Roger Staubach never once came under enemy fire during 12 months as a beachmaster in pre-Tet Chu Lai. Then he spent 11 years in the crosshairs as quarterback of America’s Team, scrambling under a steady barrage of the NFL’s orneriest ordnance. It was no day at the beach, but the Navy man wasn’t one to complain – even after 17 shoulder separations and 20 confirmed concussions.
The 1979 season had been particularly savage, with Staubach sustaining five concussions behind Dallas’ often-porous protection schemes. His reflexes were slowing, dulled by age and battering, and he had the neurological test results to confirm it. At 37, Staubach was still cool under fire, but he was no longer invincible, no longer the dodging and darting Captain Comeback who dared defenders to block his path.
A Week 12 showdown at Washington was among his darkest days, with Staubach sacked five times and knocked out in a 34-20 loss, Dallas’ second straight defeat. In victory, the Redskins forged a three-way first-place tie with Dallas and Philadelphia, a logjam they cited as cause for Mark Mosley’s field goal attempt with 14 seconds remaining. As he almost always did, Mosley split the uprights, extending Washington’s 11-point lead to 14.
Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin was outraged. “They were wiping their win in our faces,” he told Steve Pate of the Dallas News. “That’s fine. Let them feel real good for about three weeks. I hope they win their next three games. That’ll bring it down to the last week of the season when they play us.”
Week 16 – December 16, 1979 – Washington at Dallas
Martin’s wish was granted. When the Redskins came to Dallas four weeks later, an entire season hung in the balance. The winner would earn a playoff spot as NFC East champions. The loser’s only consolation would be a soft seat on the couch to watch what could have been.
It was professional football’s most bitter rivalry and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Bad blood had simmered for a month. It reached a boil before the game, when a funeral wreath was delivered to Martin and the Cowboys locker room. The inscription read, “From the Redskins.”
It was highly insulting, but seemingly appropriate by the second quarter, with Washington holding a 17-0 lead. Dallas had already fumbled twice and Staubach had misfired on six of his first nine passes, managing only a meager 45 yards on three completions. The Redskins were primed for a rout.
But with 4:41 remaining in the half, Dallas stemmed the tide with a touchdown run from Ron Springs. Then the creaky Captain Comeback came to life. His Cowboys stormed down the field in the two-minute drill, capped by Staubach slinging a 26-yard touchdown pass to a diving Preston Pearson with nine seconds left. Plucked off the college hardwood years before, Pearson was momentarily stunned by his crash-landing, but he and the Cowboys soon bounded into the locker room with new life.
Hot coffee was flowing at halftime as the temperature dipped toward freezing at Texas Stadium. Dallas head coach Tom Landry, who began the game in a suit jacket, emerged from the locker room steely-eyed and dressed for the chill in a dark gray overcoat and his trademark fedora, donned at his wife’s recommendation because a Stetson was too trite. Steam clung to Landry’s commands as he shouted over the frenzy.
Dallas soon responded, grabbing its first lead midway through the third quarter, but surrendering it again after John Riggins barged into the end zone from one yard out to give Washington a 27-21 fourth-quarter advantage. The Cowboys offense sputtered and soon Riggins was at it again, turning a simple draw play into a 66-yard touchdown run down the right sideline. It was quintessential Riggins, a brilliant combination of power and speed as he broke a tackle and outraced Cowboys defensive back Dennis Thurman to the end zone.
When all Dallas could muster was a punt with six minutes left, the Redskins looked like sure champions. Leading by 13, they took over on the Cowboys 47, but on the their third play from scrimmage, running back Clarence Harmon fumbled and Randy White recovered, giving the Cowboys one last chance. It was one mistake too many for the Redskins. Staubach needed just three plays, three rifled throws, to pull Dallas within one score.
Still the Cowboys needed a stop, and with the crowd chanting for DEE-FENSE, Larry Cole gave it to them, knifing through to drop Riggins for a loss on third-and-2 with two minutes left. After a Redskins punt, Dallas took over on its 25 with 1:46 left. Staubach jogged onto the field with the weight of Texas on his shoulders.
Thirteen times in his storied career, Staubach had brought the Cowboys from behind to win in the game’s final two minutes. His bid for 14 began in a deep shotgun crouch, hands on his knees, with an empty backfield. Tony Hill hauled in Staubach’s first throw, gaining a quick 20 yards. After an incompletion, Dallas faced second-and-10 from their 45 with barely more than a minute left. Staubach was still in the shotgun, and as he took the snap, Washington defensive tackle Perry Brooks burst through the line and charged the aging gunslinger, lining him up for the knockout. Brooks went high and Staubach ducked low, slipping through his grasp and deftly stepping to the left without losing his downfield focus. Then he quickly re-set his feet and zipped a completion to Pearson — Preston, not Drew — who ran a brilliant route and came to a stop on Washington’s 33. It was vintage Staubach.
But the comeback wasn’t complete. Dallas used two plays to reach the Washington 8, and with :42 left, Staubach worked a final bit of magic. Hot Left 17 was the call, a play designed for the tight end, but Staubach sensed a blitz and guessed Hill might be a better option split wide right. The third-year man from Stanford faked inside while his veteran quarterback took one step and lofted a pass to the outside. Lemar Parrish couldn’t quite close the gap and Hill hauled in another Cowboys miracle. Rafael Septien added the extra point to make it 35-34, ending Washington’s season and giving Dallas the NFC East crown.
Redskins head coach Jack Pardee was stunned by the turnabout. “There we were, divisional champions with 40 seconds to play, then nothing,” he told Randy Galloway of the Dallas News.
Martin, gleaming in victory, turned commando after the game, appearing with wreath in tow outside the Washington locker room. “See this? They sent it to me this week,” he told a mob of reporters. Then Martin pried the Redskins’ door and flung the wreath into the midst of Pardee’s post-game eulogy.
“They might as well take it home with them,” Martin told a reporter from UPI. “They are the ones that need it. They are dead.”
The Cowboys basked in the glory of their dramatic Week 16 victory, but there would be no encore in the playoffs. They fell to the Super Bowl-bound Los Angeles Rams two weeks later, ending their season, and three months after that, Staubach announced his retirement from professional football at what was then the largest news conference in Dallas history.
His final regular season game, however, had been one for the ages. The 336 passing yards were just three yards short of his single-game career high, the three touchdowns just one short, and of course, sending Washington home made it all the sweeter.
Landry called it the best game Staubach ever played in a Dallas uniform.
– Jayson Hron