Super Bowl X Memories: Mark Washington’s Nightmare In Miami
Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry often talked of the “fine line” between winning and losing in professional football. It was his way of reminding his team that, at the highest level, football easily became a game of inches.
It was on a Super Sunday at the Orange Bowl when Cowboys cornerback Mark Washington learned this lesson the hard way. A solid contributor for much of the 1975 season, Washington came into Super Bowl X riding an extraordinary wave of good fortune. In two playoff victories over Minnesota and Los Angeles, Washington had teamed with All-Pro Mel Renfro to limit standout wide receivers John Gilliam and Harold Jackson to a combined total of one-reception for 15 yards.
But against Lynn Swann and the mighty Steelers, Washington saw his luck take an unexpected turn for the worse, making for a long afternoon in the Miami sun for the sixth-year player, while earning MVP honors for his antagonist in black and gold.
Washington’s strange afternoon began in the first quarter with the underdog Cowboys leading 7-0. From the Dallas 48-yard line, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back for his first pass attempt of the game. With good blocking in front of him, Bradshaw set his feet and lofted a pass down the right sideline in the direction of Swann and Washington, who had anticipated Swann’s out-and-up pattern perfectly, and was even running in front of the Pittsburgh wide receiver.
How it happened that the Dallas cornerback faded away from the ball as it approached will always be something of a mystery. While Washington faded out of bounds, the trailing Swann leaped and reached in front of the defender to make the catch just before Cliff Harris pummeled him to the turf. The 32-yard gain put the ball on the Dallas 16-yard line, and led to a game-tying touchdown pass a few moments later to tight end Randy Grossman.
Later in the second quarter, the Steelers were backed up on their own 10-yard line and facing a third-and-6. Rather than opt for a conservative handoff, Bradshaw dialed up Swann’s number again on another deep pattern. With Washington in perfect position to knock the slightly underthrown down, Swann jumped and reached over the defender’s head. As the ball fell into Swann’s hands, Washington reached up and tipped it away. But Swann, somehow still on his feet, managed to lunge forward and catch the pass while falling to the ground.
The improbable completion didn’t lead to a Pittsburgh score, but it did prevent the Cowboys from regaining possession in plus-territory, as the Steelers used up the rest of the first-half clock.
With the fourth quarter clock approaching three minutes and the Steelers owning a 15-10 lead, Bradshaw sought to put the knife in the Cowboys’ heart. From the Pittsburgh 47-yard line, Bradshaw was able to avoid the tackle of D.D. Lewis in the backfield before stepping into a throw down the right side for his favorite target. For the first time all day, Swann had a step on Washington. Another underthrown pass meant another jump-ball situation had developed, something that Swann had proven himself quite adept at handling. This play would be no exception.
Jumping up, Swann reached back and snared the ball out of the air at the five-yard line, before breaking free from Washington’s arm tackle and rumbling into the end-zone.
Swann’s four receptions and 161 yards earned him the Most Valuable Player award, while branding Washington as one of the unluckiest players that ever lived. Another inch, another fingernail, and who knows but that Mark Washington would have been the hero of Super Bowl X instead.
“What’s it been, 25 years?” Washington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001. “I’m still seeing his catches on TV. I keep looking for him to drop one, but he never does.”