DALLAS - Three-time Pro Bowl safety Charlie Waters couldn't make the 1979 season finale versus Washington. The Dallas Cowboy tore his ACL in the preseason against Seattle.
"I would have loved to play in that game," Waters told WFAA.com. "[Washington was] kind of like the evil empire to us and I had some pretty tough games against them."
This game was going to be a tough one for Waters, as he was serving as color commentator on the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network alongside play-by-play Brad Sham.
"Brad is one of the best in the history of the NFL of being a play-by-play game-call," Waters said of Sham, who still serves in the same capacity today. "He's just excellent."
Dallas roared into mid-November 8-2 but whimpered out of Thanksgiving with three straight losses. They had two straight victories against New York and Philadelphia to correct their record and present them as 10-5 and ready for the NFL's range war.
Washington had win streaks sandwiched with losses throughout their '79 campaign. Like Dallas, they were riding a two-game winning streak into the season finale. It is worth mentioning Philadelphia finished 11-5. A Washington win would give them the NFC East and knock Dallas out of the playoffs, and visa versa as the loser would have an inferior mark to the Eagles.
The Cowboys got off to an inauspicious start when running back Ron Springs, a rookie carrying in place of an injured Tony Dorsett, fumbled on the opening possession. Washington would have converted the takeaway into seven points if not for defensive end Larry Cole sacking quarterback Joe Theismann on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line. Mark Moseley hit a 24-yard field goal to give Washington a 3-0 lead in the first.
Washington kept piling on points in the first half: a 1-yard John Riggins rushing touchdown and a 55-yard Benny Malone pass from Theismann gave Washington a 17-0 lead before Dallas ever responded. When they did, Springs atoned for his fumble with a 1-yard touchdown rush to finally put a crooked number up for the Cowboys. And before halftime, quarterback Roger Staubach would connect with running back Preston Pearson on a 26-yard touchdown to narrow Washington's lead 17-14.
"These were unlikely heroes that were making plays," said Waters.
Unlikely heroes indeed. Dorsett was out. All-Pro receiver Drew Pearson would finish with one catch for 20 yards. The only constant in the volley with Washington was Staubach.
Fullback Robert Newhouse gave the Cowboys a 21-17 lead with a 2-yard plunge in the third quarter. Now, it felt like Dallas was wresting control of the game and driving Washington back into retreat.
Said Waters: "We all had a belief in our offensive team just because all the times that we had come from behind. There was big, big games we had overcome huge deficits."
Moseley pulled Washington within one early in the fourth quarter with another 24-yard field goal. Safety Mark Murphy would intercept a Staubach pass on the ensuing drive and take it down to the Dallas 25-yard line. Assuredly, Washington would reclaim the lead on this possession, but the question was by how much. Defensive pass interference on All-Pro safety Cliff Harris in the end zone on the first play would move the ball to the 1-yard line. Riggins would score his second touchdown to give Washington a 27-21 lead.
The Cowboys punted the ball away on their next possession. With under seven minutes in the '79 season, Riggins struck again as he galloped 66 yards down the right sideline for a back-breaking touchdown that put Washington up 34-21.
"That was deflating when he bounced it outside and took it to the sideline and ran all the way," Waters said. "Yeah, not good."
Murphy told NFL Films he remembered teammates congratulating themselves and talking about the Super Bowl after that touchdown run.
"That probably was an indication that we felt as though the game was over, and I think from that point on we may have let up a little," Murphy said.
Sham turned to Waters and shared with him the reality of the situation.
Said Waters: "Brad turns to me and he candidly said, 'Charlie, look. It doesn't look good right now.' He said, 'Surely we don't have a chance.'
"I said, 'Brad, that's just not the way you think as a player. Everybody just believes. You've got to believe. That's just what it's all about.' If you collectively believe things are going to happen, you can sometimes make miracles happen."
With less than four minutes to play, future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White recovered a Washington fumble. Three plays later, Staubach threw another 26-yard touchdown to a running back, this time Springs to pull with six of Washington.
"2:20 left in the game," Sham said on 1080 KRLD-AM. "Can they do it again?"
Waters knew what his teammates were thinking: get the ball back in Staubach's hands.
"Just get the ball back," said Waters. "All we got to do is get the ball back. Roger is going to figure out a way to score. I mean, we would actually say that in the huddle before we started a series. So, we truly believed in our heart of hearts that if we did our job then Roger would figure out some magical formula to pull it out, pull a game, and he did it over and over and over."
The miracle working was up to the Cowboys defense. It was third-and-1 from the Washington 33 and Theismann handed the ball off to Riggins, who bounced it outside. Just as Cole stopped Washington on their first drive, he did so again and caught The Diesel before he delivered a Dallas loss for Christmas.
Now, it was up to Staubach and the offense.
"He'll make it happen," Waters said. "He did it more times than not. He was just magical. He was Captain America."
Not only the NFC East title but home-field advantage in the playoffs stood 75 yards away. Staubach needed only seven plays and used the duo of Pearson and Tony Hill to get there.
"1:01 left in the game," said Sham on 1080 KRLD-AM, setting up a second-and-10 at the Washington 33. "Trailing by six points, from the shotgun, Staubach has time, throws, caught inside the 10 to the 8."
Pearson caught a 25-yard pass that put Dallas at the Washington 8-yard line, which Waters referred to as a "beautiful play."
Then, with 42 seconds left in the season, second-and-8 from the 8-yard line, Staubach lofted a fade from under center into the right back corner of the end zone for Hill.
Washington called a blitz and there was single coverage on the outside receivers. Theismann saw what Staubach saw, and it was the perfect play for any field general to make.
"As soon as the ball went up," Theismann told NFL Films, "I kept thinking, 'Oh, no! Overthrow it.' And then Tony started to get closer and then I went, 'Oh, no! Drop it.' And then he caught it and I went, 'Oh, no!' That was the 'oh no.'"
Waters teased Sham about his lack of faith when all was well and the Cowboys notched their 11th division title.
Said Waters: "I said, 'You just understand the mindset that we have as players. We have great confidence in our offensive team. And that gives us a lot of power to move forward and take chances on stuff.' Because all we had to do was get the ball back because Roger is going to score. And sure enough that's exactly what happened."
"That was probably Roger's greatest game for us, and he played many great games for us," head coach Tom Landry told NFL Films.
Staubach finished completing 24-of-42 for 336 with three touchdowns and an interception in his 15th comeback and 23rd game-winning drive, according to Pro Football Reference.
On the last day of November in 2017, Dallas and Washington are equally hoping for a miracle as the Cowboys did in the last week of 1979. The question comes down to whether or not the players donning the blue star believe as much in their quarterback and each other as Waters did during his time with America's Team from 1970-81.
What are your favorite memories of Roger Staubach against the Redskins? Share 'em with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.
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