Thursday, January 30, 2014

Unlikely Super Bowl Heroes

     The Super Bowl is once again almost upon us, so today I’d like to discuss some of its unexpected stars.  Clearly, when players like Bart Starr, Larry Csonka, Joe Montana, Richard Dent, or Emmitt Smith have great Super Bowls, no one is really that surprised—they were all Hall of Fame players, and they played up to their superior abilities.  The players I’ll talk about were not Hall of Famers—in fact, for some of them, characterizing them as “mediocre” would be over complimentary.  But each had at least one big moment on football’s greatest stage.  (Also, if you’re jonesing for Super Bowl trivia, consult my January 29th, 2013 post.)  And as before, I’ll sometimes abbreviate “Super Bowl” as “SB,” and instead of typing out the Roman numerals I’ll just use regular numbers.

1)      Jim O’Brien.  Placekicker/wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions.  There’s no kind way to say this—O’Brien was a pretty lousy kicker.  In his four year career he made 109 of 112 extra points, and 60 of 108 field goal attempts (or 55.6%), which even by the much lower standards of the early 1970’s was terrible.  He did okay as a spot starter at wide receiver (14 receptions for 305 yards, 21.8 average, 2 touchdowns), but not well enough to stay in the NFL.  Even in the Super Bowl he played in, SB 5 (after the 1970 season), he didn’t play that well—he had an extra point attempt blocked, and missed another field goal.  But, to give him credit, he made the 32 yard field goal to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the waning seconds of the game, 16-13.  And, he was a rookie, so the pressure must have been even more intense on him.
2)      Clarence Davis.  Running back for the Oakland Raiders.  During Davis’s eight year career he was a spot starter (31 of 88 games) who got a fair amount of carries.  In the 1976 season Davis was the backup to 1000 yard rusher Mark van Eeghen.  However, in Super Bowl 11 Davis played great—16 attempts for 137 yards (8.6 average), helping the Raiders to a beat down of the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 32-14.  His career stats are decent, but unremarkable.  804 rushing attempts for 3640 yards (4.5 average) and 26 touchdowns, and 99 catches for 865 yards (8.7 average) and 2 touchdowns.  He did have one other glamorous moment—in the 1974 playoff game against the defending champion Miami Dolphins he caught the “Sea of Hands” touchdown pass in the final moments to win 28-26.  Not bad for a guy derisively nicknamed “Hands of Wood” for his poor receiving skills previous to that.
3)      Rod Martin.  Linebacker for the Oakland Raiders.  Martin was a solid, sometimes great linebacker for his twelve year career, as he started 147 of his 165 games, and went to 2 Pro Bowls.  In his career he totaled 33.5 sacks, 14 interceptions (of which he returned 4 for touchdowns), and scored another two touchdowns on fumble returns.  However, his best game was in Super Bowl 15, against my Philadelphia Eagles.  He intercepted 3 Ron Jaworski passes (for 44 yards).  To date he’s the only player with 3 interceptions in one game, and tied with Larry Brown and Chuck Howley for most Super Bowl interceptions in a career.
4)      Alvin Garrett.  Wide receiver for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.  Garrett’s career was short (five years, 55 games, 6 starts), and mostly uneventful—career totals of 32 receptions for 412 yards (12.9 average) and 2 touchdowns.  During the Washington Redskins 1982 season (shortened by the strike to only 9 games), he amassed only a single catch, for 6 yards.  However, when starter Art Monk got injured before the playoffs, Garrett stepped in.  In three playoff games (because of the shortened season, there were 8 playoff teams in each conference) he caught 13 balls for 231 yards (17.8 average) and 4 touchdowns.  Then, in Super Bowl 17, versus the Miami Dolphins, he added another 2 catches for 13 yards and a touchdown, and ran a reverse for 44 yards.  But Garrett is unfortunately probably best known for a later scandal the following season, on the Sept. 5, 1983 Monday Night Football telecast when the Redskins were playing the Dallas Cowboys.  Famous (and infamous) announcer Howard Cosell declared about him, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”  Cosell maintained that his statement was about Garrett’s small stature (5 foot 7) and not a racist remark (Garrett is black), but the resulting furor paved Cosell’s departure for the broadcast booth.  Interestingly, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali, and Garrett himself supported Cosell, who despite being a controversial, bombastic, and hated-by-many-viewers announcer, was known for being progressive on racial matters (he was one of the few sports reporters who supported Ali during his conversion to Islam and refusal to submit to the military draft, for example).  Bolstering Cosell’s claim was a 1972 preseason NFL broadcast, when he called white and short player Mike Adamle a “little monkey” as well.
5)      Derrick Jensen.  Running back/tight end for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.  Jensen was about as obscure as it gets in his eight year NFL career.  In 106 games (22 starts) he managed only 224 rushing attempts, for 780 yards (3.5 average) and 5 touchdowns, and 44 receptions, 384 yards (8.7 average) and 3 touchdowns.  He was mostly a special teamer, and served as the captain of such for much of his tenure.  And it was in this capacity that he got his brief moment of fame, in Super Bowl 18 against the Redskins.  He blocked Jeff Hayes’s punt and fell on it in the end zone for the game’s first touchdown.  (I bet few people won the prop bet that year for the player who scores the game’s first touchdown.)
6)      Jack Squirek.  Linebacker for the Raiders and the Miami Dolphins.  Staying with Super Bowl 18, we have Squirek.  If anything, he was less known than even his teammate Jensen—he had a brief five year career, in which he started only 8 of 55 games.  In these he accumulated 3 sacks and 1 interception (for 3 yards).  His one moment was pretty big, though.  With only 12 seconds left in the first half, with the ball on their own 12 yard line, and down 14-3, the Washington Redskins (rather foolishly) decided to throw a short screen pass to running back Joe Washington, as a similar play had worked very well in their regular season win against the Raiders.  Squirek stepped in front, intercepted the ball at the 5 yard line, and easily ran it in for a touchdown, wreaking havoc on both the scoreboard and the Redskin’s morale, and helping the Raiders to a 38-9 blowout final.  Squirek was on the cover of the next “Sports Illustrated,” and then……..that was essentially it for his fame.
7)      Phil McConkey.  Kick and punt returner/wide receiver for the New York Giants, San Diego Chargers, and St. Louis Cardinals.  McConkey’s career got a late start (age 27), as he was completing his navy obligations.  His six year receiving totals were marginal—84 games, 0 starts, with 67 catches for 1113 yards (16.6 average) and 2 touchdowns, as he was mainly a (mediocre at best) punt and kick returner.  But in Super Bowl 21, he had 2 big catches.  The first was a 44 yarder off of a flea-flicker, which he took down to the Bronco’s 1 yard line.  Then, later in the game, a pass bounced off of Giants tight end Mark Bavaro, and McConkey was there to nab it for a 6 yard touchdown.
8)      Timmy Smith.  Running back for the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.  Smith’s rookie year in 1987 was mostly uneventful—29 carries for 126 yards (4.3 average) and 0 touchdowns, and 1 catch for -2 yards.  (Because of another labor situation, most players only played 12 games that year, as 3 were played by replacements and union picket-line crossers, and 1 was cancelled.)  However, coach Joe Gibbs liked him enough to give him the bulk of the carries in the two playoff games, and then surprise started him in Super Bowl 22 against the Denver Broncos.  Smith simply had the best day any running back ever had there—22 carries, 204 yards (9.3 yard average), 2 touchdowns, and 1 catch for 9 yards.  The 204 yards in a game has never been beaten, or even seriously threatened since.  Alas, the fame evidently went to Smith’s head, as he reported for the ’88 season out of shape, and was out of the league shortly thereafter.  His three year career totals were bad—22 games, 9 starts, 190 rushing attempts, 602 yards (3.2 average), and 3 touchdowns, with 9 catches for 51 yards (5.7 average) and 0 touchdowns.  His post NFL life was negative, too, as he served nearly two years in federal prison for cocaine dealing in 2006-8.
9)      Larry Brown.  Cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders.  Brown was a 12th round draft pick who nonetheless started 75 out of 95 games, in an eight year career.  Included in these were 3 starts in Super Bowls, numbers 27, 28 and 30.  Shockingly, mediocre cornerback Brown was SB 30’s MVP, as he intercepted 2 passes for 77 yards, setting up key touchdowns for Dallas.  If you haven’t seen these before, I urge you to check them out on YouTube or wherever.  You’ll be hard pressed to find interceptions that were easier, that looked like Steeler quarterback Neil O’Donnell was intentionally throwing right to Brown.  (O’Donnell claimed the first one slipped out of his hand, and he blamed the second on wide receiver Corey Holliday running the wrong route.)  Anyway, after the hoopla died down, Brown used his new fame to get a huge free agent contract with the Raiders.  Where he flopped miserably—if you look up “Worst Free Agent Signings in the NFL,” his name will surely be high on any list.
10)  Mike Jones.  Linebacker for the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, and Pittsburgh Steelers.  Jones had a long (thirteen years) but pretty average career, as he started 99 of 183 games, and had 9 sacks, 8 interceptions for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns, and recovered 2 fumbles for touchdowns as well.  However, his tackle of Tennessee Titan wide receiver Kevin Dyson on the Ram 1 yard line on the game’s last play saved Super Bowl 34 for the Rams, as a Dyson touchdown (and the presumptive extra point) would have tied the game.
11)  Dwight Smith.  Cornerback/safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions, and Minnesota Vikings.  The well traveled Smith had a steady but unspectacular eight year career, as he started 83 of 117 games, and accumulated 2 sacks, and 22 interceptions for 301 yards, and 1 touchdown.  In Super Bowl 37, though, he did something that no other player ever did—he returned 2 interceptions (for 94 yards) for touchdowns.  Amazingly, Raider quarterback Rick Gannon threw a third Pick Six interception in that game, to Derrick Brooks, to round out his record 5 interceptions.
12)  Dexter Jackson.  Safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, and Cincinnati Bengals.  For all his efforts, Dwight Smith wasn’t the MVP of Super Bowl 37.  Instead his secondary teammate Dexter Jackson was, as he picked off Gannon twice as well, for 34 yards.  Jackson’s career was rather like Smith’s overall—ten years, 86 starts out of 118 games, with 5 sacks, and 17 interceptions for 339 yards, and no touchdowns, and no Pro Bowl selections.
13)  Mike Vrabel.  Linebacker/tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs.  Vrabel had a good career with 3 teams—fourteen years total, with 140 starts out of 206 games.  He got 57 sacks, and 11 interceptions, for 73 yards and a touchdown.  He also was named to a Pro Bowl.  What made him unusual was that he also occasionally served as a tight end on the goal line, as he caught 10 passes for 14 yards, and 10 touchdowns, in his regular season career.  In Super Bowls 38 and 39 he contributed using both his skills.  In SB 38, against the Carolina Panthers, he got 2 sacks and caught a 1 yard touchdown pass.  In SB 39, against the Philadelphia Eagles, he got another sack, and caught a 2 yard touchdown pass.  Thus he joined William “The Refridgerator” Perry as the only defensive players to score offensive touchdowns in a SB.
14)  Dominic Rhodes.  Running back for the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders.  Rhodes was a spot starter for much of his eight year NFL career, starting 33 of 99 total games.  He did set the rookie rushing record for an undrafted player (1104 yards), but the rest of his career was typical for a mostly reserve running back, with totals of 814 rushes, 3286 yards (4.0 average) and 26 touchdowns, and 147 receptions for 1025 yards (7.0 average) and 4 more touchdowns.  He was at his best in the rainy Super Bowl 41 against the Chicago Bears—21 carries, 113 yards (5.4 average) and a touchdown.  Alas, repeated drug test failures effectively ended his NFL career.  I read he’s one of 4 players that both won an NFL title and a UFL title (that’s the other, lesser pro league, the United Football League).  Which is one of the most depressing feats I’ve ever learned, at least in that order.
15)  David Tyree.  Wide receiver for the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens.  Tyree was kind of Phil McConkey redux for the Giants, as he started only 5 of 83 games in a six year career.  His receiving totals were 54 receptions, for 650 yards (12.0 average) and 4 touchdowns.  He did make a Pro Bowl, but as a special teamer.  In 2007 he caught 4 passes for 35 yards (8.8 average) and no touchdowns.  So he shocked the Super Bowl viewers by having the game of his life in SB 42, versus the previously unbeaten New England Patriots.  He caught 3 passes for 43 yards, which included a touchdown and the famous miracle, against-the-helmet catch to continue the Giant’s final, game winning touchdown drive.
16)  Jacoby Jones.  Punt and kick returner/reserve wide receiver for the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens.  Unlike the others mentioned in this list, Jones is still active.  To date he’s started 33 of 103 games in a seven year career.  He’s most known for being an excellent punt and kickoff returner, as he’s scored an incredible 4 touchdowns on punt returns, and 4 more on kickoff returns.  His one Pro Bowl was as such a returner.  He’s also a reserve wide receiver, totaling 194 receptions for 2602 yards (13.4 average) and 14 touchdowns.  The playoffs seem to bring out the best in him, as he caught the “Mile High Miracle” 70 yard bomb from Joe Flacco with 31 seconds left to tie the Raven’s divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos (and the Ravens won the game in overtime).  Then, in Super Bowl 47, versus the San Francisco 49ers, both of his skills were on display.  First he caught a 56 yard touchdown pass from Flacco shortly before halftime.  Then he opened up the second half by returning the kickoff 108 yards for another touchdown.  And yes, he’s the only guy to score a return touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same SB, and his return was the longest scoring play in SB history.  Flacco was a reasonable choice for MVP for SB 47, but Jones wouldn’t have been a bad pick either (or wide receiver Anquan Boldin).

     So there you have it.  Sometimes the heroes aren’t the starting quarterback, or the star running back or wide receiver, or the feared Pro Bowl pass rusher or defensive back.  Will it continue this year?  Will Bronco reserve tight end Joel Dreesen, or Seahawk defensive end/linebacker Bruce Irvin make huge contributions?  We’ll just have to watch.

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