It was December 16, 1979 when the Washington Redskins came to Texas Stadium tied with the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East with 10-5 records. This game would turn out to be one of Roger Staubach’s finest moments as well as his last great comeback in his Cowboys career.
The NFC East showdown between these heated rivals did not start out the way the Cowboys had wanted. On the Cowboys first two possessions of the game they fumbled and the Redskins took full advantage of the recoveries.
It took only two plays on the Cowboys first possession before rookie Ron Springs fumbled at the Cowboys 34 yard line. The Redskins took over and drove to the Cowboys three yard line. On third and goal Larry Cole sacked Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and forced the Redskins to kick a field goal by Mark Mosley for an early 3-0 lead.
On the Cowboys second possession they once again fumbled the ball away. This time it was Robert Newhouse who gave the ball to the Redskins on the Cowboys 45 yard line. The Redskins drove to the Cowboys one yard line, but this time Theismann made sure there would be no field goal attempt as he scored himself, giving the Redskins a 10-0 lead.
With the Redskins leading 10-0 going into the second quarter and the Cowboys offense showing no signs of life, the Redskins offense went back to work with an 80 yard, 7 play drive. They finished the drive when Theismann connected with running back Benny Malone who eluded a tackle by D.D. Lewis. Malone raced down the right sideline for a 55 yard touchdown giving the Redskins a commanding 17-0 lead.
The Cowboys offense seemed to wake up on their next possession. They put together a 13 play, 70 yard drive. From the Redskins one yard line it was Ron Springs who would make up for his earlier fumble as he scored the Cowboys first touchdown of the game. The Redskins were now leading 17-7 with a little more then four minutes left in the first half.
With only 1:48 left in the first half the Cowboys got the ball back on their own 15 yard line. Staubach went to work as he connected with Tony Hill three times and Drew Pearson once to get to the Redskins 26 yard line. With only nine seconds remaining Staubach connected with Preston Pearson for the touchdown as Pearson made a diving catch in the end zone. The Cowboys had fought their way back into the game with two second quarter touchdowns. They went into the half down 17-14.
In the third quarter the Cowboys defense shutdown the Redskins offense. The Cowboys offense took advantage and scored the only touchdown of the quarter, which gave them their first lead of the game. After a short Redskins punt the Cowboys took over at their own 48 yard line. They needed only nine plays, which included a Butch Johnson reverse that gained 13 yards. Preston Pearson took a short pass from Staubach and got the Cowboys to the two yard line. Like Ron Springs in the first half, it was now Newhouse’s turn to make up for his earlier fumble. He scored from the two yard line, giving the Cowboys a 21-17 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter the Redskins drove to the Cowboys 7 yard line where they would have to settle for a Mark Mosley 24 yard field goal. That made the score 21-20 Cowboys.
Staubach threw his only interception of the game when he went deep over the middle from his own 13 yard line where there was no receiver in sight. Redskins safety Mark Murphy came down with the ball and returned it down to the Cowboys 25 yard line. On the Redskins first play Theismann threw into the end zone for receiver Ricky Thompson. Cowboys safety Cliff Harris bumped Thompson and was called for pass interference. The penalty placed the ball at the Cowboys one yard line where John Riggins scored to give the lead back to the Redskins, 27-21.
With less than seven minutes to play in the game, it was Riggins who seemed to put the game out of reach for the Cowboys. Riggins broke to the outside at his own 34 yard line as he outran Cowboys linebacker Mike Hegman and then broke a tackle by Cliff Harris. Riggins then raced away from Cowboys cornerback Dennis Thurman down the right sideline and scored from 66 yards for a 34-21 Redskins lead.
With 3:49 left in the game, Randy White recovered a Redskins fumble. Roger Staubach only needed three plays to get the Cowboys closer as he connected with Ron Springs for a 26 yard touchdown. Springs caught the pass at the five yard line and dragged Redskins cornerback Ray Waddy into the end zone. The Redskins still had a 34-28 lead with 2:20 left in the game.
With time running out and the Redskins facing a third and one, veteran Larry Cole threw Riggins for a two yard loss and forced the Redskins to punt.
The Cowboys stood 75 yards away from an NFC Eastern Division title. Roger Staubach went back to work like he had done so many times in his career. He drove the Cowboys in only seven plays. During the drive he connected with Tony Hill for 20 yards, then to Preston Pearson for 22 yards. With 1:01 left in the game Staubach went back to Preston Pearson for a 25 yard gain to the Redskins 8 yard line. From there Staubach lofted a pass into the end zone that Tony Hill came down with.
The Cowboys won the game 35-34 over the Redskins and also won their 11th Eastern title in the teams 20 year history. The win also gave the Cowboys a week off and home field advantage in the playoffs. With the win it also knocked the Redskins out of the playoffs
Roger Staubach finished the game with 336 yards passing and three touchdown passes. It was also the 21st time he guided the Cowboys to a fourth quarter win and the 14th time he turned defeat into victory for the Cowboys in the final two minutes of a game.
Tony Hill led all receivers with eight receptions for 113 yards and the game winning touchdown. Preston Pearson followed Hill with five receptions for 108 yards and one touchdown. Rookie Ron Springs who started in place of the injured Tony Dorsett, rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown. He also added 58 receiving yards with one touchdown.
“What can I say about him?” asked Tom Landry. “Roger is simply super in these kinds of situations. He’s done it before and knows he can do it.”
You can see the games box score here.
Video of Larry Cole’s third down stop of John Riggins last in fourth quarter.
Video of some plays from winning Cowboys drive.