It's too bad, really, that Tom Landry isn't in Bum Phillips' league with the one-liners. If that had been Ol' Bummer whose team had trounced the Los Angeles Rams 34-13 last Sunday after getting beat up by the same Rams 38-14 just two weeks before, he'd have spit out enough They-Said-Its to last us for all of 1981. But the best Taciturn Tom could do after watching his Dallas Cowboys shock the Rams in the NFC wild-card game was this: "Do you remember the Alamo?"
Actually, what Landry and all the Cowboys remembered all too well was not the Alamo but Anaheim, which is where the Rams had annihilated them on national television on Monday night, Dec. 15. The Rams were so potent, and the Cowboys so impotent, that Dandy Don could have done his "Turn out the lights" number a few moments after the opening kickoff. As one L.A. newspaper assessed the Cowboys, "If this is America's team, America should bow its head in shame."
Lest they forget Anaheim, Landry made certain that that zinger, as well as many other snide Southern California comments about the Cowboys, found a prominent place on the players' bulletin board at the Dallas training complex. And then Landry went to work.
He had spent the entire seven weeks of summer camp dealing exclusively with the Cowboys' Flex defense, which had broken down all too often in 1979, culminating in a total collapse in the 21-19 playoff loss to the Rams, but once the regular season began he resumed his role as overseer of all units. Then, late in the 1980 schedule, the Flex became un-flexed again. The New York Giants, of all teams, put 38 points on the board against the Cowboys in an upset victory. The Rams riddled them for 517 yards of total offense and scored those 38 points before the third quarter was out. Then the Philadelphia Eagles scored 27 second-half points against the Cowboys to secure the NFC East championship, thus forcing Dallas to play the wild-card game.
So last week Landry again devoted all his time to the defense. And as Safety Charlie Waters said, "When the man is right there with you, critiquing you and quizzing you, you start to do it right." And when the doors were closed, Landry installed a defensive wrinkle that he hoped would prevent L.A. Quarterback Vince Ferragamo from setting up light housekeeping in the pocket, which he had done in Anaheim. Still, Landry wore a worried face to Sunday's game. "I haven't got the slightest idea what's going to happen," he said. "With this Cowboy team you never know."
In the great Anaheim debacle, the Cowboys trailed 38-0 before they got two meaningless touchdowns against the Ram reserves. But they scored first Sunday at Texas Stadium, Rafael Septien kicking a 28-yard field goal. The Rams responded immediately with a 73-yard touchdown drive for a 6-3 lead. The Cowboys promptly countered with a Septien field goal of 29 yards.
On the following series, Ferragamo lobbed a 21-yard TD pass to Preston Dennard to put the Rams back in front 13-6, and Madame Ram, Georgia Rosenbloom Frontiere, was probably checking the flights to New Orleans for Super Bowl XV. That Ferragamo-to-Dennard TD play had looked like any one of a dozen Ram highlights from the game in Anaheim. Dennard broke down the left sideline, Cowboy Cornerback Aaron Mitchell slipped, and L.A. had six points. Six easy points. Here we go again. But they would be the last points for L.A. this season.
In fact, Ferragamo had been fortunate to get that pass away. The game in Anaheim had been a piece of cake for Ferragamo, but now the Cowboys suddenly were pressuring him, harassing him, getting his uniform dirty, forcing him to hurry his passes, to throw them to invisible receivers, to throw them into the hands of Cowboys. Landry's wrinkle was working.
Most NFL teams remove a defensive lineman and insert a fifth defensive back, the nickel, on obvious passing downs; the Rams often use as many as six defensive backs in such situations. But one extra defensive back means one less rusher, of course, and Landry couldn't see giving Ferragamo all the passing time he had enjoyed in Anaheim.
Landry's wrinkle was simple: rather than a nickel back, the Cowboys used a nickel defensive lineman on most passing downs. They had five players rushing Ferragamo, not just three. Waters came out of the game, and 6'5", 254-pound Larry Bethea joined Bruce Thornton (replacing the sore-toed Too Tall Jones), Larry Cole, Randy White and Harvey Martin on the line. "The whole idea," Landry said, "was to free White from the double-team blocking he always gets on passing downs. If we could get only one man on White, we knew we could put more pressure on Ferragamo."