It was an unusually warm and muggy day for football last Sunday in Bloomington, Minn., and that could have had something to do with the fact that it took almost three hours for the Dallas Cowboys and the Vikings to generate any excitement in what was expected to be the most thrilling of the NFL's opening games. Oh, now and then there were those familiar footraces between Quarterbacks Roger Staubach or Fran Tarkenton and the defensive behemoths who like to chase them, trying to force them to throw the ball to an usher or a saxophone player.
Most of the time, though, it was hard to believe that it was football season in Metropolitan Stadium. Bud Grant wasn't wearing his parka, Drew Pearson wasn't using hand warmers, Chuck Foreman didn't need his ice skates and there were no toboggan races at halftime.
As the sun set, the contest finally ended in what can legitimately be described as a "thrilling overtime victory" for the Cowboys by the score of 16-10, but it is just possible that the biggest victory any Cowboy player scored was Preston Pearson's unanimous decision over Tony Dorsett in their battle for a starting halfback job.
Pearson, the 11-year veteran whom the Pittsburgh Steelers discarded as washed up two years ago, carried 15 times for a team-high 63 yards and caught five passes, including a spectacular grab of a Staubach pass for a touchdown, for 53 more, giving him a total of 116 yards. Dorsett, the millionaire rookie with the Heisman Trophy, was used for only a handful of plays by Coach Tom Landry; he carried just four times, gained 11 yards, and his fumble aborted a Dallas drive at the Minnesota 15-yard line.
The real difference in the ball game after it went into sudden death was, of all things, a shanked punt. By that time, the younger defense of the Cowboys was obviously stronger than that of the Vikings, particularly Minnesota's front four, which is beginning to rival the Supreme Court in age.
The score was 10-10 at the end of regulation play, after which the Vikings won the coin flip and Cleo Miller returned the kickoff to the Minnesota 30. Foreman and Sammy Johnson advanced the ball to the 45, but then the Cowboys harassed Tarkenton with a couple of their most furious pass rushes. On the first, Tarkenton needed all the dozen eyes in his helmet to locate all the Harvey Martins bearing down on him, and for the second time during the afternoon he dumped the ball off to a patch of grass just outside the infield. Fifteen yards for intentional grounding. Next, Tarkenton got buried by an assault led by Larry Cole, and he lost nine more yards back to his own 21. Total loss for the two plays: 24 yards.
All of this set up the shanked punt of 26 yards by Neil Clabo, which gave Dallas the ball at Minnesota's 47. For much of the day the Cowboys had enjoyed better field position than the Vikings, but they had managed to do very little with it. Their offensive line, operating without Tackle Rayfield Wright and Guard Blaine Nye for the first time since Preston Pearson was a basketball player, or so it seemed, rarely moved Minnesota more than one or two inches at a time. Even on those few occasions when Dorsett had come onto the field, nothing happened. But now it was getting late, and Staubach decided to win it in one of the old reliable Dallas ways.
This was Minnesota, wasn't it? Where was Drew Pearson? Oh, there he was, not making one of those miracle grabs as he had done against the Vikings in the playoff game two years ago, just pulling in a 17-yard beauty over the middle while a couple of purple-shirted Vikings were making a sandwich out of him. And there he was again, taking another pass at the right sideline for four more yards. Roger then hit Golden Richards with a screen pass that gained 11 yards, Robert Newhouse ran for six and Dallas suddenly was at the Minnesota nine, close enough for Efren Herrera to kick a field goal and redeem himself for the one he had missed from 27 yards out with six seconds to play in regulation—the first time in his three years with Dallas that Herrera had ever blown a three-pointer inside the 30. Ever.
"I thought the Vikings seemed worn down," Staubach said later. "We had the momentum. We called time out to discuss kicking a field goal right then, but we decided to run it at 'em a couple more times."
Preston Pearson did that, gaining five yards, and now the Cowboys had a first down at the four. Considering that Dallas, in keeping with its spotty performance throughout the game, certainly seemed capable of fumbling or incurring a penalty, it is a wonder that Herrera was not immediately dispatched to boot it over from there. But the Cowboys' brain trust decided to risk at least one more play—a run-pass option. Staubach rolled out to the left and there was enough room there to sail a destroyer through, so he took it in for the winning touchdown.