On Christmas Day in Bloomington, the Minnesota Vikings, a team that had been uncharitable to its opponents all year, played reluctant Santa Claus to the Dallas Cowboys.
Five times on the unseasonably warm afternoon the cold Vikings made a gift of the ball to Dallas, and the Cowboys turned three of these presents—a fumble and two pass interceptions—into two field goals and a touchdown. Late in the third period, on their only prolonged drive, an eight-play, 52-yard march, the Cowboys added another touchdown, their final score in a 20-12 win.
Bud Grant, the icy-eyed Minnesota coach, decided on Christmas Eve to start Bob Lee, the punting member of his trio of quarterbacks. Asked why, he said, "At 10:30 in the morning he seemed to be the best choice." Lee lacks the experience of Gary Cuozzo and Norm Snead, but he is a stronger runner than either and better able to elude the Dallas pass rush. Lee did, indeed, avoid being sacked, but his passing was erratic and often predictable, much to the joy of the alert Cowboy defense.
The first half was interesting primarily for the exceptionally savage line play by both teams. The Vikings double-teamed All-Pro Tackle Bob Lilly but he still managed to split his blockers often enough to make tackles at the line of scrimmage, and the attention paid Lilly made life easier for the other three defensive linemen, who along with Lilly contained the Viking running game.
The first Dallas score was set up by a thumping tackle by End Larry Cole, which jarred the ball loose from Dave Osborn, Minnesota's starting fullback. Jethro Pugh recovered for the Cowboys on the Minnesota 36-yard line and, following a Roger Staubach scramble to the 19, Mike Clark kicked a 26-yard field goal.
The Minnesota equivalent of Lilly is Alan Page, who dropped Staubach for a safety in the fourth quarter. At 6'4", 245, Page is an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Lilly, but he may be the quickest defensive tackle in the NFL. Dallas Guard John Niland, who is about Page's size, had most of the responsibility for him and he prepared himself for the chore by deliberately losing five pounds in the week preceding the game.
"I'm probably a little stronger than Page," Niland said after the game, his nose marked by the badge of the offensive lineman, an angry red abrasion across the bridge where the edge of the helmet hits during head-on blocks. "I knew he couldn't overpower me, so I worked on my quickness."
Niland is squarely built, with a powerful torso and thickly muscled arms, and there are few tackles with the pure strength to run over him. "I'm lucky in having Bob Lilly to work with, too," he went on. "Lilly and Bill Gregory are very quick, much like Page. Of course, I didn't blank Page out, no one can do that. But I'm satisfied."
All the Dallas offensive linemen played well and they, too, have reason to be satisfied, but Rayfield Wright, a five-year veteran from Fort Valley (Ga.) State, did an especially commendable job on Carl Eller, the Vikings' All-Pro defensive end. Staubach, playing what may have been the best pressure game of his career, generally had enough time to get off his passes—he completed 10 of 14 and had no interceptions.
As usual, Head Coach Tom Landry sent in the Dallas plays via his shuttling tight ends, Billy Truax and Mike Ditka. And as usual, Staubach had the option of changing the play at the line of scrimmage if he so wished. "I only called one audible all afternoon," he said. "They play a pretty standard defense and there was no need to make any changes at the line. We knew we couldn't throw long into their zone, so we looked for the short passes and ran inside."
At the end of the first half the score was 6-3 Dallas, although the Vikings had the better of the statistics, with 151 yards total offense to 67 for the Cowboys. The second Dallas field goal followed an interception by Corner Linebacker Chuck Howley. Lee had drifted back, intending to loft a screen pass to Osborn, but Howley diagnosed the play and caught the ball on the Dallas 37, returning it 26 yards before being run down from behind by Osborn. Three plays later Clark kicked a 44-yarder.
Early in the third period Lee was intercepted again. This time he was trying to throw deep to Bob Grim, the team's most effective receiver during the regular season, but unfortunately Lee telegraphed his punch.
Cliff Harris, a second-year free safety from Ouachita Baptist University—of Arkadelphia, Ark., of course—anticipated the pass perfectly. "Lee sometimes pumps in the direction he's going to throw and he did it this time," Harris said. "The ball was a little underthrown and I just cut in front of Grim to make the interception."
Harris ran the ball from the Minnesota 43-yard line to the 13, and from there the Cowboys scored in one play, a beautiful effort past Page by Running Back Duane Thomas.
Thomas, who holds the league record for taciturnity, had nothing to say about the play after the game, but Niland, who blocked Page, explained it. "Thomas reads my block," he said. "I just take Page in the direction he wants to go. This time Page was taking an outside rush and I kept contact with him to keep him going outside. Duane cut back toward the middle and the other blocks held up and that was it."
The second Dallas touchdown concluded the only real Cowboy drive. It was set up by a Charlie Waters return of a flat-trajectory punt by Lee. Waters caught the ball on the Dallas 24 before the Viking defenders could get downfield and returned it to the Dallas 48.
The key play in the drive came on third and 15 from the Dallas 43. Staubach had heretofore confined his passing to screens and quick sideline patterns, but this time he went to Lance Alworth for 30 yards and a first down on the Minnesota 27. Alworth was uncovered in a wide gap in the Minnesota zone; Linebacker Wally Hilgenberg did not drop back far enough and Safety Ed Sharockman was playing too deep.
A few plays later, with the ball on the nine-yard line, Staubach dropped back to pass, moved sharply to his left to avoid a tackier, then paused for a moment to watch Bob Hayes put two strong fakes on Sharockman, the second leaving Hayes wide open deep in the corner of the end zone, where he caught the pass for the score. It was Staubach's ability to run out of trouble and thus give his receivers maneuvering time that made the play a success.
The touchdown made the score 20-3, and many of the Viking fans began leaving for a delayed Christmas dinner. Grant put Cuozzo, a drop-back passer, into the game in the fourth period and, throwing on nearly every down, he moved the Vikings better than Lee had, but the Dallas defense was concentrating on shutting off the long gainers and many of Cuozzo's completions were gimmes over the middle. He finally got a touchdown on a six-yard pass to his tight end, Stu Voigt, but only a little over two minutes were left to play. An interception by Middle Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan had stopped an earlier threat and an interception by veteran Comer-back Herb Adderley thwarted the last Viking drive just two seconds before the game ended. Adderley went high in the air to pick off the pop fly, ran upheld briefly, then headed for the sideline, stopping the clock.
"Man, I wasn't about to try to run that one back a long way," he said later, grinning. "Suppose I get tackled and hurt? We got a lot of football to play yet."
In San Francisco the next day the 49ers were also grinning, for the Washington Redskins finally acted their age, which is considerable. They did the best they could and gave the 49ers a hard time but, like Minnesota, they were generous to a fault and they lost 24-20.
The Redskins took an early lead, with Billy Kilmer throwing unlikely passes and Jerry Smith, his tight end, making unlikely catches and at the half they were ahead 10-3.
George Allen, the Washington coach, is a conservative man who sees all kinds of virtue in maturity, but apparently age must have its fling for he took a gamble in the third period. With fourth and inches to go on the San Francisco 11-yard line and the Redskins still ahead 10-3, a field goal would have put the 49ers against the wall. But Allen went for the first down. When the play, a run by Larry Brown, lost two yards, 49er Quarterback John Brodie drew deeply at the new breath of life and went to work.
Two runs picked up nine yards, and when the Redskins converged on Ken Willard on the third-and-one play Brodie threw a long pass to Gene Washington, who cradled it in at the Redskin 40-yard line and went the rest of the way in lonely splendor.
Except for that pass, Brodie was displeased with himself. "It was the only good one I threw all day," he said in the dressing room. "I was surprised that they had single coverage on Gene."
The single coverage was by Pat Fischer, who made the fatal error of taking a step up from his secondary post to try to stop Willard only to see Washington flash by him. Moments later the 49ers were on the loose again, thanks to an interception by Rosey Taylor. This time Brodie hooked up with Bob Windsor on a two-yard scoring pass, and San Francisco had the lead for good.
Despite the win, it was not an impressive performance by the 49ers. Indeed, Herb Adderley was probably right: the Cowboys will have more football games to play in the next three weeks than the 49ers.