I'm pleased to announce that we're starting a new series on BTB, which I hope will help bridge the gap between now and the regular season. In it, I'll look at ten of the most memorable regular season contests in Cowboys history. Most compendia of the greatest or most important contests in this storied franchise's glorious history are filled with playoff and Super Bowl games. Because there are so many of these, the most thrilling games from weeks 1-17 have received short shrift. So, I thought we might take a walk down one of memory's less-frequented lanes, and revisit some of the most electrifying contests from regular seasons past.
The selection process was a difficult one. To make the list, the games had to be close (a 35-0 opening day drubbing of the Giants in New York was certainly memorable--and great fun--but it was over before halftime, so no dice) and they had to be exciting (several close, important games failed to make the cut because they were a bit dull). Most of all, the games in my top ten had to leave me feeling something at the time: elated, breathless, exhausted, or a combination of all three. Lastly, it was important to me to have as much historical sweep as possible. However, since I have been a Cowboys fan *only* since 1975, this list is (perhaps unfairly) tilted towards more the more recent past. Apologies to all you old timers out there (although one old timer will have his say in a couple of weeks!)
Today, we revisit week eight of the 1981 season, Danny White's second year as a starter. On October 25, Don Shula brought his 5-1-1 Miami Dolphins to Texas Stadium to square off against the 5-2 Cowboys. A Dallas team looking to rebound from the disappointment of ending 1980 with a 20-7 loss to the hated Eagles in the NFC Championship, had started the campaign with a bang, going 4-0 out of the gate, but then suffered back-to-back losses, the second of which was an embarrassing 45-14 beatdown at the hands of the 49ers. The Cowboys rebounded the following week at home against the Rams, setting up a battle of perennial powerhouses captained by steely-eyed coaches.
More on the game after the jump.
One of the game's key storylines was Miami's passing attack, which struggled mightily for the better part of the season. Miami found themselves in-between Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Bob Griese had retired the previous year; Dan Marino would be drafted in 1983. The bridge was Dolphins' signal caller David Woodley, more a running than a passing threat. In nine of their contests, the Dolphins passed for fewer than 162 yards; in three others, they were in the low 200s. Nevertheless, Woodley managed to pass for a then-team record 408 yards against a Dallas secondary featuring rookies Everson Walls and Michael Downs.
The most important story line, however, was the game's electrifying fourth quarter. The Cowboys maintained a slim 14-13 lead heading into the final frame, thanks to a missed extra point after the Dolphins first touchdown. Then things got crazy. Early in the quarter, the Dolphins drove deep into Cowboys territory; on third and goal from the seven, Woodley dropped back under heavy pressure and, while retreating, threw a duck into the end zone that was picked off by Dennis Thurman. Disaster averted, the Cowboys looked to run off some clock and protect their lead, but did nothing on offense. They punted after a three-and-out, and Miami set up camp on the Dallas 42.
That's when the Dolphins passing attack caught fire and began to strike quickly. Jimmy Cefalo caught a simple flanker screen and wove through a flailing Dallas defense for a 32-yard gain. On the next play, Tony Nathan scored on a ten-yard toss left to give Miami their first lead of the game. After two consecutive White-to-Tony Hill passes got Dallas to the Dolphins 35, White went to the well a third time, but it wasn't a charm: he was intercepted at the Miami 20.The Dolphins worked the ball to midfield, and then struck what seemed a decisive blow. Wideout Duriel Harris got behind Walls and made a terrific catch, stepping out at the Dallas five. That was immediately followed by a five-yard TD pass to tight end Joe Rose, giving Miami a commanding 27-14 lead with a little more than five minutes remaining in the game.
Dallas' subsequent drive was a mirror image: the Cowboys worked the ball past the 50-yard line before White hit Hill on a pretty "go" route, netting 38 yards to the Miami five. As Woodley had, White found his tight end, Doug Cosbie, in the end zone. After the kickoff, on the first play from scrimmage, Woodly was intercepted by Thurman for the second time in the quarter. The Cowboys' defensive back brought the ball back to the Miami 32, and, on the next play, Ron Springs got behind a linebacker down the right sideline and White found him for a touchdown and a one-point Cowboys lead.
But there was still plenty of game left: Woodley quickly got the Fins into Cowboys territory, finding Harris down the right sideline, again behind Everson Walls. Soon thereafter, however, Walls exacted his revenge, picking off Woodley at the Cowboys two-yard line. The Cowboys again went three-and-out, giving Miami a final opportunity. With less that 30 seconds remaining on the clock, an errant Woodley bomb was picked off by Downs to seal the victory. It was Woodley's fourth interception of the final stanza and fifth of the game.
Despite the loss, Miami held onto first place in the AFC East. The win allowed Dallas to remain a game behind the division-leading Eagles, with Philadelphia slated to come to town the following week. The Cowboys beat the Eagles 20-17, sending them into a second-half 3-5 tailspin that allowed a 12-4 Dallas squad to win the division with relative ease. Both the Dolphins and Cowboys finished their seasons in epic, for-the-ages games: the Cowboys lost the NFC Championship made famous by "the catch"; the Dolphins found themselves on the losing end of a torturous 41-38 overtime thriller against the Chargers, dubbed by Sports Illustrated as "The Game No One Should Have Lost."
In the final assessment, this game offered further proof that, in Danny White, the Cowboys had a worthy successor to Roger Staubach, who was deservedly known as "Captain Comeback." Recall that, in the previous year, White had calmly led his team to a similarly stirring fourth-quarter comeback in a playoff game at Atlanta. And there would be more in future--in fact, at least one more White comeback is slated to appear in a later edition of this series. So stay tuned, for that and other nostalgic goodness.