On December 16, 1979 the Cowboys played in what many believe to be one of the greatest games of all time. In the final game of the regular season at Texas Stadium the Cowboys needed to beat the Redskins to make the playoffs. With a victory they would also win the NFC East and earn a home playoff game and a week off. They were behind the Redskins 17-0 in the first half and 34-21 in the fourth quarter. With the great Roger Staubach leading them the Cowboys battled until the end and beat the Redskins 35-34. It was another late game comeback added to Staubach’s already impressive resume during his NFL career. Cowboys games never seemed out of reach as long as Staubach was at quarterback. There was always that feeling that Staubach would pull out the victory.
Two weeks after beating the Redskins the Cowboys were back in Texas Stadium for the divisional round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Rams. Way back in week 7 of the 1979 season the Rams had come to Texas Stadium and were destroyed by the Cowboys 30-6. Now it was the playoffs and the winner would advance to the NFC Championship game with hopes of making it to Super Bowl XIV.
The Cowboys first three possessions of the game ended in punts. Roger Staubach and the offense couldn’t get anything going against the Rams defense to start the game, except for a 27 yard rush by tight end Billy Joe Dupree. The same could be said for the Rams offense who punted on their first two possessions.
The Rams started their third possession from their own 12 yard line and then a five yard penalty pushed them back to the 7 yard line. On second down Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo dropped back into the end zone. While trying to avoid the rush from Harvey Martin, Ferragamo stepped up in the pocket and then tried to avoid Randy White. He tried to spin and then slipped and fell in the end zone where White sacked him for a safety. The Cowboys took a 2-0 lead on the Rams.
On the Rams free kick after the safety the Cowboys took over at their 46 yard line. On third down Staubach was rushed, but was never hit. His pass seemed to slip out of his hands and floated high like it was tipped. The Rams came down with an easy interception and returned it to the Cowboys 32 yard line. Once again the Rams could not put a drive together and lined up for a Frank Corral field goal attempt that he missed from 44 yards.
The second quarter started with more punts from both teams. One of Danny White’s punts went out of bounds at the Rams 7 yard line. The Cowboys defense figured they had the Rams in trouble again so close to their goal line. But behind the running of Wendell Tyler and Cullen Bryant the Rams quickly were able to drive to the Cowboys 36 yard line where they faced a 4th and 1. The Rams decided to go for it instead and attempting another field goal. They were successful on fourth down and then made the Cowboys pay on the next play. From the 32 yard line Ferragamo threw over Cowboys linebacker DD Lewis who was covering Tyler. Tyler caught the pass at the 15 yard line and outraced the Cowboys defense to the end zone for the score. The Rams took the lead 7-2.
The Cowboys offense had been shut down by the Rams defense for just about the entire first half. They couldn’t run the ball and Staubach seemed out of rhythm with his receivers. But like so many times before, Staubach could not be counted out for long. As the first half was coming to a close it was Staubach who connected with Drew Pearson for 17 yards and then with Dupree for 16 yards as the Cowboys drove to the Rams 19 yard line. The drive stalled at the 16 yard line and Rafael Septien connected on a 33 yard field goal to get the Cowboys closer, 7-5.
On two straight kickoffs by Septien he kicked both out of bounds. Back in 1979 this was a five yard penalty and a re kick. With two penalties it pushed the Cowboys kickoff back to the 25 yard line. The Rams returned Septien’s third kickoff to the 31 yard line with time winding down in the first half. Ferragamo quickly completed two straight passes and the Rams found themselves at the Cowboys 43 yard line with 17 seconds left. Then with only 11 seconds left Ferragamo was able to get a pass off as Randy White hit him hard and took him down. The pass made its way into the end zone where Rams wide receiver Ron Smith came down with the ball while covered by two Cowboys defenders. The Rams went into halftime leading the Cowboys 14-5.
The Rams defense in the first half was able to control the Cowboys running game and was able to limit any big plays from Staubach. The Cowboys defense played well, but the Rams offense was able to make a few more plays then the Cowboys and that led to their nine point lead going into the third quarter. But this was the Cowboys who were America’s team. They had Roger Staubach and the Doomsday defense and were known for exciting games and great comebacks. As the second half got started it seemed as though everyone was waiting for that moment that the Cowboys would come alive and make their move.
It didn’t take the Cowboys defense very long to make a play as the third quarter got under way. Dennis Thurman intercepted Ferragamo at the Cowboys 46 yard line and returned it to the Rams 34 yard line. But once again the Cowboys offense could not put a drive together and could not take advantage of the turnover and had to punt.
The Cowboys defense was able to force the Rams to punt and the Cowboys offense took over with great field position at their 46 yard line. Staubach connected with Drew Pearson for 29 yards and got to the Rams 25 yard line. On the next play Tom Landry went to his bag of tricks and ran a halfback option with Ron Springs. Springs threw into the end zone and found Tony Hill for a touchdown, but one official over ruled the one who signaled touchdown, saying that Hill didn’t have both feet in bounds before stepping out the back of the end zone. Then Staubach threw into the end zone for Tony Dorsett and was intercepted, but the Rams were called for pass interference and that put the Cowboys at the one yard line. From there Ron Springs scored on the next play and the Cowboys closed to within 14-12.
On the Rams next possession they drove to the Cowboys 43 yard line. Then the Cowboys defense came up with another turnover as Cliff Harris intercepted Ferragamo. The Cowboys offense took over at the 43 yard line as the third quarter came to an end.
The Cowboys offense in the third quarter was playing so much better than they were in the first half. They were able to gain yards in the running game and Staubach was now able to find open receivers, but it just didn’t seem like the Cowboys that everyone was use to seeing. As the fourth quarter started the Cowboys offense quickly drove inside the Rams 10 yard line off the Harris interception. Then from the 2 yard line Staubach found tight end Jay Saldi wide open for the go ahead score with 12:46 left in the game. Staubach was hit hard on the play and was shaken up, but was able to walk to the sideline. From that point on Danny White was seen warming up just in case he was needed. The Cowboys now led the Rams 19-14.
The Rams once again were able to drive the ball on the Cowboys defense. They reached the Cowboys 32 yard line where they faced a 4th and 8. Instead of attempting a field goal they decided to go for the first down. Ferragamo threw to wide receiver Drew Hill and the pass fell incomplete. A flag was thrown for pass interference, but after a discussion between the officials it was ruled that there was no interference and the flag was picked up.
The Cowboys offense took over at the 32 yard line with 6:59 left. On the first play Dorsett hit a hole and raced up the middle for a 26 yard gain to the Rams 42 yard line. From there the Cowboys could not go any further and had to punt.
The Rams got the ball with 4:22 left and Ferragamo connected with wide receiver Billy Waddy for a 36 yard gain to the Cowboys 44 yard line. A holding penalty on the Rams pushed them back to the 46 yard line and they ended up punting back to the Cowboys.
With only 2:45 left and the Cowboys sitting at their 21 yard line all they needed to do was get a first down to seal the game, but they were not able to move the ball like they had done during the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter. On first down Robert Newhouse lost a yard. On second down, a screen pass to Tony Hill only gained a yard. On third down Staubach was rushed and he rolled out to his right and was tackled for no gain. In the process of stopping the Cowboys from getting a first down the Rams also used their last two timeouts and the Cowboys were forced to punt for the eighth time in the game.
The Rams got the ball back at midfield with 2:16 left and no timeouts. On the first play Ferragamo fired a pass over the middle to Billy Waddy who caught it on the run at the Cowboys 28 yard line. Waddy then out raced the Cowboys defense and scored easily to take the lead 21-19.
After the kickoff the Cowboys took over at the 21 yard line. The Cowboys and their fans had seen this type of situation countless times in Cowboys history. There was only 1:57 remaining, the Cowboys had two timeouts, any kind of score wins the game and the great Roger Staubach was under center to work his magic that he had done so many times before in his career. The script couldn’t have been written any better for the Cowboys. But there was something was different about this game. The moment where the Cowboys took control of the game never seemed to come even after they took a 19-14 lead. If that moment was ever going to come it had to be this moment with 1:57 left in the game.
On first down Dorsett gained 12 yard to the 33 yard line. On the next play Staubach over threw Tony Hill. Then on second down Staubach once again over threw Hill. Everyone seemed to be waiting for that one play that got the Cowboys rolling towards victory. What happened on third down has become Dallas Cowboys trivia for years. Staubach dropped back and threw a pass directly at offensive lineman Herbert Scott, who caught the ball. A flag was thrown for ineligible receiver and the Cowboys now faced a 4th and 20. It was the last chance for that Staubach magic to come through so that the Cowboys could advance to the NFC Championship game. Staubach dropped back and threw for Drew Pearson. The pass sailed high on Pearson and fell incomplete.
The Rams offense took over with 1:07 left. They played it safe and on fourth down they lined up for a field goal attempt with 13 seconds remaining. The Rams faked the field goal as holder Nolan Cromwell kept the ball and ran for the first down. The Rams won the game 21-19 and shattered the Cowboys hopes of a 6th Super Bowl in the 1970’s.
The loss to the Rams in 1979 was one of the worst playoff defeats in Cowboys history. Some say the loss had to do with the dramatic game against the Redskins that put the Cowboys in the playoffs. Others believe that the Cowboys just over looked the Rams. Whatever the reasons were, the Cowboys season ended that Sunday in Texas Stadium. The Staubach magic also ended that day and on March 31, 1979 he announced his retirement from the Cowboys and the NFL after 11 seasons and two Super Bowl Championships.