December 23, 2010
1972: Cowboys Overcome 15-Point Deficit to Beat 49ers in Playoff Game
The two teams that met in a NFC Divisional playoff on December 23, 1972 were familiar to each other from recent postseason action. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers had met the previous two years for the NFC Championship, with Dallas coming away the victor on both occasions.
The Cowboys, winners of the last Super Bowl and coached by Tom Landry, were not coming into the game as NFC East champions in this instance - they had placed second to the Redskins with a 10-4 record and were in the playoffs as a wild card entry. QB Roger Staubach missed most of the season due to a shoulder injury, although he was available for the playoffs – Craig Morton performed capably in his absence. RB Duane Thomas was dumped off to San Diego during the season due to behavioral issues, but RB Calvin Hill had gained 1036 yards. The offensive line was exceptional, the defensive line in transition due to age and injuries. Indeed, if the defense was a cause of concern, it was because of advancing age.
The 49ers, under Head Coach Dick Nolan, won the NFC West for the third straight year, finishing at 8-5-1. They, too, lost their starting quarterback along the way as 37-year-old John Brodie suffered an ankle injury in the fifth game and didn’t return until the finale. Steve Spurrier, ex-Heisman trophy winner and first round draft pick in 1967, came off the bench and went 6-2-1 in relief (although he needed help from Brodie in the season’s last game). WR Gene Washington and TE Ted Kwalick provided outstanding targets for the passing game, while the running attack was adequate (at best). The offensive line was solid. Defensively, the line, despite injuries, led the NFL with 46 sacks while LB Dave Wilcox and CB Jimmy Johnson were key performers.
It was a sunny day at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and the 59,746 fans in attendance received an immediate thrill when HB Vic Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys responded with a 37-yard Toni Fritsch field goal, and the first quarter ended with the 49ers ahead by 7-3.
San Francisco drove from its six yard line into Dallas territory, highlighted by a long pass play from Brodie to Gene Washington, but another long pass by Brodie was intercepted by safety Charlie Waters at the Cowboys’ one yard line.
Craig Morton had started the game at quarterback for Dallas, and on the possession following the interception he fumbled the ball away when hit by DE Tommy Hart and CB Windlan Hall at his own 15 yard line. RB Larry Schreiber (pictured at right) scored a one-yard touchdown shortly thereafter to put the Niners up by 14-3.
Schreiber scored another short TD, set up by LB Skip Vanderbundt’s interception of a Morton pass at the Dallas 32, before the Cowboys scored again on a 45-yard field goal by Fritsch. Before the second quarter was over they also got a touchdown on a 28-yard pass from Morton to WR Lance Alworth. San Francisco led by 21-13 at the half.
Early in the third quarter, the Niners failed to extend their lead when Bruce Gossett missed a 40-yard field goal attempt. While the 49ers got the ball back on another Vanderbundt interception, they had to punt. Jim McCann managed to angle the kick out at the five yard line and it led to another big break created by the opportunistic San Francisco defense. Hill fumbled on his own one yard line after being hit by DT Charlie Krueger and the result was Schreiber’s third one-yard TD of the game that put the 49ers ahead by 28-13.
Dallas wasn’t moving the ball and was being done in by turnovers. Just before the end of the third quarter, Coach Landry chose to make a change at quarterback and inserted Staubach.
In a classy gesture, Morton went to Staubach as he warmed up and told him “I have confidence in you. You can win.” But it didn’t seem that the move would change the Cowboys’ fortunes when he threw an incompletion and was sacked. Staubach fumbled when hit by DT Bob Hoskins and the 49ers recovered. It appeared once again that they would pad their lead, but Gossett missed another field goal attempt, this time from 32 yards.
The next possession went better for Dallas as Hill ran 48 yards on a draw play. After Staubach completed a pass to WR Billy Parks (pictured at left), Fritsch kicked a 27-yard field goal to narrow San Francisco’s margin to 28-16 – less than two touchdowns.
With the clock down to nearly two minutes left to play, and following a bad punt by the 49ers’ McCann that gave the Cowboys good field position at the San Francisco 45, Staubach began completing passes, two to FB Walt Garrison for 16 yards and two to Parks that included a 20-yard touchdown. The drive had run off just 32 seconds and Dallas was now down by only 28-23.
Fritsch came through with a well-executed onside kick that San Francisco WR Preston Riley briefly handled but was recovered by CB Mel Renfro for the Cowboys. On the first play, Staubach looked to pass, couldn’t find an open receiver, and scrambled 21 yards. He then completed a pass to Parks, who ran out of bounds at the 10 with 56 seconds to go, for a gain of 19 yards.
On the next play, with the 49ers blitzing, Staubach threw to his secondary receiver, WR Ron Sellers, who was open in the middle of the field in front of the goal post. Sellers scored (pictured at top), and the Cowboys took the lead.
The 49ers had one last chance with 52 seconds to work with. It seemed as though Brodie might yet salvage the game as he completed three passes, but an apparent 23-yard toss to Riley that would have put San Francisco in field goal range was called back due to a holding penalty. Brodie was intercepted by safety Charlie Waters on the next play, thus sealing the 30-28 comeback win for Dallas.
The Cowboys rolled up 402 yards, to 255 for the Niners, and also led in first downs with 22 to San Francisco’s 13. But they had turned the ball over five times, nearly burying themselves, although none came during the spectacular fourth quarter comeback. Dallas also gave up five sacks (Morton once, Staubach four times) while not getting to Brodie at all.
Roger Staubach (pictured at right) completed 12 of 20 passes for 174 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in just over a quarter of action. Previously, Craig Morton was successful on 8 of 21 throws for 96 yards with a TD and two picked off. Billy Parks led the receivers with 7 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown. Calvin Hill gained 125 yards rushing on 18 carries.
For the 49ers, John Brodie threw 22 passes and completed 12 of them for 150 yards with no TDs and two interceptions (both by Charlie Waters). Preston Riley caught 4 passes for 41 yards while Gene Washington had 76 yards on three receptions. Vic Washington, in addition to running the opening kickoff all the way for a score, also ran for 56 yards on 10 carries, although Larry Schreiber was the workhorse for the Niners with 26 attempts for 52 yards and the three short TDs.
“It's the best comeback we've had since I've been in Dallas,” said Tom Landry, who showed uncharacteristic emotion afterward.
The stunning win didn’t spur the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl, however. They lost the NFC Championship game to Washington. San Francisco, having fallen short in the playoffs for three consecutive years, went into decline and didn’t return to the postseason until 1981.