The Dallas Cowboys finally won the big game. After four years of frustration they defeated the San Francisco 49ers 17-10 to become champions of the National Football Conference and earn a first-class ride to Miami, where they will play an ex-NFL team, the Baltimore Colts, in the Super Bowl.
For the last two years the Cowboys have played in Miami in the defunct Playoff Bowl. "Everybody called it the Nothing Bowl and the Losers' Bowl," said Bob Hayes after Dallas won the title. "I guess it was. I used to enjoy that game, though, because it was kind of like a vacation. But this one will be better."
The Cowboys beat the 49ers much as they beat Detroit the week before in the first round of the playoffs; their offense was based on brutal, precise blocking that cleared routes for Duane Thomas, Walt Garrison and Claxton Welch, and their defense shut off John Brodie. It wasn't pretty football, but it was an impressive exhibition of raw power.
The Cowboys gained 319 yards, 229 of them on the ground, mostly on quick pitchouts that enabled Thomas, who accounted for 143 yards on 27 carries, to turn the 49er flanks. The majority of these gains were something less than spectacular, but then Tom Landry eschewed the spectacular at the beginning of the season, preferring the battering-ram tactics used so successfully for years by Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers. On this bright Sunday in Kezar Stadium, Landry made his point.
"We didn't do anything very different," said Craig Morton. "Our offense was based on what they did about Hayes. If the backs were dropping off to cover him we planned to run, and they dropped off all afternoon. I thought they might adjust at the half, but they didn't, at least not much. So we ran, and Duane is a great runner and we have great blockers in front of him. If they had come up to meet the run, then I would have gone to Hayes or our other receivers."
Hayes didn't catch a pass, but he wasn't unhappy. "They gave me every kind of coverage you can use," he said. "Double team, even triple, and all kind of zones, but that meant I was loosening them up for the run. I could have caught that long ball in the third quarter. I had my hands ready for it, but the defensive back flat ran over me."
That play preceded the second Dallas touchdown, the one that won the game. The interference call was on Mel Phillips, the 49er safety, and it gave Dallas a first down on the San Francisco five-yard line. From there Morton passed to Garrison for the touchdown, one of the seven (of 22) passes he completed. The score put the Cowboys ahead 17-3. Against some teams you might trail by two touchdowns with a quarter and a third to play and feel you had a chance. Against the Cowboys, with a defense which at this point hadn't given up a touchdown in 24 quarters, the score put an end to the 49ers' gold rush.
True, Brodie completed 19 of 40 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown, to Dick Witcher in the third period, but the 49ers never came close to dominating the game, and Brodie's big backs—Ken Willard and Doug Cunningham—were able to gain only 56 yards. The Dallas defense is a complicated one, but it is predicated on the same thing that animates the offense—physical strength.
"We played the same defenses we've played all year," said Middle Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. "We didn't do anything different because the defenses have always been good. Sometimes we just didn't execute them very well. For the last few years we seem to have had a pattern of playing four or five good games in a row and then relaxing. Then something happens like the St. Louis game. [The Cardinals won it 38-0.] After that one we got together and decided that we wouldn't wait to lose a game to be reminded we have to work hard."
Jordan made two big defensive plays. The first led to the touchdown that put Dallas ahead 10-3. Brodie had dropped back from his 14 to pass and he sent Willard circling over the center of the line. "Brodie is great at 'looking' you off the receiver," Jordan said. "In the coverage we were in I don't have a specific man. He was dropping back and I was drifting to the weak side and he looked that way once. Then he looked to the strong side, and I started to move back that way. I could see Larry Cole coming in hard on him and I think Larry hid me from him, because the ball seemed to come right out of the top of Larry's helmet. I'm sure if John had seen me in the zone he wouldn't have thrown. He had to hurry to throw and it was short and low and I caught it right off the ground." He grinned and added, "Just great hands, I guess."
The second big play killed whatever slight chance San Francisco had. From his own 39 Brodie was trying to complete the same pattern. This time Cole wasn't putting pressure on him and he hit Willard over the middle, but Jordan hit Willard at the same time, knocking the ball loose. It was a fourth-down play and it gave the Cowboys the ball with 2:10 left in the game.
"Up until this year we have always had a soft spot at right cornerback," Jordan continued. "It was a position we had to try to protect. But now we have the two best cornerbacks in the business, and with Mel Renfro on the right we don't have anything to worry about." The other cornerback is Herb Adderley, who played that position with distinction for Green Bay. "I think Minnesota got beat a week ago by concentrating too much on Gene Washington," said Jordan. "They had double coverage on him all the time, but today we let either one of the corners take him alone now and then. On Mel's interception, he had Washington alone."
This interception set up the second Cowboy touchdown. Brodie lofted a long pass down the sideline for Washington, but Renfro shadowed him step for step, jumped, turned and intercepted the ball back on the Cowboys' 19, returning it 19 yards. From there, Morton went mainly to Thomas. The Cowboys would line up with two receivers on one side, send a back in motion to the other side and Morton would flip the ball to Thomas going to the side away from the receivers. In order to get coverage on the receivers, the 49ers rotated their deep defense toward them, so that when Thomas came around the flank, no one was very close to him. The Cowboys ran this play or variations 19 times and got 90 key yards, and they used it to such good effect that when they gave the 49ers its look and did something else, as at the end of this drive, it worked for 13 yards and the touchdown.
This time Thomas started to his right with the pitch, then cut back sharply. The San Francisco defense, indoctrinated in the belief that once he began to sweep, he would continue, sprinted toward the sideline, and Thomas planted his right foot and slanted to his left. He got three crisp blocks and lunged over.
For one of the Cowboys, the journey to the Super Bowl is an old story. Herb Adderley has been there twice. He came to Dallas this year after complaining that the Packer coaches didn't support him strongly enough last year to get him a bid to play in the Pro Bowl. When he was traded he said for publication, "I would like to thank the Packers for trading me to a Super Bowl team." After St. Louis walloped the Cowboys, Adderley got an unsigned telegram from Green Bay saying, "You're welcome."
Adderley smiled as he told the story. "This has been a very satisfying season for me," he said. "After that St. Louis game we decided that we had to have fun playing football. If you don't have fun, what's the point in going out there? So we had fun. I feel very good about this win, but I won't say I feel better than I did after the big wins at Green Bay. I'll feel that way after the Super Bowl, if we win."
After the Cowboys play the Baltimore Colts, he should feel better than ever.