January 11, 2010

1981: Wilbert Montgomery Spurs Eagles Past Cowboys for NFC Championship

The NFC Championship game on January 11, 1981 featured two fierce division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. The teams ended the 1980 season with identical 12-4 records, but the Eagles won the NFC East thanks to a better point differential in division games. They split the season series in two hard-fought contests, with each team winning in its home stadium (and the Cowboys trying hard to overcome the point differential in beating Philadelphia in the finale).

Under Head Coach Dick Vermeil, the Eagles had returned to respectability from a long dry spell after last winning a title in 1960. Now they were in the postseason for the third consecutive season, with progressively better records (9-7 in ’78, 11-5 in ’79). RB Wilbert Montgomery had emerged as an outstanding all-purpose back, and while his numbers were down in ’80 due to injuries, he was patched up for the postseason. QB Ron Jaworski had his best year, going to the Pro Bowl for the only time and achieving career highs in completions (257), yards (3529), and TD passes (27) and leading the conference in passing (91.0). 6’8” WR Harold Carmichael’s record consecutive game passing streak had finally ended at 127, but he was still the go-to receiver in clutch situations. The defense was very sound and featured NT Charlie Johnson, DE Carl Hairston, SS Randy Logan, and a strong set of linebackers that included Bill Bergey, Frank LeMaster, and Jerry Robinson.

The Cowboys, under Head Coach Tom Landry, were a perennial playoff participant and had won five NFC titles and two Super Bowls in the decade since 1970. Danny White had taken over the starting quarterback job from the retired Roger Staubach and performed well, while RB Tony Dorsett ran for 1185 yards and 11 touchdowns. The defense was led by DT Randy White and LB Bob Breunig, and benefited from the return of DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones after a one-year boxing hiatus.

In the postseason thus far, the Eagles dominated the second half in beating Minnesota in their Divisional playoff game, while Danny White had to lead the Cowboys from behind to get past the Atlanta Falcons.

It was bitterly cold at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, with a temperature of 16 degrees that felt lower thanks to a brisk wind. 70,696 hopeful Eagles fans stuffed the stadium, and they were brought to their feet quickly as Montgomery took off on a 42-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game.

The Eagles dominated the first quarter, outgaining the Cowboys 117 yards to 28 and holding White to minus yards passing, but didn’t score again. Neither team was able to mount much of a passing attack in the wind and cold (at one point Jaworski threw ten straight incompletions), thus making it a ground-based battle for ball control. Dallas managed to tie the game in the second quarter with a 10-play, 68-yard drive that was highlighted by Dorsett gaining 18 yards on a swing pass from White and then scoring on a three-yard run. The Eagles came close to re-taking the lead before halftime, but an apparent Jaworski-to-Carmichael touchdown pass was called back due to a penalty.

In the second half, the Eagles got an apparent break on special teams when RB Billy Campfield recovered a fumble by Dallas punt returner James Jones at the Cowboys 27 yard line. However, LB Anthony Dickerson picked off a Jaworski pass three plays later, but Philadelphia got the ball back once again when Hairston forced White to fumble (pictured at bottom) and DE Dennis Harrison recovered at the Dallas 9. Two pass attempts into the end zone intended for Carmichael fell incomplete and the Eagles settled for a 26-yard field goal by Tony Franklin to move back in front, 10-7.

The Cowboys fumbled the ball away again (they fumbled five times during the game, losing three of them) as CB Roynell Young stripped Dorsett and Jerry Robinson recovered at the Dallas 38. This time the Eagles were able to reach the end zone as FB Leroy Harris scored on a 9-yard run.

The Eagles controlled the ball effectively as the game moved into the fourth quarter. After the Dorsett TD in the second quarter, the Cowboys never got closer than the Philadelphia 39 yard line the rest of the game. Philadelphia scored once more, on a 20-yard Franklin field goal after moving the ball 62 yards to the Dallas 3, and that provided the final tally of 20-7.

The story of the game came down to the Eagles running the ball far more effectively than the Cowboys, gaining a total of 263 yards on 40 carries to Dallas’ 90 on 22 runs, and committing fewer turnovers (two, to four by the Cowboys). Wilbert Montgomery gained 194 of those yards, on 26 attempts with the one TD. Harris accounted for another 60 yards on his 10 rushes. On the Dallas side, Tony Dorsett was held to just 41 yards on 13 carries and FB Robert Newhouse led the team with 44 yards on seven attempts.

The passing statistics reflected the poor weather conditions, with Ron Jaworski completing just 9 of 29 throws for 91 yards and two interceptions. Danny White went to the air 31 times, completed 12, for a total of 127 yards with one picked off. WR Rodney Parker led the Eagles with 4 catches for 31 yards (Harold Carmichael was held to just one reception for 7 yards) and Dorsett caught three passes for Dallas, for 27 yards, while RB Preston Pearson, typically brought in on passing situations, led with 32 yards on two catches.

The sense of joy among Eagles fans turned to despair as Philadelphia lost the ensuing Super Bowl to the Oakland Raiders, 27-10, and played poorly throughout. The Cowboys made it to the next two NFC Championship games, but lost them as well. Wilbert Montgomery ended up as the all-time rushing leader in Eagles history with 6538 yards, but the performance against Dallas remained the crowning achievement of his career.