The 1970s are remembered fondly by many NFL fans. After a decade of rivalry, the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970, adding 10 new teams and beginning a process of change. The AFL might have been subsumed by the NFL but ‘the other league’ would have the last laugh: when it comes to playing style, the modern NFL looks more like the pass-happy AFL than the NFL of the 1960s.
Kevin Cook tells of a decade in which the NFL rose to become America’s number one sport, though it still had some way to go in terms of competitiveness and excitement. For all the glory attached to the Seventies NFL – and I admit that I’m too young to have watched it – in the 10 Super Bowls played between 1970-71 and 1979-80 just five teams appeared 16 times: the Steelers (four Super Bowl wins), Cowboys (two wins, three losses), Dolphins (two wins, one loss), Raiders (one win) and the Vikings (three losses). I include the Raiders because they are undoubtedly one of the decade’s dominant teams, reaching the AFC Championship game six times and losing five.
The games themselves were often low-scoring slogs, so by late Seventies, the owners instructed the Competition Committee to find ways to boost scoring. Blocking was made easier for offensive lineman and cornerbacks were given much less leeway over when they could make contact with a defender. The result was the passing game of the 1980s.
This isn’t an aberration; in many ways, the history of the NFL since the 1920s has been a gradual evolution away from games that are essentially a series of 22-man scrums towards a more open game with lots of downfield passing.
What the 1970s did have was plenty of characters. There was Thomas ‘Hollywood’ Henderson, the Cowboys linebacker, who said Terry Bradshaw was “so dumb he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the c and the t” and kept a plastic container of liquid cocaine hidden in his uniform on game days. Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson, the Houston Oilers wide receiver, invented the touchdown dance. And the Oakland Raiders were full of enough colourful crazies to fill several books – and several have been written.
Cook delivers all these stories and more in a book that moves at a rapid pace. He’s particularly good on the rivalry between the Steelers and the Raiders but he also explains how the league improved its presentation through the 1970s, turning the Super Bowl into a more spectacular event, for example, and expanding games onto Monday night to take advantage of prime-time time audiences.
This isn’t just a thorough history of the NFL in the 1970s, it’s also a really entertaining one.
Photo: Matt McGee