December 21, 2011

1968: Browns Upset Cowboys for Eastern Conference Title

The Dallas Cowboys had represented the Eastern Conference in two straight NFL Championship games and were anticipating a third appearance as they faced the Cleveland Browns on December 21, 1968. Head Coach Tom Landry’s team had won the Capitol Division with a 12-2 record while scoring a league-high 431 points. The passing game, with QB Don Meredith throwing to wide receivers Bob Hayes and Lance Rentzel, was formidable and the running game produced even when HB Dan Reeves went down with a knee injury; along with veteran FB Don Perkins, HB Craig Baynham and FB Walt Garrison performed well in his absence. The defense was also strong and featured DT Bob Lilly, DE George Andrie, FS Mel Renfro, and linebackers Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley.

The Cowboys had embarrassed Cleveland in the Eastern Conference playoff the year before by a score of 52-14 at the Cotton Bowl, one of four straight defeats that the Browns had suffered against them, including a 28-7 loss during the regular season. Under Head Coach Blanton Collier, Cleveland topped the Century Division with a 10-4 tally. One change since the teams met in ’67 was at quarterback, where Bill Nelsen (pictured below), obtained in the offseason from Pittsburgh, replaced fading 32-year-old veteran Frank Ryan after the club started slowly. They still had outstanding players on offense in HB Leroy Kelly (pictured above), the NFL’s top rusher and scorer, and WR Paul Warfield. The defensive backfield was talented, as the Browns led the league with 32 interceptions.

There was a big crowd of 81,497 on hand at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium with temperatures in the mid-30s. Cleveland scored first following FS Mike Howell’s interception of a Meredith pass at the Dallas 39 that he returned to the 19. Following a penalty for an illegal receiver down field on a pass play, the Browns settled for a 38-yard field goal by Don Cockroft.

Late in the first quarter, the Cowboys got a break when Nelsen was hit by three Dallas linemen and fumbled. Howley recovered and ran 44 yards for a touchdown to give the visitors a 7-3 lead.

In a first half dominated by the defenses, the Cowboys extended their margin following an interception of a Nelsen pass by LB Dave Edwards that gave them the ball at the Cleveland 33. The resulting series ended with Mike Clark kicking an 18-yard field goal that made it 10-3.

The Browns came through on offense late in the second quarter, driving 85 yards in six plays. With the Cowboys double-covering Warfield, Leroy Kelly drifted out of the backfield and was left all alone. He caught a well-thrown pass from Nelsen on the 15 and scored a touchdown on a play that covered 45 yards overall. Cockroft’s extra point tied the game up at 10-10 heading into halftime.

Cleveland broke the game open with two interceptions in the first 2:30 of the second half. The first came on the initial play from scrimmage in the third quarter as LB Dale Lindsey returned it 27 yards for a touchdown. Shortly thereafter, Meredith was picked off again, this time by CB Ben Davis, which set up a 35-yard scoring run by Kelly two plays later. It was the end for Meredith, who completed just 3 of 9 passes for 42 yards and gave up three interceptions. When the Cowboys returned on offense, backup QB Craig Morton was behind center.

Late in the third quarter, Clark kicked a 47-yard field goal that narrowed Cleveland’s lead to 24-13. However, in the fourth quarter, the Browns drove 77 yards for the touchdown that clinched the game. With just over 12 minutes remaining on the clock, and following an interception of a Morton pass by veteran CB Erich Barnes, Nelsen threw to Warfield for a 32-yard gain and then for 13 yards to TE Milt Morin to set up a two-yard scoring run by FB Ernie Green.

The highest-scoring team in the league didn’t get an offensive touchdown until late in the fourth quarter when Morton threw to Garrison from two yards out. It didn’t matter at that point – the Browns won handily by a score of 31-20. The fans swarmed the field at the end and the officials called the game with 40 seconds remaining on the clock.

The Cowboys actually led narrowly in total yards (286 to 280) and first downs (13 to 12). However, they also turned the ball over four times – all on interceptions – and that proved to be the difference.

Bill Nelsen completed 13 of 25 passes for 203 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Leroy Kelly rushed for 87 yards on 20 carries that included a TD and also caught two passes for 46 more yards and the long touchdown. Paul Warfield (pictured at right) had 4 receptions for 86 yards and Milt Morin added 4 catches as well, for 47 yards.

In relief of Don Meredith, Craig Morton was successful on 9 of 23 throws for 163 yards with a TD and one picked off. Bob Hayes pulled in 5 passes for 83 yards and Lance Rentzel contributed 3 receptions for 75 yards. Don Perkins was the top rusher for the Cowboys as he gained 51 yards on 15 attempts.

Blanton Collier had nothing but praise for his defense afterward, saying “It’s a young defensive club, but they came of age today.”

“I can’t say enough about that defense,” added Bill Nelsen. “When the defense gives us the ball that many times, we’re going to score some points.”

“We had a chance to go all the way…but we couldn’t get the spark,” summed up a disappointed Tom Landry.

The high hopes expressed by the exuberant Browns came crashing down the next week as they were dominated in the NFL Championship game by the Baltimore Colts, who won by a 34-0 score. Cleveland and Dallas repeated once again as division champs in 1969 – the final year before the merger would restructure the league and move the Browns to the AFC – and the Browns again came out on top for the Eastern Conference title (and again lost decisively in the league championship contest).

It wasn’t known at the time, but Don Meredith would not be back with the Cowboys in 1969. While the poor performance against the Browns wasn’t his last pro appearance (he played for Dallas in the Playoff Bowl against the Vikings as well as the Pro Bowl), he announced his retirement just prior to training camp the following summer. It was a disappointing conclusion to a good run as quarterback in Dallas that ended with three straight division titles for the team as well as three consecutive Pro Bowl selections for the quarterback out of SMU.