The Dallas Cowboys, a patient team with a resourceful quarterback, waited for the San Francisco 49ers to make mistakes in their NFC championship rematch in Irving, Texas last weekend, and San Francisco obliged with enough of them to give the Cowboys their second straight conference title 14-3.
It was in a way a curious game, for the two teams are more or less mirror images of each other defensively. Dick Nolan, the 49er coach, played with, played under and coached under Dallas' Tom Landry for 11 years. The difference, finally, was the experience edge the Cowboys have in pressure games; this was the sixth year in a row they have been in a playoff.
The first half was played tentatively by both clubs. Neither was able to mount a drive, and they often looked like the offensive and defensive squads in a team scrimmage, both well aware of what the other can do and equally confident of how to stop it.
The Cowboys took quick advantage of the first and most serious 49er mistake. It came early in the second quarter, with San Francisco in possession of the ball on its own 14-yard line. John Brodie had had little luck in trying to run against the redoubtable Dallas defense, and now, for the first time in the game, he tried a screen pass. The softly thrown ball dropped ludicrously into the grasp of Dallas End George Andrie, who recovered from his surprise enough to advance it to the San Francisco two-yard line, where Brodie collaborated on the tackle.
"I took an outside route," Andrie said later. "Len Rohde was riding me out, and I was trying to fight back in against his block when I saw the line setting the screen and went out again. I don't think John even saw me. [He did not.] The ball hit me right in the chest, and it stuck."
Two plays later Calvin Hill leaped high over the massed 49er defense from the one for the touchdown.
The staid pace of the game picked up somewhat after that; indeed it became more what 49er Defensive Tackle Earl Edwards had predicted it would be—"an alley fight with white dinner gloves." The gloves, Edwards explained, were because you had to abide by the rules.
"When you get seven behind in an extremely defensive game like this," said Paul Wiggin, the 49ers' defensive line coach, "the tempo really goes against you. That's what happened to us."
San Francisco's defense had certainly done its homework. "We're a year older, and we won't be affected by the junk they'll throw at us," Middle Linebacker Frank Nunley had said before the game. "All the motion, formations and shifts you never see anywhere else. We get our game plan out of a computer, which shows exactly what Dallas is. You think of them as a wide-open offense. It is explosive, but basically very conservative."
In the final analysis, though, the difference between these teams, and something no computer can be programmed for, was the ability of Roger Staubach, the Dallas quarterback, to ad lib and scramble, especially in the second half. In the first half the San Francisco pass rush headed by Defensive End Cedrick Hardman caused Staubach to hurry his passes, so that he missed open receivers several times.
"I think I have made progress game by game since I became a starter," he said later. "But I didn't take another step up today. I was very disappointed in the way I threw the ball. I was rushing the throw and sailing the ball, but I did better in the second half, I think. And, of course, they were playing great defensive ball."
"Certain players have something, I don't know what it is, an inner gyroscope or something," said Wiggin about Staubach's scrambling. "They can stay on their feet in pressure situations, they have great balance. We have good tacklers on this team, but even our aces were missing. You would not categorize what you saw as intellectual, sustained foot ball, but Dallas capitalized on this one dimension, the quarterback scramble."
The prime example of what might be called the Staubach Dimension came in the only long drive of the game, an 80-yard stop-and-go march that began late in the third period, after Bruce Gossett had kicked a 28-yard field goal to make the score 7-3, and ended early in the fourth with the second Cowboy touchdown. With third and seven on the Dallas 23, Landry sent Player-Coach Dan Reeves in at a running-back post for his pass-catching ability. Staubach faded back and found his receivers covered. So he faded back some more, all the way to his three-yard line, scampering away from what seemed like scores of would-be tacklers. Then he turned up-field until he finally saw Reeves alone at the Dallas 32 and threw to him. The play got the first down. In retrospect, it also insured the Dallas victory.
Dave Wilcox, a 49er linebacker who used to wrestle steers in rodeos, had a shot or two at Staubach during the afternoon and missed. "A defensive player always has it in his mind to bust a quarterback up," said Wilcox. "Of course, you miss tackles that way. I hate to say it, but a quarterback who plays that way gets hurt sooner or later. I guess he doesn't want to play too long."
The second big play in the drive was a pass to Tight End Billy Truax which was, in a sense, a tribute to the San Francisco coverage. "The primary receiver on that play was supposed to be Bob Hayes," Staubach said. "But they had double coverage on Bob, and I had to go to Truax."
Truax caught the ball, thrown on a hard, flat trajectory, on the San Francisco 42-yard line and bulled for 10 more yards. "We made Staubach do what we wanted him to do," Nunley said later. "We contained the end run, we made him throw and we had his principal receivers covered. The things that we couldn't foresee beat us. When a quarterback scrambles, he has to take some shots, and I guarantee he took some good shots today. He's tougher than I thought."
Staubach next scrambled to the San Francisco 24, and from there the Cowboys worked the ball down to the two, before Duane Thomas took it over. On the touchdown play Thomas lined up in the wrong position and shifted just before the snap of the ball. After the game Garrison said he had been lined up wrong, not Thomas. Staubach, however, said Thomas had been out of position and had corrected himself just in time.
Garrison was asked why he had tried to take the blame. "Hell," he said, "Thomas has taken so much ridicule I thought it wouldn't hurt me to say I was wrong on this one. It didn't make any difference. He's such a great runner, he would probably have scored no matter where he lined up."
Staubach had a difficult time trying to read some new wrinkles in the 49er defensive backfield, which may account for the fact that he kept the ball and ran with it eight times for a total of 55 yards and was thrown six times attempting to pass, for a loss of 31 yards. One of his worst tormentors was Hard-man, whom Ken Willard, the 49er running back, has renamed Fontana Wagonwheel for his incipient career as a Western movie star.
"They showed us a few sets they hadn't used before," admitted Dallas Middle Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, "but we have a big plus going for us. Our own offense, in practice, shows us almost every set anyone can use. They might beat us once in a new set, but they don't beat us twice."
Jordan intercepted a pass late in the game to throttle a last-gasp 49er bid. At the time there was 2:30 left to play, the Cowboys led 14-3 and Brodie desperately needed a quick touchdown. "I called a change-up on defense," Jordan said. "Then I dropped back into the alley I thought he would throw down, and I don't think he ever saw me. He threw the ball right to me." Bad habit, that.
There was another interception by Safety Cliff Harris at the two-yard line as time ran out, but the only people it meant anything to were the bettors who had taken Dallas and given 7½ points, which must have included nearly every one of the 66,311 in the stadium, to judge by the roar with which they greeted Harris' play.
The Cowboys were notably matter of fact about the win, not particularly caring which team they would meet in the Super Bowl, "After the Chicago game, none of us were talking about the Super Bowl," said Staubach. (The Cowboys were four and three at that time, and Landry had not decided who would be his quarterback. It was after that loss, in which he shuttled Craig Morton and Staubach, that Landry decided to go with Staubach full-time.) "I didn't even know then if I had a job," Staubach went on, "and I think we might have done just as well if Coach had decided to go with Morton. It's hard for me to realize what has happened since then. I don't really care if we play Baltimore or Miami. I'm just glad we're there."
It probably does not make a lot of difference that it is Miami, since the Cowboys can lick either one.