November 21, 2012

1976: Falcons Upset Cowboys with Fourth Quarter Scoring Flurry

The Atlanta Falcons were stumbling along at 3-7 as they hosted the Dallas Cowboys on November 21, 1976. Head Coach Marion Campbell had already been let go and Pat Peppler, the general manager, took over in the interim. The Falcons had also lost second-year QB Steve Bartkowski to a knee injury and journeyman QB Scott Hunter was starting in his place. While they had beaten the 49ers the previous week, they were heavy underdogs against Dallas, a club they had never won against in five regular-season meetings.

The Cowboys had been to the postseason nine times in the previous ten years under Head Coach Tom Landry and sported a 9-1 record coming into the game at Atlanta. While they lacked speed at running back, they had a decent stable of runners and a proficient passing game led by QB Roger Staubach. The defense was typically strong. However, there were danger signs in that the Cowboys were coming off of two mediocre performances against the Giants and Bills, although they won both contests.

There were 47,947 fans in attendance on a 47-degree day at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Cowboys scored on a 16-yard run by FB Scott Laidlaw in the first quarter. However, there was little further excitement as neither team was able to generate much additional offense and the score remained 7-0 at the half.

In the third quarter, the Cowboys added a 23-yard Efren Herrera field goal. While they were only up by 10-0, it seemed likely to be enough against the hapless Falcons. But in a five minute span of the fourth quarter, Atlanta took control with the help of two interceptions and a short Dallas punt that put 17 points on the board.

First, LB Dewey McClain intercepted a Staubach pass to set up a 21-yard field goal by Nick Mike-Mayer. The next Dallas series ended with a poor 15-yard punt by Danny White and Atlanta capitalized when HB Mike Esposito scored on a 35-yard run.

With the score tied, SS Ray Brown (pictured at left) then intercepted a pass and the Falcons scored on a Scott Hunter quarterback keeper from a yard out. Dallas still had opportunities, but came up empty on a drive to the Atlanta 28 and, with 1:12 left on the clock, LB Tommy Nobis intercepted a Staubach pass at the Atlanta nine to seal the 17-10 upset.

The Cowboys outgained Atlanta (307 yards to 230) and had more first downs (15 to 13). However, Dallas also turned the ball over four times – twice leading to Atlanta scores – while the Falcons turned the ball over on two occasions. The Falcons also sacked Staubach four times, three of them by DE Claude Humphrey (pictured at top) - an unofficial total, as individual sacks were not yet a recognized statistic. Dallas committed a total of eight penalties, at a cost of 70 yards, to four flags thrown on Atlanta.

Scott Hunter was successful on just 8 of 20 pass attempts for 99 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Mike Esposito paced the running game with 82 yards and a TD on 13 carries and also was one of two Falcons to catch a team-leading three passes, along with WR Alfred Jenkins. Jenkins gained 60 yards to Esposito’s 19.

For the Cowboys, Roger Staubach had a rough day as he completed 13 of 28 passes for 157 yards with no TDs and had three intercepted. Scott Laidlaw rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on 15 attempts and HB Preston Pearson contributed 61 yards on 16 carries. Laidlaw and Pearson each caught four passes to lead the club, with Pearson gaining 47 yards and Laidlaw 39. Tellingly, only three of Staubach’s passes were completed to wide receivers, for a total of 39 yards.

“We moved the ball well when we weren’t making mistakes,” summed up Tom Landry. “But we had too many holding penalties, interceptions, and dropped passes.”

The loss for the Cowboys set up a Thanksgiving battle just three days later with the Cardinals for the NFC East lead. They won and went on to finish atop the division with an 11-3 record before losing to the Rams in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Atlanta lost its remaining three contests to end up fourth in the NFC West at 4-10. The result was an organizational refurbishing that brought former NFL quarterback Eddie LeBaron in as general manager and Leeman Bennett as head coach.