September 23, 2011

1974: Defense & Dempsey Key Eagles Upset of Cowboys

The Monday Night Football game on September 23, 1974 featured two NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys, under Head Coach Tom Landry, had been the far more successful of the two clubs, having been to the postseason in each of the preceding eight seasons. They were coming off of a 10-4 record in ’73 and had won their season-opening game over the Falcons handily by a score of 24-0. Moreover, they had won 12 of the last 13 matchups with the Eagles dating back to 1967.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, was once again in rebuilding mode under second-year Head Coach Mike McCormack. The Eagles had been over .500 just twice since last winning a league championship in 1960 and were on their fifth head coach since that time. McCormack replaced Ed Khayat after a dreadful 2-11-1 season in 1972 in which the team produced a total of just 145 points and 12 touchdowns. A major deal was swung to bring veteran QB Roman Gabriel from the Rams, and the offense improved significantly in ’73, although the overall record was still only 5-8-1. For 1974, another major trade was made to upgrade the defense as Philadelphia obtained star MLB Bill Bergey from Cincinnati. In the Week 1 game at St. Louis against the Cardinals, the Eagles gave up just seven points – but scored only three.

There were 64,088 fans at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, and for most of the game they saw both offenses struggle. The Eagles couldn’t move the ball, but star QB Roger Staubach of the Cowboys missed on his first six pass attempts.

However, in the second quarter, Dallas put together a 90-yard drive with three Staubach completions along the way and RB Doug Dennison scored from three yards out. That was it for the first half scoring as the Cowboys led by 7-0 at halftime.

In the third quarter, Dallas was driving deep into Eagles territory again after a Gabriel pass was intercepted by CB Charlie Waters. Once more at the three yard line Dennison took the handoff, but this time he fumbled when hit by Bergey just short of the goal line. CB Joe “Big Bird” Lavender picked the loose ball up on the bounce and ran 96 yards up the sideline for a touchdown. Instead of the Cowboys being ahead by two touchdowns, in stunning fashion the score was tied at 7-7.

Such was the situation as the game entered the fourth quarter. A poor 26-yard punt by the Cowboys gave Philadelphia good field position, and with just under 12 minutes to play, Tom Dempsey gave the Eagles the lead with a 34-yard field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, Dallas RB Dennis Morgan returned the kick 36 yards and might have broken free but was tackled by the 265-pound Dempsey, who had played defensive end in junior college. As it was, with 8:34 left, Mac Percival kicked a 26-yard field goal to again tie the score at 10-10.

Coach McCormack considered replacing the ineffective Roman Gabriel with backup John Reaves, as the 34-year-old veteran had completed only four passes and the offense had just one first down. Leaving the ex-Ram in, Gabriel proceeded to throw to RB Po James for a 34-yard gain and WR Harold Carmichael for 13. He gained six yards on a quarterback draw, giving Philadelphia three first downs in the series. However, with the clock down to 3:13, RB Tom Sullivan fumbled and Dallas LB Dave Edwards recovered at his own 11.

Three plays later, the Eagles got the ball back when SS Randy Logan intercepted a Staubach pass intended for WR Drew Pearson at the sideline with 1:49 left. Typical of how most of the game had gone for the Eagles offense, they ran the ball twice for negligible yardage and Gabriel threw an incompletion, necessitating a 45-yard field goal attempt.

Dempsey was again successful and his kick put Philadelphia in front with 25 seconds to play. However, the Cowboys still had a shot and drove from their 18 to the Philadelphia 31 thanks to two Staubach passes to Pearson. But with two seconds left on the clock, Percival missed a 48-yard field goal attempt into the wind that fell short and to the left. The Eagles came away with a hard-fought 13-10 upset win.

Dallas dominated statistically, outgaining Philadelphia (385 yards to 165) and accumulating far more first downs (20 to 5). The Cowboys both outran the Eagles (168 yards to 98) and outpassed them (217 yards to 67) while both teams turned the ball over three times.

Roman Gabriel completed only 6 of 14 passes for 92 yards with one intercepted. Tom Sullivan was the leading rusher with 57 yards on 16 carries and Harold Carmichael the top receiver with two catches for 45 yards. Tom Dempsey, with the two clutch field goals, and Bill Bergey, who was credited with 18 tackles, were the stars of the game, along with Joe Lavender and his team-record fumble return (a record that lasted until 2006).

For the Cowboys, Roger Staubach was successful on 19 of 33 passes for 217 yards, but none were good for scores while two were intercepted. Drew Pearson was the primary offensive weapon as he caught 10 passes for 161 yards. RB Robert Newhouse rushed for 97 yards on 22 attempts.

“The defense and Tom Dempsey won the game,” said Coach McCormack afterward. Each member of the defense and Dempsey received game balls.

The big concern for the Eagles was that, for the second straight week, the offense had not gotten the ball into the end zone. Still, they got off to a 4-1 start before losing six straight games (starting with a 31-24 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys in Dallas). They won their last three (with rookie Mike Boryla starting at quarterback for the benched Gabriel) to salvage a 7-7 record that put them in fourth place in the NFC East.

Dallas went on to have an off-year, losing their next three games before recovering to win 7 of the last 9. The Cowboys finished third in the division with an 8-6 tally and missed the postseason for the first time since 1965.

With his job reportedly on the line coming into the Monday night game against Dallas, Tom Dempsey’s two field goals earned him a reprieve and he finished out the season (the first since 1932 in which the goal posts were at the back of the end zone rather than the goal line) with 10 field goals in 16 attempts. The hefty placekicker born without toes on his right foot, and who had booted a record 63-yard field goal for the Saints in 1970 before coming over to the Eagles in ’71, had been the team’s player representative during the ’74 preseason strike and acrimony had risen between him and owner Leonard Tose. He was traded to the Rams after the season.

Bill Bergey’s dominating performance against the Cowboys was the first of many and he had an outstanding year, garnering consensus first-team All-Pro honors for the first of two consecutive seasons. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl, an honor he would achieve four times while with the Eagles. The leader of the defense (as well as its best player) inspired chants of “Ber-gey, Ber-gey” from the Philadelphia fans that would become a regular feature of games at the Vet during his heyday. (Bergey pictured below)