1977 sports was a year where tradition-laden teams stepped up and won championships. It would hard to find three teams with more lore in their respective sports (or more bandwagon-jumping fans who’ve rooted for them over the years) then the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and Notre Dame football. All three reached the top in 1977.
The Yankees provided 1977 with its signature sports moment. After first winning a tough AL East race with the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, then being pushed to the brink by the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, the Yankees won three of the first five World Series games and came home to the Bronx ready for a party.
And what a party Reggie Jackson threw for everyone. The slugger, in his first year in New York, hit three home runs on three consecutive swings and gave the franchise its first World Series trophy in fifteen years.
The Cowboys used a smothering defense to dominate at every key point of the 1977 NFL season—from a season-opening win over defending NFC champ Minnesota, to a playoff shutdown of Chicago’s MVP running back Walter Payton, to dominating the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game rematch.
It wasn’t that Dallas couldn’t score—they had the second-best attack in the league—but the defense was just exceptionally dominant, and they sealed the deal with a 27-10 rout of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.
Notre Dame lost a game early, increasing the rumblings about third-year coach Dan Devine, but once Joe Montana got firmly established as the starter, the Irish were off and running. They reached #5 in the polls by New Year’s Day, and got a Cotton Bowl shot at #1 Texas.
The Longhorns had Heisman Trophy running back Earl Campbell, who was one of the great college backs of the modern era and playing a de facto home game in Dallas, looked set to cap it off with a national title (which would have set the table for a Dallas-area sweep of the college football and NFL titles).
But Notre Dame and Montana had other ideas, and the Cotton Bowl was never close. The Irish won 38-10 and with a series of unexpected outcomes in other bowls, made an improbable jump from fifth to first in the final polls.
The world of basketball had surprises in both college and the NBA and they were highlighted by a player and coach at opposite ends of the career spectrum. The Portland Trail Blazers were led by 24-year-old center Bill Walton and when they pulled consecutive upsets of the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers and won the NBA championship, it looked like a dynasty was in the works. That didn’t work out, but 1977 was still a magical year in the Pacific Northwest.
And in college, the old Marquette warrior, head coach Al McGuire, had announced his retirement. The 1977 Warrior team wasn’t one of his best, but they scraped their way into what was then a 32-team NCAA Tournament and then kept scratching their way to the Final Four in Atlanta.
McGuire was there with two other respected coaches who had their eyes on a first ring, in North Carolina’s Dean Smith and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian. Both had a long career still ahead of them though, and they weren’t going to get in the way of Al’s moment.
Marquette beat North Carolina in the championship game and if Reggie’s three home runs on three swings was 1977’s top moment, then the sight of the rugged McGuire in tears on the bench as the clock ticked down is surely its most enduring image.
And we save the Montreal Canadiens for last, not because they weren’t great, but because they were so great as to lack drama. The NHL was already very top-heavy at this time, with five teams drastically separating from the rest of the pack. And within that group of five, Montreal separated themselves even further, coasting to the Stanley Cup.
After coming off a breakout year that saw them make the playoffs and come within one questionable call of advancing, the 1977 New England Patriots had high expectations. They just took too long to get started, with a late surge coming up short in an era when only four teams per conference made the playoffs.
Head coach Chuck Fairbanks built his offense around the running game, with 1,000-yard rusher Sam Cunningham leading the way and Don Calhoun’s 700-plus yards providing support. Steve Grogan, the 24-year-old quarterback completed 52% of his passes, above the league norm and believe it or not, his 17/21 TD-INT ratio was better than the NFL average (14/20) in 1977. And Grogan brought some big-play capability, a 7.1 yards-per-attempt nearly two yards better than the league standard.
Cunningham led the team in receptions out of the backfield, but the downfield game was improved on the previous year. Stanley Morgan averaged 21 yards-per-catch, and Darryl Stingley began to come into his own, with 39 catches and 657 yards receiving. Russ Francis was a Pro Bowler at tight end.
In spite of this, New England’s offense dropped from second in the NFL in 1976 to ninth in 1977. Andy Johnson was missing from the three-headed backfield that spearheaded the team’s 11-3 season of a year earlier, but more than that, the play on the offensive line took a step back. This would be one of the few years were the great left guard John Hannah missed the Pro Bowl, as did talented left tackle Leon Gray.
The defense wasn’t loaded with talent, but they had a terrific lockdown corner in Pro Bowler Mike Haynes, who also excelled as a return man. The Patriots defense also ranked ninth in the league.
SLOW OUT OF THE GATE
New England opened the season at home against a terrible Kansas City Chiefs team and promptly dug themselves a 14-0 hole. Stingley stepped up with two touchdowns, one a 34-yard run and another the more conventional route, a 21-yard pass from Grogan. Cunningham and Calhoun combined for 186 yards on the ground in a 21-17 win.
The shaky game against a bad opponent foreshadowed trouble though. The Patriots went to Cleveland for a Monday Night game. The Browns had competed for a playoff berth to the bitter end in 1976, although they would slip under .500 this season. The Patriots jumped ahead 17-7, but tonight it was the opponent who controlled the ground game.
Greg Pruitt ran over the Pats for 151 yards and New England lost 30-27 in overtime. The following week at old Shea Stadium against the Jets—who were starting a 3-11 season—New England’s rush defense was better, but they still couldn’t’ run it themselves. Grogan threw three interceptions, they lost two more fumbles and suffered another 30-27 loss.
The Seattle Seahawks were only in their second year of existence at a time and their visit to Foxboro was just what the doctor ordered. New England held Seattle to six first downs, picked off quarterback Steve Myer four times—two by Haynes—and coasted to a 31-0 win. The Patriots then went west to San Diego and got 256 yards rushing, 141 from Cunningham. Control of the trenches was enough for a 24-20 win.
A year earlier, New England and the Baltimore Colts had battled to the end for the AFC East title, and the Colts were again playing well. In a late afternoon start at Foxboro, the Patriot defense played its best game of the season. They held Colt quarterback Bert Jones—the reigning MVP—to 6/18 for 64 yards. Grogan was 11/16 for 214 yards and no interceptions, doing most of his damage with Stingley in a 17-13 win.
Grogan and Stingley continued to click in the rematch with the Jets. Grogan was 16/23 for 228 yards and three touchdowns, with Stingley catching eight of those passes for 116 yards. The result was a 24-13 win and with a 5-2 record, the Patriots were back on track.
Then they went off the rails again. Buffalo was in middle of a lousy season, but came into New England and picked off Grogan four times. One of them was a Pick-6 in the third quarter at a time the Patriot deficit was still a manageable 17-7. The final was 24-14. Grogan then went to Miami were he had a hard time getting the ball downfield consistently. The running game was quiet and the Patriots lost 17-5 to the Dolphins.
The prognosis was not promising for New England’s playoff hopes. At 5-4, they were three games back of Baltimore, whose only loss had come in Foxboro. Miami was in between at 7-2. There was only one wild-card spot open and with the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders each having big seasons in the AFC West, that avenue didn’t look much better.
Cunningham took over the following week at Buffalo. The Patriots trailed 7-6 in the third quarter, when Cunningham rumbled 31 yards for one touchdown and then scored from a yard out. The ultimate rush edge was 256-112 and Grogan’s 81 yards was actually best on the team in a 20-7 win. Miami lost at Cincinnati to give New England a glimmer of hope.
Grogan came out firing at home against a subpar Philadelphia Eagles team on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. He went 64 yards to Morgan in the first quarter and then 16 yards to Stingley in the second quarter, putting the Patriots up 14-0 and the defense took it over from there in a 14-6 win. Baltimore lost at Denver and the AFC East race again modestly tightened.
A visit to mediocre Atlanta almost undercut the momentum. New England trailed 10-9 in the fourth quarter before Grogan found Morgan on a 33-yard touchdown pass. The ultimate reason for a 16-10 win was a defense that picked off Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski four times, two coming from Haynes.
Elsewhere in the AFC East, there was a big Colts-Dolphins battle going down and New England got what they needed. Miami won. The Patriots 8-4 record now had them just a game back of the two teams they were chasing and the Dolphins were coming to Foxboro.
New England’s rush defense was simply dominant, holding to Miami to 25 yards on the ground. The Patriots got early running touchdowns from Ike Forte and Cunningham. With the lead and the defense playing well, Grogan only threw ten passes and the Pats salted away a 14-10 win.
They still needed more breaks and got a big one when Baltimore lost at home to the mediocre Detroit Lions. Suddenly, against all odds, New England was in a three-way tie for first entering the final week of the season when they would play Baltimore head-to-head.
The problem was that the Patriots were faring poorly in tiebreakers. The losses to the Bills and Jets meant that New England had an inferior division record to Miami. While the Pats could take care of the Colts themselves, they needed the Dolphins to lose. The losses to bad AFC teams also meant New England had no chance to catch Oakland, who was 10-3, for the wild-card. The Raiders won in any case.
New England knew their fate by the time they took the field in old Memorial Stadium. Miami had played on Saturday and beaten Buffalo. The Patriots were eliminated.
They could still play spoiler, as the Colts had the tiebreaker edge on the Dolphins and were playing for the AFC East title. New England jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the third quarter, but the pass defense came apart. Jones carved them up for 340 yards, never threw an interception and rallied Baltimore to a 30-24 win.
Missing the playoffs was a disappointment, although by the standards of today, the Patriots would have been the 6-seed. The good news was this—the franchise still had a season that just two years earlier would have been considered wildly successful, and in 1978, they would climb to the top of the AFC East.
The 1977 Minnesota Vikings were a good team that won a division title, their ninth in ten years. They reached the NFC Championship Game. But there were also unmistakable signs of decline setting for the franchise that had been the NFC’s best from 1969-76, reaching four Super Bowls, including three of the past four.
Throughout most of the decade, it was customary to see the Vikings in the top ten—if not the top five—in the NFL in points scored. They were traditionally a top five defense. But in 1977, they ranked 16th in offense and 13th on defense.
The lineup was long on the tooth. Fran Tarkenton was now 37-years-old and his TD/INT ratio slipped to 9/14. The defensive line still had the names of three men who once drew the nickname “The Purple People Eaters.” But Carl Eller, Alan Page and 40-year-old Jim Marshall were no longer Pro Bowlers. Nor was Paul Krause, the 35-year-old safety. Other players for whom the clock was ticking included center Mick Tingelhoff at 37 and corner Bobby Bryant, age 33.
But lest we turn this into a funeral atmosphere, they could still play with savvy and the Vikings had a top running back in Chuck Foreman, who rolled for 1,112 yards. They had good receivers in Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. The right side of the line had Pro Bowl talent in Ed White and Ron Yary—although Yary did lose the 1st-team All-Pro status that he had enjoyed since 1971, and 1977 would be his last year in the Pro Bowl.
Minnesota opened the season hosting the Dallas Cowboys, and it began with an erratic performance from Tarkenton, who went 13/32 for 182 yards and three interceptions. The game still went to overtime, but the Cowboys left town with a 16-10 win.
A rare early season Saturday night kickoff followed in Tampa Bay, where the expansion Buccaneers were a new team in Minnesota’s NFC Central Division (which otherwise had the four teams of today’s NFC North). It was an ugly game. Eller sacked Tampa quarterback Randy Hedberg for a safety and the defense forced Hedberg into a 4/14 for 51 yards and three interceptions night. But the Vikings only won 9-3.
The Green Bay Packers were a bad team at this time, and even after getting a 95-yard touchdown pass from Lynn Dickey to begin their game in Minnesota, the Vikings took over. They held Dickey to 48 yards passing the rest of the way and won 19-7. Another defensive game followed at home with Detroit. There was no running game, but Tarkenton’s two first-quarter touchdown passes to White were enough for a 14-7 win.
A fourth straight game with a division foe was next, and so was another hard-fought win. The Vikings led the Chicago Bears 13-0, then fell behind 16-13, then tied it with a field goal. Minnesota won in overtime, on a trick play, as Krause came in and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Stu Voigt.
Minnesota was 4-1 and had swept their NFC Central rivals. But the fact the games with the Packers, Lions and Bears were all at home and all close, was enough to cause concern. And that concern shot up with a humiliating Monday Night trip to Los Angeles. The Vikings gave up three first-half touchdown passes to the Rams’ Pat Haden and were crushed 35-3 by a traditional playoff team.
Another grinding win over an average team followed in Atlanta. After falling behind 7-0, Tarkenton connected with White on a 54-yard touchdown pass to key a 14-7 win. The next week though, the St. Louis Cardinals came to the Twin Cities and the rush defense collapsed. The Cardinals ran for 316 yards, and the offense didn’t score until St. Louis was ahead 27-0 in the fourth quarter.
Head coach Bud Grant got his team back on track against a decent Cincinnati Bengals team. The Vikings played their best game. Foreman ran for 133 yards. Tarkenton was razor-sharp, completing 17/18 passes for 195 yards in a 42-10 rout. But as though something was telling Minnesota that their time was running out, Tarkenton broke his leg. He was lost for the season.
The road trip to Chicago was next, and the Bears’ Walter Payton carried the ball 40 times and ran for 275 yards. It was a performance that probably won Payton the MVP award. Minnesota could only score on a blocked punt by Pro Bowl linebacker Matt Blair and they lost 10-7.
Minnesota was now 6-4, with Chicago and Detroit each in close pursuit at 5-5. This was essentially new territory. The Vikings had only sporadically had to face a challenge for the division title deep into November. Now they had competition.
Bob Lee was the quarterback at Green Bay the next week at Green Bay, but it was the defense and Foreman’s 101 rush yards that keyed a 13-6 win. Perhaps that’s why Grant was ready to pull Lee when the Vikings dug a 24-0 hole for themselves at home the next week against the San Francisco 49ers. Enter Tommy Kramer.
Kramer would eventually become the starting quarterback and the 23-year-old delivered an electric performance. He completed 9/13 passes for 188 yards. Kramer threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to three different receivers and led a stunning 28-27 comeback win.
He lost the job the next week after digging a big hole in a 35-13 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, but that was a game the Vikings would probably have lost on the road no matter what, even had Tarkenton been healthy. Kramer’s heroics against San Francisco meant that Minnesota controlled their own destiny going into the final week of the season.
The Vikings were 8-5, as were the Bears. Detroit had faded, and Minnesota held the tiebreaker. There was no guarantee of a wild-card fallback, as only one such berth existed at this time, and the Washington Redskins were also 8-5.
Minnesota played their season finale on Saturday in Detroit. Lee was the starter and he played well, completing 11/16 for 206 yards, and not making any mistakes. The Vikings took a 24-7 lead and even though they allowed a pair of special teams touchdowns, on two long returns by Eddie Payton, Minnesota was never in danger of losing. They won 30-21 and secured another NFC Central—and the win was needed, because Chicago and Washington both won on Sunday.
The Vikings were the #3 seed in the four-team NFC bracket and they traveled to Los Angeles to rematch with the Rams. A torrential downpour engulfed the LA area and the Coliseum was tracked with mud. Foreman ran for over 100 yards, as did Ram running back Lawrence McCutcheon. Lee played extremely conservative, going 5/10 for 57 yards, but not throwing any interceptions.
It was the Rams who made the mistakes. Minnesota got out to a 7-0 lead, and were up 14-0 in the fourth quarter because Haden threw two interceptions, and Los Angeles missed a field goal. The Rams finally did score with a minute left and then recovered the onside kick. Haden threw one more pass into the end zone…and one more interception, as Jeff Wright picked it off to secure the win for the Vikings.
The run ended on New Year’s Day in Dallas. The Cowboys were just too dominant this season. The Vikings had to play a perfect game under any circumstances, and they lost three fumbles. The balanced Dallas running attack of Robert Newhouse and Tony Dorsett keyed an easy 23-6 win.
Even with the loss, and even with the end of the Minnesota Vikings’ run as the top team in the NFC, they still showed they could survive a tough division race and still win playoff games. But the end was clearly coming.
The Chicago Bears won the NFL championship in 1963, but then drifted into obscurity. The Super Bowl era began three years later and from 1966-76, the Bears failed to qualify for the postseason. After going 4-10 in 1974, the team hired a new head coach in Jack Pardee. The record stayed 4-10 in ’75, but jumped to 7-7 a year later and the 1977 Chicago Bears made the next jump and got that elusive playoff berth.
Chicago was led by running back Walter Payton, the dynamic 24-year old running back who rolled up 1,852 yards in what was still a 14-game schedule (the league went to 16 games in 1978). Payton won the MVP award as he carried an offense that ranked 13th in the NFL in points scored.
Bob Avellini was at quarterback, also 24-years-old and while he was erratic—18 interceptions—his 2,000-plus yards were pretty decent by the standards of the time. It wasn’t until a year later that the league tightened restrictions on defensive backs, so throwing the football still wasn’t easy in the world of 1977. James Scott was the top receiver, pulling in 50 catches for 809 yards.
The Bears had a young offensive line, with every starter between the ages of 23-26 and Pro Bowl corner Allan Ellis led the defense with six interceptions. Ellis was the only Pro Bowler on a unit that ranked 19th in points allowed, but both safeties—23-year-old Gary Fencik along with Doug Plank—each picked off four passes.
Pardee’s team opened the season with two mediocre opponents, a home game with the Detroit Lions and on the road against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Bears split those two games, and then a home date with the New Orleans Saints illustrated a problem that would bedevil the team all year long—poor performances against a bad teams. The Saints would only win three games in 1977, but their 42-24 thrashing of Chicago in Soldier Field was one of them.
Even more mystifying is that eight days after this embarrassment, Chicago played one of its best games for a national TV audience. They hosted the Los Angeles Rams, a consistent contender in the NFC throughout the 1970s on Monday Night Football, then the only prime-time game of the week in the NFL. Payton ran for 126 yards, the defense picked off Rams quarterback Pat Haden four times and Chicago won 24-23.
A tough loss at Minnesota followed. The Vikings were the pre-eminent power in the NFC Central (the current teams of the NFC North plus second-year franchise Tampa Bay) and had a 13-0 lead. Chicago, with Payton rushing for 122 yards, rallied to take a 16-13 lead. But Minnesota’s Chuck Foreman ran for 150, and the Vikings first tied the game with a field goal and then won in overtime.
The Bears beat Atlanta and shut out a bad Green Bay team to get their record to 4-3 and give the fan base some real hope. Just as quickly, they went on the road to play the Houston Oilers and turned in a performance that made the earlier game with New Orleans look Super Bowl-caliber by comparison.
We need to preface this by saying that even though the Oilers were a decent team, en route to 8-6, they did not yet have running back Earl Campbell, who dominated the league in the latter part of this decade. Campbell was still in his senior year at Texas, winning the Heisman Trophy.
It was Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini who authored a shocking 47-0 embarrassment. Avellini and backup quarterback Mike Phipps combined to throw for 26 yards—suffice it to say, even by the standards of the time, this was an embarrassment.
The season almost got away at home one week later against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team on their way to a 2-12 finish. The Chiefs led 27-21 in the fourth quarter, but Avellini bailed the Bears out when he hit tight end Greg Latta on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and ensured Payton’s 192 rush yards didn’t go to waste.
With the record at 5-4, there was little margin of error at a time when the playoffs only consisted of four teams—there was one wild-card slot available in a three-divisional conference structure. Minnesota came to town on November 20.
Payton likely won the MVP award on this day. His number was called 40 times, and running against a good defensive unit, Payton produced 275 yards on the ground. The defense played its own best game of the year and the Vikings got their only points when a blocked punt was taken in for a touchdown. Chicago won 10-7 and kept their hopes—for both the Central title and the wild-card spot—alive.
Thanksgiving Day in Detroit is never easy for a visiting team. Chicago fell behind early, but then Avellini led an avalanche in the second half. The quarterback finished 14/21 for 260 yards with two touchdown passes. The Bears won 31-14 and now had some momentum and ten days to rest up for the final push.
The oddities of the schedule meant Chicago only played Tampa Bay one time, and it wouldn’t have been the Bears if this game against a lousy team wasn’t a little uncomfortable. Chicago did survive 10-0, holding Buccaneer quarterback Randy Hedberg to 21 passing yards. A week later, the Bears beat the Packers 21-10. And when the Vikes lost to the Oakland Raiders, the NFC Central was a dead heat at 8-5.
With one game to go, the Bears were in a three-way fight, with the Washington Redskins also at 8-5. Chicago needed Minnesota to lose if they were to claim the NFC Central. But the Bears controlled their destiny over the Redskins for the wild-card spot.
Chicago was playing on the road against the New York Giants for the season finale. The Giants were a bad team at this time, although by this point, everyone in the Windy City knew not to take that seriously. The Saturday of Week 14 saw Minnesota and Washington each play on Saturday. Both teams won, so the Bears knew the stakes when they took the field—they were playing for the wild-card and it was win or go home.
The sleet pounded the Meadowlands and the Giants’ runners—Larry Csonka and Doug Kotar—handled it better than Payton. New York got 253 yards on the ground, while Payton was held to 47 yards. But neither team could get in the end zone. It was a field goal war and it went to overtime tied 9-9. Finally, the Bears got in position for Bob Thomas to try a game-winner and he connected. At long last, the Bears were going to the postseason.
Chicago’s reward for their effort was a trip to face the Dallas Cowboys, the #1 seed who had dominated defensively all year long. Minnesota upset the Los Angeles in the other NFC divisional playoff game, so the Bears took the field knowing they could create an all-NFC Central championship game in the Twin Cities. But the Cowboys were too good. Tony Dorsett and Robert Newhouse piled up the rush yards, Payton was held to 60 yards and Dallas cruised to a 37-7 win.
Pardee’s team had every reason to hang their head high though. Dallas turned the entire playoffs into a demolition, so Chicago had plenty of company. And after eleven years of irrelevance in the Super Bowl era, Chicago had gotten its biggest victory by finally making the postseason party.