The Pittsburgh Steelers are a bunch of roughnecks with money in their pockets. The Dallas Cowboys figured that if you want to take it away from them, you don't use a blackjack. You use three shells and a pea. So, in the great computer room in Dallas, Tom Landry punched the button marked Steelers, the machines whirred and hummed, and the printout came out titled: Finesse. Subheading: Trickery.
Look at what the Cowboys were up against. The Steelers' defensive line has a tackle called Mean Joe and an end called Mad Dog. Their middle linebacker has almost no teeth. Their right linebacker is named Dirt. And their quarterback...man, if Terry Bradshaw ain't limping and bleeding, the argument hasn't even started.
The computer told the Cowboys what to do, but here's the funny thing about computers. They can't cut down a linebacker or move out a defensive tackle; they can't get down in a four-point stance and fight off a double-team. And when the verdict was in at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh last Sunday, when the Steelers had stopped every bit of flimflammery and gimmickry the Cowboys threw at them and had knocked Roger Staubach out of the box while winning by a 14-to-3 score, Mean Joe Greene, the elder statesman of the defensive line, drew a deep breath and pronounced in that deliberate way of his, "Dallas is a team that tries to fool you. They wait for you to make a mistake. Well, what happens when they don't fool you? Can they blow you out?" And he looked up and paused for a moment. "I think not."
This was nothing new in the recent history of the Dallas-Pittsburgh series. The computer has been feeding the Cowboys that same information since they played the Steelers in Super Bowl X in 1976, when Thomas Henderson almost broke the opening kickoff for a TD off a reverse, a gimmick play. Dallas has been trying to relive that magic moment ever since. Remember the flea flicker the Cowboys tried against the Steelers in Super Bowl XIII last January? That one cost them almost two freeway exits worth of yardage. But still the Cowboys try to bamboozle the Steelers, and Pittsburgh has now beaten them four straight, including Super Bowls X and XIII. Sooner or later the message will get through: Hey, Tom, the Steelers know which shell the pea is under.
November 5, 1979
On Sunday Dallas shot the works, or as Pittsburgh Defensive End John Banaszak said, "We got a look at the whole computer." The Cowboys tried Tony Dorsett on a halfback option pass in the second quarter, during Dallas' only genuine scoring drive of the first half. Cornerback Ron Johnson smelled out the play and tied up the receiver, Drew Pearson, so Dorsett had to eat the ball. "He kicked him and he held him," Dorsett said. "He latched on to him pretty good." The Cowboys settled for a 32-yard field goal, and that was their scoring.
They also tried Dorsett on a Statue of Liberty out of the shotgun; that play was whistled back for holding. Late in the second quarter, with Pittsburgh leading 7-3, the Cowboys tried their wildest gamble of all. On fourth-and-5 from the Dallas 31, Danny White rolled to his right out of punt formation and passed toward Jay Saldi 20 yards downfield. The ball was overthrown, but the Steelers had it covered anyway; no one was fooled by this rather exotic play that White had called on his own.
"We were playing for it every time they went into punt formation," Steeler Coach Chuck Noll said.
"A terrible play, just terrible," Greene said, shaking his head. "The odds were too long, the risk too great."
"It was a sign of frustration building up," said White, who wound up quarterbacking the Cowboys after L. C. Greenwood sent Staubach from the game with a concussion with 13:19 left. "Against a team like the Steelers, you have to make a big play, so I went ahead and called it. Coach Landry didn't say much to me on the sideline except, 'You can't do it down there.' He's not through with me yet. I'll be hearing more about it on Tuesday."
All game long the Cowboys ran their man-in-motion plays and their multiple sets. At one point the tight end bumped into one of the linemen, and another time the center snapped the ball before anyone was set. And at the end of the game, Dallas was whistled twice in a row for false starts—and the crowd was laughing at the Cowboys.
There was one big play in the game—one—and it wrapped things up for the Steelers. It came midway through the third quarter, after another replay of a scene that has become all too familiar to Pittsburgh fans.
Bradshaw seemed in trouble, having limped off the field on a stiff right leg at the end of the previous series. "I caught a knee or an elbow in the back of my knee," he said. "I didn't know what was wrong with it." He was bleeding from the mouth, thanks to a Henderson blitz, and his left hand was going numb from a blow he "couldn't quite remember." Mike Kruczek, the No. 2 quarterback, was warming up in a hurry, and as Dallas ran half a dozen plays from its own end, the Steeler trainers were toying with the idea of sending Bradshaw into the locker room for X rays on the arm.
"I felt sort of, well, goofy, like I was there, but I really wasn't. Like I was on something," Bradshaw said. "But by the time they punted, I was ready to get back out on the field."
"He was rubbing his arm, he was limping, and a little blood was coming from his mouth," Lynn Swann said. "But I wasn't worried. I only pay attention when he looks real bad."
"We don't panic anymore," said Left Tackle Jon Kolb. "Terry's been that way so often. He's a tough guy. Hey, in St. Louis they took him off on a stretcher, and then at halftime I saw them taping him up, getting him ready for the second half. We weren't worried today. I mean, I don't want to oversimplify this, but there are so many things to worry about out there."
In the huddle Bradshaw called 35-trap—Franco Harris carrying over the left side, with Kolb blocking down on Randy White, the tackle to his inside, and Right Guard Gerry Muffins coming around and trapping End Harvey Martin.
It hadn't been much of a day for Harris to that point. Ten carries for 30 yards, one pass caught for minus one yard. The Steelers' publicity department had been hard at work, chronicling the statistical milestones for Franco—fifth-leading rusher of all time, third man to rush for 8,000 yards in his first eight seasons, etc.—but the coaching staff had been gradually easing his workload on the field. Rocky Bleier had been coming in for him on third and long, and there had been stories written that Franco was on the downside of his career, that he had lost a step or two.
The 35-trap got him healthy again quick, at least for one afternoon. He broke it neatly, brushing by White, who was out of position, faking out Cliff Harris, the free safety, hurdling Strong Safety Randy Hughes, who was laid out on the ground, and he was home free—48 yards in all, and his second TD of the day.
"I'd like to say I made a key block on the play," Kolb said, "but I'd be lying. White pinched inside and took himself out of the play. Bob Breunig, the middle linebacker, was flying to the outside so fast that, well, he flew right by me. Mullins trapped Martin and I was left with no one to block. They didn't need me."
"No, I didn't block Martin," Mullins said. "Maybe he penetrated, or something, but he just wasn't there, so I turned upfield and got a small piece of D. D. Lewis [the outside linebacker], but by that time Franco was by me."
That was the Steelers' brand of computerized football: on the big play, their two key blockers had no one to block.
The Steelers gave Bradshaw magnificent protection. He was sacked once, on a safety blitz by Harris, but Dallas' front four didn't get near him. His completion percentage was low, 11 for 25, a credit to the Cowboys' coverage, particularly Benny Barnes on Swann. But one of the crucial pregame issues—how the Steelers would handle Dallas' newfound pass rush—never materialized.
The Cowboys had been on a sacking rampage, with 12 in their previous two games. Some people credited it to the humiliating things that had been said about the previous non-rush, others to the acquisition of former All-Pro Defensive End John Dutton, who cost Dallas first-and second-round draft choices in a trade with Baltimore three weeks ago. "That deal shook up a lot of people," one Cowboys says. "For years we'd lived with the family concept, everything from within the organization. When they go outside and bring someone in, it hits you in your most sensitive area—your job security."
So the sacks came, but they occurred against Los Angeles and St. Louis, two teams with crippled offensive lines. Dutton was activated and used in Pittsburgh as a third-and-long pass rusher at left end. The former designated rusher at that spot, rookie Bruce Thornton, rushed from left tackle. It didn't work. Thornton seemed lost inside, and Dutton was very rusty. Steeler Right Tackle Larry Brown had no trouble with him.
But the Cowboys didn't lose because of their defense; holding a high-powered team like Pittsburgh to 14 points is hardly an embarrassment, and the Steelers were only 3 for 15 on third-down conversions. The story of the game was pretty much the same as it had been in the last three meetings of these teams—Pittsburgh's defense can't be flimflammed by computerized football.
Dennis (Dirt) Winston, Pittsburgh's right linebacker, put it very bluntly. "It's better to hit than to think," he said. "The man who thinks out there is lost."
An oversimplification, perhaps, but Winston is a very elemental person. He was also a target on Sunday. The Cowboys' computer decided Winston would be the focal point of the Dallas attack. He's a young, ferocious hitter whose clothesline shots won him the nickname Dirty Dennis—inevitably shortened to Dirt—at the University of Arkansas. A converted middle linebacker and special-teams hitman who was starting for the injured Robin Cole, Dirt would get the full treatment—Dorsett on sweeps and cutbacks to his side, Dorsett and Preston Pearson on swing passes and screens, the works.
Well, Winston wound up with a game ball, not to mention 10 solo tackles and three assists. Noll called him the best player on the field.
"If they run their plays from a computer, they ought to check that computer out," Winston said. "Coaching's a manmade thing. You can't let a computer coach you. We don't have any computers in Pittsburgh."
That is a rather harsh thing to say about one of the soundest organizations in football and one of history's ablest coaches, Tom Landry, but strangely enough, there were echoes of the same sentiment in the Dallas locker room.
"Maybe we were too complicated; maybe we tried to put in too much in one week," Danny White said. "Several times we lined up in the wrong formation. A few times we went off-side. Everyone was so busy thinking out there. Everyone was so worried about getting his assignment right. It's just tough to think and be natural at the same time, to go 100%. We had a great week of practice, but every team in the NFL is undefeated in practice. I think we tried to outsmart the Steelers instead of out-physicaling them. How many dropped passes did we have today?"
Ten, was the bad news.
"Ten," White said, shaking his head. "Maybe we heard footsteps. That's part of the Steelers' intimidation, but I think it's something else. We have great receivers, but today they weren't fluid; they weren't natural. They were too tight and keyed up. You know, our whole operation is based on intellect. Our offense is based on hiding our intentions. All that movement we use is to prevent the defense from teeing off on us. Our draft is geared to the intelligent athlete. We don't draft big-muscled weight lifters who can't count to 10. It's tough to change your whole philosophy and start drafting bigger, stronger guys who'll go out and hit and don't want to think."
The question facing Landry as he sits in the silence of the film room and watches his Cowboys getting knocked around by the guys in the black and gold is this: Does he stick with a philosophy that's eminently successful for the great mass of NFL competition but simply won't work against one team? Or does he switch gears and come out roaring? Each of the Cowboys' seven victories this year has been against a team with a losing record. The only winning teams they've faced—Pittsburgh and Cleveland—beat them. And the last time the Cowboys scored as few as three points—against Washington in the NFC championship in 1972—they took the same kind of physical beating they received from the Steelers.
"I don't think we really have to change anything," Landry said. "Pittsburgh just played an excellent defensive game. Even as poorly as we played offensively, we had chances to go in once or twice, but couldn't. If we do, it's a different story."
"If," Bradshaw said. "Always the big if."
"We played them close in two Super Bowls," Staubach said. "Denver beat them in the playoffs, and we beat Denver in the Super Bowl. Who's to say who's better?"
A lump was forming behind Staubach's left ear. He had tried to scramble out of a rush, but Banaszak and Gary Dunn had teed him up and Greenwood had connected, rendering him unconscious for a minute or so. "It's not that bad, really," Staubach said. "There was a time when I didn't know where I was, and my face started to get numb, but I felt I could have gone back in."
Staubach is 37 years old. He shouldn't have to take the kind of beating the Steelers gave him, but it goes with the paycheck. He says he'd like another crack at Pittsburgh this season. "You get hungry to beat 'em, you know?" he said.
The trouble is, Pittsburgh has hungry people, too. And smart people. Better not try to fool them again.