I earlier covered the first half of the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff, a.k.a. the “Hail Mary Game.” This post covers the second half. I’ll write in present tense to give a sense of the game unfolding.
Both defenses dominated the first half, ending 7-0 in Minnesota’s favor. The second half starts with Fran Tarkenton hitting running back Ed Marinaro for 40 yards, to the Dallas 35.
This, however, isn’t Fran’s best game. He overthrows an open John Gilliam as the drive stalls. Fred Cox misses a 45-yard field goal by the size of the Gulf of Mexico — short, and very wide right.
The Vikings topped every defensive category in 1975, holding 4 opponents to under 200 yards. Lucky bounces can crack such a defense. The Cowboys get one as Doug Sutherland hits Roger Staubach mid-throw. Carl Eller tips the pass, but the Cowboys make the catch at midfield. A late hit from Wally Hilgenberg adds 15 yards. Billy Joe DuPree collects an 18-yard pass on the next play. Doug Dennison rushes to the Minnesota 8, and scores two plays later. The 9 play, 72-yard drive ties the game at 7.
Mel Renfro and rookie Randy White make outstanding plays on the ensuing drive. Minnesota’s punt gives Dallas good field position at the Cowboy 46.
A play-action pass puts Dallas at the Viking 41. The Cowboys run their first razzle dazzle play, a reverse, to gain about 5. After a Staubach scramble, Dallas is left with 4th and inches.
Dennison picks up the first down. Robert Newhouse then grabs a pass at the Minnesota 17. The Cowboys appear to have a prepared play for a touchdown pass in the corner, but Fred McNeill’s pressure pushes Staubach outside. Staubach throws the ball away. On the next play, Preston Pearson makes a fine, leaping catch on the Minnesota 7. Dallas is left with another 4th and inches as the third quarter expires.
Tom Landry opts for the field goal. Toni Fritsch nails it; the Cowboys lead 10-7.
At this point, it appears the Cowboys are chipping away at the Vikings defense, although Minnesota’s pass rush still causes problems. Dallas’ defense continues to stymie Minnesota. Tarkenton is the Vikings’ rushing leader with 32 yards. Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Harvey Martin and the rest of the Cowboy line force hurries, and Fran overthrows open receivers.
Minnesota punts after a penalty negates a first down. Golden Richards fields it with room to run. Teammate Cliff Harris inadvertently backs into him, stopping the return. A shaken-up Richards misses a couple of plays.
On third down, Staubach throws a bomb to Richards, wide open. Richards drops it, the ball bouncing off his shoulder pad. The Cowboys lose a probable touchdown that would have put them up by 10. I’m left wondering if Richards’ injury on the punt return affected this play.
Minnesota’s offense looks lifeless with 10 minutes to go. Their only points have come on a 3-play, 4-yard drive. Suddenly, Tarkenton finds success hitting Marinaro and Foreman out of the backfield. Foreman fumbles near midfield, but the Vikings recover. An inside handoff to Foreman picks up good yardage, but Minnesota’s left with 3rd and inches.
The Vikings surprise Dallas. Tarkenton rolls right and tosses to a wide open Ed Marinaro for 6. Minnesota then steals a page out of the Cowboy playbook. From the Dallas 41, Brent McClanahan takes off on a reverse. Fran makes an excellent block on Mel Renfro, and McClanahan gets to the Dallas 16. Foreman runs right, to the 5. From out of nowhere, the Vikings offense fires on all cylinders.
McClanahan runs off tackle left, meeting both Cliff Harris and Lee Roy Jordan. McClanahan bounces back, sheds both of them, and scores. McClanahan’s tremendous second effort has put the Vikings up 14-10 with 5:11 left.
Fumbled shotgun snaps plague Dallas’ next possession. Alan Page and Jim Marshall add considerable pressure. Page even recovers a fumbled snap, but it’s negated by a delay of game penalty — a huge break for the Cowboys. On 3rd and 23, the Cowboys fumble the snap again, and have to punt.
Minnesota gets the ball at their 45 with 2:20 left. They can put the game away with a couple of first downs. On 3rd and 2, Tarkenton rolls right. Safety Charlie Waters makes a fantastic play, stuffing Fran and nearly causing a fumble. An excellent adjustment by the Cowboys, responding to Tarkenton’s 3rd-down rollout last possession. This play sets up Dallas’ chance to win. Tarkenton has stated it haunts him more than the famous game-winning touchdown.
THE HAIL MARY DRIVE
Richards makes a fair catch at the Dallas 15, 1:51 left. Drew Pearson makes a 9-yard catch. Bobby Bryant breaks up a throw to Richards, leaving 3rd and 1.
Vintage Roger Staubach coming up: Eller powers his way to Staubach, pushing the offensive tackle backward. Eller almost gets a hand on the QB, but Staubach spins, sprints to a safe area, and hits Drew Pearson at the 31.
1:06 left: Another botched snap. Staubach slams the ball down in disgust. Page and Eller, like true Hall of Famers, power their way to Staubach and force an incompletion on 2nd and 17. The Vikings burst through again on 3rd down, causing another hurried incompletion. Kyle Davis replaces John Fitzgerald at center with 44 seconds left.
Staubauch has good protection on 4th and 17, finding Drew Pearson at the 50. Nate Wright hits Pearson as Pearson leaps and makes the catch out of bounds. The officials rule a completion and first down under the Force Out Rule, declaring Pearson’s feet would have landed in bounds untouched. The Vikings protest, pointing at the sideline and arguing Pearson couldn’t have landed his feet. Many Vikings fans remain more incensed by this play than what’s about to occur.
On second down, with :32 left, Staubach catches a low shotgun snap. He pump fakes to his left, drawing safety Paul Krause away from Drew Pearson. Staubach rears back and launches the ball Pearson’s way.
The pass sails almost 60 yards, although Pearson needs to reach back. He reels it in as Wright tumbles. Krause jumps over Wright as Pearson glides into the end zone. Kruase points at Pearson, claiming offensive pass interference. Pearson heaves the ball over the scoreboard. The officials rule touchdown and the extra point makes it 17-14, Dallas.
Minnesota gets penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the Cowboys kickoff from the 50. McClanahan runs the ball out to the 15 with :18 left. Ed “Too Tall” Jones tackles Tarkenton near the goal line. Tarkenton starts yelling at multiple officials.
A fan tosses a whiskey bottle at one ref, hitting him squarely in the head. The game is stopped for several minutes before the bloodied official gets up. The Vikings run two more plays and Dallas wins, 17-10.
The controversy surrounding the winning touchdown began immediately. Did Drew Pearson commit pass interference? Were the Vikings robbed on the 4th and 17 play? My purpose isn’t to answer these questions.
Many fans, however, prefer games being decided by players rather than officials. Staubach outfoxed Krause after handling a tough snap. At almost 60 yards the pass might be the longest underthrown ball in history, but still remarkable. No disrespect to Nate Wright, but Pearson made both catches. He also made a fabulous adjustment on the scoring play. The Cowboys line provided adequate protection on both plays, despite Minnesota dominating most of the game upfront.
This incredible game was much more than two plays. It featured 9 Hall of Famers, including offensive lineman Ron Yary and Rayfield Wright. Many others were top players of the time: Mick Tingelhoff, Lee Roy Jordan, Too Tall Jones, Jim Marshall, Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, Chuck Foreman, John Gilliam and Jeff Siemon are among the stars manning the field that day.
More plays favored the Cowboys by execution or luck. Many of their best plays were defensive gems by Charlie Waters, Lee Roy Jordan, Harvey Martin, Too Tall Jones, or Mel Renfro. They got lucky breaks when the fumble recovered by Page was negated and when the tipped pass in the third quarter landed in their hands. The Vikings two lucky breaks were the non-interference call on a first-half punt return and recovering Chuck Foreman’s fumble on their sparkling fourth-quarter drive. Overall, the Cowboy secondary outplayed Minnesota’s, and the Cowboy offense was better in the second half.
Nobody had seen a finish like this before. It founded Staubach’s comeback legacy and the two-minute drill. “That was about as exciting as you can get in football,” Lee Roy Jordan told The Game before the Money. “On the sidelines our jaws were hanging down thinking we were going to lose. Then we got the play that made us believe in winning games in the last two minutes.”
NOTE: Read Mick Tingelhoff’s and Lee Roy Jordan’s stories in The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL.
Here’s a good look at the fourth quarter:
And for fun, here’s the NFL Today pregame show for the game, complete with Frank Sinatra: