On the Super Bowl’s Greatest Plays

Having two weeks off leading up to the Super Bowl is great—so long as you’re a fan of one of the two teams playing. That fortnight is filled with excitement, to the point where you can celebrate the previous week’s win and your trip to the big game before getting anxious about how the Super Bowl is actually going to play out.

But for everyone else, it kind of sucks. The game itself becomes something of an afterthought, with more faux-analysis and soft features than any normal fan can bear to consume. Those two weeks also lead to a lot of articles like this one from John Clayton, recounting the Super Bowl’s greatest plays.

Anyone’s list of the top plays in Super Bowl history was pretty stagnant for a while, but the last two years have each provided very memorable moments and legitimate contenders for the top spot. Clayton opts to go with James Harrison’s first-half, 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII, turning what could have been a Cardinals’ score into a Steeler touchdown. I don’t take a huge issue with this decision; if John Clayton had had this at No. 1 with an otherwise logical and reasonable list, I wouldn’t be writing.

But then he went and put Marcus Allen’s reverse-field run against the Redskins at No. 2 and Lynn Swann’s famous catch against the Cowboys third. David Tyree’s catch in Super Bowl XLII is fourth.

I know I’m a Giants fan. I know I’m not really objective on this. But how can you possibly think those three plays are better than David Tyree’s catch? What common criteria is John Clayton using? Impact? The Tyree play turned what could have been a 4th-and-long in the Giants’ own territory into a 1st-and-10 at the New England 25 on the game-winning drive with just over one minute to play. Harrison’s return and Swann’s catch happened in the first half; Allen’s run put the Raiders up 35-9. Aesthetic beauty? Then Swann should be first, and Harrison shouldn’t make the cut at all. Fierce determination? (After all, Harrison’s play was “one of the more remarkable individual efforts [Clayton has] seen in any NFL game.”)  Then where the hell is Mark Ingram (fast-forward to 7:25) or Steve McNair’s efforts—which far exceed Harrison’s in all three criteria if you ask me (even if the Titans lost that game)?

The reason the Helmet Catch is the best Super Bowl play, to me (and to football aficionado Steve Sabol), is that it combines all three of these criteria. It took place on the final, game-winning drive of an especially memorable and historically relevant Super Bowl,* it was a beautiful throw and remarkable catch, and it required extraordinary efforts from TWO players. I’ll throw Clayton’s question back at him: How do you top this play?

*One can make the argument that NO play from a Super Bowl between the 12-4 Steelers and 9-7 Cardinals could top Tyree’s catch, simply for the reason that the PIT-ARZ game could never be as significant in the NFL’s history as Giants-Patriots. Furthermore, as good as Harrison’s play is, isn’t Santonio Holmes’ catch better?

Clayton’s rankings are bad enough before you dive into his rationale. The write-up on Allen’s play says the run “gave Allen the look of a future Hall of Fame running back,” which is about as revisionist as it comes. (Did Timmy Smith have the look of a future HoFer in Super Bowl XXII? Or does that only apply to guys who did, in fact, make the Hall of Fame?) About the Tyree play, he says, “Tyree’s catch wasn’t as pretty as the Swann’s, but it has the same impact.” Wait, what? The same impact? That’s like saying, “Tiger Woods isn’t as pretty as Camilo Villegas, but he has the same impact.” The Tyree Play improved the Giants’ chances of winning the game from slim to probable; it came with just over a minute to play during the game-winning drive. Swann’s play led to a missed second-quarter field goal! How is that “the same impact?”*

*This is shortsighted of me. I should mention that Swann’s catch was so beautiful—and like, the dude’s name is LYNN SWANN—that the Steelers were instantly awarded seven points.

Clayton’s list is full of similar mistakes. His No. 7 “play” is the last two drives of Super Bowl XXXVI between the Patriots and Rams, and in consecutive sentences he writes that “Mike Martz, then the coach of the Rams, directed a brilliant fourth-quarter drive” and Tom “Brady, in his first Super Bowl, directed a quick comeback drive.” Apparently, the coach was more important than the QB for St. Louis and vice versa for New England. At No. 8, Clayton calls Scott Norwood’s miss “the most memorable dynasty-changing play of a Super Bowl.” I don’t really understand how this qualifies as a dynasty-changing play at all. Clayton implies that a Bills’ victory would have given them a legitimate early-90s dynasty, regardless of losses in the next three Super Bowls. This is false. Norwood’s miss was not the most memorable dynasty-changing play of that postseason: Leonard Marshall’s takedown of Joe Montana in the NFC Championship game not only helped prevent the 49ers from winning a third consecutive title, but also kept Montana out of football for almost two years! It’s also not the most memorable dynasty-changing play in Giants’ Super Bowl history: That belongs to Tyree.

Maybe Clayton’s biggest mistake is one of his omissions: John Riggins’ fourth-down run against the Dolphins didn’t make the cut, John? I suppose running for not only a first down but the go-ahead touchdown just doesn’t have the same impact as a nice catch on a scoreless drive or a run to put you up 26.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on January 30, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    Nice job Tim on the Redskin’s note. I was going to comment on the play until I saw that you put in the last paragraph. It probably should be number 2 after Tyree’s catch. It was a brutal game until RIggin’s broke free ,with an in your face straight-arm on fourth and 1. Also, Riggins was the last of a breed – the fast, big, physical fullback who could get a tough yard, catch a swing pass, or break one for 40 yards. He ran the 100 in 9.9, was 6′ 3″ 250 and had incredibly quick feet. The only reason his yards/rush is kind of low was that he was THE man on 3rd or 4th and less than a yard and he got it almost every time. Last note about Riggins – he is the reason for the one back back offense that you now see so often. Since he could do it all, and the ‘Skins needed and extra blocker for Lawrence Taylor, they brought in an extra tight end (which became the H back, used to this day) and Riggins with all his talent could handle everything in the backfield.


  2. Posted by doc on January 30, 2010 at 3:35 PM

    OH, and what do you think about Kurt Warner’s retirement during the Super Bowl lull weeks? Unlike Favre, he has done so with class. And he won’t be back, sad for any NFL fan. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He almost single-handedly took the Cardinals to new heights and ran the fastest offense ever seen in the NFL with the Rams. In my mind, he helped to change the game of football and was a clutch QB in the playoffs and Super Bowl. He gets my vote.


  3. Posted by Wey on January 31, 2010 at 4:16 AM

    I couldn’t resist an opportunity to further our discussion of Riggo. I was always amazed by this description of his senior year at Centralia (KS) High School:

    “John ran for 1,456 yards in nine games, averaging a little more than 12 carries per game and 13.2 yards a carry. If the games had been closer he might have had numbers no one ever would have matched, but unbeaten Centralia outscored its opponents 457 to 24, and Riggins’ work usually was over by halftime. He scored 197 points for the season, threw for 433 yards and averaged 61 yards per punt return and 48 yards per kickoff return; on defense he backed up the line and led the Panthers with 78 tackles. He could run a 4.6 40. In his final game, against the Horton Chargers, Centralia Coach Lennie Mohlman decided to showcase John for the college scouts. The result was 403 yards rushing, 64 passing and 37 points scored.”



  4. Posted by doc on February 4, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    Someone else agrees with you Tim – Riggo’s play is the feature historical photo in S.I. this week.


    • Posted by Tim on February 4, 2010 at 10:58 AM

      I saw that. It really just confirms Clayton’s omission of it on his list as the biggest Super Bowl Week gaffe since Barrett Robbins went missing.


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