Drew Pearson, the Dallas Cowboys' superlative wide receiver, swiftly ascertained that something was up—probably the football—when he glanced back from the goal line and saw that Quarterback Danny White's, right hand was empty. "The next thing I saw," Pearson recalled later, "was the ball." There was nothing to do but catch it, which Pearson did—for the winning touchdown in the Cowboys' remarkable 30-27 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. There were 42 seconds left on the clock, and it was second-and-10 on the Atlanta 23-yard line when White ordered up "16 Wing 8," which calls for Pearson to run a simple post pattern. But there was nothing simple about it, because the Falcons did the unexpected, sending outside linebackers Al Richardson and Joel Williams in on a blitz.
"They're not a blitzing team," said White. "They're a zone team. I was unprepared for what happened."
"I was surprised," said Pearson. "They hadn't been blitzing that close to the end zone all day."
But White, startled as he was, instantly picked up the blitz. As the two linebackers pawed at his uniform, he, in his own words, "just put the ball up, hoping Drew would get to it somehow." Pearson admitted he never really understood what was happening. "I didn't pick up the blitz," he said, "but I did notice that [Falcon Left Cornerback Rolland] Lawrence came up and tried to dog me. I knew then there was something different going on, so I just speeded up my pattern, slipping by him and breaking clear and clean in the end zone."
January 12, 1981
There had seemed little doubt about the outcome to the Atlanta fans since the middle of the third quarter, when Quarterback Steve Bartkowski had put the Falcons ahead 24-10 on a five-yard toss to William Andrews. Atlanta had got the ball in the first place under unusual, seemingly fated circumstances. White, operating from the Atlanta 49, dumped off a short pass to Preston Pearson, who snaked his way to the 15 before Williams stripped him of the ball and Safety Tom Pridemore picked it up. Pridemore was stopped in his tracks, but Drew Pearson, normally the cool veteran, pushed Falcon rookie Cornerback Kenny Johnson's face mask for a 15-yard penalty. "I just lost my poise," Pearson said. "It should be the other way around—the veteran riling the rookie."
Most of the Cowboys had been peeved at Johnson since the first quarter when he robbed them, with the blessing of Back Judge Stan Javie, of a touchdown, forcing them to settle for a field goal. White had hit Butch Johnson in the end zone for what seemed a certain TD. Dallas' Johnson caught the ball cleanly and appeared to take several steps with it before Atlanta's Johnson came in from behind and chopped it out of his hands. The official ruled "no catch" as Butch hollered in frustration. "I caught that ball," he said later. "I didn't juggle it. If you catch the ball in the end zone, it's a touchdown. It was a bad call."
The Falcons were leading 27-17 with 3:40 to play in the game when Danny and Drew worked the first of their wonders. On second-and-one from the Atlanta 14, White called a pass play with the prolix designation "Fire-Slant-26-B-Short-X-and-Y-Cross-Wing-7." Not for nothing is the Cowboy playbook compared to the Principia Mathematics. In lay terms, the play calls for Drew Pearson and his opposite number, Tony Hill, to run a crossing pattern while White fakes to a running back. The Falcons didn't blitz, and White scrambled in the backfield for what may have been 10 seconds in search of an open receiver. Just before releasing the ball, he pointed to the left corner of the end zone. "I wanted Drew to go back against the grain," he explained. Pearson missed the signal. "Everybody read that gesture but me," he says. "They all went to the corner. I stayed put, and he threw to me." White threw high, and Pearson made a spectacular leaping catch in front of the harassed Kenny Johnson. With Rafael Septien's point after, the score was Atlanta 27, Dallas 24.
When the Cowboys next got the ball, there was but a minute and 48 seconds to play and they were on their own 30-yard line. Roger Staubach routinely brought them into the end zone under such circumstances when he presided over the line of scrimmage. But White?
"Danny," says Drew Pearson, "is a quarterback with a lot of poise."
"He has actually been better than I thought he would be," says Dallas Coach Tom Landry.
He was on this heart-stopping series, mixing screens with sideline patterns until he reached the Atlanta 23 as the crowd fell silent. Then that fateful blitz.
"I didn't expect anyone to catch that ball," said White. "It was the blitz that killed Atlanta."