Tom Landry had a knack for finding himself in some of the most memorable games in NFL history. The Ice Bowl. Super Bowls 10 and 13. He even was an assistant with the Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL Championship. The most controversial, however, was the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff. The reigning NFC champion Minnesota Vikings hosted wildcard contender Dallas in a game made famous by a 50-yard touchdown that Viking fans still protest. But the game was more than just one play. It was an exceptionally entertaining contest from start to finish.
I will break up my review of this game in two posts, one for each half. The writing will be in present tense to provide a sense of how the game unfolded.
The Cowboys find success running the ball on the opening drive. The drive, however, stalls at midfield and the Vikings start at their own 20 after a touchback.
The Vikings come out throwing, and Fran Tarkenton looks deep on the first play. Dallas safety Charlie Waters maintains good coverage despite Fran’s pump fake, and the ball falls incomplete. On third down, Fran gets flushed out of the pocket by Jethro Pugh and overthrows John Gilliam. A three-and-out for the Vikings.
The first potential break of the game comes when Alan Page forces Cowboy running back Robert Newhouse to fumble. Page clamors for the ball bouncing toward the Cowboys goal line with a sea of purple shirts giving chase. Jim Marshall swats at the ball and misses. Jeff Siemon has a chance to recover but muffs it. Bobby Bryant and Wally Hilgenberg both have chances but can’t cash in. Blaine Nye of the Cowboys ends up snatching the ball, swerving around potential disaster for Dallas.
Dallas also gets an opportunity for an early turnover when Tarkenton throws to tight end Stu Voigt. Voigt collides with Cowboy safety Cliff Harris, and Harris can’t hang on to an interception at the Vikings 30. Tarkenton then scrambles for 16 yards and a first down.
The first quarter comes to a scoreless close. Both defenses look remarkable. Page seems to line up in the Cowboys backfield, and Carl Eller records a sack for the Vikings. Lee Roy Jordan plugs up the Minnesota running game for the Cowboys.
Part of Minnesota’s game plan appears to focus on throwing deep to John Gilliam when Dallas cornerback Mark Washington is in man coverage. The Steelers will do similar with Lynn Swann in the upcoming Super Bowl. Tarkenton goes for the money on the first play of the second quarter. Washington knocks the ball away from Gilliam at the Dallas 20, preventing a probable touchdown. The Cowboys force a hurried throw on the next play. The Vikings line up in punt formation.
Here’s where things get real interesting. Cliff Harris fields the punt, but his back heel is out of bounds at the Cowboy 10. The Vikings, however, get flagged for center Mick Tingelhoff being downfield. Dallas accepts the penalty, figuring they’ll get better field postion on the re-kick. Their assumptions are wrong.
Harris signals for a fair catch, and Vikings rookie Autry Beamon plows into him before the ball arrives. The ball maybe hits Harris, and also maybe hits Cowboy Benny Barnes. There’s a lot of confusion as the ball bounces around, and Dallas rookie Pat Donovan grabs for it. He clearly touches it, and Fred McNeill recovers for Minnesota on the Dallas 4.
While watching this play, I thought the rules must have been different in 1975 and maybe one didn’t have to leave space for the return man to catch the ball. Announcer Gary Bender, however, later mentions the network getting calls asking why there wasn’t an interference penalty. Commentator Johnny Unitas says something akin to, “Sometimes things get missed.” Ironically, Harris signaled for the fair catch on the exact patch of field that Drew Pearson is about to stir eternal controversy.
Chuck Foreman takes it in for the Vikings on third down, and they take a 7-0 lead.
Doug Sutherland continues to pressure Staubach up the middle, forcing him to roll out. Eller records his third sack of the day as Roger keeps running his way. Still, the Cowboys drive to the Minnesota 30 before Toni Fritsch misses a field goal.
Dallas then gets its first real break: Mel Renfro picks off Tarkenton at the Minnesota 49. Eller stuffs Newhouse. Doug Dennison ends up getting stuffed by Alan Page on third and one.
Dallas goes for it on fourth down. Dennison bounces of Wally Hilgenberg on the line, then Hilgenberg tackles him outside for a loss. An outstanding play, although the Vikings can't capitalize on their possession and punt again.
Dallas continues to have some success on offense. Minnesota starts to bend, but they don't break. The Purple People Eaters pass rush keeps bringing the pressure and they ultimately either sack Staubach or force hasty throws out of bounds. Dallas might pick up a few first downs, but they soon wind up in third-and-long situations.
The first half ends with the Vikings leading 7-0.
Minus Minnesota's three-play, four-yard drive, neither offense has scored. I think that's a testament to both defenses. The defensive lines are dominating.
The entire front 7 for Minnesota is making plays. Their secondary, led by Paul Krause, is covering Dallas receivers well enough when Staubach extends plays scrambling. Unitas notes that Minnesota receivers run back to help Tarkenton when he scrambles, but the Cowboy receivers don't turn to help Roger.
Dallas seems to be able to run the ball at times, but they keep meeting resistance on the pass. Lee Roy Jordan leads the Dallas defense and is having an outstanding game.