A funny thing happened to Roger Staubach last Sunday just when he was on the way to having his arm bronzed. In the chill of St. Louis' Busch Memorial Stadium the last of pro football's undefeated and untied teams, Staubach's Dallas Cowboys, decided to lose a game to the Cardinals no matter how many times Roger hit his usually reliable receivers in the hands. Staubach, off to the grandest start of any quarterback in the history of the sport, had another fine afternoon against the Cardinals. He threw six touchdown passes. The only thing wrong was that just two of them counted, and thus the Cardinals of Jim Hart and Mel Gray and Terry Metcalf managed to come out on top in a 21-17 game that could be called a thriller only because of the peculiar way the ball kept bouncing off the palms of the Cowboys.
Appropriately enough, the Cowboys started and ended the contest by dropping passes from Staubach that would have been certain touchdowns. The first pass Roger threw came on the game's eighth play, which originated at the Cardinals' 43-yard line. It was one of those blackboard things, with everything developing perfectly. Roger hurled a gorgeous spiral to Running Back Charles Young, who had left the defensive guys so far behind they might as well have been pompon girls.
The ball arrived in Young's hands at about the St. Louis 15. He juggled it once while churning straight ahead. He juggled it twice. He juggled it a third time, looking very much as if he had some sort of strange itch and the football was responsible. Finally, Young dropped the ball, and the play wound up being nothing more than another incompletion, something Staubach has not been terribly familiar with in 1976. He had come into the season's sixth weekend with a 73.5 completion percentage and a quarterback "rating" of 121.0.
Nobody understands the NFL's quarterback rating system—it has to do with all manner of completions and yardage and attempts and so forth—but the important thing about Staubach's 121.0 was that the best anyone had ever done over a full season was the 110.0 by Cleveland's Milt Plum back in 1960. Earlier in the week Dallas Coach Tom Landry had said, rather prophetically as it turned out, "Roger has always been a good quarterback. But this is just an exceptional streak. It's unlikely that anyone can keep it up."
Staubach not only would have kept it up, he would have kept the Cowboys' record clean if he had only a little help from his friends, the receivers. For example, take the day's very last play when, incredibly, Dallas still could win the game it had been trying to lose for three hours. Operating with no time-outs left, Staubach had completed four throws and moved the Cowboys to the St. Louis 21-yard line. There were three seconds left, and everyone knew Roger would put it up—and into the end zone. They also knew that the Cowboys would have somebody open, as they had throughout the four quarters.
The open man was the giant tight end, Billy Joe DuPree, towering above the defenders and racing full speed across the goal line as Staubach's pass got there. DuPree reached up to make the winning grab, but the ball, as it had been doing all afternoon, simply glanced off his hands and fluttered away.
So that was Staubach's last touchdown pass that did not count. The other two came in the fourth quarter after the Cowboys had fallen behind by 21-10. One of them was unbelievably dropped by Drew Pearson, who, like Young earlier, had beaten the defense and was sailing toward the end zone at the Cardinals' five-yard line. Drew Pearson can normally catch a comet if you give him enough warning. Not this day. Pearson also dropped a pass, right in his hands, in the second quarter that would have put the Cowboys in serious scoring position.
The other touchdown pass that did not count was Staubach's own fault. Coming out of a scramble, he made the mistake of drifting just past the line of scrimmage before he lofted a deep one that Golden Richards cradled away near the goal line and carried into the end zone. It was a 41-yard throw, but the ball had been snapped to Staubach on the 42.
For the day, Staubach's statistics read 21 completions in 42 attempts for 250 yards—and his eighth and ninth touchdowns of the year. But the more telling figure was that, overall, he had eight passes—eight, mind you—clearly and notoriously and dreadfully dropped.
Aside from all this, the Cowboys made innumerable other blunders. They recovered a St. Louis fumble on the Cardinal 20 but did nothing with it. They blocked a St. Louis punt and recovered the ball on the Cardinal eight-yard line but did not score a single point. And one of the Jim Hart passes they batted into the air managed to come right down into the gritty hands of that wonderful gnat, Mel Gray, for the touchdown that gave the Cardinals their 21-10 lead and wound up being the difference.
In the light of all the Dallas boners, it was amusing to hear the Busch Memorial Stadium crowd yelling so happily for the recently lamented Cardinal defense. The Cardinal defense had almost nothing to do with all of those dropped passes. However it did distinguish itself on the goal-line stand after Charlie Waters had blocked the punt and Dallas had a first down at the St. Louis eight. Three running plays by Doug Dennison and Young gained seven yards and two feet. On fourth down the Cowboys sent Young over right guard, a good place to run, it seemed, since the Cardinals were down to their backup middle linebacker, a fellow named Tim Kearney. All Kearney did was stop Young and the play.
Actually, it was the St. Louis offense that won the game, along with the bouncing ball. Hart had the sort of day Staubach has been having, connecting on 22 of 33 for a whopping 346 yards, and the three touchdowns. Gray caught two of them, and there was considerable show biz involved. Gray had a reason. "They were bad-mouthin' me all day, the whole secondary, not just Cliff Harris," Gray said. "They said I had bad hands and no speed." Which seems an ill-considered remark to make to a fellow who has been known to burn 9.2 in the 100.
After Gray's first touchdown catch, he flipped the ball at Harris, and Harris batted it back as if it were a volleyball.
And then when Harris leaped and batted the ball in the end zone and it came down, fortuitously, into Gray's hands for the decisive St. Louis score, Gray dashed over, looked down at Harris and Benny Barnes sprawled on the Busch Stadium rug and hauled off and spiked the ball right between them.
"It's not a personal feud with Harris," Gray said. "I have these days with Washington's Pat Fischer and Philadelphia's Bill Bradley, too."
This was the third straight year the Cardinals had beaten the Cowboys in St. Louis. Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' venerable general manager, is certain he knows why. It is because the Cardinals insist that the Cowboys wear their blue jerseys when they come to town. It is widely known that Schramm has been superstitious of the Cowboys' blue jerseys ever since they lost their first Super Bowl wearing blue against Baltimore.
What the St. Louis upset of the Cowboys really did was to give the NFC East that old familiar look. The Cardinals and Cowboys are now tied at 5-1, and the struggling Washington Redskins are right behind at 4-2. All things normal.
So for now, anyway, Staubach can relax and stop competing with immortality. When he went 13 out of 15 against the New York Giants, he was permitted to joke, "Yeah, they dropped a couple on me." Last Sunday the Cowboys dropped everything except The Star-Spangled Banner.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
A heap of frustration: Staubach watches as the Cardinals bury Charles Young inches from a TD.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
The best arm in the game fired all too often to receivers who could not get a grip on the ball.