In the middle of the third quarter of the NFC championship game, the score was Dallas 0, Los Angeles 0, and it looked as though the winning coach would either be Jock Sutherland or Bernie Bierman, or whoever could first remember to put in the buck lateral series. But it was Tom Landry who once again brilliantly prevailed, his Cowboys blowing the Rams away 28-0 in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The Cowboys decided on Sunday to become the team they are supposed to be, the Super Bowl championship team they were a year ago, the only team from the NFC that could make it interesting against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII next week in Miami. Not that the Dallas offense was all that flashy; in fact, the Cowboys fumbled away one touchdown in the end zone, and Roger Staubach twice failed to hit wide-open receivers on plays that would have gone for touchdowns. It was the Dallas defense that humiliated the Rams, who now have been bounced from the playoffs six straight years.
That Tom Landry can outcoach the Rams' Ray Malavasi should be no surprise. As NFL head coaches, there is a bit of difference in their experience, like 18 seasons to one. But it had to be a little embarrassing for Malavasi when Dallas Safety Charlie Waters and his defensive teammates began to demonstrate that they knew the Ram plays better than the Rams did.
After a scoreless first half, in which the Cowboys managed to keep the game close by repeatedly missing scoring opportunities, two interceptions by Waters turned the afternoon around. Both were on Pat Haden passes intended for Tight End Terry Nelson. Waters picked them off so casually, it was almost as if Landry had called the plays.
On the first interception, which came early in the third quarter when Haden threw dangerously into the left flat on third and 10 from his 21, Waters cut in front of Nelson, caught the ball in stride on the 30 and took it down to the 10. Even then, it was a while before Dallas could score. Only an interference penalty kept the Cowboys alive, giving them a first down at the eight just when it appeared that Rafael Septien would have to try a 30-yard field goal.
Tony Dorsett cut in for the touchdown from the five behind Guard Tom Rafferty's block, and Dallas had a 7-0 lead. Dorsett stood up all the way, something he had failed to do on the spongy turf in the first quarter. On that occasion, Dorsett had skittered around left end from the Ram 16 and seemed certain of scoring until he slipped and went out of bounds at the three. On an artificial surface he would have gone all the way.
That run preceded Scott Laidlaw's fumble into the end zone, which ended up in the possession of the Rams' Jack Youngblood because a number of Cowboys—Laidlaw, Dorsett and Tackle Pat Donovan—kept bouncing on top of each other and sending the ball squirting loose like a wet bar of soap.
Waters intercepted his second pass near the end of the third quarter, before Haden left the game with a fractured thumb, courtesy of a meeting with Randy White's helmet, and it came on a second and 10 from the L.A. 44. Waters again stepped in front of Nelson, taking this one at the Ram 49, and he returned it 29 yards. Dallas went ahead 14-0 five plays later when Staubach flipped a four-yarder to Laidlaw.
While Haden's two passes to Waters may have looked the same, they weren't. And the Dallas defensive schemes were slightly different. On the first one, L.A. flopped its two wide receivers—Ron Jessie and Willie Miller—to the right side of the field, opposite Waters, with the intent of forcing him to cover Nelson one-on-one. "Other teams had tried that on us, so I expected the Rams would," Waters said. "When they do it, they usually throw to the tight end, so I was waiting."
The second interception was a result of pure Landry genius. The Cowboys faked a blitz and double-covered both wide receivers, hoping to entice Haden to dump the ball off to Nelson. "I was waiting," Waters said, "and Haden went for it."
Dallas obviously had Los Angeles sadly outpersonneled, as well as outcoached, and the Cowboys were convinced of it even back in September when the Rams beat them 27-14. That had been a relatively meaningless game, with both teams clearly on the way to winning their respective divisions. That was why Staubach reportedly said to a loud-mouthed Ram during the game. "Ahh, you're all a bunch of front-running sons of bitches." And that was why Hollywood Tom Henderson. Dallas' lippy linebacker, had bad-mouthed the Rams in print all last week. Henderson is an intimidator, both with his fiery hitting on the field and with his quotes.
For posterity, Henderson said, "The Rams don't have enough class to go to the Super Bowl. If the Rams don't choke, I'll choke them. Have the Rams ever been to the Super Bowl? Our team is in a class by itself—right from Too Tall to Roger to Dorsett to Harvey Martin—hey, call roll! The Rams got anybody like that?"
Henderson also said he hoped his remarks would appear in the Los Angeles papers, so the Rams could read them.
In the event that no one had read them, Henderson spent a good part of the game gesturing to the Rams, and to the 67,470 in the Coliseum. He came on the field at the start clutching at his throat—choking, get it?—and he talked incessantly to the Rams after almost every play.
He would speak to Nelson or to one of the running backs, such as Rod Phillips, and say, "How many Super Bowls you folks been to? I can't remember."
And, sure enough, in the waning moments, Henderson had the ultimate pleasure of intercepting a pass and galloping 68 yards with it for the Cowboys' final touchdown. He then finger-rolled the ball over the crossbar, à la Wilt Chamberlain. "I couldn't dunk it," he said later. "I'd been playing four quarters of great football, and I had no legs left." This interception—the fourth of the game by the Cowboys—had been thrown by Vince Ferragamo, who had replaced the injured Haden in the final quarter. One had the feeling that if the game lasted a month. Los Angeles still wouldn't score.
The Rams were an embarrassment to themselves on offense. There was a fleeting moment in the third quarter when the score was only 7-0, and the Rams were in business on the Dallas 23. After three plays, the Rams faced fourth down and a foot to go at the Dallas 14.
What do you do on fourth and a foot? Why, naturally, you run Jim Jodat, who is 5'11" and 210, at Randy White and Larry Bethea, who are a combined 12'9" and weigh slightly less than an overloaded 747. The Rams lost an inch on the play—and Dallas took over.
Then, midway through the fourth quarter, when the score was still only 14-0, the Rams got a big play out of Miller. Ferragamo hit Miller with a routine sideline pass at the Dallas 48. When Dallas' Aaron Kyle and Cliff Harris both overran him, Miller raced down the sideline to the Dallas 10, where only a swiping, diving tackle by Randy Hughes saved a touchdown. On first down Cullen Bryant fumbled Ferragamo's handoff and Harvey Martin recovered for Dallas. Henderson clutched at his throat again and grinned at the Rams.
One other Dallas touchdown was squeezed in between the interception heroics of Waters and Henderson. With 7:57 to play, Dorsett got Dallas out of a hole by dashing 53 yards from the Dallas 11 to the L.A. 36, and then Staubach gave the Cowboys a 21-0 lead with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Billy Joe DuPree, who was so open in the end zone that the nearest thing to him was the Coliseum's peristyle.
This may or may not have been the time when Henderson waved a Ram pompon on the sideline, and it may or may not have been the occasion when Henderson cupped his hands and yelled across the field, "Hurts, don't it, Malavasi?" But it could have been.
Much later, Henderson began to get the Cowboys in the mood for Pittsburgh. He said, "They're tough and they're mean, and so are we, and they've got class like we do, and it's probably going to be one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. When we played them in the Super Bowl three years ago they beat us on a blocked punt, and Lynn Swann had a miracle day and got himself a job on television. But now I'm the greatest linebacker who ever played football. Hey, Dick Butkus was just a lineman standing on two legs."
Resplendent in his lime green undergarments and his brown beret, Henderson added one other thought: "I put a lot of pressure on myself to see if I can play up to my mouth."
True, and Henderson also might have mentioned that the Pittsburgh Steelers won't make it quite as easy for the Cowboys as the Rams did.