Jimmy Johnson talks Super Bowl 51
By now, 36 years later, it’s surprising they’re not on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The three footballs from Super Bowl XV that Rod Martin intercepted to help the Oakland Raiders defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 are locked away in storage, waiting to be passed down to his two grown daughters and his grandchildren, the second of which is on the way.
Martin’s three picks are still a Super Bowl record both for a career and in one game. Eleven players have caught two, including eight in the intervening years since Martin sealed the Raiders’ title with his third pick with 3 minutes left in the game. In fact, only one player in the history of the league has had more interceptions in a playoff game. It happened the year before when Houston Oilers safety Vernon Perry intercepted the Chargers’ Dan Fouts four times in an AFC Divisional playoff game.
Wow. What a great performance. It’s not something you could script.
Fort Worth resident and former Raider running back Kenny King
Martin, who lives in Los Angeles and works in computer support at his alma mater USC, still cherishes the title and the moment. During each Super Bowl, he relaxes a bit when it’s clear his record will stand another season.
“I’m getting to the point where if they get two and the game is over, I’m happy,” he said with a laugh.
The rowdy and reckless Oakland Raiders were supposed to be too distracted with the fun of New Orleans for Super Bowl XV.
It was January 1981 and the Raiders had reached the Super Bowl as a wild-card team, of which none had ever won the title.
Just two months before, the Eagles held off the Raiders in Philadelphia for a 10-7 win despite being outgained. The Eagles, coached by Dick Vermeil, won the NFC East and dispatched the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys at home to reach their first Super Bowl.
All of this was on Martin’s mind as he prepared to play in his first Super Bowl. The fourth-year player had been recruited by Vermeil, who was then head coach at UCLA. But Martin, who was also an outstanding basketball player, was enticed by USC coach John McKay to change his mind.
3 Interceptions by Raiders linebacker Rod Martin in Super Bowl XV (1981) against the Eagles, which remains a record.
“You’re a great football player, you need to come where the best players are,” McKay told him during a home visit, just six miles west of the USC campus. “If you were a basketball player I’d tell you to go to UCLA.”
That was all Martin needed to hear.
“So I looked at my mom and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to USC,” he said.
The history with Vermeil and the bitter regular season loss to the Eagles had Martin and his teammates focused.
“I wanted to go out and perform and win and a it was a payback kind of game. I had that mentality,” he said.
Martin made an impact quickly, intercepting Ron Jaworski on the Eagles’ third play from scrimmage and first pass.
It put the Raiders on the Eagles’ 30-yard line and they quickly took a 7-0 lead.
“We were in a zone defense. I stepped up to attack the run, but it was play action so I tried to drop back as fast I could to get in the throwing lane,” he said. “I just reacted to it and caught it. I thought that was a turning point in the whole game because the momentum shifted to our whole team.”
The Raiders had built a 21-3 lead in the third quarter when Martin made his second interception, ending a promising Eagles drive deep in Raiders’ territory. Oakland turned it into a field goal and were in cruise control. With 3 minutes remaining, Martin sealed the win with his third interception. Entering the game Martin had two interceptions in his four seasons, both coming during the 1980 regular season. He finished his career with 14 interceptions and 33.5 sacks.
Former Raiders teammate Jeff Barnes is surprised the record has held up, especially considering how much more passing teams do now. Fouts led the league with 36.8 pass attempts a game in 1980. In 2016, the league average was 35.7.
“Yeah, I’m pretty surprised. It’s historic. It’s pretty amazing,” said Barnes, who often roomed with Martin during his 11 seasons playing together. “Passing is all that it’s about now. Back then it was more defensive oriented.”
Rod Martin, who intercepted a Super Bowl-record three passes in 1981, had two in his four-year career before the game.
Plus, today’s quarterbacks are more sophisticated and precise. Some of those type of skills will be on display Sunday in Super Bowl LI with New England’s Tom Brady and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
“Their understanding of defenses and reading defenses and reading the coverages are much more evolved now,” said former Raiders running back Kenny King, who now lives in far Northwest Fort Worth. “They know where that player is supposed to be and they’re not going to make the throw until he makes his cut. Now it’s precision.”
Surprisingly, quarterback Jim Plunkett was named Super Bowl MVP after completing 13 of 21 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns. Jaworksi also fumbled once to give him four turnovers in the game.
“Jaworski was a great quarterback. He got them there,” Barnes said. “That was something they had run during the year, going to the tight end. It’s hard for a linebacker to cover a tight end one on one. We’re taught when his eyes go for the ball you go for the ball.”
King and Barnes still think Martin earned the MVP trophy that day.
I’ve got them all locked away in storage. I’m holding on to them and will pass them down to my girls.
Former Raider Rod Martin
“I just don’t see that record being broken. I know records are made to be broken but I don’t see it,” King said. “You ever see Rod Martin’s hands? They’re huge. That’s not luck, that’s skill. Great hands, great hand-eye coordination. You might get one interception in a Super Bowl. If you get two interceptions in a Super Bowl you’ve done a really outstanding job. If you get three? You’re superb.”