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Storming to the playoffs

In these matchups among four contenders, a norther from Buffalo blew itself out in Miami, and Dallas was swept by a Missouri tornado

All week long America's unemployed armchair quarterbacks kept phoning Don Shula collect to volunteer their services to the Miami Dolphins, who suddenly needed a quarterback more than New York City needs money. The Dolphins had lost Bob Griese for the season two weeks ago when he suffered a ruptured tendon in the big toe of his right foot, and 41-year-old stand-in Earl Morrall is sidelined for the remainder of the schedule, too, after tearing ligaments in his left knee during Miami's 20-7 torture of the New England Patriots last Monday night.

Now, with the Dolphins leading Baltimore and Buffalo by just one game in the AFC's Eastern Division and the Bills heading for Miami, someone named Don Strock had moved up from chief sandwich boy to No. 1 quarterback and Slingin' Garo Yepremian—remember his famous Super Bowl passing caper?—was probably next in line. Trouble was, in his three seasons with the Dolphins, Strock had attempted only four more passes than Yepremian.

"Tom Matte even called and left a message for me," said Shula, who started to smile as he recalled that year in Baltimore when his Colts lost Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo with disabling injuries in successive games and had to use Halfback Matte at quarterback for the playoffs. Shula did not return Matte's call, but he did persuade onetime Dolphin backup Jim Del Gaizo, a subsequent bust with both Green Bay and the New York Giants, to leave his insurance business and take Yepremian's place behind Strock.

Meanwhile, Strock, who at 6'5" and 220 pounds looks more like an NBA forward than an NFL quarterback, hardly seemed bothered by his new status. "I've always looked forward to my first start," he said, "but I hate to see it happen the way it has. I'm here to play quarterback, though, and that's what I'm going to do." Around Miami, Strock is known as the Mad Bomber because, unlike the methodical Griese and the ancient Morrall, he actually likes to throw the football at any time, not just on third-and-long. "We've spent the last three years trying to settle Don down," Shula said, "and show him what a running game is."

Shula paused, then added a few words for Buffalo's consumption. "If people expect Strock to draw plays in the dirt, making them up each time, and then just hand the ball off," he said, "they will be surprised. We think Strock can throw the ball against them."

Strock had the same impression, although he insisted that he would be happy to "nickel-and-dime Buffalo to death on the ground if that's the best way to beat them. I've taken game films home every night this week and I'm ready." Strock also displayed a genuine sense of humor. "Before you ask," he announced to a battalion of reporters, "my answers are 'no' and 'yes.' 'No,' I'm not nervous. 'Yes,' I think I can do the job." Asked if he had ever watched the minor-league Pottstown (Pa.) Firebirds and their celebrated Quarterback Jim (King) Corcoran when he was growing up in that town, Strock cracked, "I learned from watching King Corcoran that I couldn't learn from watching King Corcoran." Then he jogged over to the mess hall to get a couple of tuna fish sandwiches for Griese and Morrall. "No rush," Morrall said, "but we're hungry."

As the game began before 78,701 fans packed into the Orange Bowl, both Miami and Buffalo were aware that Baltimore had trounced the New York Giants earlier that afternoon. The Dolphin defense stopped the Bills on Buffalo's first series, but Strock could not move the Dolphins, either. Then, after the Dolphins stopped the Bills again, Strock went to work, armed with the information that Morrall had whispered to him on the sidelines and that the coaches upstairs had phoned down.

He completed a flareout to Don Nottingham, a look-in to Nat Moore, a down-the-middle bullet to Freddie Solomon, another dart to Howard Twilley and the Dolphins had a first down at the Buffalo five. Mercury Morris jammed the middle for a yard, then Strock—doing something Miami quarterbacks have rarely attempted—ran a bootleg around right end for a touchdown. Moments later the Dolphins got the ball back, and Strock smartly moved them 52 yards for another touchdown, this time hitting Twilley from eight yards out.

Strock was rolling now. On Miami's next two possessions he threw four more completions in a row—giving him 10 for 11—and the Dolphins moved ahead 21-0 on another Miami innovation, the one-yard touchdown pass, Strock to Twilley. During the stretch Strock ran a second bootleg, this one a naked reverse for 13 yards, and on another play he had Solomon, a former quarterback at Tampa, throw a bomb off an end-around. It worked for 44 yards when the Bills were penalized for pass interference.

Buffalo rallied to make the score 24-21, but then Strock, helped by a questionable call—the Dolphins appeared to fumble the ball away, but Buffalo's recovery was nullified—quickly moved Miami 75 yards for the decisive touchdown, Nottingham bolting 56 yards to set up Norm Bulaich's one-yard plunge.

The defeat killed Buffalo's playoff chances, and now the Dolphins take their one-game lead over the Colts to Baltimore. "The Colts kept mouthing off about how they wouldn't lose to any team with a 41-year-old quarterback," said Center Jim Langer. "Well, with Earl hurt, our quarterback now is 25."

In the opinion of almost anyone who knows the difference between a football and a beanbag, last Sunday's St. Louis-Dallas game should have been one of the real dogfights of the NFL season, a showdown for first place in the NFC Eastern Division, probably winding up in another overtime like the one the teams played back on Sept. 28. But everyone, including the bookies who made St. Louis a one-point favorite, should have checked the schedule: the rematch was scheduled for Busch Memorial Stadium on Dec. 7—a perfect day to get bombed.

And that's exactly what happened to the shell-shocked Cowboys in the first half. In a word, the Cards were devastating as they put the game out of reach 28-3. They finally prevailed 31-17 to take a giant step toward their second straight division title.

By handing the Cowboys their worst defeat in two years, St. Louis improved its record to 9-3, with nothing more ominous remaining on the schedule than road games in Chicago and Detroit. Barring a blizzard in the former city and a leaky roof in the latter, the Cards look like a cinch. Especially with Terry Met-calf around to all-purpose the opposition to death.

For the Cowboys, a team with a dozen rookies on its roster, the outlook is more worrisome. Dallas is now tied at 8-4 with Washington, a last-gasp 30-27 winner over the Falcons on Sunday, and it must beat the Redskins for the NFC wild-card berth. If Dallas loses this week it will be absent from the playoffs for the second straight year. This is a team that used to make the Super Bowl's round-robin tournament almost automatically.

Talking about the playoffs the night before the St. Louis game, Dallas Coach Tom Landry said, "Now it's all in front of us. We win two of these next three and we're in. It's as simple as that. If we win, we win and if we lose, we had our chance."

It soon became obvious on Sunday that the Cards were giving Dallas nothing better than a chance at the showers. Sparked by Metcalf's rushing, receiving, kick returning and mere presence and the splendid passing of Quarterback Jim Hart to Mel Gray, St. Louis controlled the ball and rocked the Cowboy defenses with enough big plays for two seasons. The Cards scored four touchdowns on their first five possessions and achieved good field position so routinely that their first punt came with 9:16 left in the fourth quarter, when Jeff West booted one out on the Cowboy two-yard line.

Hart's first touchdown toss signaled the dour day that lay ahead for the Cowboy pass defenders. Three of them—Mel Renfro, Cliff Harris and Randy Hughes—were in a tight little end-zone knot when Metcalf arrived in their midst at the end of a 30-yard sprint. Interception seemed likely, but Metcalf snatched the ball out from under his rivals and the Cards had scored with the game less than three minutes old. Two more scoring passes were thrown from 49 and six yards out to the speedy Gray.

The other St. Louis touchdown came on a one-yard run by Steve Jones, who would not have had the chance but for an unusual Dallas penalty born of rookie overzealousness. When Jim Bakken booted a 22-yard field goal for the Cards, Linebacker Thomas Henderson jumped on a teammate's back for a better shot at blocking it. The officials ruled such a tactic illegal, and the penalty gave St. Louis the choice of a first down at the Dallas two instead. Cardinal Coach Don Coryell took it and Jones had his touchdown three plays later.

It is Dallas' style, despite the superb competitive instincts Roger Staubach exhibits as field general, for Landry to call the plays from the sideline. Staubach would prefer to do the job himself. "Two years ago I called the plays and the game was more fun for me," he said Saturday. "Now it's just mechanical. I have to study defenses, know my keys and know personnel, but I don't know which play is going to be called or when."

In Washington, Dallas faces a team with the same qualities that St. Louis exhibited Sunday—a strong defense and resourceful passing. But Staubach does not care who calls the plays as long as the Cowboys can get by the Redskins.

"It's hard to beat the satisfaction a lot of us have had on this team," he says. "Once you've gotten to the Super Bowl and won it, that's the ultimate. We've been there twice, and won it once. Now there will be a lot of satisfaction just getting to the playoffs. It's not automatic anymore. We're in a dogfight. We're not a dominating football team, just a good one like a lot of others." How good, the Cowboys will find out this week.


On Monday, Don Strock (10) listened to Earl Morrall's advice. On Sunday he followed it.