The best continuing story of the pro football season had been the creaky, guileful Washington Redskins and all of those Gone With the Winds and Casablancas they seemed to get involved in every week, produced and directed, usually, by a patched-up old marvel named Bill Kilmer. They had played about six instant classics, losing some but winning most, and always against the clock and a mountain of bandages. Last week they needed to do it one more time to make the playoffs, and they were apparently in the proper place for it—Dallas, the city that has contributed such cultural advances to the world as the singles grocery store, executive-suite football viewing and his and hers Chinese junks for Christmas. Unfortunately for the Redskins, Dallas is also the place that has produced a team called the Cowboys, and the Cowboys go to the NFL playoffs like that Cosmo girl goes to the market to pick up a quiche, some chablis and another guy in a leisure suit.
Dallas means well, of course. In fact, the Cowboys' owner, Clint Murchison, even went so far on the night before the game as to wear a big button that said, "I like Billy." Meaning Kilmer. Murchison probably liked him even better early in the fourth quarter when Cowboy Linebacker D. D. Lewis put Kilmer out of the game and ensured that he would perform no miracles this time. The Redskins were done, finally, after being shredded by so much emotion for so many weeks. They had run smack into a Cowboy team that was playing with far more inspiration than normally.
This was the final chapter in the unreal saga of the NFC East; either Dallas or Washington was going to join St. Louis in postseason play, most likely as the wild-card team, which includes an all-expenses-paid trip to enchanting Minnesota. Now that privilege belongs to Dallas, which enters the playoffs for the ninth time in the past 10 years.
In what had been a tense game filled with hard hitting and mistakes for three quarters—which was to be expected, according to Dallas Coach Tom Landry—the Cowboys suddenly pounced on the Kilmer-less Redskins in the fourth quarter and demolished them 31-10. The Cowboys had slowly overcome a 10-0 Washington lead by halftime with a couple of touchdowns that came on breaks. Not that Washington's touchdown hadn't—the first pass Staubach threw anywhere near a human being went to Cornerback Mike Bass of Washington, and this was the play that set up the Redskins for the touchdown that gave them a 10-point lead.
December 22, 1975
The breaks that went the right way for Dallas were these: a 16-yard pass from Staubach to Golden Richards became a 57-yard touchdown when the same Mike Bass bounced off Richards and left him free to sail all the way to the end zone; then a fumbled punt gave Dallas the ball at the Washington 16, allowing Staubach to scoot in for the score four plays later on one of those runs of his that is planned. It is a sort of variation of the quarterback draw, and it brought to mind what Washington Coach George Allen had said before the game: "We don't care how much Staubach runs around out there, except when he's inside the 10."
Dallas' offense largely consists of Staubach running, planned or otherwise, and throwing passes to Richards, Drew Pearson and Jean Fugett. But it was Dallas' defense that won the game. Perhaps one reason why the defense was particularly vicious was because Landry had delivered a lecture after it was so lusterless against St. Louis the week before.
"He really chewed us out," said D. D. Lewis. Over the years the Cowboys have somehow earned a reputation for being a team that never bruises the opposition. Win yes, punish no. The Dallas defense was punishing last Saturday. All it did at various stages was put Redskins Harold McLinton, Mike Thomas, Jerry Smith and Kilmer out of the game.
The fact that Washington was behind 17-10 at the start of the last quarter was nothing new. The Redskins had trailed in eight of their previous 12 games, but they had won five of the eight. Surely Kilmer would do something wonderful again, and at least get a tie, and then the only problem, as someone said to Clint Murchison, would be whether Texas Stadium had enough barbecue sauce to last through the overtime. But this was just when Kilmer went out.
He was back to pass and here came Lewis from the blind side. Wham! It was the same shoulder that had been separated earlier in the season. "I don't think I did it," Lewis said later. "I hit him, but after we hit the ground somebody else fell on top of us and I think I heard Billy's shoulder crack."
It could have been almost any of the Cowboys, who were hitting with all the passion of their youth. Cliff Harris, the maniac safety, is probably hitting someone this moment. When those young "rush ins," as Dallas people call Too Tall Jones and Harvey Martin, weren't slamming Redskins around, they were hopping up and down and punching each other, looking very unlike the stoic Cowboys of other days.
Staubach settled down in the second half and led the Cowboys on a 75-yard scoring drive that was a thing of considerable beauty. He scrambled twice for nice yardage and connected on the only three passes he tried, the last one to Preston Pearson from the five-yard line for the touchdown. This made it 24-10, and with Kilmer out and only 5:09 remaining, all the parties in those $50,000 private suites in the stadium began to liven up. Dallas scored again when Kilmer's substitute, Randy Johnson, threw a ball hopelessly up in the air and Charlie Waters ran under it and danced his way into the end zone, holding the ball aloft as if it were George Allen's head.
The simple fact was Dallas outhit the Redskins all day long. As Landry said, "Even when we were behind by 10 points, I saw that we were eager and hitting and I felt it had to pay off. This is an amazing team. I never thought we would do what we've done."
Nor did anyone else at the beginning of the season. The Cowboys were without some rather familiar people: Bob Lilly, Walt Garrison, Calvin Hill, Cornell Green, John Niland. Landry had 12 rookies on the roster, and he still does not have a high-quality running back, although there is something to be said for the way Robert Newhouse runs underneath everybody at times. A couple of the linebackers are somewhat aged, but Lee Roy Jordan recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass, and Dave Edwards was his customary dependable self.
It is a strange team. It has to put its trust in the shotgun formation much of the time, the shotgun being that thing they used to call the spread in which Staubach takes an actual snapback from the center and begins looking around for his receivers or a place to run. And the Cowboys fall apart at times. They lost to the likes of Green Bay and Kansas City, and the Cardinals humiliated them. On the other hand, Dallas has plenty of class in some key positions, like Staubach and Drew Pearson and Cliff Harris.
And as Tex Schramm, the general manager, was telling himself and anyone who cared to listen after the Cowboys had won another of those big ones they aren't supposed to win, "In the playoffs it doesn't matter who you are. Anybody can win three games."
A great deal of the action in these Dallas-Washington games happens off the field. It has become one of the better rivalries in the NFL, a natural matchup of cities, Dallas with its money and Washington with its power, and the owners and in-group fans have come to enjoy it immensely. Last Friday night's goings-on were rather typical of the attitudes brought to the game. Kilmer had dinner with some close Dallas friends in one of those restaurants where Murchison and gang loiter. And outside in the parking lot Darrell Royal, the University of Texas coach and good pal of the Cowboys, sat in a bar-equipped bus listening to a country-music guitar picker. Down the street the guys in leisure suits were milling through a Tom Thumb grocery store hoping to meet some ladies in denim and feathers.
Came Saturday in Texas Stadium and the place was a party two hours before the kickoff. In one of those private suites the Christmas decorations were up and the host, dressed like Santa Claus, was passing out Bloody Marys. In the Cowboy Club, which spans one entire end zone, a country band was playing. Up and down the carpeted halls of the complex, people milled about with their cocktails, as if they were at a convention in a hotel. Except when they looked out the windows later they were going to see a football game instead of a freeway. And what they wound up seeing, most of all, was a team, their Cowboys, who in 1975 were far better than anybody had ever imagined they would be.