In the middle of the third quarter of the NFC championship game, the score was Dallas 0, Los Angeles 0, and it looked as though the winning coach would either be Jock Sutherland or Bernie Bierman, or whoever could first remember to put in the buck lateral series. But it was Tom Landry who once again brilliantly prevailed, his Cowboys blowing the Rams away 28-0 in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The Cowboys decided on Sunday to become the team they are supposed to be, the Super Bowl championship team they were a year ago, the only team from the NFC that could make it interesting against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII next week in Miami. Not that the Dallas offense was all that flashy; in fact, the Cowboys fumbled away one touchdown in the end zone, and Roger Staubach twice failed to hit wide-open receivers on plays that would have gone for touchdowns. It was the Dallas defense that humiliated the Rams, who now have been bounced from the playoffs six straight years.
That Tom Landry can outcoach the Rams' Ray Malavasi should be no surprise. As NFL head coaches, there is a bit of difference in their experience, like 18 seasons to one. But it had to be a little embarrassing for Malavasi when Dallas Safety Charlie Waters and his defensive teammates began to demonstrate that they knew the Ram plays better than the Rams did.
After a scoreless first half, in which the Cowboys managed to keep the game close by repeatedly missing scoring opportunities, two interceptions by Waters turned the afternoon around. Both were on Pat Haden passes intended for Tight End Terry Nelson. Waters picked them off so casually, it was almost as if Landry had called the plays.
On the first interception, which came early in the third quarter when Haden threw dangerously into the left flat on third and 10 from his 21, Waters cut in front of Nelson, caught the ball in stride on the 30 and took it down to the 10. Even then, it was a while before Dallas could score. Only an interference penalty kept the Cowboys alive, giving them a first down at the eight just when it appeared that Rafael Septien would have to try a 30-yard field goal.
Tony Dorsett cut in for the touchdown from the five behind Guard Tom Rafferty's block, and Dallas had a 7-0 lead. Dorsett stood up all the way, something he had failed to do on the spongy turf in the first quarter. On that occasion, Dorsett had skittered around left end from the Ram 16 and seemed certain of scoring until he slipped and went out of bounds at the three. On an artificial surface he would have gone all the way.
That run preceded Scott Laidlaw's fumble into the end zone, which ended up in the possession of the Rams' Jack Youngblood because a number of Cowboys—Laidlaw, Dorsett and Tackle Pat Donovan—kept bouncing on top of each other and sending the ball squirting loose like a wet bar of soap.
Waters intercepted his second pass near the end of the third quarter, before Haden left the game with a fractured thumb, courtesy of a meeting with Randy White's helmet, and it came on a second and 10 from the L.A. 44. Waters again stepped in front of Nelson, taking this one at the Ram 49, and he returned it 29 yards. Dallas went ahead 14-0 five plays later when Staubach flipped a four-yarder to Laidlaw.
While Haden's two passes to Waters may have looked the same, they weren't. And the Dallas defensive schemes were slightly different. On the first one, L.A. flopped its two wide receivers—Ron Jessie and Willie Miller—to the right side of the field, opposite Waters, with the intent of forcing him to cover Nelson one-on-one. "Other teams had tried that on us, so I expected the Rams would," Waters said. "When they do it, they usually throw to the tight end, so I was waiting."
The second interception was a result of pure Landry genius. The Cowboys faked a blitz and double-covered both wide receivers, hoping to entice Haden to dump the ball off to Nelson. "I was waiting," Waters said, "and Haden went for it."