Like Oakland, the Los Angeles Rams will be seeking revenge when they play at Dallas on Sunday. In last year's NFC championship game, the underdog Cowboys thrashed the Rams 37-7 right in the shadow of their own peristyle. In fact, the Cowboys destroyed the Rams so quickly that Quarterback Roger Staubach never had to call on Drew Pearson, the NFL's Mr. Clutch, to make one of his routinely spectacular game-winning receptions in the final seconds. So the bad news for the Rams is that Staubach and Pearson may feel they owe them one.
More bad news for the Rams is that Pat Haden, the Rhodes scholar who had won Coach Chuck Knox' quarterback derby over James Harris and Ron Jaworski, probably will miss the Dallas game because of a stretched ligament in his right knee, an injury he suffered early in last Saturday night's game in Detroit. Harris replaced Haden and rallied the Rams to a 20-17 victory, and he no doubt will start against the Cowboys. Throughout this season of the revolving quarterback, the Rams coped by doing what they do better than any other NFC team: running the football. Lawrence McCutcheon gained more than 1,000 yards for the third time in four years, and John Cappelletti emerged as a consistent threat alongside McCutcheon. The only people who stopped the Ram runners were the Ram runners: Los Angeles lost 21 fumbles, with McCutcheon contributing 10. Last year the Rams tied for the fewest fumbles lost in the league, eight.
Fumbles weren't what stopped the Cowboy runners this year; they just were not terribly good. It didn't help that Robert Newhouse, their leading rusher in 1975, was bothered by a groin pull and gained only 450 yards. Coach Tom Landry probably will continue to shuffle five backs, hoping one of them will break loose, but the Rams had the best defense against the rush in the NFC. What all this means is that Landry will send in a lot of passing plays to Staubach. This season Staubach threw more passes (360), completed more (198) and gained more yards (2,715) than he ever had before.
As always, Staubach's main target will be the ubiquitous Drew Pearson, who won his first NFC receiving title this year with 58 catches. "In the 10 years I've been here." says Dan Reeves, the former running back who now coaches the Dallas receivers, "Drew has made more big plays than any other Cowboy."
Pearson, who was named after the late Washington columnist, does not appreciate his "Mr. Clutch" reputation. "I want to be known as a consistent receiver," he says. "If I'm thought of as being consistent, clutch plays will be included in that." Pearson should be granted his wish: during the last three seasons he has caught more passes (166) than any wide receiver in the NFL.
One of seven free agents on the Dallas roster, Pearson claims he signed with the Cowboys in 1973 because "I saw that they gave free agents a chance to show what they could do." A T-formation quarterback at South River (N.J.) High School, where as a sophomore he backed up Joe Theismann, Pearson was switched to flanker at Tulsa University but rarely saw the football because Tulsa used the wishbone. Ignored in the draft, Pearson moved to Dallas before the 1973 training camp opened and spent a month working out with Staubach. "We knew we had a receiver in Pearson before we even got to camp," Landry says now. Nevertheless, the Cowboys put Pearson's name on the waiver list during training camp. When Chicago claimed Pearson, however, Dallas had second thoughts and kept him.
While most receivers depend on speed or hands—or both—Pearson's main attribute is "position." "It's hard to be intercepted when you're throwing to Drew," says Reeves, "because he always positions his body in such a way that he shields the ball from the defensive back." Staubach maintains that Pearson is "the best receiver I've ever thrown to. He has the most guts of anyone I've ever known. He'll catch the ball with people coming in to knock his head off. A lot of receivers will flinch in those circumstances, but not Drew."
Pearson's knack for positioning is a carry-over from his high school basketball career. When Pearson outmaneuvered Minnesota's Nate Wright to make the impossible catch that gave the Cowboys a 17-14 victory in last season's playoffs, Viking Coach Bud Grant, a former NBA player, applauded Pearson for making "a real smart basketball player's move, a professional move."
Although Pearson downplays his clutch catches, he admits, "When I'm getting mentally ready for a game, I envision myself making the big play. I don't think you can make those plays if you don't envision yourself in them."
Pearson almost invariably gets double coverage, and against the Rams he frequently will be head-to-head against Cornerback Monte Jackson, the NFL's leading interceptor with 10. Will Jackson scare Staubach away from Pearson? "When all is said and done," Reeves says, "a quarterback always goes to the man he has the most confidence in." And Pearson owes one to the Rams.
Dallas' Mr. Clutch led the NFC with 58 catches.