By the time the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Colts had earned their respective places in Super Bowl V, each club had endured a long journey. The summer prior to the start of the 1970 season offered a glimpse of the labor unrest that would plague pro football in the coming years. The owners made their usual threats, and for the first time the players stood their ground, if only for a short while. Following a brief work stoppage, play resumed. Baltimore won its final four contests to hold off Miami for the AFC East crown. Meanwhile, Dallas wrapped up its division on the final weekend of the season.
That year, the NFL and AFL successfully merged into one league of two conferences, but the first championship of the now-unified league was anything but a success — for either club. Super Bowl V was a melee of fumbles and interceptions, missteps and misfortune. In the end, Baltimore prevailed, 16-13, but no one thought to call Don McCafferty's club 'winners.' As Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule put it, "The Baltimore Colts are the new world champions, but they won their first Super Bowl by default, not design."
In some ways it's a football anomaly; rarely is a contest decided by a last-second score considered less than satisfying. In this case, Jim O'Brien's 32-yard kick offered relief more than it did excitement to unimpressed fans. The three-hour-long head scratcher was over. Time to go home.
That sentiment has followed the game in the 40 years since Baltimore edged Dallas that January 1971 day in the Orange Bowl, as it often appears atop "Worst Super Bowls of All-Time" lists. And what fans tend to remember isn't O'Brien's kick or Baltimore's triumph, but rather the fact that it remains the only championship to recognize a player from the losing team as the game's most valuable player. For this, LB Chuck Howley enjoys eternal life in the pages of trivia books.
One could say the game was a loser from the start. The Cowboys had not yet been anointed America's Team. Quite the contrary, they were "next year's team," thanks to a string of second-place NFL finishes. The Colts were still very much viewed as the team that had blown Super Bowl III against an under-matched Jets squad.
Johnny Unitas, who had relieved Earl Morrall at the tail end of that loss, served as Baltimore's starter against Dallas. The legendary passer had led the Colts to 10 wins during the 1970 season, but had been unimpressive in doing so. Unitas completed just 51.7 percent of his passes and tossed more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (14). It was the last full season of his career. In Dallas, the team had yet to shift to hotshot Heisman-Trophy winning QB Roger Staubach. Instead, head coach Tom Landry was still relying on Craig Morton, who led the league in yards per attempt (8.8).
In Super Bowl V, the two men combined to complete 15-of-35 passes. Morton threw three interceptions, while Unitas threw two in just nine attempts. This time around, Morrall relieved Unitas and didn't perform much better (7-of-15 passing for 147 yards, zero TDs, one INT).
Nope, in a game that featured 11 turnovers (seven by Baltimore, four by Dallas), the key play very well might have been the last great play made by another Colts legend. With Dallas leading 6-0 in the second quarter, Unitas let fly a pass intended for Eddie Hinton. The ball ricocheted off Hinton's fingers and was tipped ever-so-lightly by Dallas CB Mel Renfro before finding its way into the hands of streaking TE John Mackey, who raced to the endzone for a 75-yard touchdown.
It had been a long year for Mackey. As head of the players' association (the union had not yet been formed), Mackey was on the front line during the contentious negotiations. Now, a half-year later, he was the recipient of what to that point had been the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. Fittingly, O'Brien's extra point was blocked and the score remained tied at 6-6.
Trailing 13-6, the Colts came up empty in the red zone at the end of the first half and stalled all through the third quarter. The defense had prevented disaster at the start of the second half by stopping Dallas near the goal line, where rookie RB Duane Thomas coughed up the football after the Colts had fumbled the second-half kickoff at their own 21. If anything can be said about how this game has been remembered, it's that Baltimore's defense does not receive enough credit for its efforts. Thomas was held to fewer than two yards per carry, and WR Bob Hayes, who had led the league with a 26.1-yard-per-catch average, recorded just one reception.
After Thomas' fumble, the game went something like this: Colts interception, Colts fumble, Dallas interception. Positioned close to the goal after the pick by S Rick Volk, Baltimore punched it in and this time O'Brien's point-after try cleared the Cowboys' defense to make it 13-13 with 7:35 to play.
Going for the win, with less than two minutes to play following punts by both teams, Landry bucked conservative play-calling and left the game in Morton's hands — a mistake. Mike Curtis' interception of a pass that deflected off RB Dan Reeves' hands with a little more than a minute of the contest remaining set up O'Brien for the game-winning kick.
The tornado of turnovers had finally settled.
It can be said that Super Bowl V gave pro football's greatest quarterback his only Super Bowl ring (albeit for one of his worst performances), and it gave Dallas motivation to finally get over the hump the following season. It also was the first postmerger championship, and, of course, it was the game that made Chuck Howley, who intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble, famous. But more than everything else, Super Bowl V stands as the ugliest display of January football — a game best forgotten.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).