Super Bowl XVII—the game, the week preceding it and its aftermath—was molded in the image of John Riggins. It bore his stamp right from the opening gun, the Tuesday Picture Day, when the Redskins' fullback implacably stared out over his sea of questioners, his eyes fixed on a distant point somewhere between Anaheim and the California coast, and it carried his signature last Sunday night when he stood on a platform in the steaming press tent and acknowledged his selection as MVP after Washington had knocked off Miami 27-17.
What he had done on that long day's journey into night in Pasadena's Rose Bowl was grab modern NFL football by the scruff of the neck and toss it a few decades back into a simpler era—big guy running behind bigger guys blocking.
First his numbers: 38 carries for 166 yards, one pass reception for 15. The entire Miami offense consisted of 47 plays for 176 yards. Both of the Riggins rushing figures were Super Bowl records; the carries set a personal mark.
He broke the 43-yard touchdown run that gave the Skins the lead, at 20-17, in the fourth quarter, and he carried on the first five plays on their next drive and on eight of the 12 snaps overall as they put the game away. And he did all this against a Dolphin defense that was supposedly set up to stop him.
He'd certainly given enough warning. His three playoff games had produced a work load of 25, 37 and 36 carries, with the yardage comfortably above 100 each time. And if those performances hadn't put Riggins firmly in the front of everyone's mind, he made sure folks knew he was around during the pre-Super Bowl week by posing for some memorable portraits: Riggins, in camouflage pants with an elephant gun belt buckle, wows a packed ballroom at the Wednesday media session, the first time in Super Bowl history a player has taken the mike for an individual press conference before the entire house; Riggins stops the show again on Thursday; resplendent in white tie, top hat and tails, he draws a standing ovation at Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke's party on Friday night.
The game had other elements, of course. The Redskins tried a whole battery of fancy stuff in the first three quarters: a flea-flicker off a reverse, another one off a straight hand-off and pitch-back, a tight-end reverse, roll-outs and half rolls and crossfield screens, even a brand-new stunt called the Explode Package that had all five eligible receivers shifting before the snap. But all of it merely served as an appetizer for the meat-and-potatoes main course—Riggins and those big Hogs in front of him.
The Skins played superb defense. They forced young David Woodley to throw too soon, stuffed the Dolphin runners and got the Miami offense off the field in a hurry, setting up a much too long afternoon for the Dolphin defense. But in spite of all this, the score was still 17-13, Miami, in the fourth quarter, when Riggins went to work.
The crucial drive started on the Skins' 46 with 11:43 to play. Riggins hit the left side for seven yards, over the blocks of 295-pound Tackle Joe Jacoby and 242-pound Tight End Don Warren. Then Dolphin End Kim Bokamper stopped Riggins after a yard gain, and Clarence Harmon carried for a yard. Facing a fourth-and-one, the Dolphins called time out.
"I could tell the Dolphins were tired," Jacoby said of the Miami defense. They'd been on the field almost the whole second half. I could see by their breathing how tired they were, the way their chests were heaving and the steam was coming off them."
Dolphin Middle Guard Bob Baumhower was limping slightly; Bokamper, who had to be helped off the field after that stop of Riggins, now came back. "Bob had been kicked in the leg," Inside Linebacker A.J. Duhe said. "Bo had gotten a jammed neck when Jacoby stuck him one time. Maybe we were tired, but that's life. When you're put in that situation, you've got to answer the challenge. All season long, we've made big plays when we had to."