The 1974 St. Louis Football Cardinals were off to their best start in eight years. They had won their first four games of the season, however many “experts” still had their doubts. And who could blame them? The Big Red were coming off three straight 4-9-1 seasons and three of their early victories were against less than top-tier opponents. To add insult to injury, Dallas was coming to town and, despite a 1-3 record, the Cowboys were favored by three points over the Cards.
“I love it,” quarterback Jim Hart told Jeff Meyers of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I like going into a game as the underdog. I don’t think that the Cowboys, with their history of success, really take us seriously, even if it’s possible that a 1-3 team would be complacent.”
One reason the Big Red were underdogs was that they hadn’t beaten Dallas since their 38-0 win on Monday Night Football in 1970. They had lost six in a row to the Cowboys by an average score of 30-11. And the Cowboys certainly didn’t feel like they were playing poorly in 1974. They had lost three straight games for the first time in ten years, however two of their losses were on last-minute field goals-one of which they believed wasn’t good. But, head coach Tom Landry knew that another loss would probably keep them from making their ninth straight post-season appearance.
“We’ve got to beat the Cardinals,” Landry said. “We’re surely not out of the race yet.”
So the stage was set for a mid-October showdown on a warm sunny day at sold out Busch Stadium. The 4-0 Cardinals vs. the 1-3 Cowboys.
COWBOYS STRIKE FIRST
The game got off to an inauspicious start for the Big Red. After being forced to punt on the opening drive, Cowboys return man Dennis Morgan returned a Hal Roberts punt an NFL record 98 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys led 7-0 before Roger Staubach had touched the ball.
In years past, the Cardinals may have crumbled after surrendering an early lead. But not this team. Head coach Don Coryell had the Cards playing with confidence and they came up with a big play of their own near the end of the first quarter.
TRICK PLAY LEADS TO BIG GAIN
With the Cardinals deep in their own territory, Mel Gray who injured his ankle the previous week in San Francisco, faked an injury and limped off the field. Enter Gary Hammond, a little used special teams player, who lined up at wide receiver. Hammond took a lateral pass from Jim Hart and proceeded to throw a long flea-flicker to a wide open Jackie Smith for an 81 yard gain. Donny Anderson then scored from one yard out to tie the game 7-7.
Mel Gray later told the post Dispatch, “I never even practiced the limp. It worked out okay.” Hammond, a former quarter back from SMU said, “He (Smith) was so open I was worried.”
GRAY A QUICK HEALER
Just a few minutes later, a miraculously recovered Mel Gray streaked right by Charlie Waters down the right sideline and hauled in an 80 yard bomb from Jim Hart to give the Big Red a 14-7 lead. It was the 11th TD reception of 55 or more yards in Gray’s three-plus year career.
“Unless they play me 20 yards off the line,” Gray said, “I don’t think anyone can cover me man to man. And if they do play me that far back, I’ll just break it off underneath.”
COWBOYS STRIKE BACK
It took only four plays for Roger Staubach to get the Cowboys back on the board. He hit Calvin Hill out of the backfield for 24 yards and then found a wide open Jean Fugett in the back of the end zone to tie the game 14-14. The teams would trade punts before the Big Red took over at their own 37 yard line with 1:04 left in the half.
JACKIE SMITH’S GREATEST PLAY
Jim Hart led the Cardinals to the Dallas 19 yard line and with just 18 seconds left in the half faced a 2nd down and 10. Hart dropped back to pass and hit Jackie Smith across the middle. Smith immediately broke a Cliff Harris tackle, barreled through D.D. Lewis, and went through two more Cowboy tacklers as he dove into the end zone to give the Big Red a 21-14 lead at halftime.
Said Coryell, “I’ve never seen a play equal to that one for repeated effort. If Jackie hadn’t scored we would have had to settle for a field goal and it wouldn’t have been enough.”
When asked what he remembered about the play, the humble Smith said, “I remember the catch and I remember diving over, nothing else. It seems that some people did hit me, but I couldn’t tell you who.
It was later reported that Smith told teammates on the sideline that this play was the greatest of his career.
CARDINALS EXTEND LEAD IN THIRD QUARTER
The Cards scored early in the third quarter after Clarence Duren intercepted an errant Roger Staubach pass and returned it to the Dallas 31. The Big Red survived a near interception of Jim Hart, a Terry Metcalf fumble, and a fourth and inches conversion before Metcalf finally ran it in from the eight yard line. The Cardinals led the Cowboys 28-14 with just over ten minutes left in the third.
St. Louis appeared to be a bit conservative on offense the rest of the way. Hart missed on his last six passes which allowed Dallas to get back into the game. They only had two first downs the entire third quarter and had two-three and outs in the fourth.
“We almost blew the game in the second half,” said Dan Dierdorf. “We let down and that’s something you have to fight against. But give Dallas credit. They started stopping the things that went well for us. But we should have scored another touchdown or at least had a time-consuming drive.”
CAPTAIN COMEBACK DOES IT AGAIN
The Cowboys cut the Big Red lead to 28-21 just 55 seconds into the fourth quarter. Roger Staubach scrambled 13 yards and then hit Drew Pearson for 20 more. Dallas converted a fourth down and inches before Walt Garrison scored on a one yard run.
The Cowboys almost tied the game midway through the fourth, but Drew Pearson dropped a long Staubach pass in the endzone.
The Cards offense continued to stall and Staubach got another opportunity with 7:08 left in the game and he once again led the Cowboys downfield. He completed two passes, scrambled for a first down, and then benefited from a pass interference call that put the ball at the Cards one yard line. Staubach dropped back to pass, rolled to his right, and then crossed the goal line untouched to tie the game at 28-28 with just 3:39 left. It appeared the Cardinals would have to play their first sudden-death overtime in team history.
COWBOYS BIG MISTAKE
The Cowboys had successfully avoided kicking the ball to dangerous Terry Metcalf on four previous kicks. However, this time, Dallas kicker Efren Herrera booted the ball right down the middle. Metcalf took the ball at the ten yard line and raced 56 yards up the left sideline before being knocked out of bounds at the Dallas 34 yard line.
“I saw a hole,” Metcalf said after the game, “and I thought I’d get a few yards. But it closed. Then I saw an alley and took off.”
The previously dormant Cardinals offense would gain their only first down of the quarter, but could only move the ball to the 14 yard line. Jim Bakken trotted onto the field and kicked a 31 yard field goal to give the Cards a 31-28 lead with 1:02 remaining.
“I didn’t want to look up before I should,” he said. “But please give the gang credit. Tom Brahaney and Roger Wehrli were tremendous.”
Roger Staubach took over at the 33 yard line and quickly moved the ball into Big Red territory, but the Cowboys were forced to use their last timeout after a big sack by Leo Brooks. With 16 seconds left, Staubach hit Golden Richards with a pass to the Cardinals 21 yard line, but Norm Thompson laid a big hit on the Cowboys wide receiver who was left squirming on the green concrete turf. The game would have ended, but officials called an injury timeout which infuriated fans and the Big Red bench. With the clock stopped, the Dallas field goal team ran on the field hoping to tie the game. But, when Richards was finally helped from the field, the officials started the clock and time ran out before the ball was snapped. Everyone was confused until the officials explained that 10 seconds are automatically run off the clock after an injury timeout for a team with no timeouts remaining.
“I was trying to keep the coaches and the rest of the players off the field,” Thompson said after the game.
Added Coryell, “I was just worried about possibly being penalized for having our players run on the field and I didn’t want the Cowboys to get that kick through a technicality.”
Dallas fans still complain about this call today, but the game was over. St. Louis 31-28 winners.