By Zane Miller
After being taken with the 129th overall pick in the 1964 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, quarterback Roger Staubach had one of the most unique routes to becoming a Pro Football Hall of Fame member that the league has ever seen. Before even taking a snap in Dallas, Staubach spent the first four years after his draft year serving in the U.S. Navy, including serving as a Supply Corps officer in South Vietnam in 1967. Once his time in the military was completed, he officially joined the Cowboys for his rookie season in 1969, backing up starter Craig Morton. However, Staubach wouldn’t have to wait much longer to make his presence known to the NFL world, as he won the starting job in 1971 and led the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl title, winning 24-3 over the Miami Dolphins, along with going undefeated in his 10 regular season starts on the way to a runner-up spot in MVP voting.
Although he suffered a setback the following season due to a shoulder injury, he returned to form for the next three seasons as he scored winning records in each of those years, including a 1973 campaign which saw him lead the league in passing touchdowns, and culminating in a 1975 season where he led Dallas to another Super Bowl appearance, though the team would fall short in a 21-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1976, however, he would begin one of the most impressive final stretches of any quarterback in NFL history.
Staubach’s finest performance of the 1976 season came on September 26th at home against the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts, where he threw for a pair of touchdowns and 339 yards, which would eventually be the highest single-game passing yardage total of his career. The Cowboys took a 30-26 win, going on to finish at an 11-3 record, with Staubach starting every game.
Staubach ended the 1976 season with 14 touchdowns and 2,715 yards through the air, tying with San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts for the ninth spot in passing touchdowns and fifth in yardage, coming just 22 yards short of Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders starter Ken Stabler for fourth.
On December 19th, with the Cowboys winning the NFC East title, they would stay put in Irving to take on the NFC West-winning Los Angeles Rams at 10-3-1 in the first round of the postseason. Dallas would get the early momentum on their side, as Efrin Herrera drilled a first quarter field goal, before the Rams took the lead for themselves with a short touchdown run from rookie quarterback Pat Haden to make it 7-3. The Cowboys answered before halftime, with a blocked punt resulting in fullback Scott Laidlaw punching it in for a 10-7 advantage. The defenses of both sides would hold pat in the third, leading to a one-possession game coming into the fourth quarter for a chance to reach the NFC Championship Game.
The Cowboys’ fragile grip on the lead would be relinquished early on in the final frame, with a running into the kicker penalty extended what would have been a minimally damaging Rams drive into a go-ahead touchdown, with Lawrence McCutcheon finding paydirt to reclaim the lead for Los Angeles. With the Dallas offense continuing to struggle throughout the second half, leading to seven total punts by the team, their final chance to overcome the deficit came with two minutes remaining in regulation time. However, this occurred after blocking a Los Angeles punt, which already put them inside the red zone. Despite the odds of a comeback being in their favor, Staubach would be unable to move the ball after throwing three straight incomplete passes to set up a fourth down in what would essentially decide the game. While he connected with veteran tight end Billy Joe DuPree, he would be stopped short of the first down marker to end the Cowboys’ chances at a second straight Super Bowl appearance. After a Rams intentional safety with no time left made the final score 14-12, the Cowboys would be officially eliminated.
Unfortunately for Staubach, he had one of the worst postseason performances of his career in the first round exit, throwing for just 150 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions on the evening. However, he wouldn’t have to wait long for another 10+ win season and another opportunity at a Super Bowl run.