Instead of coming up with any odd new notions of how to stop the Dallas Cowboy offense, which had been roaring along at an average of nearly 46 points a game, the St. Louis Cardinals spent last week polishing their usual defenses. Their usual defenses are odd and ingenious enough, featuring a number of loops and stunts by the defensive linemen, a banzai blitz by the linebackers and a gambling rush from the secondary.
This did not mean that the Cardinals awaited the Cowboys without a certain amount of anxiety. Both teams were undefeated and leading the Eastern Division of the NFL. Dallas was 4-0 and had swept its games like a hurricane. The Cards were 5-0 but had had to claw for a late touchdown to beat the New York Giants the previous week. "We are the strangest unbeaten team I ever saw," said Cardinal Co-owner Billy Bidwill. "We look like we're losing, even if we aren't."
The biggest crowd for any sports event in St. Louis history bought every seat in the city's lovely new stadium, and the spillover was clamoring for the Bidwill brothers to sell more standing room. With the newspapers on strike, the word did not get around that the tickets were gone, and the Cardinal ticket office was packed with the desperate and the demanding. A cop in the foyer had to inform one irate citizen, "Buddy, there ain't any tickets, and if you don't shut up I will put a cut on your head." The situation was such that Billy Bidwill said, "If the governor called me and said he had to see this game, I'd tell him I'd get him through somehow but there wouldn't be a seat for him."
And all over town there were arguments. You could hear some weird ones. "The Cowboys are no good," a fellow was saying at Trader Vic's, "and I'll tell you why. It's because they've been beating everybody by 50 points. Now what does that prove? They've got to win a close, tough game before I'll believe they're good."
"What if they beat everybody by 50 points for the rest of the season?" his friend asked. "Would that mean they stink?"
"It would mean they're soft," the fellow said.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, were working at the stadium—where their fancy new dressing quarters have red wall-to-wall carpeting, a sauna bath, a complete medical examining room and an elevator to deliver them to the street—as though they were preparing for an ordinary game. For the defensive unit, that meant the linemen were leaping about, the linebackers were charging and Free Safety Larry Wilson was practicing his darting blitz.
Most teams that use a high proportion of blitzes do it to conceal a flaw. That is not the case with the Cardinals. Their defense is fairly solid. They could play a standard pro 4-3 as well as almost any team. But Cardinal Defensive Coach Chuck Drulis, who usually gets credit for having invented the safety blitz, is, of course, a believer in his own theories. And his new boss, Charley Winner, was a dedicated blitzer as a defensive assistant coach at Baltimore.
Although a Winner-coached Baltimore defense embarrassed the Cowboys 35-3 in last January's Runnerup Bowl in Miami, the Cardinal defense has stayed primarily in the hands of Drulis. Winner has changed a few pass coverages and perhaps the Cardinals stunt in the line (i.e., move linemen around to rush from unexpected angles) more than in the past, but fundamentally the Cardinal defense is still Drulis. He saw no reason to revamp the work of years merely because he was meeting the NFL's most dangerous offense.
The Cowboys have proved difficult to contain because they have so many different formations, shifts and unusual plays. Cardinal Defensive End Joe Robb, who sometimes drops off to become a linebacker, said: "Don Meredith has always been a good quarterback. But in the past the Cowboys were beating themselves. Now they've got their plays down pat."
What the Cardinals intended to do was play their own game and see what the Cowboys might be up to before making adjustments. Neither Drulis nor Winner wanted to bend the team out of shape to devote special attention to Dallas Flanker Bob Hayes, the fastest deep receiver ever. "Bobby Mitchell and Homer Jones are very fast, too, and they have good moves. We don't consider Hayes any more of a problem than they are," said Drulis.
Two weeks ago the Philadelphia Eagles played the Cowboys with a touch of madness. The Eagles used a three-man front with four linebackers and placed one roaming back so far behind the others that he could have sold hot dogs. The idea was not to let Hayes break for a long gain. So Hayes caught three touchdown passes and Dallas won 56-7.
"I remember something Tom Landry [the Dallas coach] said when he was at New York," said Winner. "Lenny Moore was having a big year for us at Baltimore and Landry was asked how he planned to defense Moore. He said he didn't plan to do anything extraordinary. Moore had to be conceded a touchdown or two, and there was no point tearing everything up because of him. That's how I feel about Hayes."
The Cardinals" overall defensive strategy was to put pressure on Meredith, try to keep him from rolling toward the sideline, prepare for short passes against their blitz and see what kind of answers the Cowboys could think of.
The Cowboys, in fact, were hoping that the Cardinals would triple-team Hayes. With receivers like Frank Clarke, Buddy Dial, Pete Gent, Pettis Norman, the limping Mel Renfro and his remarkable replacement, Dan Reeves, they had proved that they do not have to rely on Hayes alone. Against Atlanta, Meredith completed 10 passes to his tight ends, Clarke and Norman, while the Falcons went goofy searching for Hayes.
The Cowboys also were hoping that the Cardinals would come at them with their entire blitzing repertoire, since that is exactly what the Dallas offense is designed to beat. The Cowboys have what they call a "hot receiver," a man who is never the primary receiver, but who, because of the blitz, will have no more than one-on-one coverage—and not even that for a couple of seconds—and thus will be popping open if Meredith knows where to look. If Meredith is willing to risk the rush and can get the ball away, the hot receiver is frequently in a position to turn a short pass into a long gain, especially if the hot receiver is Hayes, Clarke or Reeves.
"This may sound peculiar, but I wish everybody we play would throw the full blitz at us," Meredith said as the Cowboys were running through an offensive drill on the eve of the Cardinal game.
Going into the meeting with the Cardinals, Meredith was the NFL's No. 1 passer. He had completed 70% of the passes he had thrown against blitzing defenses and had got nine of his 14 touchdown passes while linebackers were frantically grabbing at him.
In other years the Cowboys have changed their offense from week to week, reasoning that they had to win by deception This year, although they use 10 different formations, the Cowboys have condensed their offense and have stuck with it. The benefits were obvious: five straight preseason wins and four league wins in a row as they came to St. Louis. The pass blocking had improved so much that Meredith was getting spoiled. He had been thrown only seven times, twice by defensive ends who were knocked down, then got up and found Meredith still looking. "Now when I'm blocking for Don there's hardly ever more than one man for me to pick up," said Fullback Don Perkins. "It used to be that there were four or five of them, and I had to decide which was the most urgent."
Even though they had their hot-receiver tactics ready, the Cowboys were determined to run against the Cardinals. They planned to show all their formations, judge the St. Louis response, stay with the more effective plays, keep the ball and drive it.
With 50,673 people in the stands on a cold, damp afternoon, the Cowboys tried four runs and two passes in their first series. One pass was to Hayes as a hot receiver for eight yards and the other hit Hayes across the middle for what would have been a touchdown if he had not dropped the ball. The next time the Cowboys got possession they used seven runs and one pass, moved to the Cardinal nine and got the lead on a 17-yard field goal by Danny Villanueva.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Quarterback Charley Johnson was overthrowing his receivers, and the Cards had only eight plays and no first downs in the first quarter. For their part, the Cowboys were moving but could not cross the goal line. Growing impatient, Meredith threw deep for Hayes, and the pass was intercepted by Wilson. It was the first time Meredith had been intercepted in 157 attempts, the third longest streak in NFL records.
"My biggest mistake in the first half was wanting too much too soon," Meredith said. "I wasn't being steady. We knew we had to take on the Cardinals physically and push them out. We should have kept marching. The quickest way to demoralize a team is to cram the ball down their throats. But I started trying to hit big, and we started playing the Cardinals' game instead of our own."
The Cardinals were getting a tremendous rush from their front four and Meredith was taking a pounding, but the Dallas defense was holding and the offense was moving fitfully. Then Meredith was intercepted again, this time by Jerry Stovall, who ran the ball back to the St. Louis 46. From there the Cards got their first legitimate first down on a 40-yard pass to rookie Roy Shivers, who broke two tackles. Another pass to Shivers took the ball to the Dallas one. Two running plays went nowhere. On third down St. Louis was offside. With third and six, Johnson threw incomplete to Bobby Joe Conrad in the end zone, but Dallas Cornerback Cornell Green was called for interference. Back on the one again, the Cards failed to score on a running play. Finally, Johnson, using a bootleg put in for this game, rolled to his right and passed one yard to Conrad for the touchdown, and so St. Louis led 7-3 at the half.
In the third quarter Meredith again was intercepted. Jimmy Burson captured a tipped pass thrown from the Cardinal 42 and set up a drive that carried to the Dallas six. With third and three from there, Johnson hid the ball on his hip and went back deep but was wrestled for a 23-yard loss by End Jethro Pugh. Jim Bakken missed a 37-yard field goal.
Less than 10 minutes were left in the fourth quarter when the Cardinals' tight end, Jackie Smith, punted a leaden ball 31 yards—other punts of the day went for 25, 26 and 22 yards—to the Cardinal 44. Meredith fumbled for a three-yard loss, got a penalty for taking too much time and finally—on third and 15—hit Flanker Pete Gent, a former All-America basketball player at Michigan State, for 45 yards to the St. Louis four. Gent made a fine leaping catch between two defenders on what was supposed to be a post pattern. "They doubled me inside so I went out, and when I saw the ball coming my whole life flashed before my eyes," Gent said.
From the four, Reeves scored and Dallas led 10-7 with 7:25 remaining. Way back in the Cowboy opener against the Giants, Reeves subbed for Renfro, who had sprained an ankle, and scored three touchdowns. The next week the Cowboys replaced him with a tough rookie fullback, Walt Garrison, in their goal-line practices. "What have I been doing wrong?" Reeves asked Offensive Backfield Coach Ermal Allen. Stumped for a reply, Allen put Reeves back into the goal-line offense. His touchdown against the Cardinals was his ninth in five games, and he now leads the NFL in scoring. Renfro, meanwhile, is being used as a returner of punts and kickoffs.
On the next St. Louis series Johnson overthrew Smith, who was open for a touchdown, but then the Cardinals punted and got their big break. Hayes called for a fair catch, but the ball bounced off his chest and Dave O'Brien recovered for St. Louis at the Dallas 29. The Cardinals were stopped at the 20 and Bakken kicked a 27-yard field goal to tie the score, 10-10, with four wild minutes to play.
On their final possession, the Cowboys faced fourth and five at their own 49. Punter Danny Villanueva, seeing two Cardinal rushers peel back to the outside, ran with the ball for 23 yards and a first down on the St. Louis 28. With 34 seconds left, Villanueva tried a field goal from the 33 and the ball sailed wide to the left. "My run," Villanueva said in anguish later, "set it up for me to blow the game."
Dallas put in five defensive backs, but Johnson hit three straight passes to the Cowboy 36. Now it was Bakken's turn again. His field-goal attempt from the 42 was wide by about a yard with six seconds to go, and both clubs walked off the field with a 10-10 tie and nothing settled. "We wasted an entire afternoon," Gent said.
Meredith blamed himself for the failure of the Dallas offense, which gained 326 yards to 175 for St. Louis but could not win the game. "We weren't sharp," he said. "The Cardinals were doing exactly what we knew they'd do, but we weren't doing what we thought we'd do. Our timing and execution were off. We didn't adjust as we should have. We should have scored 28-30 points, but I called a bad game."
The Cardinals felt like losers, too. They sat quietly in their fancy digs, mulling the tie. Drulis, who called the defensive signals by shuttling his tackles, had specified blitzes 40% of the time, but Dallas audibles and quick counts had dropped the blitzing to 30%. "At least we got to Meredith," Drulis said. "We rattled him. If he'd been throwing better, we'd have had two more interceptions because our backs were in position, but he was off-target and nobody could catch the ball. That catch of Gent's should have been an interception. We had two men there, and Gent out-reached us."
So the critical day ended with nothing proved except that St. Louis and Dallas are strong on defense, and the Dallas hurricane offense is not much better than any other offense when some wild Cards come tearing out of the deck to grab the ball four times on fumbles and interceptions.