Since Steelers week on NFL Network has come and gone and the Immaculate Reception was shown again, I often wonder if the Raiders would have won their first Super Bowl instead of the Miami Dolphins having the first and only undefeated season in NFL history. Before I get into that, let’s quickly review some points on the play that ended the Raiders hopes.
The debate over the Immaculate Deception, which the Raiders refer to it as, has raged on since the day it happened 41 years, 3 months and 1 day ago on December 23, 1972. I have personally been over every frame of that play that I can find and I have drawn my own conclusions based on what I could see. Just for kicks, let’s review:
There are 3 main points of argument by the Raiders on the play. Who touched the ball first after it was thrown, did the ball touch the ground before it was caught and was there an uncalled clipping penalty on the play? Of the three, I agree with the Raiders on all but one.
The Raiders secondary appeared to blow the coverage on Steelers FB Frenchy Fuqua. To his credit, Raiders safety Jack Tatum made a very smart recovery and made that hit in an effort to dislodge the ball as defensive backs are taught. In my analysis of the hit, there is a shot where you can see Fuqua’s hand between the ball and Tatum, showing that it was knocked into the ball. Fuqua touched it first.
As for the clip on linebacker Phil Villipiano, that one is pretty obvious and should have been called. When I looked at the angle he was taking on Harris before he was clipped, there is little doubt that he would have either made the play himself since he was a good tackler, or if not, he would have slowed Franco down enough or forced him inside where there was help or even out of bounds. Either way the play would have ended and in Mr. Villipiano’s own words, “there would be no immaculate reception”.
The theory of the ball touching the ground is the only part I do not agree with. Besides the fact that Villipiano told me personally that he saw the catch, the bottom of the shot is always cut off so that you don’t see the tip of the ball. If you look at where it is in relation to Franco Harris’ shoe laces and take the size of the ball into consideration, you can be fairly certain that it was between 1 and 3 inches off of the ground.
Now, had this play not occurred, would the Raiders have won their first Super Bowl in 1972? A look at the stats for that year will provide some insight, but will not consider any X-factors that may have occurred. Here are the charts from 1972.
Both the Raiders and Dolphins had tough defenses, so there is little doubt that it would have been very similar to the game against the Steelers. The Dolphins were ranked first in overall defense, fifth against the pass and third against the run. Against the Raiders offense which is ranked third overall, seventh in passing and third in rushing, they would have fared pretty well.
On the flip side, the Raiders were ranked eighth in overall defense, 13th against the pass and 10th against the run. Against the Dolphins offense which was ranked first overall, 16th in passing and first in rushing, they would have matched up fairly well.
The Raiders offense ranked slightly better overall than what the Dolphins faced with the Steelers in the AFC Championship. The major difference is that the Raiders had a substantially better passing attack than the Steelers. The Raiders and Steelers defenses were fairly close in ranking in all categories. Since the Dolphins only defeated the Steelers by 4 points, it is fair to say that they would have a tougher time stopping the Raiders through the air than they did the Steelers.
The fact that it took a fluke of a play such as the Immaculate Deception assisted by incompetent officials for the Steelers to knock off the Raiders indicates that the Raiders had a better chance than the Steelers in the AFC Championship. Couple that with the fact that they were beaten by the Dolphins both statistically and on the scoreboard and you would have support for the theory.
As for the Super Bowl, all three of the AFC teams in question here were statistically better than the Washington Redskins, so there is a strong case that the results would have been the same between the Raiders and Redskins. We will never know what would have happened if not for the Immaculate Deception, but it is hard not to feel like the Raiders had a Super Bowl taken away from them.