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23 Dec 2005
by Mike Tanier
The NFL rarely schedules games on Christmas Day. But one of the greatest games ever played took place on Christmas Day in 1971.
On an unseasonably warm December afternoon in Kansas City, the Dolphins upset the Chiefs 27-24 in the first round of the playoffs. The game wasn't decided until the second overtime period; at 82 minutes and 40 seconds, it remains the longest NFL game ever played.
No NFL games had ever been played on Christmas Day before 1971. In the days of 12-game schedules, the NFL championship game was usually held in the first week of December. The 14-game schedule came into effect in 1961, but it wasn't until 1971 that Christmas, Sunday, and the postseason were all aligned. For a league that historically scheduled games on Thanksgiving, two playoff matchups on Christmas Day didn't seem like such a stretch.
Early in the afternoon, the Cowboys beat the Vikings 20-12. It was a good game, with the Cowboys nursing a 6-3 lead at halftime before pulling away, but while it was the first Christmas Day game ever played, it would soon be overshadowed in the memories of fans.
Kickoff for Chiefs-Dolphins was 3 p.m. local time: so much for an early family feast. But many football fans in Kansas City had little trouble choosing between football and the holiday. "We gave the game priority over Christmas dinner," Chiefs fan Marie Lear told the Kansas City Star in 2001. "Wives who were not involved in football, they were pretty disgruntled. They were holding dinner and holding dinner." The same article revealed that for many fans who took their families to the game, Christmas dinner was a hot dog and a soda.
Chiefs fans had reason to downplay the holidays; their team was one of the best in the NFL. They won the Super Bowl two seasons earlier, in the final year before the official AFL-NFL merger. They had won the AFC West with relative ease while the Dolphins spent the season slugging it out with the Colts. The Chiefs were loaded with Pro Bowl players, from QB Len Dawson and WR Otis Taylor to defenders like Willie Lanier, Curley Culp, and Buck Buchanan.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, were in their sixth season and were still thought of as an expansion team. They had been to the postseason just once before. While receiver Paul Warfield and linebacker Nick Buoniconti were established players; quarterback Bob Griese, running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, and linemen Jim Langer, Bob Kuechenberg, and Larry Little were all under 27 years old.
The New York Times picked the Chiefs to win, noting that the key to the game would be the Chiefs' ability to stop Csonka and Kiick. "If they get six or seven yards on first down, the defensive linemen will have an extremely difficult job," Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson said. "They will have to watch for the run or the pass and they can't put on the pass rush they would if they knew it's got to be a pass. That's why the secret is to stop the first down play."
The Times article also noted, presciently, that the game might come down to kickers Jan Stenrud of Kansas City and Garo Yepremian of Miami. Stenrud, who kicked three field goals in Super Bowl IV and had a reputation as the league's best kicker, had been named to the Pro Bowl over Yepremian, despite the fact that Yepremian had better statistics. Yepremian felt snubbed. "I came to Kansas City determined to show them I'm a good kicker," Yepremian said after the game.
The temperature at kickoff was in the mid-60's, with gusting winds. The Chiefs won the toss and jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Stenerud scored the first points with a 24-yard field goal. On the next Chiefs possession, Dawson hit running back Ed Podolak for a touchdown on a seven-yard screen pass.
Podolak had been the team's second-round draft choice in 1969. At Iowa, he played both halfback and quarterback in a modernized version of the Wing-T offense. As a sophomore, he started at quarterback for the Hawkeyes, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for a third in his debut. He lead the team in passing twice and rushing once, setting a school record with a 286-yard rushing game against Northwestern. While he never played quarterback for the Chiefs, he was an all-purpose man for them, leading the team in rushing in 1970 and 1971 while returning kicks and punts and catching plenty of passes out of the backfield. "He wasn't defined as big or small or fast or elusive," teammate Lanier would later remember. "He just had quality skills to play the tailback position."
Podolak was successful in college and the NFL, but his performance on the longest day would define his career.
The Dolphins responded quickly. Griese led the team on an 80-yard drive on their next possession. Csonka capped the drive with a one-yard score, but the Griese-to-Warfield combination produced much of the yardage. The Chiefs felt they were the better passing team, but while Griese was connecting with his receivers, Dawson couldn't find Otis Taylor. "Every time I came off the line, there were always three or four guys on me," Taylor said after the game. "I never did get single coverage."
Even without Taylor, the Chiefs were able to move the ball. Podolak was effective as a runner and receiver. Fullback Wendell Hayes was able to run up the middle. Late in the second quarter, they were in position to attempt a 29-yard field goal. Coach Hank Stram called for a fake; Stenerud was fast, and if he took a direct snap, Stram figured he could easily run for a first down or touchdown behind All Pro guard Ed Budde, who would pull out to block for him.
Stenerud did an excellent job of pretending to set up for a field goal. In fact, he did too good of a job. Snapper Bobby Bell watched the kicker work and began to worry that Stenerud had missed the signal for a fake. So Bell snapped to Dawson, the holder.
The surprised Dawson managed to set the ball down. Stenerud quickly adjusted and attempted to kick the ball. But Budde and other linemen were pulling to the outside, blocking for a fake. Kicking under extreme duress, Stenerud pulled the attempt wide right.
The Chiefs would get the ball back later in the quarter, but Podolak fumbled at the Chiefs' 12-yard line. Dolphins safety Dick Anderson pounced on the ball, and Yepremian converted a short field goal. The game was tied 10-10 as players went into the locker room.
It may have been halftime, but the game wasn't nearly halfway over.
The Chiefs started the third quarter with a 75-yard drive that ate up over nine minutes. Podolak, Hayes, and Jim Otis shared the carries in that ball control drive, with Otis scoring on a one-yard run. The Dolphins staged a quick counter-strike: Griese hit Warfield and Howard Twilly for long gains, setting up a touchdown run by Kiick.
The Dolphins mounted another drive on their next possession, but Chiefs safety Jim Lynch picked off a Griese pass at the nine-yard line. Rookie wide receiver Elmo Wright then slipped past his defender and hauled in a 63-yard pass from Dawson. Podolak finished the drive with a three-yard run. The Chiefs led, 24-17.
Back came the Dolphins. Griese orchestrated a 71-yard drive, connecting with Warfield for several big gains. When tight end Marv Fleming caught the touchdown pass that tied the game, there was 1:36 left to play.
The Dolphins kicked off. Podolak took the kick at the goal line, cut to the left, and ran 78 yards before being knocked out of bounds. "The blockers opened up the middle perfectly," Podolak said after the game. "There was only one man there, Yepremian, and when I had to dodge him I had to slow down a little and somebody had an angle on me from the other side." That somebody, Curtis Johnson, saved the game. But at the time, it seemed as though he only delayed the inevitable.
The Chiefs ran plays to move the ball to the right hashmark. Stenerud lined up to kick the game-winning field goal. He hit it squarely, but in his words, "The ball stayed over the right post and didn't come in."
The Chiefs and Dolphins were headed for overtime, which in those days was uncharted territory.
There were no regular season overtime games prior to 1974. Back then, a game tied after four quarters was simply a tie. There had only been three playoff overtime games before Christmas Day, 1971: the 1958 Colts-Giants title game (the game that put pro football on the national map), the 1962 AFL championship game between the Dallas Texans and Houston Oilers, and the 1965 NFL Western Conference playoff between the Colts and Packers.
Dolphins coach Don Shula was the skipper of that Colts team in 1965. Hank Stram helmed the 1962 Texans, who would soon become the Chiefs. So both coaches had what little overtime experience that pro football offered in 1971. And Stram was no fan of it. "Two of these in a lifetime is too many," he said after the Dolphins game. "It was a horrifying experience," added Dawson, "because one break is going to be the game."
Dawson got the first break: he won the coin toss. The Chiefs converted several third downs on the opening drive, but they stalled at the 35-yard line. Stenerud set up for a 42-yard kick (the goal posts were still in the front of the end zone in 1971), but the snap was high. Nick Buoniconti broke through the line and blocked the kick. The next Dolphins drive stalled at the Chiefs' 45-yard line. Yepremian missed the long kick.
It was clear that overtime would belong to the kickers. Both Stenerud and Yepremian were part of the NFL's new breed: soccer-style field goal specialists. Just a decade earlier, field goals were often kicked by halfbacks or backup quarterbacks. Teams that did employ a specialist usually used him to kick both field goals and punts. Most field goals before the mid-1960s were kicked straight on.
But Stenerud, the Norwegian, and Yepremian, from Cyprus, approached the ball from an angle the way modern kickers do. The all-purpose kicker was rapidly disappearing. And while Stenerud was a fairly big guy, Yepremian was 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds. He made neckties in the offseason. He was a high school dropout and an unwanted free agent before the Dolphins picked him up in 1970.
He was ready to make history. "I was just hoping to get a chance," Yepremian said. "I could make anything under 50 yards." He wouldn't get another chance in that first overtime period, as the two teams traded punts.
Three minutes into the second overtime period, the Dolphins started a drive on their own 30-yard line. Kiick rushed for five yards on first down. Griese and Shula were looking for a change-up on second down. The Chiefs had been overpursuing on sweeps, so it was time for some misdirection.
Griese called "roll right, trap left" for the first time in the game. Griese and halfback Kiick flowed to the right. Right guard Larry Little and right tackle Norm Evans pulled left. Fullback Larry Csonka took a handoff and ran behind the pulling linemen. Willie Lanier read the play, but Dolphins center Bob DeMarco leveled him. Csonka ran 29 yards. The Dolphins were in field goal position.
Kiick ran for two yards, Csonka four. Kiick was stopped on third down, but the ball was set up on the left hashmark for left-footed Yepremian.
Mike Kolen was the snapper. Reserve wide receiver Karl Noonan was the holder. The New York Times described the kick: "The ball shot above the outstretched, yearning hands of the Kansas City linemen and floated steadily toward the goal posts. It went between the uprights, the official in the end zone raised his arms and the Dolphins, almost as one, leaped into the air with their arms raised in triumph."
"After I kicked the ball, I looked up in the sky and thanked God for giving me the chance to kick it," Yepremian said.
Willie Lanier, remembering the game years later, said that he took the loss in stride. "I can only tell you how I felt after the game: We played the very best we could on that day. That's the reality of any game. One team will win and one will lose. If you played your very best and you knew it, well, what else could you ask for?"
Lanier, Dawson, Stenerud, Bobby Bell, and Buck Buchanan and would reach the Hall of Fame, as would head coach Stram and owner Lamar Hunt. But that overtime loss marked the end of the Chiefs era. They wouldn't reach the playoffs again until 1986. Podolak, who rushed for 85 yards, caught eight passes for 110 yards, and returned three kicks for 154 yards in the NFL's longest game, would stay with the team until 1977 and is a member of the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, were on their way up. They would lose in the Super Bowl two games after beating the Chiefs. In 1972, they wouldn't lose at all. Griese, Warfield, Csonka, Buoniconti, Langer, Little, and Shula would eventually reach the Hall of Fame. Yepremian kicked in the NFL until 1981 and scored 1,074 career points.
The NFL took some criticism for scheduling a Christmas Day game, and the overtime showdown ruined family dinners in Kansas City and across the country. There wouldn't be another Christmas Day game until 1989. Since then, the NFL has compromised when Christmas falls on a weekend, scheduling a few games while moving others to Saturday or Monday.
Last year, the Chiefs played another Christmas game, hosting the hated Raiders. The Chiefs trailed 30-28 with 30 seconds to play. Dante Hall, emulating Podolak, returned a kickoff 49 yards. Lawrence Tynes, vindicating Stenerud, kicked the game-winning field goal. Older fans smiled.
But veterans like Lanier needed no vindication. Just participating in that historic game was a reward. "It took a game going into overtime -- or in this case, double-overtime -- to recognize what it means to play at a higher level, or your highest level. Only after the game could you have an idea of what that was."
Happy Holidays from the Football Outsiders family.
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