For the first time in its 18-year history, the National Football League’s Super Bowl may measure up to its multimillion-dollar promotional publicity. When the Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Raiders meet in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 22, the game will feature the two teams that were consistently rated as the league’s best throughout the season. As a result, in a year when NFL television ratings dropped on all three major U.S. networks, drug convictions abounded, and top competitors and collegiate stars signed with the rival United States Football League, the NFL still may redeem itself with a truly super Bowl game.
Sunday’s game promises attractions for everyone. The league’s most valuable player, Joe Theismann, will quarterback the Redskins. He will throw long and short and scramble while guiding one of the game’s most complicated offences. His counterpart, Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett, will throw
short to Todd Christensen and long to Cliff Branch, operating one of the game’s least complicated attacks. Redskin running back John Riggins, who scored a record 24 touchdowns and was named last week as the NFL’s outstanding player, will grind out yardage on the ground behind the league’s biggest offensive line, “The Hogs.” Raider running back Marcus Allen will dance and float over the ground on straightforward, try-to-stop-me plays. The Raider defence, the “Hell’s Angels,” will simply attack the Redskins. Wearing his tinted glasses, Raider owner AÍ Davis, the NFL’s maverick bad boy, will pace and gesticulate furiously. And Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke will alternate between grand smiles and dark frowns, attired like a grandfatherly tycoon. On the field it will be the computer-age Redskins against Raider blood and thunder—1984 against 1950.
Recently, successful NFL teams have tended to adopt nicknames for their more effective units. And the Redskins I
have followed the trend. Hogs, Fun Bunch, Pearl Harbor Crew, Joe the Throw, Downtown Charlie Brown and the Smurfs have all become tradenames. For their part, the Raiders will be playing in their fourth Bowl and they have a 14-4 win-loss record this year, but they would never adopt such nicknames as Smurfs or the Fun Bunch. Hell’s Angels is the choice of the rejects and unpredictable players, whose owner says: “We like to get in a street fight. We are still playing like old-time teams.” By contrast, when asked if he would like a replay of Washington’s 3735 win over L.A. this season, Cooke replied, “I would leave my stadium box, beat a hasty retreat to the church, bend to my knees and ask for divine intervention, and return to my box to see if it was granted.”
And as the Redskins and Raiders prepared last week for Super Bowl XVIII, the USFL was looking at television riches of its own. To that end, league teams signed running back Mike Rozier, the University of Nebraska Heisman Trophy winner; Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Cliff Stoudt; and offered Chicago Bear running back Walter Payton a $6-million contract over three years. The NFL owners became increasingly wary of the USFL threat last week as their glory day approached.
The Redskin and Raider players, at least, focused on the game. In predictable Hell’s Angels style, L.A. defensive lineman Lyle Alzado said: “[Running back] John Riggins and I were rookies the same year, and he is a friend of mine. But we have to get in his face and tear his head off.” But reflecting the analytic approach that the Redskins bring to each contest, head coach Joe Gibbs, commenting on his team being posted as the early Bowl favorite, said: “Any team that has been winning is expected to win. So when you do win, it is a relief. It is like you have avoided losing. That is what I mean in football when I say you build your own monster.”
The league and the television networks have created a monster of their own. CBS will televise the game and it expects a worldwide audience of more than 100 million. CBS sold commercials at $450,000 per 30 seconds—a record for sports broadcasting. The Redskins will try to tie the record of the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers as the only teams to win consecutive Super Bowls, and the Raiders hope to become the second team to win three (the Steelers have won four). Whatever the outcome, it will be a classic confrontation between the Hell’s Angels and the Hogs—and it will likely be a streetfight.
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