The Philadelphia Eagles had secured a postseason berth and were looking to win a division title for the first time since 1960 as they hosted the Dallas Cowboys on December 8, 1979. Head Coach Dick Vermeil’s team had a 10-4 record, putting them a game ahead of the 9-5 Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
The Cowboys, under Head Coach Tom Landry, had lost to the Eagles at home and were looking to return the favor. The offense was fundamentally sound with QB Roger Staubach, running backs Tony Dorsett and Robert Newhouse, and wide receivers Drew Pearson and Tony Hill. But while the defensive line was formidable, as a whole the unit had been inconsistent and in upheaval – such as when starting LB Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson was abruptly cut from the team due to a poor attitude. In addition, Pearson was out with an injury for the rematch with the Eagles.
There was a big and enthusiastic crowd of 71,434 in attendance at Veterans Stadium. It was a windy day in Philadelphia, with gusts of up to 40 mph, making passing difficult. The Cowboys scored less than two minutes into the first quarter. On Philadelphia’s third play from scrimmage, QB Ron Jaworski threw a pass intended for RB Billy Campfield that the receiver tipped and it was intercepted by SS Randy Hughes, who returned it 24 yards to the Philadelphia eight yard line. RB Scott Laidlaw ran for a one-yard touchdown.
Midway through the opening quarter, the Eagles put together a promising series as Jaworski passed to TE Keith Krepfle for 15 yards and to RB Wilbert Montgomery for 35 on a third-and-10 play. The drive finally stalled at the Dallas 10 yard line and Philadelphia settled for a 27-yard field goal by Tony Franklin.
Just before the first quarter ended, the Cowboys scored again when Rafael Septien kicked a 40-yard field goal, finishing off an 11-play, 44-yard drive. The score was 10-3 in favor of the visitors.
In the second quarter, Tony Dorsett fumbled to set up an Eagles score. Jaworski threw to Montgomery for a 14-yard touchdown to cap an 11-play, 77-yard series that was highlighted by a 24-yard gain on a pass from Jaworski to WR Harold Carmichael. There was 2:40 left in the half, and the tally remained knotted at 10-10 at the midway point.
Rookie RB Ron Springs (pictured at top) came in for Dorsett, who suffered a shoulder separation on the play in which he fumbled and was done for the day. With the game tied in the third quarter, the Cowboys put together a 52-yard drive in which Springs ran three times for 17 yards and Robert Newhouse twice for 12 yards before going around right end on a sweep for a 17-yard touchdown.
The Dallas defense shut the Eagles down on their next series. Upon regaining the ball, the Cowboys went 56 yards in 14 plays that covered over six minutes. Springs had five carries for 22 yards and, on a third-and-eight play, Staubach scrambled for 13 yards. The Cowboys scored when Staubach’s pass intended for Tony Hill was deflected by LB Frank Lemaster and WR Butch Johnson, the replacement for the injured Drew Pearson, dove and caught it for a TD.
The Eagles weren’t finished and made it a seven-point game with 5:51 to play as Montgomery scored again on a one-yard run to cap an 11-play, 65-yard series. Along the way, Jaworski threw to WR Scott Fitzkee for 17 yards and to Montgomery for 33.
With time running out in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, the Eagles advanced to the Dallas 17 yard line. But on a third-and-ten play, DE Harvey Martin sacked Jaworski for a 12-yard loss and the fourth down pass against a heavy blitz fell incomplete. The Cowboys won by a score of 24-17.
The statistics indicated the closeness of the contest. Philadelphia had the edge in total yards (284 to 279) while the Cowboys had more first downs (19 to 18). The Eagles had far more net passing yards (204 to 94) but Dallas was more effective on the ground (185 to 80), which was crucial in putting together long drives that ran time off the clock. Each team turned the ball over once.
Reflecting the difficulty of passing in the windy conditions, Roger Staubach completed just 11 of 21 passes for 105 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Robert Newhouse led the runners with 68 yards and a TD on 12 carries, but Ron Springs was effective in place of the injured Tony Dorsett, also running the ball 12 times, for 62 yards. Before exiting, Dorsett gained 36 yards on 9 attempts. Tony Hill and RB Preston Pearson each caught a team-leading three passes, for 33 and 27 yards, respectively.
For the Eagles, Ron Jaworski was successful on 13 of 36 throws for 216 yards and a TD with the one early pickoff. Wilbert Montgomery (pictured at left) was the offensive star as he ran the ball 23 times for 65 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 93 yards and another score.
“Tony’s a great back,” said Ron Springs of Dorsett. “I’m just glad they called on me to run the ball. This is a great thrill. I hoped to have a great game so they wouldn’t miss Tony so badly.”
The win pulled the Cowboys into a tie for first in the NFC East with the Eagles and clinched a playoff spot. While both teams won their final games of the regular season the next week to end up at 11-5, the stunning come-from-behind victory for Dallas over the Redskins gave the Cowboys the division title over the Eagles thanks to the conference record tiebreaker (Washington was ultimately denied a playoff spot altogether). They were upset by the Rams in the Divisional round of the postseason. Philadelphia won its Wild Card game over the Bears but also was upset at the Divisional level, by the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As for the two players who came off the bench for the Cowboys to play key roles in the win over Philadelphia, Ron Springs rushed for 248 yards on 67 carries (3.7 avg.) with two touchdowns and also caught 25 passes for another 251 yards (10.0 avg.) and a TD. Butch Johnson, in his fourth year with the team, had 6 pass receptions for 105 yards and the one touchdown.
Wilbert Montgomery, the 1977 sixth-round draft choice who had emerged as a star in ‘78, remained a key all-purpose cog in Philadelphia’s offense. He garnered a league-leading 2006 yards from scrimmage, which included a team-record 1512 rushing yards and 494 yards on 41 pass receptions, and scored 14 touchdowns. For the second straight year he was selected to the Pro Bowl.