These five players authored legendary - and unexpected - performances when the stakes were highest
In the NFL playoffs, moments take on an elevated significance. You never know when something will happen that will remain a part of NFL lore decades later. This year, there were at least two such instances: the Minneapolis Miracle, in which quarterback Case Keenum threw a “walkoff” touchdown pass to wide receiver Stefon Diggs to beat the Saints, and backup quarterback Nick Foles’ performance in leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl title.
Keenum, Diggs and Foles join an exclusive club -- players who will be telling and retelling the same story for the rest of their lives. Here’s a look at five other members of that club.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson
The game: The Tennessee Titans beat the Buffalo Bills, 22-16, in an AFC Wild Card playoff game in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2000.
The backstory: Moments after Buffalo kicked a go-ahead field goal, the Titans trailed 16-15 with 16 seconds to go in the game as the Bills lined up to kick off. Dyson was on the field only because the No. 1 option, Derrick Mason, had a concussion, and Mason’s replacement, Anthony Dorsett Jr., had cramps.
The play: Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal caught Bills kicker Steve Christie’s “pooch” kick. Neal handed the ball to tight end Frank Wycheck. Wycheck took a few steps to his right and threw the ball across the field to his left to Dyson. The throw was controversial -- some critics still maintain it was not a lateral. Dyson says that a literal reading of the rules shows that it was indeed a lateral. Regardless, the refs let it stand, both in live action and via instant replay.
Dyson caught the lateral and saw two defenders ahead of him. One was a defensive back, but he didn’t have a good angle. The other was Christie, who was thwarted in his attempt to get to Dyson by the three blockers shielding him. “I get a lot of credit. But all I did, really, was run,” Dyson says. “Everybody else worked on it all year long. Everybody else made it happen.”
Dyson, Wycheck and Neal get together every few years to talk about the play. And even though he was involved in it, Dyson says he learns something new about it every time they get together. Last summer, Neal said that before the play happened, he told Wycheck that he was going to field the ball and give it to him. Dyson had never heard that before.
“Even now, when I watch the play, I don’t watch me. I watch the faces of teammates, the crowd, what happens when I get in the end zone, the hands raised up. Moments like that, you share it with so many thousands of people, and their perspectives and their joy from it are different than your own,” Dyson says.
The aftermath: A few weeks after this play, Dyson was involved in an equally famous play -- The Tackle, the last play of Super Bowl XXXIV against the St. Louis Rams. The Titans trailed, 23-16, with time for one more play from the 10-yard line. Dyson caught a pass from Steve McNair but was tackled by Mike Jones at the 1-yard line. Time ran out as he tried to stretch into the end zone.
Even though that play doesn’t have a happy ending, Dyson still enjoys talking about it -- and he can laugh about it. He is an assistant principal at a high school near Nashville, and one day, he was joking with one of his students about an unrelated topic. He told the young boy that he (the boy) was too short to do something.
The boy’s retort: “Like you were too short in that Super Bowl?”
Says Dyson: “It was quick-witted, it was funny, it shocked me. But it was hilarious. He’s a freshman in high school. He had to google me to even know that. He wasn’t even born yet.”
Dyson takes that good-natured view because he figures there are thousands of guys who played in the NFL whom nobody remembers. But he’s remembered for two plays -- even if it’s not so fondly in Buffalo.
“When I was a free agent in 2003, I took a trip to Buffalo. People tried to run me out of town as soon as they found out I was making the trip, including the equipment manager. He said, ‘You know that was a forward pass.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what: If they sign me to a contract, yes, it was a forward pass. But I promise you, when I get done here, it’s going to get back to a lateral.’ I’ve always had fun with it.”
Cowboys wide receiver Ron Sellers
The game: The Dallas Cowboys beat the San Francisco 49ers, 30-28, in an NFC Divisional playoff game in San Francisco on Dec. 23, 1972.
The backstory: This game marks the beginning of Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach’s reign as “Captain Comeback.”
Staubach had been out of action since Week 5 with a shoulder injury, and Craig Morton had been the starter in Staubach’s place. Morton had a terrible start in San Francisco, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble as the team fell behind 21-3. Coach Tom Landry benched Morton and inserted Staubach at the start of the fourth quarter with the Cowboys down 28-13. They still trailed 28-16 with just over two minutes left in the game.
Staubach threw a touchdown pass to Billy Parks with 1:20 left in the game, and then the Cowboys recovered the ensuing onside kick to set up the final touchdown.
“If we don’t recover that, the game’s over. That’s really where it starts,” Sellers says. “If the onside kick doesn’t happen, Roger and I don’t have that nice pitch and catch.”
The play: In the huddle with 52 seconds left and the ball at the 10-yard line, Sellers did something unusual: He told Staubach he was going to be open. He was a big target -- he stood 6'4", which meant he was several inches taller than whoever was going to cover him.
The play called for Sellers to flare across the middle. He had run the play hundreds of times in his career. “I did my usual moves, and I was there, and as soon as I turned around, the ball was on its way, which was great timing,” Sellers says. “He threw a great pass.” Sellers caught the ball near the goal post for a touchdown, and a Charlie Waters interception sealed the comeback win.
The aftermath: Sellers was traded to Miami the following year and won the Super Bowl with the Dolphins in 1973, but this play stands, without question, as his individual highlight of a five-year career.
You would think that the fact that the Cowboys scored two touchdowns in roughly 30 seconds to win a playoff game on the road would make this play/win super famous. And it would be -- if it had happened on any other day. Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” occurred on the same day, and that is one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. Still, Sellers’ touchdown holds a prominent place in Cowboys lore.
In researching this story, Athlon Sports found a postgame interview with Sellers in which he told the same story he tells here, except that he was still wearing his uniform and drinking a can of Coke. Athlon emailed the link to Sellers; he said he had never seen the interview before. But the catch is still shown on highlights in Dallas, especially when the team plays the 49ers.
“I’ve seen it about 100 times on television,” Sellers says. “The greatest memory about that is when I see the highlights on television, they go over to the sidelines, and the Dallas Cowboys, with Tom Landry as our head coach, are rolling on the ground like they’re 15-year-old kids, [celebrating] a touchdown in joy because it was such an unbelievable comeback.”
Oilers safety Vernon Perry
The game: The Houston Oilers beat the San Diego Chargers, 17-14, in an AFC Divisional playoff game in San Diego on Dec. 29, 1979.
The backstory: The Oilers went into the game without their leading passer (Dan Pastorini), rusher (Earl Campbell) and receiver (Ken Burrough). As a result, when Houston pulled the upset, the announcers declared that the Oilers’ win would go down as one of the greatest upsets in postseason history.
Perry was a rookie safety who had spent the two previous seasons playing in the CFL. He played college ball at Jackson State, where he was teammates and friends with Walter Payton and Robert “Dr. Doom” Brazile, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past January.
Brazile, who is still Perry’s best friend, was responsible for persuading Oilers head coach Bum Phillips to sign Perry. In 1978, the Oilers struggled in covering tight ends. “He said, ‘Bum, I know a guy up in Canada who can come down here and shut the tight ends down and also make tackles,’ ” Perry says.
The play: Generally speaking, defensive players don’t get credit for extraordinary games like offensive players do. But it’s hard to imagine a defensive player doing more in one game than Perry did in this one. There is not merely one play; there are five of them -- a blocked field goal and four interceptions:
1. Perry sped through the line between the tight end and tackle to block a 26-yard field goal attempt by Chargers kicker Mike Wood. Perry scooped up the ball and returned it to the Chargers’ 30-yard line.
2. Interception No. 1: Perry ran down the right sideline covering a wide receiver. He read the play perfectly -- he beat the intended target to where the ball was thrown by several steps.
3. Interception No. 2: This one was a pass over the middle, and it was either a bad throw, a mis-run route, a perfect read by Perry or a combination of the three, as it appeared as though the ball was intended for Perry.
4. Interception No. 3: Brazile tipped a short pass over the middle, and Perry leaped to snag it like a power forward grabbing a rebound. “(Brazile) always gives me grief like that was his interception,” Perry says.
5. Interception No. 4: This came at the end of the game on a desperation pass in which Perry essentially won a jump ball.
Asked for the secret to his remarkable performance, Perry says, “I don’t know, man.” He blocked the field goal using speed and agility. The first two picks appeared to be based on his reading of the plays. The second two could be credited to his athleticism.
Perry says the Chargers might have underestimated his cover skills, although he had been a shutdown corner in the CFL.
There were reports after the game that Oilers defensive coordinator Eddie Biles had figured out the Chargers’ signs or that he could diagnose whether a play was a pass or a run based on the position of Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts’ feet. Perry has heard those reports and laughs at them.
“They said Eddie Biles knew every time Dan Fouts was going to throw the ball. But that wasn’t a secret,” Perry says. “He threw the ball 97 percent of the time. No kidding! You knew that?! He threw 97 percent of the time because he had the best receivers in the league.”
Even if Biles knew when the Chargers were going to throw the ball, he never shared that information with Perry. “I said, ‘Eddie, if you knew all that, I would have had 10 interceptions because you sure didn’t tell me.’”
The aftermath: The next week, the Oilers played the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Perry returned an interception of quarterback Terry Bradshaw 75 yards for a touchdown in a 27-13 loss, giving Perry a two-game postseason total of five interceptions and a blocked field goal.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Ed Podolak
The game: The Kansas City Chiefs lost to the Miami Dolphins, 27-24, in an AFC Divisional round playoff game in Kansas City on Dec. 25, 1971. At 82 minutes, 40 seconds, it was the longest game in NFL history. It was also the last game at Kansas City Municipal Stadium.
The backstory: The star of the Chiefs offense was wide receiver Otis Taylor. “Miami had decided they were going to take him out of the game,” Podolak says. “Which they pretty much did with defensive coverages.”
Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson recognized that the Dolphins’ defensive approach would leave Podolak open as a receiver and make it possible for him to pick up nice gains on running plays. Podolak set a playoff record by gaining 350 all-purpose yards: 85 rushing on 17 carries, 110 receiving on eight catches and 155 on five returns. He also scored two touchdowns.
“[Dawson] still called his own plays in the huddle. They hadn’t started the signaling in stuff yet. He kept calling my number and going to me. He called everybody ‘Mister.’ He said, ‘Just keep it up, Mister.’ He used me up, which I really thank him for.”
Podolak had played defensive back in college, so he read coverages the same way Dawson did. “I could read the same thing so I knew I was going to be primary,” he says. “We found out what worked and stayed with it.”
Podolak estimates that he caught four or five screen passes, and he says the most used running play was called 55 Lead, which was run from the I-formation with a fullback clearing the way off of left tackle.
The play: Podolak’s place in history is more about a day’s entire body of work than one particular play. But there is one play from that day that stands out in his memory -- a kickoff return near the end of regulation.
Podolak broke off a 78-yard return down the sideline to get the Chiefs into easy field goal range. At the time, he figured that was the game-clinching play, because the Chiefs had the ever-reliable Jan Stenerud as the kicker. But Stenerud missed it. Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian kicked the game-winner much, much later, in overtime.
“Nick Buoniconti [the Dolphins linebacker] and I ran into each other about 25 times that day,” Podolak says. “It went on and on and on. In the sixth quarter, I remember him laying on top of me for, I don’t know, the 25th time, and I said, ‘Do you think this will ever be over?’ He said he pushed my head down in the mud and kneed me in the back. But I don’t remember that at all.”
The aftermath: Podolak’s record will probably never be broken, for multiple reasons. One is that 350 yards is just so many. Another is that he accumulated them in so many different ways -- as a running back, receiver and returner. That was possible back then. But the game is much more specialized now, so very few players accumulate yardage in all three ways in one game.
Dolphins backup quarterback Don Strock
The game: The Chargers beat the Dolphins, 41-38, in an AFC Divisional playoff game in Miami on Jan. 2, 1982. This game was so great that it has three nicknames: The Epic in Miami, The Miracle That Died and The Game No One Should Have Lost.
The backstory: Strock was considered one of the best backups in the league and had played in all 16 regular- season games in a timeshare with starter David Woodley that was referred to as “WoodStrock.” After the Dolphins fell behind 24-0, Miami head coach Don Shula pulled Woodley and put in Strock early in the second quarter. Strock went in with the mindset that the team had to score, and quickly, to reverse the momentum.
Strock led the team to 17 points by halftime, and the Dolphins even took the lead in the fourth quarter before falling in overtime. Strock completed 29-of-43 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns in just under three quarters of work.
The play: In a game full of incredible twists and turns, the hook-and-lateral pass near the end of the first half stands out for Strock and Dolphins fans.
With the ball at San Diego’s 40-yard line with six seconds left in the half and the Dolphins trailing 24-10, Strock, who called his own plays, dialed up “87 circle curl lateral.”
Miami practiced its trick plays every Tuesday, running through each of them once, including this one. The play had unusual timing. The pass would go to Duriel Harris, but Strock had to wait a fraction longer than usual to give running back Tony Nathan, who lined up in the backfield, time to get into position to take the lateral.
It all worked out perfectly. Strock hit Harris at the 25. Harris pitched it to Nathan, and Nathan ran untouched into the end zone. “The first thing I looked for was a flag. Did he throw a lateral? Did he throw it sideways?” Strock says.
But there was no flag, and the play stood. The score was now 24-17.
“At that point, the whole place went nuts. We couldn’t hear from that point on,” Strock says. “The Orange Bowl was one of the loudest places ever. That was just pandemonium.”
That play is Strock’s strongest on-field memory from that day. But his strongest memory from the game came at halftime. And it’s because of what Shula said. Or more accurately, what he didn’t say. “In my 14 years with the Dolphins, I was never in a halftime where coach Shula didn’t say something. It was so loud, through the whole halftime, he didn’t say anything,” Strock says. “He didn’t say good job or let’s do this in the second half. He gave us two minutes, and then we were going back on the field. He was always getting on somebody’s [expletive] or cussing them out, or telling the defense, pick it up, you stink. It was always something. This one? Nothing. Not one coach even spoke to anybody.”
The aftermath: This game has an abnormally large place in the history of the Dolphins, considering they lost the game. It remains a prominent “Where were you when...?” moment in team history. “There were at least 250,000 people at that game, even though the Orange Bowl only held 75,000,” Strock jokes.
-- Written by Matt Crossman for Athlon Sports
(Kevin Dyson photo by Wade Payne/AP; Ron Sellers photo courtesy of the Bettman Archive; Vernon Perry, Ed Podolak and Don Strock photos courtesy of the AP)