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Flashback: What really happened to the Cowboys in the 1980 NFC Championship game?

When it comes to all the great games the Cowboys have played in their history I have no problem writing articles about them and trying to relive them the best I can through words, but what about some of the big losses in their history? People may find it strange that some of the Cowboys big losses intrigue me as well. I’m not talking about recent losses; I’m talking about going back in time to the losses that aren’t mentioned that much. I understand that losses aren’t something that fans like to talk about, but at the same time the losses are part of Cowboys history just as much as the victories.

I found myself thinking about the 1980 NFC Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles the other day. I kind of remember watching the game, but I was just 12 years old at the time and all that mattered back then was if the Cowboys outscored the other team. I pride myself in knowing as much as I can about the Cowboys history, which means the good and the bad. I wanted to know more about the championship game against the Eagles and how the Cowboys lost. For those who remember the Cowboys lost 20-7, but was it closer than the score showed or was it domination by the Eagles?

Back in the 1970′s and into the early 80′s the Cowboys had blue jerseys that some thought were bad luck since the Cowboys seemed to lose more then they won when they wore them. The Eagles knew this and decided to wear their white jerseys for the NFC Championship game and force the Cowboys to wear their blue jerseys.

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It was a cold January day in Philadelphia as temps would continue dropping to as low as 17 below with the wind during the game. Veterans Stadium was packed full of rabid Eagles fans. This was the Eagles chance to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in their history. The Eagles were led by players like Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Harold Carmichael, Carl Hairston and Herman Edwards. They were NFC East Champions which was why the Cowboys had to travel to Veterans Stadium for the game.

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The Cowboys were going to through plenty of changes in 1980. The great Roger Staubach had retired following the 1979 season and Danny White took over as the starting quarterback. The Cowboys also lost All-Pro safety Cliff Harris to retirement. The Cowboys secondary had three new starters going into 1980 as cornerback Aaron Mitchell replaced Aaron Kyle, as well as safety Charlie Waters replacing Randy Hughes and Dennis Thurman moving from cornerback to safety. Even with all the changes the Cowboys finished with a 12-4 record and were one of the best teams in the NFL.

The Cowboys were coming off an incredible 30-27 comeback win on the road against the Falcons in the Divisional Playoff game. Now it was a trip to Philadelphia for the third meeting of the season with the Eagles. They had split the first two meetings during the 1980 season and now the third meeting would be for a trip to Super Bowl XV.

The first quarter consisted of one huge play that came on the Eagles second play of their first possession. Wilbert Montgomery broke into the Cowboys secondary like the defense wasn’t even there and scored easily from 42 yards to give the Eagles an early 7-0 lead. On the Eagles second possession they were looking for more points as they lined up for a field goal attempt, but the Cowboys were able to block the attempt to keep the Eagles from increasing their lead to 10-0. The Cowboys offense could not get anything going in the first quarter as they punted on all three of their possessions.

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Heading into the second quarter and the Cowboys offense continuing to struggle. It was once again the Cowboys defense that came up with a big play. The Eagles lined up for another field goal attempt, but this time the snap was high and the Cowboys defense tackled the Eagles kicker as he tried to make a play. The Cowboys offense took over on their 31 yard line and quickly went to work. With a long screen pass to Tony Dorsett along with a completion to Drew Pearson and the running of Robert Newhouse, the Cowboys got into scoring position. The capped the drive with a short touchdown run by Dorsett and tied the game at 7-7.

On the ensuing kickoff the Eagles fumbled on their own 28 yard line, but they recovered. The Eagles put together another drive and got to the Cowboys 25 yard line. Ron Jaworski connected with Harold Carmichael on a 25 yard touchdown pass, but a personal foul was called on the Eagles and the touchdown was called back. With the personal foul penalty the Eagles were pushed back to the 40 yard line and ended up punting. It was another break for the Cowboys to go along with the two missed field goals by the Eagles. The Cowboys and Eagles went into halftime tied 7-7.

The first half was mostly about the defenses. The Cowboys defense held their own outside of the long touchdown run at the start of the game. They seemed to bend at times, but they never broke. They harassed Jaworski most of the first half and got a few breaks along the way. Wilbert Montgomery was becoming the focal point of the Eagles offense as he rushed for over 100 yards in the first half. The Eagles defense seemed to smother the Cowboys offense for most of the first half. Danny White could not get into any rhythm and outside of a few good runs by Robert Newhouse the offense only gained 97 yards.

The Eagles had the advantage in the running game in the first half, but for the most part the stats were close for both teams. It was the passing game for both teams that were struggling. Danny White completed only 6 of 13 passes for 37 yards and Ron Jaworski completed 7 of 17 passes for 54 yards.

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The third quarter is where this game was won. After a turnover free first half, there were four in the third quarter and it was the Cowboys who committed three of the four turnovers.

The Cowboys had forced the Eagles to punt on their second possession of the third quarter. Cowboys punt returner James Jones fumbled and the Eagles recovered at the Cowboys 27 yard line. Like in the first half the Cowboys defense made a play and stopped an Eagles scoring threat. Cowboys’ linebacker Anthony Dickerson intercepted a Jaworski pass at the Cowboys 19 yard line and the Cowboys offense took over. But as quick as the Cowboys got the ball they gave it right back to the Eagles. Danny White dropped back and was hit hard by the Eagles defense and fumbled the ball at the Cowboys 11 yard line. Even though the Cowboys defense continued to play tough, the Eagles were able to capitalize on the fumble and kicked a 26 yard field goal to take the lead 10-7.

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Even with two fumbles early in the third quarter the Cowboys were still in the game. Danny White facing a 3rd and 17 connected with tight end Jay Saldi for a 28 yard gain to the Eagles 40 yard line. But on the very next play the Eagles recovered a Dorsett fumble and returned it to the Cowboys 38 yard line. Once again the Eagles capitalized on the turnover as fullback Leroy Harris scored from the 9 yard line to increase the Eagles lead to 17-7.

After the ensuing kickoff the Cowboys offense took over at the 34 yard line. The first play was a 20 yard pass from White to Butch Johnson who was playing for the injured Tony Hill. The completion put the Cowboys at the Eagles 46 yard line as the third quarter ended and the Cowboys still down 17-7.

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On the first play of the fourth quarter the Cowboys faced a 3rd and 8 from the Eagles 44 yard line. White went deep to Butch Johnson who was covered by four Eagles. White’s pass was intercepted at the 2 yard line, but the Eagles were called for off-sides. Now the Cowboys had a 3rd and 5 from the 39 yard line. White dropped back and found a wide open Dorsett for a sure first down, but Dorsett dropped the ball and ended any chance of a Cowboys score.

Danny White dropped the fourth down punt at the Eagles 5 yard line. The Cowboys defense was hoping to keep the Eagles pinned against their goal line, but the Eagles running game was too strong. Behind the running of fullback Leroy Harris the Eagles got to the 20 yard line. From there Wilbert Montgomery slashed and cutback on his way to a 55 yard gain to the Cowboys 25 yard line. But just when it looked like the Eagles would increase their lead, it was the Cowboys defense that made another big play. Jaworski threw into the end zone for Carmichael, but Cowboys’ cornerback Aaron Mitchell came down with the interception for a touchback.

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With over nine minutes still to play in the game the Cowboys offense once again took over looking to get points. White connected with Preston Pearson for a 24 yard gain to the Cowboys 46 yard line. But once again like so many times during the 1980 NFC Championship game the Cowboys offense failed to generate a drive and to score points. The Cowboys punted and the Eagles took over at their own 35 yard line with 8:58 to play.

The Eagles started running the ball again because they knew the Cowboys were unable to stop them. The combination of Montgomery and Harris was just too much for the Cowboys. The Eagles drove to the Cowboys 40 yard line when Jaworski, who had only completed one pass in the second half up to that point, completed his second pass when the Cowboys least expected it. Jaworski threw to the right sideline looking for his tight end Keith Krepfle. Charlie Waters dove for the ball, but missed and Krepfle made the reception and raced to the Cowboys 23 yard line. The Cowboys defense held the Eagles at the 3 yard line, but it was too little too late. The Eagles had eaten up over six minutes on the drive and capped it off with a field goal with just over two minutes to play to increase their lead to 20-7.

The Cowboys had a history of big game comebacks in the 1970′s and even though this game looked out of reach the Cowboys offense went down trying when they got the ball back. Danny White got the Cowboys close to midfield and with only 30 seconds left threw deep in hopes of maybe getting a penalty, but ended up throwing an interception and ending the game.

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In the end the Cowboys offense gained just 206 yards and could not move the ball consistently. They were also not able to take advantage of the turnovers they got from the defense. The Cowboys defense although it played tough could not stop the Eagles running game that gained 263 yards rushing. Most of that came from Wilbert Montgomery who rushed for 194 yards.

Some people may say the Cowboys were dominated in the 1980 NFC Championship game, but to me the Cowboys had their opportunities many times throughout the game. They just couldn’t do anything with those opportunities, but the Eagles were able to capitalize at times and made a few more plays than the Cowboys. Those plays are what doomed the Cowboys and their chance of advancing to Super Bowl XV.