It was early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game at Texas Stadium when America's Team appeared to have run out of the right stuff. First-team quarterback Danny White, the human soybean, had been planted once again into the turf, re-injuring several sections of his anatomy. Backup quarterback Gary Hogeboom had likewise been plowed under, exiting with a head full of silver bells.
The Cowboys were up 21-14, but who was going to take the snap? Who was going to hold on to this "big game we will remember," as Cowboy president Tex Schramm put it, beat these upstart Giants and prove that 1) Cowboy mystique—whatever that is—lives; 2) three seasons without a division title is too long; 3) Thurman's Thieves are not as big a group of jerks as their abrasive mouths indicate; 4) Dallas is, hands down, the NFL schizoid team of the year?
Enter Steve Pelluer, the obscure second-year man from Washington, 6'4", 208 pounds. Pelluer looks like a quarterback, but what else did anyone know? His handoff to running back Tony Dorsett from the Dallas 13 with 12:23 to go was his first game contact ever with the Cowboys' offense. "I haven't practiced with the first team since the preseason," said Pelluer afterward, still in shock. "I run the scout team." And his thoughts upon entering the contest? "Don't get bewildered."
He didn't. Though the result of Pelluer's first series was zero yards gained and a punt, on his second series he directed a 72-yard drive that included three pass completions in five attempts for 36 yards, two third-down conversions, a perfect read of a blitz, a welcome-to-the-NFL flattening by linebacker Lawrence Taylor ("I was too numb to feel it," said Pelluer) and a one-yard touchdown run by Timmy Newsome that made it 28-14 Cowboys with 4:06 left.
The Giants rallied to score in less than two minutes, but Dallas nickelback Victor Scott intercepted quarterback Phil Simms's last-drive, last-gasp fourth-down pass at the Dallas 24, and the Cowboys ran out the clock to win 28-21.
We all know the Cowboys—cold, emotionless droids, mere chips from coach Tom Landry's computer brain. But not this time. Uh-uh. The Cowboys went nuts in the locker room. Even solemn Danny White found himself hugging people. "I have never felt like this," he gushed through the clenched teeth necessitated by his bruised ribs, shoulder, wrist, back, neck, etc. "I have never felt like kissing a 270-pound man."
That man, of course, was defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, whose 65-yard touchdown return of a deflected Simms pass in the second quarter was the play of the game. Or at least part of it. Ed (Too Tall) Jones, whose arms are Too Long, batted the pass back to Jeffcoat, who headed all alone for the goal line.
Behind 14-7 at the time, Dallas looked to be in real danger of getting blown out. Simms was mixing short completions to his backs and wideouts with the running of Joe Morris (21 carries for 80 yards, one TD) to bend the Cowboys' flex defense. White had already gone to the locker room once for X rays of his left shoulder, and the Cowboys had gained only 24 yards in their last three possessions. Then, boom, look out, New York.
Jeffcoat's interception made it 14-all; on the Giants' next possession corner-back Everson Walls rushed punter Sean Landeta, forcing him to throw an incomplete pass that gave the Cowboys the ball at the New York 12. On the following play White hit wide receiver Mike Renfro (four receptions, 123 yards, two TDs) in the right corner of the end zone and it was 21-14, Dallas. Two touchdowns in 59 seconds.
Walls is chief spokesman for Thurman's Thieves, the Cowboys' feisty band of defensive backs named for its senior member, cornerback Dennis Thurman. Before the game Walls had explained how the gang had gotten into trouble the last time it played the Giants. Before that Oct. 6 meeting Thurman and safety Dextor Clinkscale had referred to the Giants as "fake" and Simms's ability as "myth." Simms had then thrown for 432 yards and three touchdowns on the Thieves before the Cowboys squeaked out a 30-29 win.
"All that stuff, hey, that was just us having fun," said Walls. "We kid each other most of the time. Like Dennis, he's even slower than me. We always say, 'How's that grand piano on your back, old man?' " The Thieves were ready this time with deeds rather than words; the eight Dallas defensive backs accounted for 38 tackles, five assists, six passes broken up, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
In the locker room a jubilant Thurman confronted Landry, asking him to put his right hand up. "Higher," said Thurman. He then slapped palms with the man who makes the faces on Mount Rushmore look animated. It was believed to be Landry's first high five ever.
Why did this win mean so much to Dallas? There were the obvious reasons. It gave the Cowboys a 10-5 record and their first NFC East Championship since 1981; though the Giants could still wind up with the same record as the Cowboys at season's end, tiebreakers would give the title to Dallas. Sunday's victory also proved wrong all the experts who picked the Cowboys to finish fourth in the division this year.
More than that, the Cowboys got to find out which one of their two selves would show up. Would it be the team that gave up 94 points in losses to the Bears and Bengals in games 11 and 14? Or would it be the team that beat the Eagles and Cardinals in games 12 and 13, playing its "best ball of the year," according to Schramm? Well, the good Cowboys showed up, showing plenty backbone along the way.
For the 9-6 Giants, who could meet the Cowboys again as a wild-card team, the loss was hard to take. Gone was the chance to win the team's first division title in 22 years. Back was the stress and unfulfilled promise of being a "rising" team. "I'm upset most that I missed a shot at history," said defensive end Leonard Marshall.
It was fitting, perhaps, that such a weighty game should come down to a basic gut-check for somebody like Pelluer. Untested and uncertain, he had to look his profession in the eye and become a hero.
"Steve knew every key, every formation," marveled White, who stayed on the sideline to wave in plays. "On that big pass to Karl Powe on the final drive he not only read blitz correctly, he read max blitz, which made the difference."
After the game Pelluer gazed about the crowded interview room, with its newspaper blowups of past Cowboy glories lining the walls. "I've never even been in this room," he said.
Get used to it, kid.