October 26, 2011

1980: Third Quarter Surge Keys Dallas Win Over Chargers

The Dallas Cowboys were 5-2 and a game behind the Eagles in the NFC East (a team they had lost a closely-fought contest to the week before) as they took on the San Diego Chargers (also 5-2) at Texas Stadium on October 26, 1980.

The Cowboys, in their 21st season under Head Coach Tom Landry, were a club that had regularly contended since the mid-60s. Star QB Roger Staubach retired following the 1979 season, however, and 28-year-old Danny White (pictured at right), who had been the backup for the previous four years after coming to Dallas from the World Football League, was now the starting quarterback. He was also still the team’s punter, which would be a factor in the game against San Diego.

The Chargers, coached by Don Coryell, featured an explosive offense directed by QB Dan Fouts and included wide receivers John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow. RB Chuck Muncie had been obtained from the Saints in September to bolster the suspect running game. The underrated defense featured an outstanding pass rush.

There were 60,639 fans in attendance as Muncie returned the opening kickoff to the San Diego 41. Fouts threw two completions to Jefferson, of 9 and 17 yards, and Rolf Benirschke kicked a 45-yard field goal to give the Chargers the early 3-0 lead. The Cowboys responded by advancing to the San Diego 23, with White connecting with WR Butch Johnson for a 19-yard gain along the way. However, Rafael Septien was wide to the left on a 45-yard field goal attempt.

Late in the first quarter, Fouts was intercepted by CB Steve Wilson, who returned it 35 yards. The Cowboys went the remaining 35 yards in four plays, with White throwing to TE Billy Joe DuPree for a 15-yard gain and RB Ron Springs, in place of the injured Tony Dorsett, running in for a four-yard touchdown.

In the second quarter, Jefferson scored on an odd play when a pass from Fouts intended for Joiner bounced off the receiver’s hands, hit the defender Wilson in the helmet, and was caught on the carom by Jefferson at the Dallas 47. Jefferson continued on untouched to complete the 58-yard scoring play and San Diego regained the lead at 10-7.

Shortly thereafter, White lobbed a pass toward RB James Jones that was intercepted by San Diego LB Woodrow Lowe, who returned it 15 yards for a touchdown. The Chargers were up by ten points at 17-7. The Cowboys responded with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by a White scoring pass covering 17 yards to Johnson with just under three minutes left in the half.

San Diego came right back with a five-play possession that included a Fouts pass to Joiner for 33 yards to the Dallas nine and a TD pass to Winslow. The Chargers got one last scoring opportunity before halftime when SS Pete Shaw recovered a fumble by DuPree at the Dallas 40. But on the last play of the half, Benirschke missed a 46-yard field goal attempt. San Diego held a 24-14 lead at the intermission.

The Cowboys came back decisively, scoring three touchdowns in an 8:15 span of the third quarter. Jones returned the second half kickoff 38 yards and Springs had two ten-yard runs and a 12-yard pass reception. White’s 13-yard pass to TE Jay Saldi got the ball to the ten, and rookie FB Tim Newsome finished off the drive with a one-yard scoring plunge.

Dallas regained the ball and White, who had run for a first down on a fake punt during the first half, did so again following a high snap to gain 12 yards and keep another drive going – with a further 15 yards tacked on for good measure thanks to a penalty on the Chargers for a late hit. White proceeded to throw to WR Tony Hill for a 24-yard gain and the revived possession ended once again with a one-yard run by Newsome. Dallas now had the lead at 28-24.

The third touchdown of the period for Dallas came on a 12-yard pass play from White to Saldi, and the Cowboys were up by a 35-24 margin going into the final quarter.

Any comeback hopes for San Diego were ruined by sloppy play as Fouts was intercepted three times in the fourth quarter and also fumbled the ball away. The Chargers scored just one touchdown in the second half, and it was inconsequential with 1:41 to play as Fouts threw to Winslow from three yards out. Dallas had already scored once again, on a nine-yard touchdown pass from White to DuPree, and the Cowboys won handily, 42-31.

The Chargers outgained Dallas by 449 yards to 425, most of that coming on passes while the Cowboys, even without Dorsett, ran for 198 yards. Dallas also led in first downs, 29 to 21. But San Diego was undone by seven turnovers, to just two given up by the Cowboys. Dallas also had a huge advantage in time of possession (41:52 to 18:08), effectively keeping the ball away from San Diego’s high-powered offense.

Danny White, in addition to completing 22 of 34 passes for 260 yards with three touchdowns against one interception, also twice ran for first downs from punt formation, with a 19-yard gain in the first half and the 12-yard carry in the third quarter that led to the go-ahead TD. He ended up running for 39 yards on six attempts. Billy Joe DuPree (pictured below) caught 5 passes for 45 yards and a TD, although White’s passes were well distributed to nine different receivers. Ron Springs gained 61 yards on 13 carries that included a score.

For the Chargers, Dan Fouts went to the air 44 times and completed 21 of those passes for 371 yards with three TDs but also four interceptions. John Jefferson caught 8 of those throws for 160 yards and a touchdown and Kellen Winslow added 110 yards on 5 receptions with two TDs. Chuck Muncie ran for 71 yards on 11 carries but also fumbled the ball away twice.

“Danny White is just super,” said San Diego’s Coach Coryell. “His scrambling and his making the big plays were the difference. Then on those two runs he made off the punts, well, they were great plays.”

“Neither of White's running plays on punting downs was called,” explained Tom Landry. “Whenever he runs with it, it is his own doing.”

“The runs from punt formation are never planned,” said White. “I did it the first time because their contain men turned their backs. The second time the snap was a little high. I thought it might be blocked and took a few steps to punt, then saw an opening. I know that had to be discouraging to their defense.”

The win allowed the Cowboys to keep pace with Philadelphia in the division race and they finished with the same record as the Eagles at 12-4, but placed second due to the net points tiebreaker. Dallas defeated the Rams handily in the Wild Card playoff and then came from behind to beat Atlanta in the Divisional round, but lost to the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. San Diego went 6-2 the rest of the way to win the AFC West with an 11-5 record, beating Buffalo in the Divisional playoff but losing to Oakland in the AFC title game.

Danny White threw for 3287 yards and ranked fifth in the league with 28 touchdown passes, although he also tied for third (with Green Bay’s Lynn Dickey) with 25 interceptions.

Dan Fouts led the NFL in pass attempts (589), completions (348), and yards (4715). He was one behind the leader in touchdown passes with 30, as opposed to 24 interceptions, and was also second with 8.0 yards per attempt. John Jefferson and Kellen Winslow placed first and second in pass receiving yards, with 1340 and 1290, respectively (Charlie Joiner was fourth with 1132 yards on 71 catches). Winslow led the league with 89 receptions while Jefferson caught 82. All three receivers were consensus first-team All-NFL selections and were named to the Pro Bowl, along with Fouts.