On This Date in Sports January 17, 1971: The Blunder Bowl

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys 16-13 in Super Bowl V at the Orange Bowl in Miami. The first Super Bowl after the merger is the strangest Super Bowl ever played. Chuck Howley is the first defensive player to win Super Bowl MVP and, to date, the only one chosen off the losing team. The teams combined for 11 turnovers, earning the nickname “The Blunder Bowl.” The game is decided by a 32-yard field goal by Jim O’Brien with nine seconds left in the game. 

It was the most stunning upset in NFL history, and it helped legitimize the Super Bowl. At Super Bowl III in Miami, the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts 16-7, proving that the AFL belonged on the same field as the NFL. After their stunning loss, the Colts posted an 8-5-1 record in 1969. Before the 1970 season, the AFL merged into the NFL. To make both the NFC and AFC even with 13 teams apiece, three teams from the NFL moved over to the AFC, joining the ten teams from the AFL. The Colts were one of the three teams, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.

 As the Colts joined the AFC, they had a new coach as Don Shula departed to coach the Miami Dolphins. Shula’s replacement was Don McCafferty, who had been an assistant coach in Baltimore since 1959. The Colts excelled in the AFC East, posting an 11-2-1 record. This included two wins over the Jets in revenge for their loss in Super Bowl III. In the Divisional Playoffs, the Colts blanked the Cincinnati Bengals 17-0. They would beat the Oakland Raiders 27-1t in the AFC Championship Game. 

Coached by Tom Landry, the Dallas Cowboys had been knocking at the door of greatness for five years. They suffered a pair of heartbreaking losses to the Green Bay Packers with a trip to the first two Super Bowls on the line. The next two seasons saw the Cowboys’ season end at the hands of the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional Playoffs. A quarterback controversy surrounded the Cowboys all season as Craig Morton and Roger Staubach shared the duties under center. Struggling at midseason, Dallas won their final five games to finish 10-4 to win the NFC East. In the Divisional Playoffs, the Cowboys won a scintillating 5-0 game against the Detroit Lions.  In the NFC Championship, the Cowboys edged the San Francisco 49ers 17-10 to reach their first Super Bowl. 

The first Super Bowl after the full merger was a matchup of teams from the NFL. The Colts sought redemption on the same field that they were beaten at two years earlier as the Cowboys looked to claim their first championship. The Super Bowl trophy had a new name, as it was named in honor of former Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi who died from stomach cancer just before the 1970 season started. The Cowboys chose Craig Morton to start Super Bowl V, as Roger Staubach often ignored the play calls from the sideline and made his own decisions. 

After both teams struggled to move the ball, the Cowboys got the first break of the game when Chuck Howley intercepted Johnny Unitas. The Cowboys would turn the interception into points as Mike Clark nailed a 14-yard field goal. Clark added a second field goal from 30 yards in the second quarter as Dallas dominated early, taking a 6-0 lead. The Colts offense finally made some noise as Johnny Unitas connected with John Mackey on a 75-yard play that resulted in a touchdown, which tied the game as Jim O’Brien missed the PAT. Midway through the second quarter, Jethro Pugh recovered a Unitas fumble that set the Cowboys up to retake the lead, as Duane Thomas caught a seven-yard pass from Craig Morton. The Colts were driving to answer the score when Mel Renfro intercepted Johnny Unitas. Making matters worse for Baltimore, Unitas was hurt on the play and missed the rest of the game. With Earl Morrall leading the way, the Colts drove down to the Dallas goal line but did not score as the Cowboys maintained their 13-6 lead with a brilliant goal-line stand.  

Leading 13-6 after halftime, the Cowboys appeared ready to burry Baltimore as Jim Duncan fumbled the second-half kickoff. However, Duane Thomas fumbled at the goal line, giving the Colts new life. The Colts would take the ball from their own one across midfield, but Jim O’Brien missed a 52-yard field goal. 

As the third quarter ended, the Colts were on the verge of tying the game. However, on the first play of the fourth quarter Earl Morrall was picked off by Chuck Howley in the end zone. The fourth-quarter pick by Howley would be the start of a sloppy quarter that saw the ball passed back and forth like a hot potato. After a punt by Dallas, the Colts again drove into Cowboys territory. Once again, the drive ended in a turnover as Eddie Hinton fumbled out the back of the end zone after a perfect pass from halfback Sam Harvilak. Three players later, Rick Volk intercepted Craig Morton and returned the ball to the Dallas three.  Tom Nowatzke would run the ball in from the two-yard line to tie the game 13-13 at the midway point of the fourth quarter. 

After a pair of punts, the Cowboys were set up to win the game as they had the ball at midfield just after the two-minute warning. However, they were going backward as Craig Morton was sacked for a loss, while a holding call backed the ball to the Cowboys 27. With just over a minute left, Morton had a pass deflect off Dan Reeves into the arms of Baltimore linebacker Mike Curtis, setting the Colts up to win the game. The Colts ran the clock down to the final seconds, setting up Jim O’Brien to take the lead with a 32-yard field goal. The game would fittingly end with one more turnover as Jerry Logan intercepted Morton’s desperation pass at the end of the game. 

As the Colts celebrated their 16-13 win, Bob Lilly expressed the frustration all Cowboys felt by chucking his helmet down the field. Chuck Howley would be named the MVP of Super Bowl V. It was the first time a defensive player won the award and the only time that it went to a player from the losing team.