The Redskins came within 140 seconds today of reaching their impossible dream. Then the brilliance of Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach turned the afternoon into a 35-34 nightmare that will haunt them the rest of the winter.
"The Lord giveth and He can take it away in a hurry; that's the only way to understand what took place here," said Coach Jack Pardee, still stunned by a Cowboy comeback that erased a 13-point Redskin lead and knocked Washington out of the playoffs.
Until the final 140 seconds, the Redskins were on the verge of winning the NFC East title. Two Staubach touchdown passes, one with 2:20 to play, the last with 39 seconds left, brought the world crashing around their heads. It also allowed the Chicago Bears to gain a wild-card berth on the basis of a four-point edge in point differential.
Even a final desperate shot at pulling out this game ended in frustration and controversy. The Redskins, aided by an interference call at their 49 with nine seconds to go, got to the Dallas 42 on a nine-yard pass over the middle from Joe Theismann to Don Warren as the clock ticked down from five seconds.
Theismann tried to call time, Clarence Harmon called time and Warren tried to stop the clock but the officials ruled it was all over before Mark Mosley could try a 59-yard field goal.
According to league rules, only captains designated before the game can call timeouts. Theismann is one of the Redskin designated captains.
"I tried to call time as soon as I threw the ball," Theismann said. "I turned to him (referee Bob Frederic) and saw one second but he made his decision. He told me to get out of his face."
In what surely will be remembered as one of the greatest and most disappointing games in the history of the franchise, Redskin players didn't know who to be more upset with afterwards; the officials for not giving them that last second, the St. Louis Cardinals for losing, 42-6 to Chicago, or the Cowboys, especially defensive end Harvey Martin, who tossed a funeral wreath into their locker room moments after the final gun.
Many Redskins accused the Cardinals of putting forth a lackluster unprofessional effort. By winning so handily, the Bears captured the final NFC wild-card spot from Washington by virtue of four more net points in all games this season. The Redskins had taken a 33-point margin into this final day of the regular schedule.
"This was the most disappointing loss I've had as a player or a coach," Pardee said amid the silence of the Washington dressing room. "It hurts and it hurts deeply. To have the division title won with 40 seconds to go and then to be eliminated completely, well, it's tough."
"We thought we had the title," linebacker Neal Olkewicz said. "Then to have this happen. When we had the ball with a 34-21 lead, I thought we were in."
Washington did seem in charge, ready to finally put the Cowboys away after earlier blowing a 17-0 second-quarter lead. Now the Redskins had the ball on the Dallas 42, third down and four, with just minutes to go.
Clarence Harmon, the hero of so many victories this season, fumbled the ball going for the first down and Randy White recovered at the Cowboy 41 with 3:49 left. That began this Washington nightmare.
In those last ticks of the clock, everything the Redskins had done this day, from Theismann's 200-yards-gained passing to John Riggins' two touchdowns and 151 rushing yards (and a career best 66-yard scoring dash), was erased by one man: Roger Staubach, the master of pressure.
Staubach, who wouldn't let his team quit when it fell behind so quickly so early, picked apart the vaunted Redskins secondary as if it comprised a bunch of grade school beginners.
His final statistics were truly wondrous: 24 completions in 42 attempts for 336 yards and three touchdowns. But even those numbers don't capture his performance during that final 3:49.
Following Harmon's fumble, Staubach completed two straight passes of 14 and 19 yards, the last to Tony Hill, to move the ball to the Washington 26. Then Staubach found Ron Springs wide open down the middle. Springs, who had outrun Brad Dusek, lunged over from the three for the score, Rafael Septien kicked the extra point and Dallas was within 34-28 with 2:20 left.
Now Washinton had to get a first down. Danny Buggs dropped a screen pass and Riggins powered for eight. After the two-minute warning, Riggins tried the right side, where he had gone on that stunning 66-yards jaunt, but veteran Larry Cole sliced into the backfield and threw him for a two-yard loss, forcing a 44-yard Mike Bragg punt.
Dallas had the ball at its 25 with 1:46 left. Staubach found Hill, who had eight catches today, for 20 yards. After an incompletion, Staubach ducked a hard charge from tackle Perry Brooks, then connected with Preston Pearson for 22 more.
Staubach tried to go deep but he overthrew Hill in the end zone. So he went back to his clutch receiver, veteran running back Preston Pearson, who eluded rookie Monte Coleman and pulled down a 25-yard pass for a first down at the eight.
Ray Waddy, another rookie, broke up a first-down throw. Then the Redskins sent four blitzers at Staubach who read the defense and, instead of throwing to his tight end, as had had planned, went to Hill.
Hill was being covered tightly at the line of scrimmage by Lemar Parrish. "He knew I had to take away the inside first," Parrish said of Hill. "It was a great call by a great quarterback. There wasn't much I could do. The throw was perfect."
It was right on Hill's finger tips and ahead of the lunging Parrish. Hill pulled in the pass and the Cowboys went wild as Septien booted the extra point that gave Dallas a 35-34 margin with 39 seconds on the clock.
Preston Pearson had five receptions in all for 108 yards. He said that he felt he could beat Coleman any time he had to, and he proved it down the stretch.
The Redskins had 33 seconds to work with after Bobby Hammond returned the ensuing kickoff to the 27. Jeff Williams was called for holding on first down, pushing the ball back to the 17. Then, with Martin supplying heavy pressure, Theismann threw two incomplete passes.
On third down, Theismann eluded another strong rush, pulled up just before the line of scrimmage and passed toward Warren at midfield.
Rookie Aaron Mitchell, seeing that Warren was wide open, purposely ran into him, drawing a penalty for interference and giving Washington a first down at the 49 with nine seconds to go.
Theismann rolled to his right but overthrew a sideline pattern to John McDaniel, leaving five seconds. This time, Theismann faded back and found Warren over the middle for nine yards. Then all the Redskins on the field tried to get the clock stopped but the officials, after a huddle, said they had been too late.
"Joe said he had called time with one second on the clock," said Pardee, "but this game is a game of seconds, yards and plays. It's over and that's that."
Pardee was fighting to hold back years amid a dressing room full of tearful players. His team had come so far from training camp, when an 8-8 season seemed optimistic. Now he had watched his players battle the mighty Cowboys yard for yard, yet fall short at the end.
Things had been so much brighter in those opening minutes of the game, when fumbles by Springs and Robert Newhouse had led to a 24-yard Moseley field goal and a one-yard Theismann run. Toss in a 55-yard touchdown pass from Theismann to Benny Malone, who ran the last 45 yards, and the Redskins had a 17-0 lead with 13:07 left in the half.
But there was Staubach, driving his Cowboys 70 yards for a one-yard Springs scoring run and then maneuvering them 85 yards in the final 1:48 of the half for another touchdown, this one on a diving 26-yard catch by Preston Pearson beyond the coverage of Mark Murphy.
When Newhouse romped over from the two on the Cowboys first possession of the third quarter, they appeared on their way to expanding their 21-17 lead into much, much more.
But the Redskins refused to die in the face of a fired-up Dallas defense and a screaming sellout crowd. Theismann methodically guided them behind four pass completions and four Riggins runs totaling 22 yards to the Cowboy seven.
On third and inches Joe Walton, the offensive coordinator called a surprise play. Theismann faked to Ike Forte, then stepped back and lofted a lob pass to Harmon, who had beaten Cliff Harris in the end zone.
The ball took forever to come down. When it did, it was just beyond Harmon's reach. Moseley then came on for 24-yard field goal to pull Washington to within 21-20.
"We knew we were going to need a lot of points," Pardee said about that field goal.
"We wanted to make sure we got some at that point."
Soon the Redskins had seven more points. Staubach, on a rare bad pass, tried to connect with tight end Jay Saldi over the middle. But the pass instead went into Murphy's chest and he returned the interception to the Cowboy 25.
A first-down pass moved the ball to the one when Harris interfered with Ricky Thompson in the end zone. On the next play, Riggins eased in for a 27-21 lead with 10:13 remaining.
Momentum suddenly had swung over to the Redskins. Defensive end Karl Lorch sacked Staubach on the next series, forcing a punt, and Washington took over at its 31 with 7:52 on the clock.
On second down, Riggins began what appeared to be a botched draw play. But when he saw the middle clogged, he cut to the right behind blocks from Ron Saul and George Starke. Jeff Williams mowed down end John Dutton and Riggins was left facing linebacker Mike Hegman and Harris.
Hegman got caught too far inside and Harris tried to push Riggins instead of tackling him. Riggins kept his balance and sprinted down the right sideline with only safety Dennis Thurman to beat.
Riggins, the former high school sprinter, was winning the foot race when Thurman dove at the seven. He caught the Redskin fullback's heels but Riggins stumbled only slightly before stepping into the end zone to complete his electrifying 66-yard run.
Moseley's extra point gave his team a 34-21 lead. As the Redskins hugged on the sidelines, the Dallas faithful started filing out of Texas Stadium in droves.
Their decision to leave seemed justified when Staubach was sacked by Joe Jones and Dallas again had to punt. Washington had the ball with 5:21 to go on to the Cowboy 48. Riggins fumbled on first down but Saul recovered. Then Harmon lost possession and Staubach was given new life to kill the Redskin dream.
"Give them credit, they pulled it out," Saul said, "But I don't think they were America's Team today. We were just as good. We were better. Too bad the scoreboard says otherwise."