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Here is Clint Longley, 22 years old, bold and scattered-looking in a boyish way, the nice kid from the next ranch down the road who has a peculiar twist for catching rattlesnakes and blasting away at stumps and bushes with his two six-guns. Clint is standing on the sideline at Texas Stadium, noting on a clipboard the play that the third-place Dallas Cowboys have just run in the third quarter this Thanksgiving Day afternoon against the second-place Washington Redskins. All of a sudden he hears a voice: " Longley, get your helmet."
For a moment Longley can't find his helmet. He hadn't figured he would need it. He is a rookie quarterback who would have been playing for Abilene Christian College instead of Dallas this fall if he hadn't decided to go ahead and graduate last summer. Longley looks up and sees Roger Staubach, the No. 1 quarterback, ambling off the field with glass eyeballs and a stoned frown. Staubach has been knocked goofy by a Redskin linebacker; he can walk, but he doesn't know where he is. Someone says to Longley, "Get 'em, Bomber."
A few weeks ago Craig Morton would have gone in to replace Staubach. But Morton told the Cowboys he was tired of playing behind Staubach and refused to report for work one day and eventually was traded to the New York Giants. So there is no quarterback left for Dallas but Longley, who got the nickname Mad Bomber in training camp when he threw a pass that clanged off an upper rung of Tom Landry's coaching tower.
This is exactly the situation the Redskins have been asking for. The Cowboys, struggling with bad luck much of the season, are all but out of the playoffs for the first time since 1966. What the Redskins need to do to clinch a playoff spot is hold on to a 16-3 lead; Dallas would be finished and the Redskins would be all but certain of being the NFC's wild-card selection. Washington Defensive Tackle Diron Talbert said earlier that he hoped Staubach would try to run with the ball so the Redskins could put him to sleep and then have fun with the rookie, who never had been in a regular-season league game.
The Mad Bomber comes in. Staubach slumps on the bench with a towel around his neck and a popper at his nose, wondering where everybody went. The Dallas offensive line is very solicitous of Longley, swearing to protect him and offering advice on how to call formations. Fullback Walt Garrison starts to repeat a play he has brought in from Landry. Halfway through this lengthy recitation, Longley says, "Save your breath, I know the play."
Sixty-three thousand people in the semiroofed stadium and millions on national TV are watching. Upstairs, Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm has been talking about his team being in transition, the older players fading a bit, the younger ones moving up (more than half of the Cowboys have been in the league three years or less). "We're the team of tomorrow," Schramm says. Then he sees Staubach flattened. Schramm's face swells up as he forgets to exhale. "We'll have to be the team of tomorrow today," he says.
In less than nine minutes the Mad Bomber takes Dallas to two touchdowns, one of them a 35-yard pass to Billy Joe DuPree. The Cowboys are ahead, 17-16, as the fourth quarter begins. The stadium is rocking with emotion. Even the people in the private boxes are screaming, with cocktails and turkey sandwiches in their hands. As Morton came along to win crowd support away from Don Meredith, and as Staubach did the same thing to Morton, now it is Longley who is the darling. And the Cowboys have been tough, though cursed, in the fourth quarter all year. Up to this game, Dallas has outscored opponents 82-19 in the fourth quarter, but nine of the opposing points were late field goals that cost them three games.
The Redskins get the football and bust in for another touchdown and a 23-17 lead. And then they recover a Dallas fumble and have a mere 24-yard field goal to put the game away for good. One of the Cowboys' troubles this year has been the failure to make big plays—interceptions, fumble recoveries, breakaways. But Defensive End Ed (Too Tall) Jones, another rookie, now makes a very big play, stomping over Washington blockers to bat away the field-goal try. With five minutes to go, Dallas has the ball again. Center John Fitzgerald greets Longley in the huddle by saying, "Stay cool, Bomber, don't get rattled. We'll take it on in."
"We don't want to score yet," replies Longley. "There's too much time left."
Longley throws a pass to Drew Pearson, who fumbles to the Redskins. Eleven days earlier, when Washington beat Dallas 28-21, Pearson, the leading receiver in the NFC, watched with dismay as a fourth-down pass bounced off his arms in the end zone at the end of the game. Now this fumble depresses him immensely. "Don't get down," Bob Hayes tells him. "We're still in it."