It is the one great irony of professional football that magnificent games such as San Diego's wonderful, woeful 41-38 overtime AFC playoff victory over Miami are almost always decided by the wrong guys. Decided not by heroic, bloodied men who play themselves to exhaustion and perform breathtaking feats, but by men in clean jerseys. With names you cannot spell, and the remnants of European accents, and slender bodies and mystical ways. Men who cannot be coached, only traded. Men whose main objective in life, more often than not, is to avoid the crushing embarrassment of a shanked field goal in the last 30 seconds.
There, at the end, in a moist, numbed Orange Bowl still jammed with disbelievers after 74 minutes and 1,030 yards and 79 points of what San Diego Coach Don Coryell called "probably the most exciting game in the history of pro football," was Dan Fouts. Heroic, bloodied Fouts, the nonpareil Charger quarterback. His black beard and white jersey crusted with dirt. His skinny legs so tired they could barely carry him off the field after he had thrown, how many? A playoff-record 53 passes? And completed, how many? A playoff-record 33? For a playoff-record 433 yards? And three touchdowns?
Ah, Fouts. The real Smilin' Jack of Air Coryell. The guy Otto Graham says activates "the greatest offense" in pro football history. (Outrageous comparisons are a dime a dozen around the Chargers these days.) Smilin' Dan takes his offensive linemen—Billy Shields, Doug Wilkerson, Don Macek, et al.—to dinner after a no-sack day and sets NFL passing records with every other breath. If he'd only pay his union dues, what a terrific fellow Fouts would be. Fouts should have decided this game.
Or Kellen Winslow. There, at the end, his magnificent athlete's body battered and blued by a relentless—if not altogether cohesive—Miami defense, Wins-low had lo be carried off. Time after time during the game he was helped to the sidelines, and then, finally, all the way to the dressing room, the last man to make the postgame celebration. Staggering, sore-shouldered, one-more-play-and-let-me-lie-down Winslow, looking as if he might die any minute (the only sure way he could have been stopped), catching, how many? A playoff-record 16 passes? For a playoff-record 166 yards?
Winslow is listed as the tight end in the San Diego offense. The Dolphins know better. Like the 800-pound gorilla, Winslow plays just about wherever Winslow wants to play: tight end, wide receiver, fullback, wingback, slotback. Even on defense, as Miami discovered when he blocked what would have been the winning field goal and thereby spoiled what Dolphin Guard Ed Newman called—another drum roll, please—"the greatest comeback in the history of professional football." Winslow should have decided this game.
Or there, on the other side, Don Strock, the gutty, heroic, 6'5" Miami relief pitcher. Strock coming in with the Dolphins submerged at 0-24 and not only matching Smilin' Dan pass for pass, but doing him better than that for so long a stretch that it looked for sure the Dolphins would pull it out. Throwing (42 times, 28 completions) for 397 yards and four touchdowns, and getting Miami ahead and into position to win at 38-31, and then at the threshold of victory twice again at 38-38.
Strock was raised in Pennsylvania, where he watched the immortal (more or less) King Corcoran quarterback the Pottstown Firebirds ("I learned by watching King Corcoran that you can't learn anything by watching King Corcoran," he says), and he used to be quite the mad bomber. He is called "Stroke" for the artful way he can cut an angle with his long, precise passes. But now he's 31, a golden oldie amid Don Shula's miraculous youth movement, and in his 10th year as a Dolphin it is his business to bail out 23-year-old child star David Woodley, the youngest playoff quarterback-starter ever. He did so again Saturday when Woodley suffered a first-quarter malaise—sacks, misfires, interceptions—right out of Edgar Allan Poe. In the end, breakdowns not of his doing cost Strock exactly what Newman said it would have been—the greatest playoff comeback in the NFL's history. "Strock," said Fouts, "was awesome." Strock should have decided this game.
Fittingly, all of the above helped make it what Fouts himself called "the greatest game I ever played in." (See? It's catching.) But, typically, none of them had even a bit part in the final scene. Overtime games almost always come to that because in overtime the objective shifts to a totally conservative aim: The first team close enough tries a field goal. Be cool, play it straight, pop it in. Thus, after a day-into-night parade of exquisite offensive plots and ploys—including a spectacular fleaflicker Shula called from the bench, Strock throwing 15 yards downfield to a button-hooking, well-covered Duriel Harris, who quickly lateraled to Tony Nathan for a 40-yard scoring play that ended the first half to bedlam noise—the final blow was a comparative feather duster, struck by a former 123-pound weakling in a dry, spotless uniform. After the haymakers that had kept the old bowl rocking for almost four hours, it was a finishing jab that buckled the Dolphins. A tidy little 29-yard love tap that Rolf Benirschke put slightly right of center, 13 minutes and 52 seconds into overtime.
Two years ago Benirschke, son of a German-born animal pathologist, almost died from the effects of an intestinal illness known as Crohn's Disease. He lost 50 pounds, and his courageous comeback after two operations, which left his stomach zippered with a massive scar, has been well chronicled. He is a placekicker (soccer-style, of course). It takes nothing away from him, however, to say that the denouement last Saturday evening was more negative than positive, not a question of which team would deliver the knockout punch, but which team's kicker would not miss one more easy field goal.
Six minutes into the overtime Benirschke missed a 27-yarder that would have won it then and there. "I must have rushed to set up," he was to say later, "but that's no excuse." After the overtime kickoff Fouts had driven the Chargers 79 yards in 12 plays to the Miami eight, and Benirschke went in and duck-hooked the kick to the left. "Fortunately," he said, "I got a second chance." The Dolphins' Uwe von Schamann (who was born in West Berlin) had two chances, too. He missed both.