Cowboys’ quarterback Danny White walks off of the field at Texas Stadium on December 13, 1981 following Dallas’ clinching the NFC East title with a 21-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
This week’s “Random Game Sunday” contest looks back at a Week 15 showdown at Texas Stadium between division rivals Philadelphia and Dallas. After finishing second to the Eagles in the NFC East in 1980, the Cowboys looked to reestablish their dominance in the division in 1981.
The Cowboys entered the game with an 11-3 record and could win the division crown with a win in one of their final two games. Dallas desperately wanted to win the crown at home against bitter rival Philadelphia, a team the Cowboys had defeated on November 1, 1981 by a 17-14 score in a hard-fought battle at Veterans Stadium.
For the Eagles, things were heading south as they moved toward the end of the campaign. The defending NFC Champions started the season 9-2, but had lost three games in a row heading into their showdown with Dallas. The Eagles had an outside shot at winning the NFC East, and needed at least one win in their final two games to secure a playoff spot.
LATE SEASON SHOWDOWNS
The Cowboys were accustomed to coming up big in late season against long-time rivals with divisional titles or playoff spots on the line.
In 1973, Dallas dominated Washington 27-7 in Week 13 to position itself to win the NFC East the following week in St. Louis. Two years later with a NFC Wild Card playoff spot on the line, Dallas trounced the Redskins 31-10 and ended up not only in the playoffs but as the NFC Champion. In 1978, a Thanksgiving Day 37-10 rout of Washington and a 31-13 win at Philadelphia in Week 15 positioned were key in Dallas’ capturing the division title. And in December 1979, consecutive wins over the Giants, Eagles and Redskins (the latter coming in a thrilling 35-34 win at home) gave the Cowboys’ their fourth consecutive NFC East crown.
Dallas’ first two possessions of the game ended in disappointment, as Rafael Septien missed field goal tries of 47 and 43 yards. The misses were unusual for the reliable Septien, who made 27 of the 35 field goal attempts he tried in 1981. His 77.1 percentage success rate was the third highest mark of his career
Philadelphia got a 50 yard field goal from Toni Franklin to take a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, and used a beautiful 42 yard pass down the left sideline from Ron Jaworski to Ron Smith to set up a one yard touchdown run by fullback Booker Russell to put the visitors on top 10-0 with 10:08 left in the second quarter.
THE BIG BREAK
Facing a 4th and 1 at the Philadelphia 45 yard line with the score still 10-0 in favor of the visitors with 1:37 left in the half, Cowboys’ coach Tom Landry faced a dilemma. The Eagles’ defense had done a nice job holding the Dallas’ running game down in the half, and a failed attempt at picking up the first down would put the Eagles in position to expand their lead before halftime.
Landry decided to punt, and the decision worked out splendidly when the Eagles’ John Sciarra fumbled at the Dallas 20 with Anthony Dickerson of the Cowboys’ pouncing on the ball. Three plays later, Danny White and Tony Hill connected on a beautifully executed fade pattern to the right corner of the Eagles’ end zone and Dallas had cut the Eagles’ lead to 10-7.
The Eagles outplayed Dallas for most of the first half, but the tables would be turned in the final two quarters.
Dallas took the opening kick of the third quarter and drove 80 yards for the go-ahead score behind some key passes by White. The Cowboys’ quarterback first hit Hill for a 25 yard gain on a third and 15 play from their own 15 yard line to keep the drive alive. A 16 yard toss to Hill and a 18 yard connection with Jay Saldi, the latter made possible by great protection by the Cowboys’ offensive line, moved Dallas to the Eagles’ 36 yard line. Facing a third and ten situation from that spot, White and Butch Johnson split the safeties in the Eagles’ defense on a post pattern for a pretty touchdown pass that gave Dallas a 14-10 lead.
GETTING IT BACK
In 1981, the Cowboys’ defense surrendered fewer than 20 points in 11 of Dallas’ 16 regular season games. A big part of the Cowboys’ defensive success was due to its ability to create turnovers. Dallas’ dominating front line of Ed Jones, John Dutton, Hall of Famer Randy White and Harvey Martin did its part to put opposing quarterbacks in distress, and the Cowboys’ back seven often finished the deal as Dallas led the NFL with 37 interceptions.
In their battle with the Eagles, Dallas intercepted Jaworski four times. Three of those interceptions were by Dennis Thurman in an effort that tied a Cowboys’ club record (set in 1971 by Herb Adderly and equaled by Ring of Honor member Lee Roy Jordan in 1973).
Thurman’s first pick came in the second quarter on a tipped pass deep in Cowboys’ territory and prevented the Eagles from expanding their 10-0 lead. In the third quarter, Thurman played a long pass attempt to Ron Smith beautifully, beating the receiver to the spot to grab his second interception of the game. And in the final minutes of the game, the USC product benefited from tremendous pressure on Jaworski by Randy White to make an interception that all but sealed the win for Dallas.
Thurman would end the 1981 season with nine interceptions, the most in his nine year NFL career.
EARNING A CHAMPIONSHIP
Midway through the fourth quarter on a pass that was impacted greatly by a strong rush by White, Everson Walls made his 11th interception of the season to not only break a Cowboys’ team record but give Dallas the ball with a chance to put the game away.
The White-Johnson connection kept the team moving in the right direction, as a 47 yard completion moved Dallas into Eagles’ territory and sent the Texas Stadium crowd into a frenzy. From there, the Cowboys’ ground game took over the contest. Dallas was held to only 50 yards rushing in the first half, but nearly doubled that total in the game’s final two quarters.
Primarily using two tight end formations, Dallas ran to victory behind excellent execution against a game but tiring Eagles’ front seven. Ron Springs and Tony Dorsett each had eight yard gains to give the Cowboys a first down at the Eagles 22. A five yard run by Springs (44 yards rushing in the game, all in the second half) and a four yard pickup by Dorsett put Dallas in a third and one situation at the Philadelphia 13. White’s one yard gain on a sneak gave the Cowboys the first down, and then Springs ran for 12 yards and a touchdown behind a perfectly performed double team block by Dallas’ Tom Rafferty and Herbert Scott.
Later after Thurman’s third interception, Dallas ran out the final 4:11 of the contest by moving the ball on the ground. Dorsett would finish with 101 yards in the game, breaking the Cowboys’ all-time rushing record in the process.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE
Watching Dallas’ teams from the 1970s and early 1980s made it clear that the Cowboys’ front office did a great job infusing the team’s roster with talent.
In 1981 the Cowboys’ offense had a variety of ways, featuring a variety of individuals, to attack a defense. On the ground Dorsett, who gained a career high 1,646 yards on the year, was the bell cow but Springs, veteran Robert Newhouse and youngsters James Jones and Timmy Newsome also could make plays.
In the air, White had talented Hill and Drew Pearson as his starting wideouts with Johnson playing a key role as Dallas’ slot receiver. Speedy rookie Doug Donley was on the sidelines in case of injury to the team’s top three receivers, and Dallas’ deep tight end roster of Billy Joe DuPree, Jay Saldi and Doug Cosbie gave White more reliable targets to seek out in the passing game.
In the 21-10 win over the Eagles, White connected with eight different receivers as he completed 17 of 30 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.
The Eagles’ defense was the team’s strongest unit in the second half of the 1981 season, and that strength was evident (particularly in the first half) in the week 15 battle.
Defensive end Carl Hairston and nose tackle Charles Johnson caused problems for the Cowboys’ running game, and linebacker Jerry Robinson (seven tackles, three assists, one forced fumble) was all over the field making plays.
The Cowboys would start the 1981 playoffs at home with a 38-0 whitewashing of Tampa Bay. That win earned them a trip to San Francisco to face the upstart 49ers in the NFC Title game, a contest that would go down to the wire before the 49ers pulled out a 28-27 victory.
Philadelphia routed the St. Louis Cardinals 38-0 in the season’s final week to earn a playoff spot, but fell in bitter fashion at home to division rival New York 27-21 to end its reign as NFC title holder.