The game featured everything: a robust list of Hall of Famers, lead changes, big plays, and an exciting finish.
The Houston Oilers, coached by the legendary Bum Phillips, met the Tom Landry coached Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in 1979 at Texas Stadium in Dallas. The Cowboys won the NFC the previous year and narrowly lost a classic Super Bowl – Super Bowl 13 – to the Steelers. The Oilers made it all the way to the AFC Championship the previous year.
The Cowboys struck early. Quarterback Roger Staubach hit receiver Drew Pearson for a 56-yard touchdown on one of the game’s first plays. Houston countered with an outstanding 61-yard scoring dash by one of the NFL’s all-time greatest rushers, Earl Campbell.
Dallas touchdowns by Robert Newhouse and future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Tony Dorsett put the Cowboys up by 11. Houston rallied and took the lead shortly after halftime, on a thrilling 47-yard touchdown pass from Dan Pastorini to Mike Renfro. A missed extra point by the usually reliable Toni Fritsch opened the door for Dallas. The Cowboys took a 1-point lead in the fourth quarter with a Rafael Septien field goal.
Pastorini responded with a brilliant play-action pass to deep-threat Ken Burrough for a go-ahead touchdown after a critical Dallas penalty gave the Oilers a first down. The Oilers held the lead despite an exhilarating comeback effort led by Roger Staubach, the man so well known for last-second victories that he earned the nickname “Captain Comeback.”
When you look at lists of greatest Thanksgiving Day games in NFL history, the 1979 Cowboys/Oilers game somehow gets left out. Wikipedia doesn’t have it listed. Neither does this article from Fox Sports. Same goes for this USA Today feature story. They bring up the famous Clint Longley game, the Leon Lett game (you can hear Cowboy Chad Hennings discuss that game here), and the classic 1980 Bears comeback led by Vince Evans over the Lions.
The Oilers – Cowboys 1979 Thanksgiving Game is the best NFL Thanksgiving Game I can personally remember in terms of excitement, back-and-forth action, and big plays. Not to mention the sheer number of Hall of Famers on the field – Staubach, Campbell, Dorsett, Elvin Bethea, Curley Culp, Rayfield Wright, Robert Brazile, and of course, Coach Landry. You also had many other NFL stars of the 1970s including Pastorini, Pearson, Billy Joe DuPree, Harvey Martin, Cliff Harris, Leon Gray, Gregg Bingham, and the unforgettable Coach Phillips. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is one of the greatest Thanksgiving games of all-time, can I?
Listen to stories about 1979 Houston Oilers and take a deep look at their season in my recently released audiobook distributed by Gow Media Publishing, Red, White, and Columbia Blue: Chasing the Dream with the 1979 Houston Oilers.