The team from the long-suffering National Conference with the best chance to beat the Steelers is, in fact, going to the Super Bowl, and it is about time for the world to realize that the Dallas Cowboys are better than they are lucky, tougher than they are miraculous, smarter than they are enthusiastic, and perhaps even the team of now rather than tomorrow. Miami might be v-e-r-r-y interesting if Roger Staubach's arm doesn't drop off when he's saluting the flag, and if Coach Tom Landry's brain doesn't explode with ideas.
Last Sunday in Los Angeles there was supposed to be this rib-knocking game between the "physical" Rams and the "youthful" Cowboys. The Rams were the tough team of Coach Chuck Knox, who spoke beforehand of such things as "putting the old Riddell on," of going out there with either James Harris or Ron Jaworski at quarterback—it wouldn't matter—and getting it on with the blocking and tackling and desire. The Cowboys were the team that was supposed to still be apologizing for Drew Pearson's last-gasp catches the week before back in Minnesota, the team that in training camp was hoping for a 7-7 regular season, the team that lost the Eastern Division title to St. Louis—which of course had been buried by the Rams.
What it looked like, however, after about 30 minutes in the Coliseum, where the Rams have been breaking hearts for years, is that the Cowboys are the most physical, resourceful, talented and creative bunch to come out of the NFC in quite a while, young or old, and they certainly proved as much in their shockingly easy victory over the Rams. The final score was 37-7 as Staubach threw four touchdowns of the most fascinating variety, and as the Dallas defense practically drove the Rams' offense out across the street into Julie's restaurant.
In order, Staubach threw a screen pass for a touchdown that made it 7-0; a quick bullet for a touchdown that made it 14-0; a flare-out for a touchdown, thanks to a diving catch by Preston Pearson, that made it 21-0; and, finally, a dredged-up old shovel pass for a touchdown—as if Davey O'Brien had somehow slipped into the game—that made the score 28-0. After this, Roger did just anything he wanted to and motored the Cowboys to three field goals, but then Dallas seemed to have been doing anything it wanted to do against the Rams from the beginning.
You would have to dig back through 35 seasons to that 73-0 victory of the Chicago Bears over the Washington Redskins to find a playoff or championship game in which one team so thoroughly embarrassed a good opponent. That the Rams were never in the game was evidenced by the statistics as much as the score. Their ground game was nonexistent. Forget the fourth quarter when the Rams got their only touchdown following a doubtful pass-interference call. After three quarters, when Dallas led 34-0, the Rams had only 16 yards rushing and had made no first downs on the ground, and this was primarily because some people named Too Tall Jones, Jethro Pugh, Larry Cole and Harvey Martin weren't going to allow it, they being the most underrated front four in football. Dallas, meanwhile, was romping all over the field with pass receivers wide open, and the running game was even producing good yardage (195 by the time the day was done) against the likes of Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer and Merlin Olsen, guys who were supposed to be second in terrific only to the Steelers.
To get right down to it, what was really more surprising than anything was how demoralized the Rams looked so early, when it could still have been a ball game. Down on the sideline in the first half were witnesses who can testify that only Youngblood and Dryer were displaying any spunk or fire, vocally or otherwise. Dryer had thought the Rams were truly ready. The evening before the game he had worn a T shirt that read "Do It in the Dirt," and had said, "That's what we're going to do tomorrow," meaning handle the Cowboys on the natural Coliseum turf where Staubach couldn't scramble as artfully as he could on a rug. "We're going to screw the old Riddell on and get 'em," Dryer said, sounding more serious than he normally is. And then he went away to study more film. When Chuck Knox added, "We're ready to play a good football game," there was no reason not to believe him. And when the Rams looked relaxed and confident as they warmed up before the kickoff, in contrast to the tenseness of the Cowboys, a man had a right to feel they were sure to give a splendid account of themselves.
There was just this one psychological problem the Rams might have had, and no one could say what its effect would be. Ron Jaworski had become an overnight darling in Los Angeles by coming in to replace James Harris at quarterback, beating Pittsburgh in the last game of the regular season and then staying in to bombard the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. Jaworski is a better passer, short or long, than Harris, with a quicker release. And as he had shown in the Cardinal game, he has a more fiery spirit. Early in the week, though, Knox announced he was going to start Harris, whose injured shoulder apparently had healed.
A lot of people said it might be the biggest decision of Knox's career, particularly if he was wrong. "He's in a position where he can't win," said Sonny Jurgensen of TV-land. "Everybody wants him to go with Jaworski, but Harris has won a lot of games for him."
Carroll Rosenbloom, the Rams' owner, said, "We might be putting our hearts ahead of our minds by starting Harris." No one really knew what was the best thing to do, or how the Rams would respond. Or, more important, how Harris would respond.
Then, very quickly, they found out. On his first series of downs Harris drew a delay-of-game penalty, and that is not what a team does when it has come out to kick people around. On his second series, with Too Tall Jones storming in on him, Harris threw a pass almost straight into the arms of the Cowboys' D.D. Lewis, which gave Dallas the ball at the Rams' 18.
Immediately after the interception, Staubach got off the first of his many perfectly executed plays, a screen pass to Preston Pearson for a touchdown. The Rams were both stunned and stung, and they were never to be themselves thereafter. Jaworski came on, to an approving roar from the 84,483 spectators. He hit his first pass, and he took the Rams to a field-goal try, which could have made it 7-3 and maybe awakened his team, but one of those Dallas rookies, Tom Henderson, blazed in to block Tom Dempsey's kick.
Staubach then drove the Cowboys 76 yards to the touchdown that made it 14-0 and removed all doubt. He shot a 42-yarder to Golden Richards, the biggest play in the drive, and he found Richards in the end zone for the touchdown so all alone it looked as if the Rams had only five players on the field. This was a play-action pass from the Rams' four-yard line, and the reason Richards was all alone was that Cornerback Monte Jackson went for the fake.
Now turn to Preston Pearson, a fine running back, a good blocker and receiver, and the only Cowboy who ever played for another NFL team. Landry got him two days before the opening game of the season when the loaded Steelers had to let somebody go. Pearson not only took the screen pass in for the first touchdown, but also he made that sensational catch on the third touchdown, and it was also Preston Pearson who took the little shovel pass from Staubach and scooted the remaining 19 yards for Dallas' fourth touchdown.
If you are wondering what exactly to make of Dallas, you might want to consider what Knox was saying even before the game: "They've done a great job of sandbagging. They've got more football players than we do, but right down to the secretaries in their offices they speak the party line—that they're young and lucky. Bunk. A heck of afoot-ball team is what they are."
Eager and emotional, too, unlike the old Cowboys. Take the case of Too Tall Jones. "We were scared and nervous," he said late Sunday, "but Coach Landry said that was good. I got up this morning and took a shower and was ready to go. Then I looked at the clock and it was 2 a.m."
Roger Staubach summed up these Cowboys the best, and the Steelers would do well to take note. "We're nervous," said Roger, "and we're hungry and we have more fun than the Dallas teams of old."
The Cowboys have seldom had more fun than they did on Sunday in Los Angeles, and if they continue having it right on through Jan. 18 in Miami, a good question will be how many consecutive Super Bowls is this team of tomorrow going to win?