1974 was not a good year for the Cowboys. After an opening day win, they lost their next four contests and spent the rest of the season trying to make up ground. By Thanksgiving, Dallas sported a middling 6-5 record as they prepared for a meeting with the division-leading Redskins, lead by coach George Allen, whose sole purpose in life was to beat Dallas. And I do mean beat: Diron Talbert, the ‘Skins resident dirtbag, tossed off a mid-week boast that the 'Skins would knock Staubach out of the game, leaving Dallas with only "that Longley kid" which, in the Redskins' mind, would ensure a Washington victory. To add to the drama, a Redskin win would guarantee them a division championship; keeping them from a celebrating a division flag on Texas soil was of paramount import.
In spite of these high stakes and the teams' intense mutual loathing, the Cowboys came out flat; even Roger Staubach, Captain America himself, was having an off day (in the third quarter, he was 3 of 11 for 32 yards). The Redskins defense recovered four fumbles, intercepted Staubach once, and generally wreaked havoc. Their offense responded with three Mark Mosely field goals followed by a Duane Thomas touchdown to build a 16-3 third quarter lead.
And then, with 9:57 left to go in the period, things got worse. Much worse. Talbert's boast proved prophetic, as Staubach was knocked out of the game from a hit by the ‘Skins' Dave Robinson. Staring an ugly defeat in the face, Dallas head coach Tom Landry (you may have heard of him?) turned to Longley, pausing only to say, "Clint, you're in. Good luck."
Longley had come to the Cowboys that year from Abilene Christian, quickly earning the derisive nickname "The Mad Bomber" for having bounced passes off Tom Landry's coaching tower in training camp. Adding further to Longley's peculiar aura was his loosey-goosey country-boy nature; his hobby was hunting rattlesnakes, and he once woke up the entire team by shooting rabbits outside his training camp dorm. After midnight.
How did an unseasoned rookie fare against the hated and heated 'Skins? Make the jump...
As disgruntled Dallas fans exited in droves and Allen and his misfit crew began to gloat over their apparent victory (Landry noted when recalling the game, "I can still see George over there after Roger got knocked out. Boy, he was spitting on his hands, rubbing them. He knew he had the ballgame won."), the goofy rookie loped into an anxious veteran huddle, and immediately commanded it by telling tough-as-nails fullback Walt Garrison to shut up.
He then proceeded to bomb away, hitting Billy Joe Dupree for a 35-yard touchdown pass, then leading the Cowboys on a 70-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Garrison touchdown run. Suddenly, a moribund Cowboys squad found itself with a 17-16 lead. The Redskins took these punches and then countered with a long drive capped by a second Duane Thomas touchdown romp, this one good for 19 yards. With just over 13 minutes remaining in the final frame, Washington held a 23-17 lead.
After a Ron McDole recovery of a Charles Young fumble, the ‘Skins had an opportunity to extend that lead, but played it too close to the vest. Potato-shaped quarterback Billy Kilmer called three consecutive running plays to set up a fourth Moseley field goal attempt, this one from 24 yards out. The kick was blocked by 6'8" defensive end Ed (Too Tall) Jones, and Dallas took over with 10:51 to play. Both offenses stalled: a short drive ended in a Cowboys punt and the Redskins engineered another three-and-out.
Dallas seemed to throw the game away a couple of minutes later, when Drew Pearson fumbled when he was hit by the ‘Skins' Pat Fischer after hauling in a 20 yard Longley strike. Dick Bass recovered and returned the ball to the Washington 31, giving Kilmer and the offense the ball with 2:29 to play. Again, they played it safe, calling three straight handoffs; on third and six, Thomas was brought down in the Washington backfield by Cowboys safety Charlie Waters. The Redskins punted, and Dallas had the ball with 1:45 and no time outs remaining.
In the face of tremendous pressure, Longley remained preternaturally calm. On fourth and six at the Dallas 44, he found Bob Hayes open for a six-yard gain, eking out a first down. On the next play, Longley passed incomplete to Pearson. On second and ten from midfield, the rookie signal caller decided to return to the original #88. Pearson was supposed to run a post route, but opted to keep to the sideline, where he managed to split the two Redskins defenders. Longley moved away from a fierce rush, slid outside, read what Pearson was doing, and heaved the ball 56 yards; Pearson caught it in full stride at the 4, and scored untouched.
When asked by reporters about this game years later, Pearson told them: "I still say [Longley] was the best deep passer I ever played with. I'm sure he could throw farther than Roger. He could have been one hell of a quarterback in the NFL." For the game, Longley bombed his way to 11 of 20 for 203 yards and two touchdowns in just under 30 minutes work.
Following the stunning Longley-to-Pearson connection, the Redskins gained possession on their 34 with 25 seconds left, but Kilmer was sacked and fumbled on first down. The Cowboys recovered and ran out the clock for a thrilling victory over their hated inter-division foe. After the game, Dallas guard Blaine Nye immortalized Longley's heroics as "a triumph of the uncluttered mind.'' In the other locker room, George Allen admitted that "It was probably the toughest loss we ever had."
Although scintillating, the game itself doesn't tell the whole story. In 1976, when Danny White arrived in camp from the WFL, thus relegating Longley to third team, his easygoing attitude began to sour and he seemingly cracked under the pressure. After one practice session, Longley made a derogatory remark about Drew Pearson after Pearson dropped one of his passes. Pearson didn't hear the epithet, but Staubach did, and told Longley that he was getting tired of him talking about people behind their backs, adding "Somebody is gonna knock those Bugs Bunny teeth of yours in."
"Are you going to be the one?" Longley asked, and Staubach replied, "Yeah, I'd love to do it." So, the two men agreed to meet at a baseball diamond adjacent to the practice field and, after Longley took the first swing, Staubach began to pound on him. The veterans told White he was responsible for distracting Dan Reeves, then the Cowboys running backs coach, so he wouldn't break up the fight. White recalls: "I started trying to make stuff up to talk to him about and then we looked back up the hill and Roger was just waling on Clint." By the time Reeves arrived to break up the fight, Staubach had Longley pinned beneath him with his face firmly in the dirt.
Two days later, in the locker room, Staubach was buckling his shoulder pads, when he was sucker-punched; a surprise roundhouse by Longley sent him crashing into some scales, giving him a cut that took several stitches to close. Its thought that Longley hit Staubach to force a trade; the fact that his bags were already packed certainly supports this contention. And Longley got his wish: he was immediately dealt to the Chargers, with whom he spent the rest of the 1976 season before drifting out of football.
The last known report on Longley? He was seen selling carpet remnants from the back of a van somewhere in Texas. Roger Staubach, on the other hand, was last seen in the Hall of Fame.
Next week: stay tuned for our second-rated regular season game of all time!