Across the 50 states, last Saturday will live as the day America's Team was exposed for what it had become, a creaking battleship that had seen its best days, its engines straining, the rifling in its gun barrels worn out. On a chill, overcast afternoon at RFK Stadium, the Washington Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game—roundly, soundly, as if they were Anybody's Old Team. The Republic may never be the same. But who could blame the fans in Washington, D.C. for treating the Redskins' 31-17 victory as reason for a capital celebration? It had been 10 years since the Skins had made it to the Super Bowl, and no win could be sweeter than one over the toplofty Cowboys.
Washington Defensive End Dexter Manley had predicted the outcome, but no one could have foreseen that Manley himself would have such a big hand in it. Manley, the Redskins' speaker of the house on this day, was still in football gear a full 90 minutes after the game ended. "Can I rest awhile?" he asked with a weary bow of his head. He was speaking into microphones, not to his coaches, and what the questioners wanted to hear, again and again, was how Manley had been able to predict the victory and then ensure it by knocking one Cowboy quarterback, Danny White, out of the game and ruining another's—reserve Gary Hogeboom's—visions of grandeur.
Once more, Dexter. With feeling.
"Well, it was a very emotional game for Dexter Manley," said the grinning 6'3", 250-pound second-year player from Houston by way of an outside linebacking position at Oklahoma State. "I felt someone had to make the big play." He fingered an old scar on his jaw (even it was shaped like a smile) and hissed in pain as a trainer cut tape off his left knee, which he had injured the week before against Minnesota.
"I was honestly getting mad because Dallas was moving the football," continued Manley, who had filled the air with I-hate-Dallas rhetoric all week. "My teammates had to calm me down on the sidelines. Somebody had to take charge, so I did. Broadway Joe said he'd do it and he did. Now I said it and I did it. That's all."
Manley did it to Dallas, but the Cowboys helped. Dallas' offense, under both quarterbacks, was more threatening than Washington's. The Cowboys didn't punt once after halftime. And in that second half Dallas' defense held Joe Theismann's offense to 104 yards. But the Cowboys were betrayed by their special teams, turnovers (three) and a curious new trait: Simply stated, Cowboy Cool curdled. The team got rattled.
Rookie Rod Hill muffed a punt, leading to a second-quarter Washington touchdown and a 14-3 lead. After the Cowboys closed to 14-10, Mike Nelms ran the ensuing kickoff back 76 yards to set up the Skins' third TD. Dallas still trailed by only four points, 21-17, in the final period, when Redskin Linebacker Mel Kaufman intercepted a Hogeboom (pronounced HOAG-ih-boom) pass. That was converted into a 29-yard Mark Moseley field goal. Finally, Manley and Defensive Tackle Darryl Grant turned another Hogeboom pass into the Redskins' clinching touchdown.
The Cowboys dropped passes, slipped on pass coverage, tackled politely and made themselves generally available. The Redskins stuck anything mobile and committed no turnovers. "The breaks were ours," said Manley. "We were lucky and good."
The Cowboys came out firing. White completed four passes in a picture-book 14-play drive, halted only when his pass to Drew Pearson on a slant-in pattern in the end zone was knocked away from behind by Cornerback Vernon Dean. The Cowboys settled for three. Then the Redskins, behind Fullback John Riggins, set up shop.
Washington's offensive line—the so-called Hogs, who tolerate no slop—had worked on a new blocking scheme for the Cowboys that involved double-teaming the defensive tackles, notably Randy White, and forcing Middle Linebacker Bob Breunig to bear the brunt of Riggins' tilting rushes. Sometimes the double team was accomplished with an old Cowboy ploy—putting the tight end in motion and having him cut into the line in front of the ballcarrier. Riggins thudded for 43 yards on just five carries in the first quarter, setting up Theismann for a 19-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Brown, who beat Cornerback Dennis Thurman to the post with 1:55 left. Riggins, who finished with 140 yards on 36 carries, scored himself on a one-yard run in the second after Hill's muff of a towering Jeff Hayes punt gave the Skins the ball at the Dallas 11.