The Dallas Cowboys struggling to regain their mystique, were caught with 12 men on the field during a fourth-quarter Houston punt today and it cost them the game and their share of first place in the National Football Conference's East Division.
The error gave the ball to the Oilers at the Dallas 32-yard line with 7:43 to play and, on the next play, Dan Pastorini hit wide receiver Ken Burrough with a touchdown pass for the winning points in a frenetic 30-24 Houston victory at Texas Stadium.
" They (the Cowboys) may be 'America's Team,' but we're Texas' team," said Oiler Coach Bum Phillips. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."
The Cowboys have now lost three games in a row, the first time that has happened since 1974, and have fallen out of first place in the division for the first time this season. Dallas is now 8-5 and half a game behind Washington and Philadelphia, with 8-4 records.
The Redskins will play the New York Giants in the Meadowlands Sunday, while the Eagles are at Green Bay.
The victory moved the Oilers (10-3) half a game ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Central. The Steelers (9-3) will play the 8-4 Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh Sunday.
The Oilers used a perfect mixture of Earl Campbell runs and Pastorini bombs to earn the victory.
Campbell had the second-best rushing day in his career, gaining 195 yards on 33 carries. He also scored twice, on runs of 61 and 27 yards.
He ran for 19 yards in a game against the Miami Dolphins last year.
"It's not my job to keep up with statistics," Campbell said. "It's my job to get into the end zone. Statistics are something we look at on the plane."
Dallas Coach Tom Landry called the Cowboys' 12th-man goof "a critical error. We had 12 men on the field because there was confusion on whether it was a punt or field-goal call, and one of our field-goal people didn't get off the field."
Pressed as to the offender, Landry snapped, "You'll have to ask specialty coach Mike Ditka . . . he can tell you. . . I believe it was Dave Stalls that failed to come out.
"This was disappointing because this is one of the best games we've played."
On the play after the 12th-man call, Pastorini got Burrough isolated one on one with cornerback Benny Barnes and beat Barnes with a simple post pattern.
Burrough had injured his back in the first half and was not at full speed thereafter.
"I knew he was hurting," said Pastorini, "so I asked him if he could run. When he said yes, I called the play because I knew it would be there." "Dan asked me if I could go and I said throw it out there and I'll catch it," Burrough said. "I knew I had him beat as soon as I took off. This is the first time in three or four years I haven't been double-covered, and no cornerback can stop me on that pattern one-on-one."
Roger Staubach was uncanny in the first half, completing his first eight passes and going 14 of 17 for 208 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys, however, led by only four points, 21-17, at intermission.
Staubach hit Drew Pearson with a 56-yard touchdown pass on the fourth play of the game, but it took the Oilers only three plays to even things up. At third-and-one from their own 39, Pastorini ran a simple short-yardage play to Campbell of right tackle. But Campbell, who has a knack for turning simple plays into spectacular ones, did it again, exploding through the line for 61 yards and a score.
Campbell slid outside Morris Town's block on D. D. Lewis and then outran Cliff Harris and Barnes to the end zone.
The Cowboys sandwiched a 21-yard Staubach-to-robert Newhouse screen pass for a touchdown and a ane-yard Tony Dorsett touchdown and run around a 27-yard Toni Fritsch field goal to give them a 21-10 lead with five minutes left in the half.
Three minutes later, however, Campbell burst off left tackle behind a Leon Gray block and scooted in from 27 yards out. Fritsch's conversion cut the Dallas lead to 21-17 at halftime.
On the fifth play of the third quarter, the Oilers took the lead for the first time on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Pastorini to wide receiver Mike Renfro. It was probably the Oilers' most impressive play of the day.
They ran play-action right, faked a screen past to the left and then brought Renfro all the way across the field from right to left.
The fake screen drew in the Dallas secondary and Renfro slid in behind it.
He caught the ball at the 20 and then cut back over the middle and into the end zone. However, Fritsch's placement kick hit the upright and the score remained 23-21.
The Cowboys moved back ahead, 24-23, Rafael Septien's 44-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Even after Burrough's touchdown, the Cowboys had a chance to win when they moved to a first down at the Houston 20 with three minutes to play. But Dorsett got only one yard on first down and Staubach then threw three straight incompletions.
On third down, he barely overthrew Tony Hill in the end zone and, on fourth down he was pressured and threw a hurried pass badly toward Hill and out of bounds with 1:56 left.
The Oilers then ran out the clock.
"We're down at the very bottom right now," said Landry. "But we've still got a chance. We've got our three division opponents coming up. It's all up to us."