The Dallas Cowboys were at 5-2 and seeking to keep pace in the NFC East as they hosted the Miami Dolphins on October 25, 1981. Under the direction of Head Coach Tom Landry, the Cowboys were perennial contenders that had reached the NFC Championship game the previous year, and even amidst retooling remained a powerful team. QB Danny White (pictured above) was an able passer with a fine stable of receivers and RB Tony Dorsett an outstanding ground gainer. The defensive backfield had been a question mark early on but was benefiting from the play of cornerbacks Everson Walls, an undrafted rookie, and Dennis Thurman, formerly a safety, as well as first-year FS Michael Downs.
Miami, coached by Don Shula, came into the game at 5-1-1. Second-year QB David Woodley directed the talented offense that contained RB Tony Nathan, a productive all-purpose back, and a fine group of receivers led by WR Duriel Harris. The defense was strongest up front.
There were 64,221 fans in attendance at Texas Stadium. The Dolphins had the game’s first possession and punted. Tony Dorsett ran for 16 yards on first down, but two plays later he fumbled after gaining 19 yards on a screen pass from Danny White and CB Gerald Small recovered for Miami. It took just three plays for the Cowboys to regain possession thanks to an interception by Everson Walls, giving them the ball at the Dallas 38. White threw to WR Butch Johnson for 25 yards, Dorsett ran for 11 more on a second-and-seven play, and White connected with TE Jay Saldi for another 13 yards. FB Ron Springs plowed into the end zone from five yards out and Rafael Septien added the extra point. In response, the Dolphins methodically advanced to the Dallas 30, but a run by Tony Nathan to try and convert a fourth-and-inches situation was stopped short by LB Bob Breunig.
In the second quarter, and following an exchange of punts, Miami put together an 87-yard drive in eight plays. Woodley (pictured at left) completed passes to WR Jimmy Cefalo for 31 yards and Duriel Harris for 30 and his five-yard toss to Nathan was good for a TD. However, the extra point attempt failed when Uwe van Schamann, who had been successful on 70 straight, hit the right upright. The Cowboys maintained a 7-6 lead.
The Cowboys drove 80 yards in ten plays to another score with Dorsett carrying for 12, 9, and 18 yards and White throwing to WR Drew Pearson for a gain of 23 yards to the Miami 25 in a second-and-24 situation following a sack. Three plays later, and after converting a fourth down, Johnson got beyond CB Gerald Small and caught a pass from White for a 21-yard touchdown. Septien converted to make the score 14-6 with 55 seconds left in the first half, and that remained the tally at halftime.
Early in the third quarter, following a punt by the Cowboys, David Woodley threw long to Cefalo who went 69 yards for a touchdown. Van Schamann added the point after this time and the visitors were again behind by a point at 14-13.
The teams exchanged punts for the remainder of the period. As the game headed into the fourth quarter, the Dolphins were in Dallas territory and threatening, but Woodley threw a pass that was intercepted by Dennis Thurman. The Cowboys lost 13 yards in three plays, however, and White punted to give the Dolphins possession at the Dallas 42. Woodley passed to Cefalo for 32 yards to set up a 10-yard throw to Nathan for a TD. Van Schamann converted and the Dolphins were in front by 20-14.
Passes by White to WR Tony Hill that gained 21 and 24 yards had Dallas in Miami territory, but an interception by LB Earnest Rhone appeared to sink the Cowboys when, eight plays later and after Woodley threw to Harris for a 45-yard gain, he rolled out and tossed a four-yard touchdown pass to TE Joe Rose. Van Schamann’s kick extended the visitors’ lead to 27-14 with 5:16 remaining in regulation.
Dallas responded with a five-play, 79-yard drive. White threw to Hill for a pickup of 38 yards and, with 3:48 remaining to play, he connected with TE Doug Cosbie for a five-yard touchdown. Septien’s point after made it a six-point game at 27-21.
No sooner had the Dolphins gone back on offense when, with Coach Shula choosing to go to the air rather than keeping the ball on the ground, Woodley threw a pass that was intercepted by Thurman, who returned it 12 yards. White immediately threw to Springs, who had beaten LB Bob Brudzinski, for a 32-yard TD. Septien added the all-important PAT and the second scoring pass in 31 seconds moved the Cowboys in front by a single point.
The Dolphins weren’t out of it yet and they drove deep into Dallas territory, the big play a Woodley throw to Harris for 41 yards to the Dallas 28, but two plays later, with the clock now down to 58 seconds, Walls (pictured below) intercepted a Woodley pass at the four yard line. The Cowboys ran three plays and, coming up a yard short of a first down, were forced to punt from their 31. Woodley threw to Rose for 12 yards but, in the final seconds, Michael Downs intercepted a pass at the Dallas 42 to finally secure the 28-27 win for the Cowboys.
The teams combined for 1006 yards, with Miami having the most (529 to 466) and also the edge in first downs (25 to 23). However, the Dolphins also turned the ball over five times, to two by Dallas. The Cowboys were credited with three sacks, to two by Miami. Ultimately, the contest came down to the missed extra point in the first half.
Danny White completed 22 of 32 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns, two of them leading Dallas from behind in the final minutes, and gave up one interception. Tony Dorsett rushed for 122 yards on 24 carries and caught three passes for 31 more yards. Ron Springs had 6 pass receptions for 93 yards and a TD and Tony Hill gained 106 yards on his five catches. Butch Johnson contributed three receptions for 68 yards and a score. On defense, Dennis Thurman and Everson Walls accounted for two interceptions apiece that proved critical.
For the Dolphins, David Woodley was successful on 21 of 37 throws for a then-team-record 408 yards and three TDs, although he gave up five interceptions. Four of the pickoffs came in the fourth quarter and three in the last four minutes of play. Duriel Harris caught 6 passes for 165 yards and Jimmy Cefalo (pictured at right) gained 164 yards on five receptions that included the long touchdown. Tony Nathan led the club in rushing with 76 yards on 16 attempts with one TD.
“We knew we weren’t dead with five minutes to play,” said Danny White. “We’ve made up two touchdowns in shorter time than that before.”
“We were in great shape to win the football game and we made some big, big mistakes offensively,” said Don Shula from the Miami perspective. “Defensively, we couldn’t stop them when we had to stop them at the end. It could have been one of our great wins. Instead, it turns out to be a bitter defeat.”
The win kept the Cowboys a game behind the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles, who they defeated the following week, and they ended up topping the NFC East with a 12-4 record. They overwhelmed Tampa Bay in the Divisional round before being edged by the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Miami went 6-2 the rest of the way to finish first in the AFC East at 11-4-1. They lost an epic Divisional playoff game to San Diego in overtime.
Danny White ranked second in NFC passing (87.5 rating) and yards per attempt (7.9) while throwing for 3098 yards and 22 touchdowns. Tony Dorsett was second in NFL rushing (1646 yards) and was a first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl selection. Everson Walls intercepted a league-high 11 passes, also garnering Pro Bowl honors, and Dennis Thurman was close behind with 9.
David Woodley’s 408 passing yards against the Cowboys remained his career high (by far). He threw for 2470 yards and 12 TDs, against 13 interceptions, in what was his most productive year as a NFL quarterback. Likewise, the 164 receiving yards remained Jimmy Cefalo’s career best (and his only hundred-yard performance). He had 29 catches in ’81 for 631 yards (21.8 avg.) and three touchdowns.