
Here is one of my “cases,” Super Bowl X:
Roger Staubach’s interception on the final play of Super Bowl X was not a strategy. Staubach, his coach Tom Landry and his teammates had little, if any, time to decide what play to choose. And there wasn’t much of a choice, anyway. The team had to move the ball thirty-nine yards in three seconds. The “Hail Mary” pass, which had worked so well weeks earlier in the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings, failed here not because the Cowboys chose to throw deep, but because the Steelers knew it was coming and effectively handled the play as would be expected.
On the other hand, Staubach’s decision about time management upon getting the ball back from the Steelers late in the game and down by 4 points WAS a strategy. The Cowboys had time to decide how to manage the clock (1 minute, 22 seconds), the yardage (61 yards) and time outs (none) to get the necessary points to win the game. On first-and-ten, Staubach could not find a receiver and ran with the ball. He had a chance to go to the sidelines to stop the clock but instead ran further upfield. He got ten yards on the play but gave up precious time and probably the game in the process.
Here is a chart of the game's final plays, all offensive plays by the Cowboys. Note the field at the far right hand side, the Yards Needed/Second (YND/SEC). As the series of plays starts, this number is a little more than .74. In short, the Cowboys needed to make an average of three yards per four seconds to win the game.
Of course, the circumstances which led to the final series of plays and the strategy on how to attempt to score were set in place earlier. If we look at this game backward, we can best determine earlier strategies that might have averted the situation the Cowboys found themselves in.
Below I have re-printed the last four series, two by each team. This will enable us to look backward to the point where Dallas strategy cost them the game.
1-10 P30 F.Harris 4 rush up middle (J.Pugh).
2-6 P34 F.Harris 2 rush off right tackle (E.Jones, C.Harris).
3-4 P36 T.Bradshaw 64 pass to L.Swann deep middle (catch at D5), touchdown (11:58).
R.Gerela's extra point attempt hit the left upright, no good.
PITTSBURGH 21, DALLAS 10
R.Gerela kicked into end zone, touchback.
1-10 D20 R.Staubach 7 pass to C.Young middle (A.Russell).
2-3 D27 R.Staubach 30 pass to D.Pearson deep right (J.T.Thomas).
1-10 P43 R.Staubach 11 pass to P.Pearson left (A.Russell).
1-10 P32 R.Staubach sacked, loss of 2 (D.White).
TIMEOUT: Two-Minute Warning.
2-12 P34 R.Staubach 34 pass to P.Howard left end zone, touchdown (13:12).
T.Fritsch kicked extra point.
PITTSBURGH 21, DALLAS 17
T.Fritsch onside kicked to D42, recovered by G.Mullins, no return.
1-10 D42 F.Harris rush left, loss of 2.
TIMEOUT: Dallas (1st).
2-12 D44 F.Harris 2 rush left.
TIMEOUT: Dallas (1:33-2nd).
3-10 D42 R.Bleier 1 rush left.
TIMEOUT: Dallas (1:28-3rd).
4-9 D41 R.Bleier 2 rush right tackle (E.Jones).
1-10 D39 R.Staubach 11 keeper left.
1-10 50 R.Staubach 12 pass to P.Pearson (M.Kellum).
1-10 P38 R.Staubach recovered own fumble, pass to D.Pearson overthrown.
2-10 P38 R.Staubach pass to P.Howard right end zone broken up (J.Lambert).
3-10 P38 R.Staubach pass to D.Pearson deep intercepted two yards into end zone, G.Edwards 35 return to P33.
GAME OVER - PITTSBURGH 21, DALLAS 17
Right before Dallas took over on its own 39 yard line with 1:22 remaining in the game, Pittsburgh had run the ball on a 4th down and 9 from the Dallas 41 yard line. To this day, some question the call that Steeler head coach Chuck Noll made because it almost ensured that Dallas would get the ball in good field position. In fact, Rocky Bleier took a handoff for two yards, well short of the first down.
Why didn’t Noll order a punt? A smart coach who would end up winning what is still a record four Super Bowls, he undoubtedly considered the option of punting. But earlier in the game, his punter Bob Walden dropped a snap from center, which led to a Dallas touchdown and 7-0 lead. If Walden again dropped the ball, or the Cowboys blocked the punt or made a good return, Dallas would have an excellent opportunity to win the game.
Instead Bleier held on to the ball and the Steelers gave the ball to the Cowboys on the Cowboy 39 yard line. Noll estimated correctly that Staubach and Company could not make the winning score.
A better question has to do with strategy before the Steeler set of downs. With 1:48 to go in the game, Staubach threw deep to Percy Howard in the Steeler end zone for a touchdown. The extra point made the game Steelers 21, Cowboys 17.
Dallas had all three of its time outs left. So, provided that they could hold the Steelers without a first down, they could use the time outs and get the ball back with plenty of time to go. And, given that Steeler starting quarterback Terry Bradshaw had left the game (for good) due to an injury moments earlier, the Steelers chances of making a first down seemed fairly slim. In fact, backup quarterback Terry Hanratty, sent into the game as a replacement, had not thrown a single pass all season!
The Cowboys should have known that Hanratty would turn around and hand the ball off to either Franco Harris or Bleier. They could have counted on getting the ball back.
The real strategy decision, then, should have been one that ensured good field position. Instead of an onside kick, which works at best about one time in four when the other team (as in this case) expects it, Dallas should have kicked off deep. A touchback, followed by three carries for one yard, would have put the Steelers on their own 21 with a 4th and 9.
Then the Steelers would have to punt. This is the essence of strategy: make the other side do something they do not wish to do!
Walden punted four times on the day. The first three punts went for 32, 34 and 34 yards and each time the Cowboys took a fair catch. Walden boomed the fourth punt for 59 yards after which Cowboy Golden Richards returned it five yards.
Now the odds are three in four in FAVOR of the Cowboys and even better if there were a problem with the snap or a blocked kick. A 34 yard Walden punt with a fair catch would put the ball on the Dallas 45, which happens to be the same place Dallas would get the ball with a successful onside kick!
In short, the only difference between what the Cowboys could have gotten as a best-case scenario with the poor strategy and what they likely would have accomplished with better strategy was twenty-six seconds, time that they would not need, anyway.
Chalk this Steeler win up to Chuck Noll!
Here is the actual Play-by-play of Super Bowl X (January 18, 1976)