What better scenario could an NFL purist hope for this Sunday at FedExField? The Redskins and Cowboys, the centerpiece of one of the fiercest rivalries in pro sports in recent decades, will meet in the season-finale with the game holding playoff implications for both teams.
In 1979, the 10-5 Redskins sat in a three-way tie with Dallas and Philadelphia for first place in the NFC East. Amazingly, the Redskins were still uncertain whether they would even be in the playoffs, while the Cowboys and Eagles were at least assured of wild card bids.
The good news was that Washington mostly controlled its own destiny. A win over Dallas sounded sweet: the Redskins’ first NFC East title since 1972 and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. A loss and they’d still be in the driver’s seat for a wild card spot; the 9-6 Bears, also pushing for a wild card berth, trailed Washington in net points by 33 – the next tiebreaker.
The intensity was swirling in Texas Stadium on game day, Dec. 16, 1979.
“Even though the game was not a playoff game, it certainly had the feel of a playoff game because everything was on the line for both teams,” said safety Mark Murphy, the Redskins’ leading tackler that season.
It was a seesaw battle. The Redskins built a 17-0 lead in the second quarter on kicker Mark Moseley’s field goal, plus quarterback Joe Theismann’s short touchdown run and his 55-yard scoring pass to halfback Benny Malone.
The Cowboys fought back to take a 21-17 lead in the third period. But Moseley kicked another field goal, and running back John Riggins scored on a one-yard run and a 66-yard dash around the right side.
With a 34-21 lead and eight minutes to play, it appeared that the Redskins were en route to a division title.
“I remember some of my teammates celebrating during the game and thinking to myself, `It’s too early to start celebrating,’ ” Murphy said.
He was right, for one could never dismiss the Cowboys as long as the master of miracle finishes, quarterback Roger Staubach, was in control. The future Hall of Famer completed three passes covering 59 yards, the finale a 26-yarder to tailback Ron Springs (the father of future Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs) that cut the lead to six.
After Dallas regained possession, Staubach picked apart the Redskins’ defense with completions of 20, 22 and 25 yards to put the ball on the 7. He then lobbed a perfect pass in the end zone to receiver Tony Hill, who beat cornerback Lemar Parrish. The conversion gave the Cowboys a 35-34 lead with 39 seconds left.
Washington moved the ball close to the Dallas 40. But time ran out before Moseley could try a field goal.
The Redskins exited the field with their heads down, incredulous about the cruel ending. But what about the wild card spot? Chicago, which averaged only 18 points per game entering the final week, beat St. Louis, 42-6, to outdistance the Redskins by four net points. Washington’s once-promising season was over.
Redskins coach Jack Pardee, near tears in his post-game press briefing, gave a spiritual explanation: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” To rub it in, Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin threw a funeral wreath into the Redskins’ locker room, an unprofessional act that he later apologized for.
“It was an almost unbelievable circumstance not to make it,” linebacker Neal Olkewicz said. “It was very disappointing.”
Don’t be surprised if the Redskins and Cowboys square off in another electrifying season-ending game on Sunday.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He was on the blue-ribbon panel that played a key role in selecting the 10 new names who are part of the Redskins’ 80 Greatest team unveiled this season, also known as the “10 for 80.” His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.