The day before the Dallas-Atlanta game, a Cowboy fan called a local radio talk show. "Who's Tom Landry going to use at quarterback when he's leading by 10 touchdowns in the first quarter?" the fan asked. There was no doubt in Dallas that Roger Staubach and the NFL's highest-scoring' offense were going to shred the Falcons' Grits Blitz, that the Cowboys' Doomsday Defense was going to surrender maybe a field goal at worst, and that all those rich Texans who gave 14 points were going to be counting their winnings by halftime.
Suddenly, though, the question became: Who's Landry going to use at quarterback when Staubach is hurt and the Cowboys are trailing Atlanta by a touchdown in the second quarter? The Falcons, a wild-card team, but hardly an ace, were leading the defending Super Bowl champions 20-13 with less than a minute to play in the first half when Staubach was hammered into the Texas Stadium Tartan Turf by blitzing Falcon Linebacker Robert Pennywell and knocked unconscious. Atlanta was penalized 15 yards for roughing the passer, but Dallas' plight was worse: it desperately needed a quarterback.
Hello, Danny White. An Arizona State product who spent two years in the WFL before joining the Cowboys in 1976, White has doubled as a punter and backup quarterback for three seasons, starting only once, when Staubach rested an injured foot and hand three weeks ago in the final game of the season against the New York Jets. On that occasion White completed 15 of 24 passes for 156 yards as Dallas won 30-7, so he wasn't completely rusty as he trotted onto the field Saturday. Staubach was the third starting quarterback who had been rendered hors de combat by the Grits Blitz this season, his predecessors being Chicago's Mike Phipps and Cincinnati's Ken Anderson. But the Falcons lost to both Chicago and Cincinnati, and White quickly did them in, too.
Executing Landry's messengered plays almost flawlessly, White moved the Cowboys to two touchdowns, while the defense, which was dozing most of the first half, was shutting out the Falcons. When the game was over, Dallas had squeaked into the conference championship game with a 27-20 victory.
Having ousted the Falcons, who had won their first-ever playoff game the week before mainly because Philadelphia hadn't bothered to hire a field-goal kicker, Dallas now meets Los Angeles in a grudge match for the NFC title—the Rams having whipped the Cowboys 27-14 in September. Staubach, who suffered a concussion, is expected to play.
Dallas' performance against Atlanta was almost a replay of its 12-4 season, warts and all. For one half, as Atlanta stormed to its 20-13 lead in the light rain that fell through the open stadium roof, Dallas resembled the bumbling team that won only six of its first 10 games. In the second half, though, the Cowboys scored twice, held Atlanta to five first downs, 18 yards passing and no points, and once again performed in the manner of the infinitely talented team that had ravaged its last six opponents.
The Cowboys' comeback was stimulated by some blunt halftime locker-room talk by Landry, who blamed the heavy odds favoring the Cowboys for their inelegant performance: namely, three fumbles, various kickoff and punt gaffes by Butch Johnson and a personal foul by Rafael Septien, the field-goal kicker, who tried to level Dennis Pearson with a forearm smash.
"It wasn't the easy game that some people thought it might be," Landry said afterward, stating the obvious. "Atlanta is a good football team with a strong defense. What hurt us was the 14-point advantage—or whatever—they were saying we should win by."
The Cowboys' tying touchdown came midway through the third quarter on a two-yard, shotput-style pass from White to Jackie Smith, the 38-year-old tight end who played for St. Louis for 15 seasons, retired last year, then un-retired and joined the Cowboys in late September. Smith had caught his first pass as a Cowboy in the first quarter, hauling in an 18-yarder. On the touchdown play, Smith was running for the deep corner of the right end zone when he noticed that White, who was rolling to the right, was in trouble. Changing his course, Smith came back toward the goal line and caught White's pass, which probably didn't travel more than three yards.
"I had no idea that the pass would come to me," Smith said. "It was a bootleg roll. Catching passes is like riding a bike. It's something you never forget."
The game-winner came with slightly less than 10 minutes to play when Dallas, which started most of its second-half drives inside Atlanta territory, capitalized on John James' shanked punt of 10 yards. Taking over at the Falcon 30, Dallas reached the end zone in five rushes, Scott Laidlaw squirting over from the one on a run that was supposed to be a pass.
Landry had sent in a play-action pass called "Fire 26." In the huddle, however, Drew Pearson relayed the wrong play, calling "Slant 26," which isn't a goal-line play. White checked it off to a "Toss 36." Whatever, it worked.
At the start, it appeared that the 14-point spread might be too conservative. Dallas took the opening kickoff and marched 59 yards as Staubach confused the Falcons with double tight ends, quick-hitting routes and the shotgun. But the Cowboys bogged down at the Atlanta 16 and had to settle for Septien's 34-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Then it was Atlanta's turn. Coach Lee-man Bennett's offensive unit had struggled through 55 scoreless minutes a week earlier, before the Falcons bagged the Eagles 14-13. But Bubba Bean pierced the middle on draws and slanted off the flanks, and Steve Bartkowski hit three of his first four passes as Atlanta drove 78 yards in eight plays for a 7-3 lead. Bean ran 14 yards off left guard to score, encountering little resistance en route.
After Laidlaw's first touchdown, a 13-yard bolt up the middle, put Dallas ahead 10-7, Atlanta tied the score on a 42-yard field goal by Tim Mazzetti, the free-agent bartender. A 48-yard field goal by Septien regained the lead for Dallas, but Bartkowski put Atlanta back in front 17-13 by drilling the ball to Wallace Francis, who was knifing between Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, for a 17-yard touchdown. Mazzetti added another field goal from 22 yards out two plays before Staubach was hurt, giving the Falcons their 20-13 lead, and it hardly seemed that Atlanta's scoring was over for the game. But it was.
"The Cowboys did nothing different in the second half," Bartkowski said of the Dallas defense. "They just played at the level they're capable of, and they did what they had to do better. But our season was a success. We didn't get as far as I would have liked, but it was a growth year for us and I'm optimistic for next season."
Harvey Martin, the defensive end who led the rush that sacked Bartkowski five times for minus 43 yards, thinks that Dallas also has enjoyed a growth season. "The guys who were here last year are a little more mature about where we are," he said. "Last year we had to hold a lot of team meetings where the captains would get up and talk to the guys, calm everybody down and be sure they weren't forgetting what was happening. This year we haven't had to do that. Everybody's doing it for themselves. It's a mature team. We can see it.
"But this is also a strange football team. It's got so much talent it's scary, yet it all depends on how the guys want to play that day. When they hit the field, if they want to play—fine. But if they don't, we can get beat just like anybody else. We're human beings."