So, as we all know the Dallas Cowboys have a long and storied history. The team ranks:
- · 2nd in Super Bowl wins
- · 2nd (tie) in Super Bowl appearances
- · 1st in playoff victories (despite many teams having played for decades longer)
- · 1st in playoff games played
- · 2nd in playoff appearances (again, despite many teams having played many more seasons)
- · 2nd in total wins since NFL-AFL merger
- · Most profitable sports franchise in North America
- In short, the Dallas Cowboys have been a great NFL franchise and their history is worth celebrating. Today we'll look at yet another dominant era, 1976 – 1980. I will add subsequent chapters, hopefully every week or so and be finished by the time training camp kicks into gear. In the process, I hope to learn things I didn't know, remind myself of interesting things forgotten and relive things I'll never forget. Perhaps those who read these posts will learn a thing or two as well.
NOTE: much of the information I use in these posts comes from Pro Football Reference, which is an invaluable resource...so a shout out to those who run that site. Your work is much appreciated.
Catch up on earlier posts in this series:
1976 – 1980
The second half of the 70’s was truly a glorious time to be a Cowboys fan. The team won four division titles, two NFC Championships and the franchise’s second Super Bowl. They did so in charismatic fashion. The nexus of the Landry / Staubach years combined a winning formula of innovative, precision offense and a ferocious, Doomsday II defense. I entered my teens during this time and it was just assumed that every year the Cowboys would contend for a Super Bowl. That was the belief before the season, nothing changed that thinking during the season and it was still true even when the Cowboys didn’t make the Super Bowl.
This was when America’s Team was born, the term coined by publicist Doug Todd for the team’s 1978 highlight reel. The Cowboys by now were bigger than any other North American sports team:
- · Broadcast on 225 radio stations, including 16 Spanish stations
- · A weekly magazine with a paid circulation of almost 100,000 readers
- · Number one in merchandise sales, accounting for almost one of every three dollars spent on NFL gear.
- · Games consistently aired nationally on late Sunday afternoon and Monday night broadcasts.
They played in an iconic stadium, were led by an iconic coach and featured the most charismatic quarterback in the league. Everything associated with the team seemed to be the best, the biggest and the flashiest; from the world-renowned cheerleaders to the stadium to the fan base. In many ways, the late 70’s was the culmination of the team’s ascent to the top of the NFL world and, as I said, a glorious time to be a young fan.
The accomplishments of the team during this time are staggering.
- · Played in two Super Bowls, winning one
- · Won 7 playoff games, including two on the road and one on a neutral site
- · Won four division titles
- · Compiled 58 wins in 76 regular season games (.763 winning percentage)
- · Compiled a 7 – 4 record (.630 winning percentage) in 11 playoff games
- · Four times ranked in the league’s top five in points scored; three times in the top 2
- · Four times ranked in the league’s top five in offensive yards; three times in the top 2
- · Four times ranked in the league’s top five in point differential; three times in the top 2
- · Compiled 32 wins in 40 division games (.800 winning percentage)
- · Eighteen players named to a combined 37 Pro Bowls and 11 All Pro 1st teams
- · Played in what I believe to be the best Super Bowl ever
The results are even more impressive when you consider this wasn’t the rewards for years of prior misery and the concurrent high draft picks. No, the impressive list of accomplishments above followed ten straight years of previous Super Bowl contention, with Dallas consistently drafting at the end of each round.
We will, however, also see the end of an era, as Roger Staubach played his final game. We’ll also see the influx of young talent dry up as the visionary drafting of the past gave way to missteps and busts.
Here’s the year-by-year record; note the league moved from a 14-game schedule in 1977 to the 16-game schedule that has remained the norm since 1978:
The team outscored opponents each of the five years. The Cowboys transition from Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach to Danny White seemed to have no effect. In fact, the Cowboys offense scored more points under White in 1980 than in any other year during this time. I was surprised to find the 1979 team "only" outscored opponents by 4 points; every other year the Cowboys averaged at least 1 touchdown more than opponents per game.
The offense, as noted above, was a juggernaut throughout this period, consistently ranking in the top five in both yards and points. All-Pro caliber talent at QB, RB, WR were fronted by an offensive line comprised of multiple Pro Bowl-level players. The offense missed nothing when White took the reins. This again demonstrates Tom Landry’s genius as White became the fourth starting quarterback to continue the Cowboy’s offensive dominance dating back to the mid-60’s. In short, the late-70’s Cowboys were a well-oiled, precision offensive machine that could both run and pass the ball and do so in a bewildering number of ways:
The defense wasn’t quite as consistent and declined in the final years of this period. However, the ’77 – ’78 teams ranked 1st / 2nd in yards and 8th / 3rd in points allowed. It’s understandable those teams came within a couple plays of repeating as champions when you realize those dominant defenses combined with an offense that ranked either 1st or 2nd in both points and yards in both of those seasons.
Unbelievable fact: I was born in 1965 and was 14 years old in 1979 which was the first time in my lifetime the Cowboys didn’t field a top-10 scoring offense AND defense. The 1979 team that finished 12th in points allowed was the first Cowboys team not ranked in the top 10 in points allowed since 1963. That’s 15-straight top-10 finishes for points. The offense, meanwhile, maintained their 16-year streak of top-10 finishes in points scored, dating back to 1965.
Here’s all the good stuff:
If the above is hard to read, here's a full-size image.
Again, I just cannot emphasize strongly enough how incredible the above table is. There’s a LOT of green, and almost a complete absence of red. We’re soon going to see that this is not normal; this is Babe Ruth in the 20’s, Michael Jordan in the 90’s, Bobby Orr in the 70’s.
- No fewer than 11 wins every season (two of those during 14-game seasons).
- A minimum 75%-win percentage within the division
- Four division titles
- 8 top-2 finishes in either points or yards
That’s just beautiful…. royal blue win indicators in virtually every square. Fans could practically pencil in wins over New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis. This wasn’t because the NFC East was a cakewalk. In fact, in an era when there was only one wild card team in each conference the NFCE claimed the wild card spot in four of the five seasons. Yet none of the Cowboys division foes swept the Cowboys even once, while the Cowboys enjoyed 12 sweeps out of a possible 20 opportunities. If younger Cowboys fans wonder where the enduring angst and bitterness from Philadelphia, New York and Washington comes from you need look no further than the table above.
Arguably the Cowboys greatest regular season victory is included in the wins above. We’ll get to that later. But other notable wins:
· 1977 Week 4: Down 8 points going into the 4th quarter against a 1-2 Cardinals team on the road, the Cowboys dominate the 4th quarter to win 30 – 24. The Cowboys remained undefeated through 4 weeks.
· 1977 Week 6: at the 2-3 Eagles the Cowboys again find themselves behind entering the 4th quarter but a Charlie Waters punt block leads to a touchdown and an eventual 16 – 10 victory. (My memory is Waters blocked a LOT of punts and I can confirm through records at least five but I think his actual total was 8. He also holds the NFL record for post-season interceptions with 9. He returned 25 punts and kickoffs, held on placekicks and once threw a pass. His play stood out throughout my review of this era).
· 1978 Week 5: a rare division loss at the Redskins. The game moved the 5-0 Redskins into a 2-game lead over the 3-2 Cowboys. The 9 – 5 final score captures the defensive struggle that is mostly remembered for the meaningless last play of the game that cemented Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's reputation as a classless asshat.
· 1978 Week 13: Both teams now 8-4 they faced off on Thanksgiving for control of the NFC East. The score was 37 – 3 midway through the 4th quarter and the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. Dallas outgained the Skins by 300 yards (507 to 201). The Cowboys moved on to another division title, a second straight NFC Championship and a spot in Super Bowl XIII. The Redskins didn’t win again, finishing 8 – 8 after a 6 – 0 start, proving yet again that being a Class A asshat doesn’t pay off.
· 1979 Weeks 14 – 16: a 3-game sweep of New York, Philly and Washington (without Tony Dorsett) to win a 4th consecutive NFCE division title. One of those games is worth more attention, which we’ll get to.
I can tell you from personal experience…the regular season seemed like just a prelude or warmup for the inevitable playoff games that would truly determine the Cowboys season in those days. Of course the Cowboys would be in the playoffs, they had been virtually every year of my life. And there was some great success in both 1977 and 1978, but honestly, both the ’76 and ’79 season-enders at home against the Rams were deeply, deeply deflating. (We’ll look at both games in more detail).
The 1980 season ending loss at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game would be the first of three-consecutive road championship game losses. The truth is those Cowboys teams weren’t as strong as previous teams, especially on defense. However, in each case a late-season regular season loss set the stage, depriving the Cowboys of a home-field advantage that might have made the difference in any one of those games.
The following chart best illustrates the frustrations fans experienced. On the one hand the Cowboys won and won a lot and won big throughout this period. And they pretty much beat the crap out of playoff opponents except when they didn’t; and in those cases, they tended to lose in close, dramatic fashion:
That’s 7 playoff wins by an average of 17 points. The only close games were the wins over Atlanta in 1978 (when Danny White replaced an injured Staubach and led a 2nd half comeback) and 1980 (when White led a desperate 4th quarter comeback for his signature NFL moment).
On the reverse side was four playoff losses by an average of 5 points, including three losses that basically came down to a last possession. The Super Bowl XIII loss to the Steelers was demoralizing but at least that was a great team. The ’76 and ’79 home losses to the Rams were shocks as Dallas was seemingly the better team (though the Rams the better team in both of those games).
Key Players / Player Acquisitions
Wow…. these teams were loaded. A minimum of six Pro Bowlers each year with at least 8 for three consecutive seasons (’77 through ’79). Five of the six premium positions filled with Pro Bowl talent (QB, RB, WR, LT, DE…. only the cornerback position lacked a top-shelf talent). Notice also the nice mix of youth and experience: Staubach, Wright, Harris, Waters and Pearson were all in their prime but on the second half of their careers. But youngsters like Randy White, Dorsett, Hill, Breunig, Scott and Donovan were all relative youngsters beginning their careers.
An amazing thing about Randy White is he wasn’t very good his first couple seasons. More accurately, he was playing in the wrong position. Tom Landry believed his speed made him ideal for a linebacker and that’s where he played in ’75 and ’76 and was unable to break the starting lineup. Many at the time considered him to be a bust. Landy finally realized he was better in the trenches, moved him to defensive tackle and created one of the five best defensive linemen ever.
Billy Joe DuPree by this time was one of the five best tight ends in the game. Blaine Nye and Rayfield Wright were offensive line holdovers from the previous generation while Herb Scott and Pat Donovan were both members of the acclaimed 1975 draft class. In fact, five of the names above were from that class and they combined to claim 11 of the 37 Pro Bowl selections and 3 of the 11 All Pro selections.
Let’s look at the drafts from this time:
Here we finally see the draft being cut from 20 rounds to 12 rounds, which was the norm until 1993 when it was reduced to eight rounds and then 7 in 1994. And we also see a couple of negative trends:
· A failure to draft top-shelf talent. Only two of the names on this list (Dorsett and Tony Hill) ever became Pro Bowl players.
· Drafting good players, not developing them and seeing them succeed with other teams.
The following shows the career AV for each player drafted. AV is a general measure (like WAR used in baseball) developed by the Pro Football Reference folks.
We see above the ’76 and ’77 drafts were productive but those after were relatively barren. However, the story is worse when you realize that of the 1,122 total AV compiled by these players, nearly 30% was compiled with other teams. The following players were drafted by Dallas but spent all or most of their career with other teams after Dallas deemed them expendable:
· Steve DeBerg – 107 AV
· Garry Cobb – 63 AV
· Todd Christensen – 58 AV
· Beasley Reece – 52 AV
· Dave Stalls – 28 AV
Steve DeBerg is a curious case. Consider in 1977 the Cowboys entered the season with Roger Staubach and Danny White at the quarterback position. Yet the team used a 2nd round pick on quarterback Glenn Carano and a 10th round pick on Steve DeBerg. (I’m sure using a 2nd round pick for a potential 3rd QB wouldn’t go over well today). Amazingly they both looked great in training camp and the pre-season and it was a difficult decision on which one to keep. Eventually DeBerg was waived and went on to a long career as both a backup and starter (140 starts over 18 years).
Todd Christensen was a failed fullback with the Cowboys who became an All Pro tight end with the Oakland Raiders. Garry Cobb was waived by the Cowboys during his first training camp but went on to become a 6-year starter at LB for Detroit and Philadelphia (and then a final year with the Cowboys). Beasley Reece was waived during his second training camp and went on to start 91 games for the Giants at safety.
That’s a lot of players to invest in, deem unworthy and then watch them contribute to other teams.
We also see, yet again, the Cowboys using a high pick to select another future Hall of Famer. This gets complicated so I’ll break it down as it demonstrates how trading declining / aging assets for drafts picks yielded immense benefits during this era. The Cowboys selected Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett with the second pick in the 1977 draft. Here’s the breakdown:
· The Cowboys possessed the 14th pick as a result of trading Clint Longley (remember him?) to the San Diego Chargers.
· The Cowboys then packaged the 14th pick along with three second picks (numbers 13, 21 and 28) for the 2nd pick in the draft.
While "draft capital" was not a term I heard until the last 20 years or so, the trade yielded very close value based on today’s standards:
The Cowboys were widely hailed for the move, but based upon the standard draft capital values they actually overpaid by 240 points for the 2nd pick. That 240 points is the equivalent of the 6th pick in the 3rd round so it’s not inconsequential.
The Cowboys and their fans (including me) however, were ecstatic. They hadn’t disturbed their existing roster in any way and managed to acquire a premium talent at a position of need (the running game had lacked explosiveness and big plays in 1976, with workmanlike Doug Dennison leading the team with only 546 yards).
Seattle used those four draft picks (and some additional maneuvering) to add four players who generated 94 combined AV. Steve August was the best player acquired, starting 102 games and generating 54 AV. The others (Beeson, Ferguson, Cronan) were mostly non-descript.
Thus, for the third time in three years, the Cowboys used a top-2 draft pick acquired via trade to add three legendary players:
Jones and Randy White came at the cost of receivers Toddy Smith, Billy Parks and quarterback Craig Morton. Smith and Parks produced very little value playing for the Houston Oilers. Morton, meanwhile, went on to play 9 more seasons, making 106 starts and generating a very respectable 66 AV. Something I didn’t realize: Morton was fully 30 years old when the Cowboys traded him; he was a 10-year vet yet managed to play another 9 years after leaving the Cowboys. Included in those 106 starts was a Super Bowl matchup against the Cowboys (which we’ll get to).
Summarizing, the Cowboys acquired three young, long-term players who combined for 16 Pro Bowls, 9 All Pro seasons and two Hall of Fame inductions in exchange for players who combined for none of those accolades. The Cowboys repeatedly exchanged aging assets for 1st round draft picks that eventually became Too Tall Jones, Randy White and Tony Dorsett. Those late 70’s / early 80’s teams wouldn’t have been nearly as good without those visionary moves. The equivalent today would be the Patriots not only winning as they have but also drafting 1st or 2nd in the entire draft three out of four years.
Each of these games were significant in their own way and make up key chapters in the Cowboys history book. They're also candidates for my Top 50 Games in Dallas Cowboys History, to be determined after this exercise.
Game # 17
· Season: 1976
· Date: 1976.12.19
· Opponent: Los Angeles Rams
· At stake: advancement to the NFC Championship (for the 8th time in 11 years for the Cowboys)
· Result: Loss
· Score: 14 – 12
The Cowboys entered 1976 with high hopes. They had come off a near-Super Bowl win, had a Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime and a terrific mix of proven veterans and talented youth. They started 5-0 and pretty much cruised to an NFC East division title and a first-round home matchup against the Rams.
The Cowboys, remember, had dismantled the Rams a year prior in the NFC Championship game by a 37 – 7 score. The Rams entered the contest having never won a road playoff game. Honestly, I can remember the general feeling among fans being this was just a warmup for another trip to Minnesota to take on the Vikings (with an 11-2-1 record).
The game itself was ugly, reminiscent of early 70’s NFL games. Depending upon your viewpoint it either featured oppressive defense or anemic offense. The Cowboys offense never got untracked and Roger Staubach played a terrible game. The tone was set early with the following sequence:
· Following a 3-and-out by the Rams Cowboys return man Butch Johnson took the punt to the Rams 28-yard line.
· A penalty and the first of many, many bad passes led to a Cowboys punt that Thomas Henderson made an outstanding play on to down at the Rams 1-yard line.
· Another 3-and-out resulted in the Cowboys taking over at the Rams 45. This led to a long Efren Herrera field goal and 3-0 Cowboys lead.
The failure to capitalize on good field position would prove ominous as the Cowboys would score only 7 more offensive points. The Rams fared little better. Quarterback Pat Haden did lead the team on an 11-play, 74-yard drive resulting in a 2nd quarter touchdown. The key play was a long pass from Haden to Cowboys tormentor Harold Jackson (who accounted for 116 of the Rams 250 total yards).
The Cowboys lone offensive touchdown came after Charlie Waters blocked a Rams punt, putting the Cowboys at the Rams 48. A Scott Laidlaw 3rd-and-1 touchdown run restored the Cowboys lead just before halftime.
The 3rd quarter was ugly with 5 turnovers. The Rams finally managed to put a drive together and converted a 38-yard field goal to seemingly tie the game. However, Cliff Harris blatantly ran into the kicker and the Rams decided to accept the penalty. A few plays later Lawrence McCutcheon gave the visitors a 14-10 lead with just under 12 minutes.
Normally, this was where Staubach would lead the Cowboys on a scoring drive, the defense would hold and the team would close it out. Staubach however, went 15-of-37 for 152 yards, no TDs and 3 interceptions. His passer rating of 32.3 accurately captures his poor performance. Most of his passes weren’t just off-target, they weren’t remotely close to the target. My notes from the next drive:
· Bad pass
· Bad pass
· 3rd down throw into coverage intercepted
Charlie Waters, however, had his own interception with about 5 minutes remaining to give the Cowboys the ball at their own 43. A Robert Newhouse run and a Staubach scramble gave the Cowboys a 1st down at the Rams 32. Three plays later the Cowboys faced a 4th-and-2; Staubach’s attempt was easily defended and all seemed lost with under 3 minutes remaining.
The Cowboys defense held, however, and with 1:59 forced another Rams punt. Amazingly, the Rams hadn’t corrected their earlier formation problems and Charlie Waters yet again blocked the punt (that’s two punt blocks and an interception for Waters for those counting). Miraculously the Cowboys took over at the Rams 18 and looked to complete yet another stunning playoff comeback.
Staubach just didn’t have it however. A first down pass to the end zone just missed a diving Butch Johnson. A second down attempt for an open Preston Pearson wasn’t near the target. A third down attempt at the corner of the end zone landed so far out of bounds it couldn’t be seen on the video where the ball landed. Staubach managed to complete the fourth down attempt to tight end Billy Joe Dupree for a seeming first down. Dupree, however, was pushed back two yards and a terrible spot put the ball a yard short of the marker and the Cowboys season was over. (I can remember the Dallas Morning News posting a front-page picture showing Dupree, with the ball, standing at the 6-yard line while the ball was eventually spotted at the 8. Had instant replay existed in 1976 there’s no doubt the Cowboys would have been awarded a first down at the 6-yard line. However, I have much doubt the Cowboys would have converted that into a game-winning touchdown considering how much trouble they had moving the ball that day).
The truth is the season was probably lost in week 7 when Staubach suffered a gruesome broken finger. His numbers before and after that game:
So, the week 15 performance against the Rams was just a continuation of what had been a pretty terrible performance form the player who had the highest all-time QB rating through the season’s first 7 weeks.
It was a swift, stunning exit from a team expected to provide dominant wins…and if not that, then exhilarating comebacks. None of that was on display in this game. The better team won that day as the Rams outplayed the Cowboys and deserved the victory.
1977 Super Bowl Run (Games # 18, 19 & 20)
Dallas again entered the 1977 season with high expectations. They had won 11 of 14 games the season before, had a stocked roster and added Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett. And again, the team swept through the regular season, winning their first 8 games en route to a 12-2 record (best winning percentage in team history) and home-field advantage.
Like the team’s first Super Bowl Championship in 1971 the Cowboys post-season run in 1977 was anti-climactic, with little drama. Their three playoff victories all featured dominating performances where the Cowboys simply crushed the opposition. How good were they? The numbers tell an unequivocal story:
The Cowboys outperformed each opponent in every phase of the game. They won both sides of the ball in every manner possible:
· Outscored opponents by an average of three touchdowns per game
· Outgained opponents by an average of 141 yards
· Doubled opponent’s rushing yards (182 to 89)
· Gained 3 more yards per passing attempt
· Limited opponents to 1 passing touchdown (a meaningless last-minute score by Chicago with the score 37-0)
· Forced 9 interceptions while throwing only 2
· Compiled a 95 to 35 passer rating advantage (including Super Bowl opponent Denver posting a 1.7 rating)
· Generated 4 more turnovers per game
In short, the 1977 Cowboys were the best team in the regular season and in the playoffs; they mercilessly steamrolled playoff opponents, dominating in every fashion. And like 1971, they were the undisputed best team in the NFL and worthy NFL champions.
Dallas vs. Chicago
Dallas vs Minnesota
Super Bowl XII
Game # 21
· Season: 1978
· Date: 1978.12.30
· Opponent: Atlanta Falcons
· At stake: advancement to NFC Championship
· Result: Win
· Score: 27 – 20
Dallas entered the 1978 season with largely the same players as the 1977 team and had the same expectations: win the Super Bowl. A mid-season slump, however, left the team only 6-4 after 10 games and trailing the Redskins in the NFC’s Eastern division. The Cowboys rebounded, however, winning their final six games to win the division with a 12 – 4 record. A Thanksgiving showdown against the Redskins left no doubt who was the better team as Dallas cruised to a 37 – 10 win over their overmatched rival.
Thus, they entered Texas Stadium in late December an experienced, deep team expecting to win another playoff game and advance to their 9th NFC Championship game in 13 years. Vegas wise guys agreed, making the Cowboys a 15-point favorite. Things did not go as planned however.
The Cowboys initial drive resulted in a field goal and a quick 3-0 lead. Atlanta, however, responded with a long touchdown drive fueled by a Cliff Harris personal foul penalty to take a 7-3 lead. The Cowboys immediately responded with another long drive featuring a Danny White 4th down run from punt formation. Scott Laidlaw, who had a very good game, capped the drive with a short touchdown run.
Things looked promising when the Cowboys defense held, forcing the Falcons to punt. Butch Johnson, however, fumbled, giving the Falcons good field position. They converted the gift into a field goal to tie the game at 10.
The Dallas offense again moved the ball well and converted the drive into 3 points to take a 13-10 lead. Then came a real turning point in the game. First Atlanta had their best drive of the game, marching 80 yards for a touchdown. The two key plays on the drive were a 4th-and-1 conversion for a first down and a 17-yard touchdown pass from Steve Bartkowski to Wallace Francis who beat Charlie Waters. The Falcons now led 17 – 13. The Cowboys then played clown ball with multiple miscues they were lucky to survive:
· Butch Johnson fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Somehow the ball was knocked back all the way into the Cowboys end zone where the Cowboys recover. The rules of the day awarded the Cowboys a touchback; they had miraculously avoided what should have been either an Atlanta touchdown, Atlanta possession deep in Dallas territory or a safety.
· But that didn’t matter much because Tony Dorsett fumbled on the very next play giving the Falcons possession at the Cowboys 27.
· The Dallas defense managed to hold the Falcons to a field goal.
· On the next drive Roger Staubach is viciously knocked out on a late hit and lays motionless on the field for several minutes before being carried off (more on this in a minute)
· Danny White replaced Staubach and began a promising drive with three quick completions but then fumbled after a bad shotgun snap. It is the Cowboys third lost fumble of the 1st half. The half ends with the Cowboys trailing 20 – 13.
· The Cowboy’s first drive of the 2nd half ends on a White interception. It is the Cowboys fourth turnover in five possessions. Things seemed mighty bleak.
But they weren’t. I know this because I attended this game and I can vividly recall the general mood among fans. Nobody thought this game was over or a lost cause simply because Staubach had been knocked out and the Cowboys would be forced to come from behind with their backup quarterback. Everyone seemingly had faith that Danny White could get the job done. Yes, the team was trailing and had played poorly. But the deficit was only a single score and the Cowboys had the better team. There was no booing, no panic…just a general confidence that the Cowboys would get their act together and win the game.
And that’s exactly what happened. From that point forward the Cowboys outscored the Falcons 14 – 0. The defense absolutely dominated, allowing only 28 yards on every drive except the next to last desperation drive. The defense was even put in a bad position shortly after White led the team to a tying touchdown. The ensuing kickoff was returned to the Cowboys 45 (aided by a 15-yard personal foul after the play). The defense responded with consecutive sacks resulting in an Atlanta punt.
The Cowboys again moved the ball into Falcons territory but a seemingly miraculous escape by Danny White for a big play to Dorsett was negated when White was deemed to have been down. The resulting punt trapped the Falcons deep, however and Atlanta’s first down passing attempt was intercepted, setting up Dallas in Atlanta territory yet again. But Effren Herrera missed a chip shot field goal, leaving the game tied shortly into the 4th quarter.
The defense again stood strong, forcing a 3-and-out. Special teams ace Charlie Waters pressured the punter into a shank that gave the ball to the Cowboys at the Atlanta 30-yard line. Dorsett and Laidlaw combined for a short, all rushing touchdown drive to finally give the Cowboys a 27 – 20 lead.
Atlanta then embarked on the key drive of the game:
· A penalty on the kickoff left them at their own 5-yard line.
· Charlie Waters promptly intercepted Bartkowski but the Cowboys were penalized on the play for…something (I don’t know what).
· Atlanta then mounted their only significant drive of the 2nd half…reaching the Cowboys 41-yard line. Two more plays left them facing a 3rd-and-11.
· Bartkowski then made the seeming play of the game. Flushed right under a heavy rush and with no obvious targets he somehow found Wallace Francis for a 10+ yard gain.
· The Falcons now faced 4th and 1 foot. The Cowboys then won the biggest, highest-leverage play of the game, stuffing the 4th down run attempt. With 3 minutes left the Cowboys could end the game with a couple first downs. They managed one but Atlanta eventually took over with 40 seconds remaining and all 3 timeouts.
· The Falcons upset bid ended on the first play when Cliff Harris intercepted the ball, ending the game.
Unlike the previous playoff run when the Cowboys ruthlessly eviscerated all challengers, this was a fight against a supposedly outmatched team. The Cowboys were, however, the better team. Consider:
· Outgained Atlanta 369 to 216
· Overcame 4 turnovers and 7 penalties
· Lost their starting quarterback when down 7 points
The defense won the game really. They allowed only 216 yards, forced 3 turnovers, generated 5 sacks and pitched a second half shutout. It was a difficult win that required grit and determination from all involved. I consider this game an under-appreciated gem in the Cowboys long litany of great games.
Game # 22
· Season: 1978
· Date: 1979.01.07
· Opponent: Los Angeles Rams
· At stake: advance to Super Bowl XIII (the 5th in 9 years for the Cowboys)
· Result: Win
· Score: 28 - 0
The Cowboys traveled to Los Angeles to face the Rams in the NFC Championship game. This would be the fourth post-season match-up between the teams in six seasons. Dallas was also returning to the scene of a crime: the Cowboys merciless 37-7 beating of the Rams in the 1975 NFC Championship.
I recall Cowboys fans weren’t nearly as optimistic as we had been a week previous. The too-close-for-comfort Falcons game + Staubach’s concussion injury + facing the conference’s #1 team in their stadium = uncertainty. It wasn’t that fans had lost faith but the swagger that we fans had enjoyed all the way back to the beginning of the 1977 season had lost some confidence.
The game itself was a tale of two halves. The first half was largely a defensive struggle, with neither team able to move the ball against stiff defenses. Each team failed to take advantage of their limited opportunities. The Rams missed two field goals while the Cowboys fumbled into the end zone (after a Charlie Waters fumble recovery) on their lone scoring opportunity.
Throughout the second half the Cowboys simply made the big plays when they counted. A Charlie Waters interception return early in the half set the Cowboys up at the Rams 9-yard-line. Dorsett then scored from 4-yards out to put the Cowboys up 7-0. The Rams appeared well set up to even the score when a punt return gave them the ball at the Cowboys 23 yard line. Three plays netted 9 yards. The Rams opted to go for it on 4th-and-1. The Cowboys stuffed the Rams attempt just as they had the Falcons 4th-and-1 attempt the previous week.
The score, however, was still 7-0 when Charlie Waters intercepted Haden a second time, this time returning the ball to the Rams 20. This was the third time a Waters turnover had given the Cowboys the ball in Rams territory. Haden also suffered a broken hand on the play (via Randy White) and would not return to the game. Scott Laidlaw hauled in a short pass for the touchdown and the Cowboys took control with a 14-0 lead.
The Rams briefly rallied when Willie Miller turned Cliff Harris around in embarrassing fashion, leading to a 65-yard catch-and-run that set the Rams up inside the Cowboys 15. Lawrence McCutcheon, however, fumbled on the following play and the game was effectively over at that point. A long Tony Dorsett run led to a touchdown pass to Billy Joe Dupree for a 21-0 lead. The scoring was closed out on a highlight-reel pick-six by Thomas Henderson.
The 28-0 final score looks like a thrashing in retrospect but it wasn’t. This wasn’t Dallas dominating in all phases of the game. The Rams outgained the Cowboys. The Cowboys committed 3 turnovers and 10 penalties. But they also forced 7 turnovers by the Rams and made all the 2nd half plays; whenever the Rams did threaten and manage to get some momentum the defense immediately shut it down.
The Cowboys were winners; their fifth consecutive playoff victory and in position to become the NFL’s first-ever three-time Super Bowl Champion. They would face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the league first Super Bowl rematch.
Game # 23
· Season: 1978
· Date: 1979.01.21
· Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
· At stake: Super Bowl XIII championship
· Result: Loss
· Score: 35 – 31
Super Bowl XIII is the greatest Super Bowl of all-time. This shouldn’t be debated. And yet, most rankings of the top super bowls put SB XIII in the top 10-15 and rarely ever give it the justice it deserves. The four best Super Bowls ever are clear in my mind:
1. Super Bowl XIII – Dallas vs Pittsburgh
2. Super Bowl XLIX – New England vs Seattle
3. Super Bowl LI – Atlanta vs New England
4. Super Bowl XXV – New York Giants vs Buffalo
No others come close to the combination of quality teams, great players, anticipation, game performance and drama that these four offer. These are the criteria I have for judging super bowls:
· Team quality: how good was each team throughout the entire season?
· Legacy: how good had the teams been in previous seasons and in seasons immediately after; were these great long-term teams or one-season wonders?
· Star Power: how many great players were on the field, in terms of both the SB season and career?
· Anticipation: how high was interest going into the game?
· Game performance: what was the quality of play from beginning to end?
· Drama: how contested / exciting / dramatic was the game until final whistle?
A closer look at all four:
I’m not going to go into each score for each game but I will make the case for why SBXIII ranks high in all categories:
· Team Quality – how good was each team throughout the entire season?
o There’s really no question that SBXIII featured the best matchup of two teams in any SB. Consider the teams’ rankings in points / yards on both sides of the ball:
Dallas and Pittsburgh ranked in the top three in the league in 6 of 8 rankings and were #1 & #3 in season record. I haven’t looked comprehensively, but no other matchup featured two teams with such dominant units on both sides of the ball. Consider the three other Super Bowls we’re looking at:
Super Bowl XLIX was probably the closest in terms of total balance, but put only two of eight units in the top 3 of the league.
Super Bowl LI featured five units in the top 3 of the league, but Atlanta’s defense was one of the worst in the entire NFL (as evidenced by the 546 yards they surrendered in the game itself).
Super XXV, like SBXIII, also featured three great units, but New York’s offense was average. And while Buffalo was very solid across all units they weren’t as good as either the Cowboys or Steelers.
In short, Dallas and Pittsburgh featured the best combination of high-caliber teams in the Super Bowl era. A closer look at their season rankings in 1978:
· Legacy - how good had the teams been in previous seasons and in seasons immediately after; were these great long-term teams or one-season wonders?
o SBXIII featured the two best teams of 1978 and the two best teams of the entire decade. The Steelers and Cowboys, in the 70’s, combined for 9 Super Bowl appearances, six Super Bowl wins, 17 playoff appearances (out of 20 possible), 26 playoff wins and 14 division titles.
Each team had won their division every season from 1976 – 1978 and would win it again in 1979. Each team averaged more than 11 wins between 1975 and 1979.
Again, no matchup of Super Bowl contenders has ever featured such well-pedigreed teams. Super Bowl XLIX comes the closest, featuring two teams that, over a four-year period (2012-2016):
§ Won three Super Bowls
§ Appeared in four Super Bowls
§ Won 7 division titles
§ Averaged nearly 12 wins per season
§ Won 13 playoff games
· Star Power - how many great players were on the field, in terms of both the SB season and career?
Super Bowl XIII featured the best collection of players to ever set foot on a Super Bowl field at the same time. The game featured the following:
That’s six 1st Team All Pro players, 12 1st Team All-Conference players and 23 players that were honored for their play in 1978. This is what it looked like on the field:
If season honors aren’t your thing, consider the career honors claimed by SBXIII players:
Both starting quarterbacks, both primary running backs, two wide receivers, two offensive linemen, two defensive linemen, two linebackers and one secondary player all eventually reached the Hall of Fame. In addition, both head coaches, one GM and one owner have busts in the Canton museum. (I won’t get into the fact the game featured two players – Cliff Harris and Drew Pearson – whose exclusion from the Hall of Fame are criminal).
Thirteen of the game’s participants were named to the NFL’s All Decade team of the 70’s. Not mentioned are coaching assistants Mike Ditka and Ernie Stautner, also Hall of Fame inductees. No other Super Bowl comes close to this number of historically great players and coaches.
· Anticipation - how high was interest going into the game?
There have been several Super Bowls that had enormous anticipation going into the game, based on the quality and legacy of the teams involved. But I can’t recall ever when all the forces of anticipation converged as they did for Super Bowl XIII. The quality of each team has already been documented above. Additionally, the teams were opposites in terms of image and appeal. Pittsburgh reflected the rugged, tough, workmanlike, blue-collar ethic of western Pennsylvania and, indeed, the "Steelers" moniker. Dallas was sexy, flamboyant, sophisticated, reflecting the shimmery glass buildings that dotted the Dallas landscape in the 70’s.
The teams had a history, having faced off in Super Bowl X three years earlier. SB X was universally regarded as the best, most exciting Super Bowl to date. Dallas felt they were just as good as the Steelers that day and had simply run out of time. Adding fuel to an already roaring fire were incendiary comments from Cowboy’s linebacker Hollywood Henderson who said Terry Bradshaw "couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A".
Watch the actual game video and you can hear the anticipation and excitement in the announcer’s voices. Watch the video documentary and listen to the players talk of their anticipation; I’m sure many would say no other game in their career had as much build-up and excitement going into a game. In short, players, media members and fans were all looking forward to and expecting an historically great game. They got what they came for.
· Game performance: what was the quality of play from beginning to end?
I don’t think Super Bowl XIII featured the best-ever super bowl performances on the field. However, I don’t think any other Super Bowl has featured better on-field performances. This game was fiercely contested, combining spectacular plays and mind-altering collisions. It was an extremely physical game, not for the weak of heart.
· Drama: how contested / exciting / dramatic was the game until final whistle?
This is the one area where SB XIII comes up a little short against the competition. That’s simply because the game was largely decided with 6:51 remaining when the Steelers took an 18-point lead. Fifteen seconds earlier, however, the lead was only 3 points and nothing looked certain. And from opening game kickoff to that 7-minute mark no other Super Bowl had been as consistently dramatic as SB XIII. The opening half was a roller-coaster of big plays, lead changes, comebacks and momentum swings. The announcers are literally breathless, declaring the game the best Super Bowl ever after only one half.
The tension and drama rose steadily throughout the second half, culminating in a bizarre sequence of unlikely plays that finally unleashed the big 14-point explosion that decided the game.
But even then, Staubach and the Cowboys refused to die and led a furious comeback that came closer than anyone could have possibly imagined. I’ll take game long drama and excitement over the snooze fest that was SB XXXIV but happened to be decided on the game’s final play.
That’s my case for why SBXIII was, and still remains, the greatest super bowl ever. Watching it again I was struck by the conflicting story-lines that emerged.
Consider, for instance, Terry Bradshaw’s 1st half. On the one hand Bradshaw threw for 250+ yards and three touchdowns; that alone would have ranked as one of the best quarterback performances in Super Bowl history up until then. But Bradshaw also threw an interception, fumbled twice, was sacked three times and had one of his fumbles returned for a touchdown. All in the first half.
The #3-ranked Dallas defense was similarly Jekyll-and-Hyde, having been gouged for 21 points and 271 yards in the first half. But they also generated three turnovers, three sacks and scored a touchdown. The second half was completely the opposite for the Cowboys defense, holding the Steelers to 16 yards in the 3rd quarter and 57 for the entire second half. However, they surrendered several (dubious) big plays that eventually made the difference in the game.
The game was an emotional roller-coaster from start to finish with each team stringing successful plays or sequences together, only for the opponent to respond with a big play and swing the momentum the other direction. Consider the first half:
o Cowboys easily run the ball on the first possession, gaining 38 yards on four rushes. They seem to have the Steelers on their heels. However, a botched flea-flicker attempt results in a fumble and Pittsburgh recovers.
o The Steelers respond with a 47-yard touchdown drive, force the Cowboys to punt and quickly move to the Dallas 43. The Steelers seem well on their way to a 14-0 lead. But Bradshaw then throws the ball directly to Cowboys linebacker D. D. Lewis for a momentum-changing interception.
o A Dallas punt and then a Bradshaw fumble led to a Dallas touchdown pass from Staubach to Tony Hill on the final play of the 1st quarter. (Factual oddity: the Cowboy’s 1st-quarter touchdown was the first surrendered by the Steelers the entire season. The same thing happened in SBX; the Cowboys 1st-quarter TD in that game was the first surrendered by the Steeler’s defense in 1975.) This was quickly followed by Henderson and Mike Hegman combining for a snatch-and-grab, stealing the ball from Bradshaw and returning it 37-yards for a defensive score. Momentum had again swung in the Cowboy’s favor.
o The Steelers, however, responded with a lightning-strike 75-yard catch-and-run from Bradshaw to John Stallworth. The play tied the then-Super Bowl record for longest play; the Cowboys (naturally) had also surrendered a tipped, disputed 75-yard touchdown in SB V.
o Then came, in my opinion, one of the unappreciated sequences in the game. After a sack forced the Steelers to attempt a 51-yard field goal that was missed, the Cowboys took over on their 34-yard line with just under 5 minutes remaining. Dallas moved smartly to the Steeler 44-yard line with 1:51 remaining. They appeared in prime position to score a touchdown or field goal to go into halftime with at least a 3-point lead. Instead, Staubach forced an ill-advised pass into (seemingly) quadruple coverage and the Steelers easily intercepted. Making matters worse, the Cowboys were called for a highly suspect personal foul on the return, giving the Steelers the ball at the Cowboys 44-yard line. Two passes to Lynn Swann and a Franco Harris run set Pittsburgh up at the Cowboys 7-yard line. On 3rd-and-1 the Steelers converted for a last-second touchdown to make the halftime score 21 – 14. This 10 or 14-point swing changed the entire character of the second half.
The third quarter finally found both defenses imposing their will:
o Steelers: 3-and-out (5 yards)
o Cowboys: 26-yards then punt
o Steelers: 3-and-out (-6 yards)
The Cowboys took over at the Steelers 42-yard line halfway through the 3rd period. They moved to the Steelers 10 and faced 3rd and 3 with 2:46 remaining in the 3rd quarter. The tension at this point was unbearable. With the game entering the final 20 minutes the two heavyweight contenders had been landing blow after blow but neither fighter had staggered, instead responding every time. This 3rd down play felt like a momentous play before the snap. When the play ended, it felt even more so. The Cowboys called a perfect play, lining up with 3 tight ends and having Jackie Smith sneak out. The Steelers were completely fooled; they all bought into the run play-fake and Smith was more open than Landry could have ever hoped for when designing the play.
We all know what happened, the pass was a tiny bit short, Smith slipped as he stopped and the ball bounded off his chest. It’s a catch the Hall of Fame receiver makes 995 times out of 1,000. But one of those five times occurred on arguably the most important play of Super Bowl XIII. (It was probably the most important catch attempt of Smith’s career as well; he had toiled in relative anonymity for the St. Louis Cardinals for 15 years. I truly feel for him.) The Cowboys had the better of play in the 3rd quarter but shaved only 3 points off the Steeler’s 7-point lead going into the 4th quarter.
The Smith drop was one of five highly improbable plays where the Steelers benefitted from Cowboys mistakes, referee mistakes or plain dumb luck. When the Steelers took over on their own 15-yard line with 12:08 remaining there was no indication they would embark on an 85-yard touchdown drive. Their three previous drives had generated a total of 16 yards. The team could neither run nor pass the ball. Facing 3rd-and-8 Bradshaw passed to tight end Grossman for just enough for a first down. Then a pass to Swann and a Harris run set up a 2nd-and-5 from the Steeler 44. The next play would initiate a surreal sequence of events that I have yet to recover from.
Bradshaw attempted a long pass play to Swann down the sidelines. But he threw a poor pass that was short and too far inside. Swann and Cowboys cornerback Benny Barnes’s feet got tangled up and Barnes was called for interference giving the Steelers a 33-yard gain. It was an egregiously bad call when you consider:
o Barnes was inside the receiver and the ball was thrown inside both players
o Barnes has his back to the receiver
o Barnes is looking at the ball the entire time
o Barnes never puts his hands on the receiver
Under no circumstances should this be defensive pass interference. In fact, several weeks after the game the NFL responded to a letter sent into the league office from a Cowboys fan; in the league’s response, they admitted the call was wrong and should not have been made. The 33 yards awarded to the Steelers on the erroneous call were only 7 less than the Steelers had gained in their previous 17 2nd half plays. This was improbable play number 2.
Now on the Cowboys 23-yard line, the Steelers ran two plays and faced a 3rd-and-four. Similar to the Jackie Smith 3rd down play earlier, this 3rd down play felt absolutely momentous. Success, and the Steelers were likely to take a double-digit lead, failure and they would have to kick a 40+ yard field goal just to take a 7-point lead (kicker Roy Gerela had not kicked a field goal of 40 or more yards the entire season).
The Cowboys called a perfect blitz on the play and Hollywood Henderson broke in untouched and easily sacked Bradshaw for a 10-yard loss. Not only had the Steelers failed to gain the first down, they had been pushed out of field goal range and would have to punt. Except, the Steelers didn’t get the play off in time and were called for delay of game. You can see from the replay the delay of game call made no difference in the play; no one was there to block Henderson. So, the Steelers benefitted from committing a penalty by getting a second chance at the pivotal 3rd-down attempt. This was improbable play number 3.
And the Steelers, through sheer dumb luck, made the most of that second opportunity. Facing 3rd-and-9 Bradshaw sensed a safety blitz and audibled into a trap play. Except there was no safety blitz; Bradshaw read the play wrong. Safety Charlie Waters was in perfect position to make the tackle, but was victimized by a perfect form block executed by the referee…thus freeing Harris to gallop 22 yards for the touchdown. First, strategically Bradshaw did the wrong thing. Second, the play would have failed except the referee blocked the Dallas player is position for the tackle. A Hollywood writer would blush at such an unlikely scenario. Instead, the Steelers get rewarded with a touchdown on an "85-yard touchdown drive" where 55 of the 85 yards were practically handed to them through divine intervention. Improbable play number 4.
Finally, with the Cowboys now down 11 points and only 7 minutes remaining the Steelers kick off. Except Roy Gerela slips and mis-kicks, the ball skidding to the Cowboys second line of blockers. Eleven Cowboys are on the field and somehow the ball finds the one with a cast on his arm. Hall of Fame defensive lineman Randy White should never have attempted to run with the ball but he did and he fumbled and the Steelers recovered and…. improbable play number 5.
Sigh. If you can sense the bitterness and anger hasn’t disappeared over the nearly 39 years since this game you’re correct. Any one of those plays happening is bad luck. Two or three happening is really bad luck. Four of them happening in the span of six plays seems cosmically impossible. And yet, in the most exciting, well-played Super Bowl ever featuring the two best teams of the 70’s…. all those things happened and they all went against the Cowboys.
Yes, the Steelers followed up the White fumble with an outstanding throw-and-catch between Bradshaw and Swann that rightly deserves its place on the endless highlights I’ve seen for years since.
And no, we don’t what would have happened had any of those crazy things not happened. But it’s hard not to feel bitter that a series of outrageously impossible events had conspired to derail the Cowboys.
Looking back at the game two things struck me that reinforce my belief this was the greatest Super Bowl ever.
First, the big plays were mostly great plays. The average touchdown play was 25 yards. Five touchdowns were from 18 yards or longer. Six of the nine touchdowns came on 3rd-down plays, as did the fateful Jackie Smith drop. Many of the touchdowns featured greatness:
· Bradshaw’s 38-yard pass to Stallworth to open the scoring
· Staubach beating an 8-man blitz, with two blitzers unaccounted for and zeroing in on the quarterback, for the Cowboys 39-yard score
· Henderson and Hegman executing a brilliant strip-sack and easily scoring a defensive touchdown
· Stallworth avoiding an initial tackle then racing through the Cowboys defense.
· Bleier leaping into the air to snatch a pass that, had it been a single inch higher, would have been beyond his grasp, for the Steelers 3rd touchdown
· The Swann touchdown
Second, the big plays were often in dramatic situations. I’ve mentioned a number of times how nail-biting 3rd-down plays precluded pivotal game-changing plays. It’s one thing to have a big play come out of nowhere. It’s another thing when the situation alone dictates a big play and then the actual play multiplies the situation. This happened several times in SBXIII. It seemed like every time a key situation came up the play just said "oh yeah, let’s go" and decided to amp it to the max. Look at each QB’s 3rd -down performance; here’s Bradshaw:
Virtually every play seemed to result in either a big offensive play or a big defensive play. Bradshaw’s 3rd-down performance basically encapsulated the difference in the game. Here’s Staubach’s 3rd an 4th-down performance:
Seems like virtually every 3rd-down play…. which always carried immense drama due to the teams never being more than 7 points apart…. always resulted in a big play for either the defense or the offense.
Which brings me to my last argument for SBXIII being the best Super Bowl ever. Yes, the other super bowls I’ve mentioned had greater drama the last six minutes of the game. While Dallas made a heroic comeback after Pittsburgh went up 35-17 the truth is Dallas wasn’t going to overcome an 18-point deficit to the league’s #1 defense in seven minutes. Yes, they fought heroically but the game was effectively over with seven minutes remaining.
Other Super Bowls have extended the drama to the very last play and even into overtime. However, none of those games experienced the sustained drama of SB XIII from opening kickoff to the six-minute mark. At no point during the first 54 minutes of the game did either team enjoy a true advantage. It took a remarkable series of unlikely plays to turn a hotly contested game into the 35-17 score that eliminated drama from the rest of the contest.
I was devastated by this game. I’m still devastated. But I’m more bitter because this single game seemed to kneecap the Cowboys team in a couple ways:
· The Hall of Fame is overpopulated with Steelers and underpopulated with Cowboys. Drew Pearson and Cliff Harris should be in the Hall while Lynn Swann should not. This is illustrative of how those 70’s Cowboys teams have been disrespected by historians. As I’ve pointed out in this series, Cowboy’s playoff wins tended to be dominant and the team’s losses tended to be tense, 1-score affairs that came down to a few plays. Change a couple of those plays and no doubt individual Cowboys from that era would enjoy more accolades.
· I, like most fans, was totally spoiled at that point. I had no idea it would be 14 years before the Cowboys would return to the Super Bowl or that winning and dominating would soon be a thing of the past.
Game # 24
· Season: 1979
· Date: 1979.12.30
· Opponent: Washington Redskins
· At stake: NFC East division crown and home field advantage throughout playoffs
· Result: Win
· Score: 35 – 34
This is probably the greatest regular season game in Dallas Cowboys history. The reasons:
· Final game of the season against most-hated rival
· A win meant the NFC East division title and home field advantage throughout the playoffs; a loss mean a road wild card visit to Philadelphia
· A dramatic, back-and-forth game that featured the Cowboys twice overcoming double-digit deficits
· Perhaps Roger Staubach’s best regular season game
The 1979 season found the Cowboy not quite living up to the unbelievably high standard they had set the previous two seasons. The team’s 7-1 record after 8 games had relied upon a number of late-game heroics. The good fortune ran out however, as the team lost four of its next five games; the lone win required 10 points in the final five minutes to eke out a gutty road win over the Giants. At 8-5 the team was looking at missing the playoffs for only the second time in 15 years. Consecutive division wins over the Giants and Eagles restored order and set up a week 16 showdown against the Redskins to determine the NFC East champion.
The Cowboys entered the contest in a bruised and bloodied state. Tony Dorsett had been injured the previous week, giving rookie Ron Springs the start. Safety Randy Hughes was also sidelined, replaced by Dennis Thurman.
The first 15+ minutes of the game were a nightmare for the Cowboys. Their first two drives ended with lost fumbles, the 20th and 21st lost fumbles on the season. The Redskins converted the turnovers into 10 points, the Cowboys defense holding inside the 10-yard line for a key stop.
The teams then exchanged four punts before Redskins running back Benny Malone took a short pass 55-yards to stun the Cowboys and the Texas Stadium faithful. Now facing a 17-0 deficit early in the 2nd quarter the Cowboy’s win expectancy was down to 17%. The offense responded, Staubach leading a 13-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that consumed over 8 minutes. Now down only 10 points the defense then forced a Redskins punt, giving Dallas the ball at their own 15 with 1:48 remaining in the half.
A quick 21-yard gain to Tony Hill was followed by two short gains and the drive looked about to stall with 1:10 left. A 3rd-down completion, again to Hill, moved the ball to Washington’s 35. (The catch gave the Cowboys the first NFC receiving duo to top 1,000 yards in the same season and also the first NFL team to feature three different players to top 1,000 yards). A Staubach to Drew Pearson pass moved the ball to the 15, but a holding penalty set the team back 10 yards. Now facing 3rd-and-20 with 15 seconds remaining Staubach threw a beautiful touchdown pass to a diving Preston Pearson to put the score at 17 – 14 as the half ended.
Whew. It had been an exhilarating comeback, with the Cowboys offense suddenly catching fire and the defense making a key stop. The momentum continued into the second half as the Cowboys forced a quick 3-and-out then marched 50 yards for a touchdown. Over five drives the Cowboys had turned a 17 – 0 deficit into a 21 – 17 lead. The defense again forced a quick punt and it looked as if the Cowboys were going to run away with the victory.
The offense, however, sputtered as the game moved into the 4th quarter. The Redskins then rediscovered their offense and moved to the Cowboys 7 where the drive stalled (Theismann missing an open Rodney Harmon in the end zone), resulting in a field goal. The Cowboys offense then had a terrible sequence with a sack, no gain on a run and then Staubach missing badly for an interception. A highly dubious interference call in the end zone on Cliff Harris led to a Redskins touchdown and a 27 – 21 score. The Cowboys offense again sputtered, leading to another punt with 7:52 remaining. On second down and short, John Riggins swept right, bounced off a Cliff Harris collision and rumbled 66 yards for the touchdown. The entire stadium (and my house) went quiet as seemingly the entire Redskins team celebrated in the end zone with the Redskins up 34 – 20 with just over 7 minutes left. The 66-yard run was fully twice as long as any other Riggins run that season. His 151 yards rushing in the game was a recurring problem for the Cowboy who had also given up 200-yard rushing days to similar power backs Ottis Anderson and Earl Cambell that year.
The Cowboys didn’t respond very well. The offense had their third consecutive 3-and-out and the Redskins took over at the Cowboys 48-yard line with 5:13 remaining. The teams win expectancy stood at 1.2%.
Riggins then fumbled, giving the Cowboys hope but the Redskins managed to recover, extinguishing the short-lived hope. Amazingly, Rodney Harmon then fumbled on the very next play and this time Randy White recovered and the Cowboys had a flicker of life. It took Staubach only 3 plays (two passes to Preston Pearson and a 26-yard touchdown pass to Ron Springs) and 1:31 to move the 59 yards for the score.
The Redskins took over with 2:14 remaining and the Cowboys with all three time-outs. And incomplete pass and a Riggins 8-yard run took the game to the 2-minute warning. Larry Cole then made the defensive play of the season, penetrating to drop Riggins for a 4-yard loss on the same sweep play that had worked for the previous long touchdown. After a time out and a punt, the Cowboys take over at their own 25-yard line with 1:46 and two time outs remaining. I can tell you that watching without about a dozen friends and family at my house there wasn’t anyone doubting that we were about to witness one of the great Cowboys comebacks. In the 7 previous plays, we had gone from a no-hope situation to now expecting to win.
The drive started with a quick 20-yard completion to Tony Hill. Then Staubach had one of his all-time signature plays; an unaccounted-for blitzer had an easy sack but Staubach somehow managed to duck under the defender then complete a 22-yard strike to Preston Pearson. It was quintessential Staubach. The Cowboys were now at the Redskins 33 with 1:07 remaining and one time out left.
Staubach then went for the kill shot, missing a well-covered Hill in the end zone. His next pass, however, found Preston Pearson again, this time at the Redskin’s 7-yard line. A time out stopped the clock with 45 seconds remaining. The first down attempt was incomplete short of the end zone. We all know what happened next; it has been replayed endlessly. Staubach lines up under center and throws a fade to a wide-open Tony Hill in the back of the end zone. Rafael Septien, who had missed five extra points on the season, converted for a 35 – 34 lead with 39 seconds left.
The Cowboys offense, which had gained 7 yards on its previous 9 plays, had moved 134 yards on 10 plays for two touchdowns. The two drives used only 2 minutes and 38 seconds and had never faced so much as a third down. Staubach went 7-for-10 for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He enjoyed outstanding protection on virtually every play, and the one time he did face pressure he escaped it to make a big play. In short, the Cowboys, facing a near-impossible situation in the season’s most crucial game, executed with perfection.
The game, however, was not over. The Redskins had 39 seconds, two time outs and Mark Mosely available as a field goal kicker. A holding penalty on the Redskins and two near sacks by Harvey Martin left them in a 3rd-and-20 situation from their own 15-yard line. Theismann then made a miraculous play, again avoiding a sack, scrambling right and throwing deep downfield back to his left. Cornerback Aaron Mitchell inexplicably ran right over the receiver who was trying to come back to the ball. The interference penalty put the Skins at the Washington 48 with 9 seconds remaining. An incomplete pass left 5 seconds on the clock. Theismann then threw 11 yards to the Cowboys 41. The clock, however hit 0:00. The referees huddled and determined the game was over.
The play ended with two seconds showing on the clock and a Redskins receiver immediately calling time-out. There’s a compelling argument the Redskins should have been granted another play. There’s no doubt the Redskins would have trotted Mark Mosely out for a 56-yard field goal attempt. I lived in Washington for five years and can tell you that 100% of Redskins fans feel Mosely would have made the kick and they were robbed.
Well, in Mosely’s career he made exactly 28.5% of his 42 kicks beyond 50 yards and had never made a kick beyond 55 yards so I’m skeptical Mosely would have made the kick. No matter; the Cowboys have been on the wrong end of so many bad calls over the years that getting even a little bit of help from the zebras is more than justified.
· The four running backs (Riggins / Benny Malone / Ron Springs / Preston Pearson) combined for 471 yards and 5 touchdowns:
· The Dallas victory meant the Cowboys went the entire decade without losing twice to the same team in the regular season. (The Redskins did defeat the Cowboys twice in 1972, once in the regular season and once in the post-season).
· The only way the Redskins couldn’t make the playoffs is if they lost to the Cowboys and the Bears beat St. Louis and the combined point differential was greater than 29. You would think losing by only 1 point would insure them a wildcard berth. The Bears, however, beat the Cardinals 42 to 6 and they advanced, leaving the Redskins at home to moan about their fate.
· This was arguably Roger Staubach’s best regular season game (336 yards, 3 touchdowns, 96.9 rating, two double-digit comebacks) in a season when he led the league in passer rating, adjusted net-yards per attempt and interception rate. It was the next to last game of his career.
Unfortunately, the magic ended two weeks later when the Cowboys hosted the Rams for a division round playoff game. The Rams again won at Texas Stadium in the post-season, compiling 361 yards of offense, including a tipped, 50-yard touchdown pass with just over 2 minutes remaining for the final 21 – 19 score.
The truth is the Cowboys defense had been a bit lacking all season. Power rushing games had given them problems throughout the season and the pass defense surrendered 21 touchdown passes (19th in the 28-team league). The biggest issue, however, was the team finished last in turnovers forced with only 23. Two of the three problems reared the head against the Rams who ran for 159 yards and threw three touchdown passes. Roger Staubach lost the last game he ever played to Vince Ferragamo and the Los Angeles Rams. A Cowboys era had ended but I was completely oblivious because it never occurred to 14-year-old me that the best quarterback in the league in 1979 would retire in a few months.
Game # 25
· Season: 1980
· Date: 1981.01.04
· Opponent: Atlanta Falcons
· At stake: right to advance to NFC Championship (10th in 15 times for the Cowboys)
· Result: Win
· Score: 30 – 27
The Cowboys entered the 1980 season a deep, talented, experienced team but without their longtime quarterback and leader Roger Staubach. On the surface, they didn’t miss a beat. They went 12-4 and made the playoffs for the 14th time in 15 seasons. The Danny White-led offense, in fact, was better, putting up the most points in the league (28+ per game). The decline of the defense, however, continued. The former "Doomsday" defense was no longer dominant, finishing 13th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed. The defense had become mediocre.
The 1980 season was also the first in which a demoralizing habit of losing late-season games would deprive the team of home-field advantage. In week 15 the 11-3 Cowboys traveled to Los Angeles for a Monday night game against the Rams. A win would set up a second consecutive week 16 tilt against a division foe (the Eagles) for the NFC East division crown and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Cowboys were non-competitive. They were down 28-0 at halftime and 38-0 after 3 quarters. White was ineffective, throwing 3 interceptions. The running game couldn’t get untracked. None of that would have mattered, however, as the defense gave up 517 yards and seemed incapable of stopping either the Rams running or passing game. The 38-14 final doesn’t give justice to how thoroughly and completely the Rams dominated the Cowboys. It was the 5th of 7 times the Cowboys defense surrendered 24 or mor points.
The loss rendered the week 16 game against the Eagles meaningless. The Cowboys won that game to give them a home field wild card game against…. the very same Rams. The results were reversed in Dallas, with the Cowboys dominating after falling behind 13-6 early. Tony Dorsett ran for 160 yards and the three other running backs (Newhouse, Ron Springs and Tim Newsome) added another 160 for a devastating 330+ yards on the ground. Danny White had a quintessential Danny White game (3 touchdowns / 3 interceptions) and it was the Cowboys who put up over 500 yards in a 34-13 victory. The win took Dallas to a division round game against the talented Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons were a very good team. They finished the regular season 12 – 4. Their four losses had come by a combined 14 points; further, the Falcons led or were tied in each loss in the game’s final minute or overtime. In addition, the Falcons sought revenge for the 1978 divisional loss at Texas Stadium when Danny White had led a furious 2nd-half comeback.
The first half of the game was largely dominated by the Falcons. On offense, they scored 10 points on their first two drives and only an easy, dropped pass in the end zone prevented it from being 14-0. Down 10-0 the Cowboys offense finally put together a successful drive but Butch Johnson dropped a would-be touchdown on 3rd-down. A Septien FG cut the lead to 7 points.
The Falcons took over for the 3rd time and had moved across midfield as the 2nd quarter started. The defense, which had been helpless to this point, then made two consecutive plays that turned the game around. First, Ed Jones made a brilliant play, tackling RB William Andrews for an 8-yard loss on 2nd down. Then on 3rd-and-18 Harvey Martin sacked QB Steve Bartkowski, who fumbled and LB Anthony Dickerson came up with the ball.
The Cowboys took advantage of the good field position and faced 3rd-and-1 at the Falcons 5. Danny White rolled right, looked to not have a play, then threw back into coverage to Billy Joe DuPree for the touchdown. I thought it was a pretty lucky play as the pass could easily have been intercepted. Nevertheless, the Cowboys had tied the score 10-10.
The Falcons returned the ensuing kickoff past mid-field but the Cowboys got a key 3rd-and-short stop to force a punt. The Cowboys couldn’t move and also punted. Then Bartkowski threw a 58 yard pass to Alfred Jenkins. Dennis Thurman and Aaron Mitchell had Jenkins blanketed but neither made a play on the ball. The completion gave Jenkins 4 catches for 155 yards in the first half alone.
The Falcons moved the final 24 yards for a touchdown to take a 17-10 lead. The Cowboys offense again punted and the Falcons were moving late in the half when a Steve Wilson interception brought the half to a close.
The second half did not start much better. The Cowboys received the kick-off and from around their own 45 Danny White made a spectacular play where he avoided a heavy rush to find Preston Pearson, who darted through the Falcons defense all the way to the 10-yard line. But Pearson fumbled at the end of the play and the ball was returned to the 20. Bartkowski quickly moved the Falcons 80 yards with seemingly no resistance. Midway through the 3rd quarter the Cowboys faced a 24-10 deficit.
The next Cowboys drive went nowhere (in fact Dallas lucked out when White fumbled while being sacked and the Cowboys managed to recover the ball). The Cowboys punted and a foolish interference penalty gave the Falcons the ball at the Cowboys 48-yard line. An Atlanta offense that had overwhelmed the Cowboys defense thus far seemed poised to deliver the kill shot.
The much-maligned defense, however, stiffened with a tackle-for-loss, sack, short gain 3-and-out. The sack was only the second time Bartkowski had been so much as touched the entire game, but was also a sign of things to come.
Returner James Jones muffed the punt (joining two kickoffs he had previously dropped) leaving the Cowboys at their own 15-yard line. The ground game finally got moving as Dorsett and Newhouse had consecutive runs to move to the Falcons 44, ending the third quarter. A swing pass to Springs moved the ball to the 17, then White hit Tony Hill to the 5 and Newhouse completed the 85-yard touchdown drive with a short run.
Bartkowski again faced a heavy pass rush on the Falcon’s next drive. He managed to complete a beautiful 22-yard toss to Wallace Francis but was unable to move the ball further due to the pressure. The Cowboys could not maintain the momentum, however, when White badly missed Butch Johnson resulting in an interception with Atlanta taking over near midfield.
A successful screen pass moved the ball to the Cowboys 30. John Dutton then sacked Bartkowski on 1st down and heavy pressure on 3rd down forced an incompletion. Famed former bartender Tim Mazzetti booted the 34-yard FG for a 27-17 lead with 6:28 remaining. The Cowboys win expectancy at this point was 1.2%.
The Cowboys responded quickly. Jones returned the kickoff to the Cowboys 38. White quickly hit Drew Pearson (1 catch up to this point) to the Falcons 47. Pearson made the next catch as well, snagging a perfectly placed White pass at the Falcons 25. A short outlet pass to Dorsett moved the ball to the 19. Then a miraculous play where White used a seemingly endless amount of time to toss a touchdown pass to D Pearson in the back of the end zone. Again, I feel White got a bit lucky as he threw into heavy traffic and Pearson made an outstanding catch with 3:40 remaining.
The Cowboys seemed to have trapped the Falcons inside their 10-yard line on the kickoff but Dexter Clinkscale foolishly elbowed the returner in the head, putting the ball at the Falcons 30. A 1st-down pass moved the ball 8 yards. A 2nd down rush gained nothing. Ed Jones appeared to jump off-sides on 3rd-and-2 but managed to tightrope the line of scrimmage and the Cowboys stopped the run (despite the run going right at the area vacated by Jones). Two minutes now remained as the Cowboys took over at their own 29 with all 3 timeouts remaining.
The Falcons had been using a 3-man rush throughout much of the 2nd half and not generating much pressure. On first down here, however, they blitzed and White easily beat the blitz for a 21-yard gain to Butch Johnson to the 50-yard line with 1:42 remaining. A screen pass to P Pearson, an incomplete pass and then a screen pass to Dorsett moved the ball to the Falcons 25 with 0:49 left. The Cowboys used their first timeout.
The following play is an oddity. The pass was caught by Tony Hill but out of bounds for an incompletion. The oddity is the clock never ran during the play, staying at 0:49 seconds. Then comes the play many have seen many times. White drops back and seeing D. Pearson in one-on-one coverage basically throws up a prayer. White doesn’t trust his blocker on the play, anticipating a heavy rush when there isn’t one. He bails on the play, falling backwards and tossing up a weak but successful pass. Drew Pearson makes his 2nd touchdown catch in five minutes (and 4th catch of the last two drives) and the Cowboys take a 30-27 lead.
Note: I don’t mean to pick on Danny White. He made several quality throws this game and he brought the team back from a seemingly hopeless situation. However, I would describe all three of his touchdown passes as lucky. The final one, in particular, involved bad mechanics; on a play where he should have stood tall, stepped forward and delivered a laser he instead bailed, throwing a wounded duck off his back foot. I was somewhat stunned to find that his signature moment in the NFL was largely luck.
The drama was not over, however. Holder Charlie Waters muffed the snap on the extra point attempt, leaving the score 30-27. Now, with 0:42 seconds remaining and three timeouts, the Falcons would need only a field goal to extend the game. Atlanta, however, made two mistakes that severely diminished their chances.
The kickoff return team was first flagged for tripping, taking the ball from the Atlanta 27 to their own 12. Then, on 1st down, the Falcons failed to pick up a stunting Larry Cole who sacked Bartkowski at the Atlanta 3-yard line. They now faced 2nd and 19 with 33 seconds remaining. A completion moved the ball to the 20 with 24 seconds left. Two incompletions, including a drop by Wallace Francis, finally ended the Falcon’s hopes.
Amazingly, the Cowboys had won yet another unbelievable playoff comeback victory. It was the 3rd time since 1971 when the Cowboys had a win expectancy of 1.2% or less in the final moments and had won the game:
· 1972 at San Francisco
· 1975 at Minnesota
· 1980 at Atlanta
That’s three playoff road wins facing seemingly impossible odds. It would also be the last such moment for a long time. The Cowboys trekked to frigid Veteran’s Stadium the next week in Philadelphia to face the Eagles. The Cowboys league-leading offense was anemic, generating only 206 yards and turning the ball over four times. The Eagles ran for 263 yards behind Wilbert Montgomery and the final 20-7 score doesn’t capture how one-sided the game was. As we’ll see, road conference championship losses would become a nightmare for Cowboys fans.
The fact I’ve just written over 14,000 about this era is indicative of how I remember this time in Cowboys history. They were the most exciting team in North American sports. They were charismatic and captivating and as a fan completely irresistible. Their games always seemed to feature either the Cowboys beating on a poor inferior team or an engaging, dramatic, all-time great NFL ending. And no matter how old you were, where you lived in Dallas or what had happened the previous day, the first thing you said when you saw someone on a fall Monday was "how ‘bout them Cowboys?"