December 16, 2010

1979: Cowboys Come From Behind, Deny Redskins a Playoff Berth

The December 16, 1979 season finale between the arch-rival Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins at Texas Stadium had postseason ramifications for both teams. Both had 10-5 records, but due to the convoluted nature of the NFL’s tiebreaker system, the Cowboys were assured a playoff spot whatever the result, while Washington would clinch the NFC East title with a win but could conceivably be denied a playoff spot with a defeat.

The Cowboys, under Head Coach Tom Landry, had lost three defensive stalwarts before the season began when DT Jethro Pugh retired, DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones quit to pursue a boxing career (he returned in 1980), and SS Charlie Waters went down for the year with a knee injury in the preseason. That still left DT Randy White, DE Harvey Martin, MLB Bob Breunig, and FS Cliff Harris as a nucleus, and the offense, with QB Roger Staubach (pictured above), RB Tony Dorsett, wide receivers Tony Hill and Drew Pearson, was proficient. Dallas roared out to a 7-1 start, but then lost four of five games in a tumultuous period during which Landry cut LB Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson from the team for lack of effort. They had won their two most recent contests.

Washington, coached by Jack Pardee, had a ground-oriented offense led by RB John Riggins, but could pass effectively, too, with QB Joe Theismann ranking as the NFL’s second best passer (behind Staubach). Neal Olkewicz and Brad Dusek were the main components of an outstanding group of linebackers, and the defensive backfield that featured free safety Mark Murphy, strong safety Ken Houston, and cornerbacks Lamar Parrish and Joe Lavender was among the best.

The Redskins had beaten Dallas in Washington four weeks earlier, and had angered the Cowboys when they kicked a field goal with an 11-point lead and nine seconds remaining to play. Coach Pardee insisted that it was because of the possibility that point differential might play a part in determining a playoff berth (he proved to be on target), but many Dallas players saw it as the Redskins rubbing the loss in their faces.

However, it seemed as though Washington was well on its way to a division title when the Redskins opened up a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, helped along by Dallas turnovers. In the opening period, following a fumble by Cowboys RB Ron Springs (who was subbing for the injured Dorsett), Mark Moseley kicked a 24-yard field goal. After Dusek recovered a fumble by Dallas RB Robert Newhouse, Theismann hit WR Danny Buggs on a pass play that covered 39 yards and three plays later ran around end for a one-yard touchdown. Early in the second quarter, Theismann capped a seven play drive by tossing a pass to RB Benny Malone that covered 55 yards for a TD.

But the Cowboys fought back as, first, Springs scored from a yard out. Then Staubach, facing a third-and-20 situation, capped an 85-yard drive with less than ten seconds remaining in the half by throwing a touchdown pass to RB Preston Pearson that covered 26 yards. Washington’s lead was cut to 17-14 at the intermission.

Dallas took the lead in its first possession of the third quarter as Newhouse scored a two-yard touchdown. But Washington seemed to take decisive command in the fourth quarter. Moseley kicked another 24-yard field goal, and then Riggins (pictured at left) scored two touchdowns, one from a yard out and the other on a 66-yard jaunt. With just under seven minutes left to play, the Redskins held a formidable 34-21 lead.

The clock was ticking down to four minutes when Randy White recovered a fumble by Washington RB Clarence Harmon. The Dallas offense came alive as Staubach connected on three straight passes that covered 14 yards to WR Butch Johnson, 19 to Tony Hill, and 26 yards and a touchdown to Springs.

The Redskins sought to run out the clock on their next possession, but on a crucial third-and-two play at their own 32, Riggins was dropped for a two-yard loss by DE Larry Cole. Washington was forced to punt and the Cowboys took over at their own 25 with 1:46 left to play and two timeouts.

Staubach was an established master at pulling off comebacks, and he threw a 20-yard pass to Hill and then connected twice with Preston Pearson for 22 and 25 yards down to the Washington eight yard line. With the clock now down to 45 seconds, Staubach intended to throw to TE Billy Joe Dupree, but facing an all-out blitz by the Redskins, instead lofted a high, arching pass that Hill caught in the corner of the end zone. With the successful extra point, Dallas now held a one-point lead.

Washington still had one last shot, but in the final 39 seconds they got only as far as the Dallas 42 before time expired. The Cowboys came away with a stunning 35-34 win.

The Cowboys outgained the Redskins (434 yards to 373) although they turned the ball over three times to once by Washington. Roger Staubach completed 24 of 42 passes for 336 yards with three touchdowns against one interception. Tony Hill (pictured below) caught 8 passes for 113 yards and a TD, and Preston Pearson was right behind at 5 receptions out of the backfield for 108 yards and a score. Ron Springs ran for 79 yards on 20 carries in place of Tony Dorsett.

John Riggins was the top rusher with 22 attempts for 151 yards and two TDs. Joe Theismann went to the air 23 times and completed 12 for 200 yards and a touchdown with none picked off. Benny Malone was the pass receiving yardage leader with 55 on his lone catch that resulted in a score while Danny Buggs was right behind with 46 yards on his two receptions.

The win gave Dallas the division title with an 11-5 record (the Cowboys went on to lose to the Rams in the Divisional playoff round). Philadelphia, also 11-5, placed second and grabbed the first wild card spot due to having a lesser record in conference games than Dallas. Washington was third at 10-6, but lost out on being the second wild card team because the Chicago Bears, also 10-6, had beaten the Cardinals 42-6, thus beating out the Redskins on the point differential tiebreaker.

“It's a shame someone had to lose, because the Redskins played their guts out, but so did we,” said Staubach. “The Redskins played well enough to be in the playoffs. They deserved a better fate.” Staubach also called the game “the most exciting I’ve ever played in” which, in his case, was certainly high praise.

“There we were, divisional champions with 40 seconds to play, then nothing. I'm just heartbroken. Not just for myself but for the players,” said Jack Pardee afterward.

While no one knew at the time, it was the last regular season game for Roger Staubach, who retired during the offseason. In his final year, he led the NFL in passing (92.3 rating) while throwing for 3586 yards and 27 touchdowns (one behind the league co-leaders). His next stop would be the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Both Tony Hill and Drew Pearson gained over a thousand yards receiving, and Hill was selected to the Pro Bowl. In his third year, and second as a starting wide receiver, Hill caught 60 passes for 1062 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. Pearson, in his seventh season, pulled in 55 receptions for 1026 yards and 8 scores. 34-year-old Preston Pearson, who performed so well against the Redskins and was valued for his pass receiving ability out of the backfield, had 26 catches for 333 yards and a TD; the 108 yards against Washington were the second most of his 14-year career.

John Riggins rushed for a ninth-ranked 1153 yards on 260 carries with 9 touchdowns. The 66-yard scoring run against Dallas was the longest of his career.