Having lived luxuriously on poise and control all season, the Green Bay Packers won their second straight National Football League championship last Sunday in Dallas by defeating the Cowboys 34-27 in a flamboyant display of football histrionics. It may not have been the best game ever played, but for pure suspense and unremitting excitement no championship game has approached it for at least eight years.
After all the fireworks and the fumbles, the long passes and the short punts that kept 72,000 Texans and 3,500 Green Bay supporters howling steadily, the whole thing boiled down to four Cowboy plays from the Green Bay two-yard line in the last two minutes of the game.
The Cowboys, who were supposed to be the club that would dissolve if the Packers struck hard and quick, spent the long, bright afternoon demonstrating an extraordinary ability to snarl at adversity. They were scored on twice in the first four and a half minutes to trail the league's most formidable defense by 14 points, but they tied the game by the end of the first period on two long, un-flustered drives engineered by Quarterback Don Meredith.
Then, with five minutes and 20 seconds left to play, the Cowboys slipped 14 points behind again and Meredith faced third down with 20 yards to go from his own 32-yard line. What did he do? He threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to Frank Clarke, his tight end. That big play, like so many others, was a mixture of good planning and good luck.
"Frank ran a zig-out and post move," Meredith said later in the dressing room, slouching sadly on a bench in front of his locker and trying to find solace in a cigarette and a can of Dr. Pepper. "I wanted to freeze Willie Wood, their free safety, so I watched Hayes all the way. Wood was helping out on him, and I waited until I was sure he was out of Clarke's way. I looked at Clarke only at the last second."
What Meredith saw was Clarke alone as a New Year's Day pedestrian on a Dallas street. Tom Brown, the strong-side Green Bay safety who was covering Clarke, had slipped and fallen when the receiver broke to the inside. With Wood preoccupied by Hayes, no one was left to guard Clarke.
The touchdown came with four minutes and nine seconds to play and moved Dallas to within seven points of a tie. Suddenly the Cowboys appeared to be the dominant team, and even Bart Starr (see cover), who cast off his conservative ways for this game, disdained the usual tactic of running out the time on the ground. He got one first down with a daring pass to his tight end, Marv Fleming. Then the Cowboys, gamblers all, blitzed twice. They dropped Starr for an eight-yard loss and caught Jim Taylor seven yards behind the line of scrimmage on a screen pass.
So Don Chandler had to punt. Hurried by an all-out rush from the Cowboy line, he kicked a little trickler out of bounds on the Green Bay 47. The Texans in the stands began to howl in anticipation of a sudden-death overtime game, and Meredith nearly brought it off for them. Don went back to Clarke on a 21-yard pass down to the Green Bay 26, again using Hayes to decoy two Packer defenders out of the pattern. Then he tried Clarke deep in the end zone, and the pass fell incomplete. But Dave Robinson was called for interference and Dallas had the ball on the Green Bay two-yard line. With a minute and 52 seconds to play, the Cowboys had more than ample time in which to score.
Meredith tried the Packer line first, but Dan Reeves got only a yard before the Packers fell on him en masse. Still it was second and goal on the Green Bay one.
"We didn't have a very good game defensively," Linebacker Lee Roy Caffey said later in the dressing room. "But down there, man, it was love, pure love. We knew we could stop them. We got together and said we couldn't let the offensive team down. They had played such a beautiful game. For the first time, down there on the two, we knew we could stop them."
Whether or not the Green Bay defenders actually could have stemmed the Cowboy drive from so close in was never proved. Meredith started his countdown for the next play, but Jim Boeke, the Cowboy left tackle who had played well all day, moved ahead of the snap, and the head linesman dropped his yellow handkerchief.
"I just blew it," Boeke said later, mopping himself with a damp towel. "It was my fault. It was 15 grand a man down there, and you want to do everything right, but it gets tough."
Penalized back to the Green Bay six, Meredith was forced to change his call. He knew that he would not be able to go six yards on the ground through the Green Bay defense. He tried a swing pass to Reeves, but the ball was wide of its target. It served one purpose—it stopped the clock, with a minute and 18 seconds to play.
Meredith passed again on the next down, hitting Tight End Pettis Norman for four yards. With fourth down and two to go for sudden death, Meredith made a daring choice—a play called by the Cowboys "fire 90 quarterback roll right." It is an option for Meredith swinging wide. If the defense comes up he throws, if it drops back he runs.
This time he hoped to fool the Green Bay defense by running to the nearer sideline, where he had less room but more blockers. Dave Robinson, the massive Green Bay left linebacker, had made up his mind that the play would be either an off-tackle drive by Don Perkins or Dan Reeves, or a quarterback bootleg.
"I really looked for the off-tackle," he said after the game. "That is, if the play came to my side. I was aware of the bootleg, but I figured he wouldn't use that to the short side. As it turned out, he did."
Robinson's initial charge was into the tackle hole, but he realized at once that he was wrong and fought to the outside, fending off a blocker as he closed in on Meredith. "He played it perfectly," Meredith said ruefully. "He came in with his hands up high, screening off my receivers until he got close enough, and then he dropped his arms around me. I couldn't do anything but flip the ball into the end zone and hope someone in a white jersey would catch it."
"I tried to pin both his arms," Robinson said, "but all I could get was his left. As I grabbed him, I thought that I hadn't done what I was supposed to do. Under Lombardi, you always try for perfection, and if I had played this one perfectly I would have had both of his arms. This way he got the ball away, and there was a 50-50 chance that a Cowboy would catch it in the end zone." But it was not to be. Tom Brown, a frustrated ex-baseball tryout who had had the misfortune to fall down on Clarke's touchdown, caught the ball in the end zone and hugged it to his belly, bent over as if to make sure that it would not escape.
So the game ended on the note upon which it had begun, and as it had been played in its entirety—a note of improvisation, luck and emotional effort.
The Packers, who had scored often during the season on sustained, controlled marches and saved more than one game by using up the clock with a steady ground game, bombed Dallas. The first of Starr's four touchdown passes was for 17 yards to Elijah Pitts on a march that began with the opening kick-off. Pitts had opened proceedings by trundling 32 yards on a counterplay that Lombardi had created for the occasion.
Then Jim Grabowski, the rich rookie who has stood in the wings all year waiting for Jim Taylor to tire, picked up Mel Renfro's fumble on the following kick-off and went 18 yards for the second Packer touchdown. The explosive, long-gaining Cowboys marched grimly for one touchdown—65 yards in 13 plays—and reverted to form for a second with Don Perkins breaking two tackles on the way to a 23-yard score. Then the Green Bay bombers hit again.
Starr found Carroll Dale with a 51-yard scoring pass. Dale was covered by Cornell Green, who misjudged his jump for the ball. It sailed over his arm into the hands of Dale. The last two Green Bay touchdowns were a 16-yard pass to Boyd Dowler and a 28-yard pass to veteran Max McGee, who improvised the pattern as he left the huddle and called back to Starr to ask if he could run it.
"It was a zig-out," Max said. "I had a feeling I could beat Livingston on it." He did.
The preparation for the game, by both teams, was peculiarly disingenuous. The Packers, many of whom have gone through this sort of thing in five of the last seven years, claimed that they had never been more tense. Getting ready for their first championship game, the Cowboys tried to pretend that it was not such a big deal and assumed an air of elaborate casualness.
On New Year's Eve the Cowboys repaired to the Holiday Inn-Central, as they always do before a home game. Jethro Pugh, clutching three oranges in one large hand as easily as the average man would hold three Ping-Pong balls, expressed the Cowboy attitude: "We worked hard to get into this game, we deserve to be in it and we're going to win it. Just watch."
Tom Landry, the Dallas coach, is a placid, unruffled man under any circumstances, and he approached the championship game with his normal icy calm. Pete Gent, the tall flanker who did not play college football—he was recruited from the Michigan State basketball team—said, "Coach Landry has gone about this as if it were any other game. No trace at all of nerves or doubt. I think that because he shows he really believes in us and our ability, we believe in ourselves."
On the bulletin board in the Cowboy dressing room, someone posted a psalm for the players to ruminate on all last week:
I have seen the wicked in great power And spreading himself like a Green
Yet he passed away and lo, he was not;
Yea, I sought him, but he could not be found.
Beneath the cool that the Cowboys tried so hard to maintain, there was a bit of testiness. "We read all about how Green Bay is going to beat us and then go on out to Los Angeles and win the Super Bowl," said All-Pro Tackle Bob Lilly, a giant of a man with shoulders like steel beams. "That gets to us a little. We have played them. We have beat them. We can do it again. We aren't afraid of them."
While the Cowboys could work in the friendly atmosphere of their own practice field, Lombardi herded the Packers from Green Bay to Tulsa in search of a warmer climate. In Tulsa he found the same thing he had left behind in Green Bay—snow and ice. Where Landry used an understated approach in order to settle the nerves of his young Cowboys, Lombardi did just the opposite in order to nettle his veterans into the ferocity he expects from his teams.
He snapped and snarled at them all week long. The last note of levity came in Green Bay just before the departure for Tulsa, when Paul Hornung (who was to spend the entire game Sunday on the bench) broke up the team with a story about Lombardi that reflects the respect and awe with which his players regard him. According to Hornung, when the team returned to Green Bay at 2 o'clock in the morning after their season-ending Los Angeles victory, Lombardi was delayed for an hour or so at the airport in zero weather, signing autographs and talking to well-wishers. By the time he got home he was almost frozen. When he finally got into bed his wife, Marie, shivered and said, "God, your feet are cold." Said Lombardi, sleepily, "In bed you may call me Vincent, dear."
Lombardi laughed as hard as the players at the joke, but once the team arrived at the Camelot Inn in Tulsa he worked them mercilessly.
Fuzzy Thurston, the fine Green Bay guard, said in his oratorical style, "This game will prove for all time, for all history, the greatness of my teammates. This is the big one for all of us. There are players on this team who are near retirement, and none of us wants to retire with a bad taste in his mouth. As the great Johnny Blood once said, 'We professional athletes are very lucky. Unlike most mortals, we are given the privilege of dying twice—once when we retire and again when death takes us.' " Now Thurston, a blocky, square, very tough-looking man, lowered his voice to a sentimental organ tone. "I would like to die happy," he said.
Under Lombardi's searing tongue, the Packers worked tirelessly on the chill University of Tulsa practice field. Lombardi played no favorites in his tirades. Hornung came in for a lashing when he made a cut a fraction wider than Lombardi had drawn the play. Jerry Kramer, three times an All-League guard, was the target of violent admonishment because he was not getting off on the snap of the ball. He accepted his lot philosophically.
"I've got a bad thumb and a sore leg and a little muscle pull," he said one evening after practice. "Vinnie knows that and he knows that I can't take a chance on making any of them worse, but he's got to get on me because that's his nature. He never lets down."
By Friday night, after the team had flown to Dallas and had a good practice on a local high school field, Lombardi had relaxed. At the "5 o'clock club," a traditional road-game pouring in Lombardi's hotel suite, he was genial and smiling.
"The hay is in the barn," he said. "The team is ready. If they play as well as they know how to and lose, it will not be the end of the world. There is nothing I can do now to change anything."
Lombardi, who is known for his error-free, percentage football, planned a daring defense which he revealed only to players and a very few close friends. "We will not allow Bob Hayes to distort our defense," he said. "I think we have the speed and the ability in Bob Jeter and Herb Adderley to cover Hayes man to man most of the time, and we will. If the first quarter proves that we can't, maybe we will make some adjustments."
Adderley, who was victimized twice by Hayes on touchdown passes in an exhibition game in Dallas before the season opened, had cut his weight from 200 to 190 in the interest of additional speed and agility.
Adderley and Jeter did an exemplary job on Hayes, who was not double-covered by the Packers as often as by most teams this year. Hayes caught one pass all day—and that was for a gain of only one yard.
"We were always conscious of Hayes," Willie Wood said. "Maybe that's one reason we gave up so much—we were always afraid of being burnt."
The Packers were too tired to think ahead to the Super Bowl. In chilly Buffalo, after the Kansas City Chiefs had defeated the Bills 31-7 to win the AFL championship, Hank Stram, their coach, let himself be carried away by the wonder of it all.
"Pour it on, boys," he burbled. "There'll be lots more when we tear apart the NFL in two weeks."
Told of this rather optimistic statement, Fuzzy Thurston shrugged. "Hank Stram can think what he wants," he said. "We just play the game and win."
Boyd Dowler already had scored the game's decisive touchdown when he was upended by frustrated Mike Gaechter of the Cowboys.
The Green Bay Rookies gave the Old Men their second touchdown in the first five minutes when Bob Brown (78) and Gale Gillingham (68) hit Mel Renfro on a kickoff return, causing Renfro to fumble at the Cowboys' 18-yard line. Jim Grabowski scooped up the ball and scored easily.
Dan Reeves of the Cowboys hurdles a Green Bay defender on one of several successful carries.
Defeat for Dallas was at hand after Pettis Norman was hit out of bounds at the two.