All in splendid all, Roger Staubach brought the Dallas Cowboys from behind to win 23 games in the fourth quarter, 14 of them in the last two minutes. The best comeback ever, Staubach says without hesitation, was the knockout punch in Dallas' 35-34 victory over Washington last December, the game that put the Redskins out of the playoffs.
"That game had more emotion than any I ever played," says Staubach. "It was just the impossibility of it. The Redskins came into Texas Stadium as if they were going to wipe us out. They led 17-0 before we knew what hit us. Then we went up 21-17, and on the sidelines we thought the game was over, but they came back in the fourth quarter and went ahead 34-21. I mean, it was just crazy the way the momentum swung. Then...."
Let's take a closer look at that fourth quainter. A little more than four minutes remained when the Redskins, with that 34-21 lead, had a third-and-four on the Dallas 42. Some fans were leaving to beat the traffic. Then Clarence Harmon fumbled and Randy White recovered on the Cowboys' 41. The clock showed 3:49.
Tom Landry has said that Staubach was "perfect" on the last two Cowboy drives" which produced two touchdowns; the record shows that he completed seven of 10 passes for 134 yards in the two minutes and 36 seconds Dallas controlled the ball. Every play was a pass. The three times Dallas had the ball before those final two scoring drives, Staubach had been unable to produce a single first down.
September 7, 1980
His offense was undermanned. Ron Springs was playing for Tony Dorsett, who was out with a bruised shoulder; Butch Johnson had replaced a hobbling Drew Pearson, and the Redskins had nullified Tight End Billy Joe Dupree, who had had only one reception all day.
"When play resumed," says Staubach, "we were into our two-minute offense. There were more than two minutes left, nearly four, but we needed two touchdowns, so that made it a two-minute situation. That meant we took all our patterns five yards deeper, and were in the shotgun for almost every play."
On the first play, Staubach passed to Johnson, curling in from the left side, for a gain of 14 yards.
"I was thinking zone," says Roger, "with the cornerback [Joe Lavender] coming up and the strong safety [Tony Peters] going back to an area. Lavender really wasn't the problem on this play. I was just looking for the dead spot."
First-and-10 on the Washington 45, 3:12 left: Staubach hit Tony Hill on a slant-in on the left side, Lavender defending, for 19 Yards.
"The clock wasn't a major problem," says Staubach. "I could go over the middle without calling a time-out. I was thinking the Redskins would still play zone to protect that 13-point lead. But if they were in a zone, there would be a hole. If not, then Tony just had to beat Lavender man-to-man, which he did. Earlier Lavender had knocked down a pass on our 15. He'd almost intercepted it, but now he had to be more cautious. The huddle was very-quiet. No one was talking. I didn't let them. It's no good at a time like that. The excitement was there, but it wasn't like it was the last drive, where a score can win it."
First-and-10 on the Washington 26, 2:27 left: Staubach passed to Springs on a post pattern left for 26 yards and a touchdown. Time remaining: 2:20. The kick by Rafael Septien was good and Washington led 34-28.
"Ron broke it to the sideline, then did the post, a good route for him," says Roger. "He got behind the linebacker and caught the safeties deep. I had to drill it in there, and it was one of the best passes I ever threw. It caught him in the chest. He did a good job getting to the end zone. If he had been tackled on the one, we would've been in trouble."
The Dallas touchdown drive had consumed 59 yards, three plays and 1:29 on the clock, which had never stopped.
Bobby Hammond ran the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, and Washington had to punt after Larry Cole stopped John Riggins for a loss of two on third-and-two. Dallas called a time-out following Washington's third-down play with 1:53 to go. The Cowboys then took over on their 25 following the Washington punt.
"Now we were in a game," Staubach says. "The momentum had swung. The whole atmosphere was different."
With 1:46 to go, Staubach passed to Hill on a floater down the left side for a gain of 20 yards.
Staubach recalls, "I told Tony, 'Make like you're running an in-route, and then break it outside. When you do this, Lavender will go inside.' But when I let the ball go I thought, 'Uh oh, we're in trouble.' I'd read it wrong. They were in a zone, and Lavender hung on the outside while the safety [Nickel Back Ray Waddy] was behind Tony. He made a great catch between them. The throw wasn't that great, but it was on target."
First-and-10 on the Dallas 45, 1:21 left: no shotgun this time as Staubach threw incomplete to Hill on the left sideline, stopping the clock.
"I threw low, threw it away," Staubach says. "Lavender was just staring Tony down. I should have thrown it in the stands."
With 1:18 remaining, Staubach, back in the shotgun, scrambled left, ducked under Perry Brooks' rush and hit Preston Pearson on a post pattern right for 22 yards. Dallas called a time-out, its second.
"If Perry Brooks hit me low, he'd have tackled me," Staubach says. "But I guessed he'd be coming high and I ducked. Preston beat the linebacker [Monte Coleman], and I threw to a spot."
First-and-10 on the Washington 33, 1:07 to go: Staubach launched a bomb to Hill but overthrew him in the end zone, stopping the clock.
"They covered Tony well, and it was a bad throw on my part," says Roger.
Now, with 1:01 left, Staubach hit Pearson on a post right for a gain of 25. On the sidelines, Tom Landry screamed for a timeout, but 10 seconds ticked off before Dallas took its last one, at :45.
"Hill was double-covered on the left side, while Coleman was running man-to-man with Preston," Staubach says. "Ray Waddy was too deep to make a play; he had to help out on the wide receiver. That's the weakness of the defense the Redskins were in—the halfback gets only single coverage over the deep middle. But your line has to give you time to throw the pass. We'd completed that pass earlier in the game. Washington should have adjusted to it."
First-and-goal on the Washington 8 after the time-out: Staubach threw incomplete to Hill on a slant-in right, and Waddy was there to break it up.
"I had Jay Saldi and Hill crossing and could have gone either way," says Roger. "Waddy just made a good play."
Second-and-goal, :42 to play: abandoning the shotgun again, Staubach hit Hill down the right side for a touchdown, the receiver beating Lemar Parrish.
"I called two plays in the huddle; the other was to Billy Joe Dupree on a quickie over the middle," Staubach says. "Washington had done a good job against us in that situation, usually with blitzes. Just as we were breaking the huddle, I told Tony. 'Give him a quick inside move and break it outside, rock him and get him off stride.' Washington is inside-conscious when it blitzes. The touchdown play was called a Quick-9. It's not a high-percentage pass; you can run it eight times in a row and Parrish will make the play eight times. It was probably the first one I hit all year."
Hill's touchdown tied the game at 34-34, and Septien's conversion put Dallas ahead 35-34. Washington reached its own 49-yard line in the final 39 seconds before the clock ran out.
The victory drive consumed 75 yards, seven plays and 1:07 on the clock.
"They had a rerun of the last few minutes on TV the following Saturday night," Staubach says. "I just stayed home and watched it—like a fan."