Memory Lane: Cowboys-Rams, 1978 NFC Championship


Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson said the Los Angeles Rams didn’t have the class to be in Super Bowl XIII. It was a foreboding statement from the Dallas Cowboys’ renegade linebacker. Dallas dispatched Los Angeles 28-0 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and posted the first ever shutout in NFC Championship game history. The Cowboys forced seven turnovers en route to a rematch with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Miami’s Orange Bowl. Los Angeles may not have had class, but it didn’t stop Dallas from teaching them a lesson on January 7th, 1979.

The Dallas Cowboys’ nineteenth season began with a 38-0 shutout of the Baltimore Colts on Monday Night Football. The Super Bowl champions looked primed to defend their title. However, the Cowboys fell to 3-2 and later 6-4 on the season along the way to a 12-4 finish. They weren’t galloping through their schedule as they had in 1977, posting a franchise best two losses, a record standing to this day. Going 4-0 starting on Thanksgiving, Dallas returned to the playoffs for their eleventh time. Backup quarterback Danny White filled in for an injured Roger Staubach to scoot by the Atlanta Falcons 27-20 and go to their seventh NFC Championship game.

Fortune shown brighter on the Los Angeles Rams in 1978. The Rams jumped out to a 7-0 start, with their Week 3 game being a 27-14 win over the Cowboys in Texas Stadium, before suffering their first loss that begat an immediate second. At 7-2, the Rams went 5-2 down the stretch to go 12-4 and clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In their divisional playoff rematch with Minnesota, Los Angeles subjugated the Vikings 34-10 in a cleaner matchup than the ’77 Mud Bowl the Rams barely lost 7-14 in the Coliseum.

If Hollywood Henderson were to say the Cowboys had more postseason experience than the Rams, he would be correct. On the face of it, the ’78 Cowboys were fortunate to make it out of the divisional playoffs.

Over 67,000 fans occupied the Los Angeles Coliseum to see the Rams battle for their first Super Bowl appearance in now their fourth chance. They didn’t see any offensive fireworks, other than Rams kicker Frank Corral’s two missed field goals.

There were nonetheless fireworks. During one of Corral’s failed attempts, Rams linebacker Kevin McLain pulled as a guard to knock Hollywood Henderson, renowned for his athletic ability, away from blocking the field goal. McLain missed Henderson, who was also unsuccessful, and Corral missed putting three points on the scoreboard. Hollywood Henderson swore up and down the Rams decided to injure him for his comments about class. Henderson lambasted Los Angeles coach Ray Malavasi and told him he would personally defeat his Rams on this day.

At halftime, Henderson was all talk. In fact, both teams had done very little walking with a 0-0 score at intermission. Even the majority of the third quarter was mired in more offensive impotence. This looked to be the lowest scoring NFC Championship game since its 1970 inception and possibly the first conference championship game to go into overtime.

The lid finally popped off when ninth-year safety Charlie Waters nabbed his eighth postseason interception off of a Pat Haden pass. Waters returned the ball to the Rams 10 yard line. Though so close, the Cowboys took five plays to score a touchdown thanks to second-year Tony Dorsett’s five-yard run. It was 7-0 Cowboys heading into the fourth quarter.

Though a new period and a new drive, it was the same story for the Rams offense, but with a new break. Waters again picked off Pat Haden and helped set up another Cowboys touchdown from inside the Rams 10, and set a still-standing NFL postseason record of nine interceptions. During the pass, Haden’s throwing hand smacked off off Dallas defensive tackle Randy White’s helmet. With a broken thumb on his throwing hand, Haden was forced to egress and backup quarterback Vince Ferragamo forced to enter and respond to the Cowboys’ 14-0 lead.

Ferragamo foreshadowed his talent that would someday pierce the Cowboys like a bullet to the heart. On his first drive, Ferragamo hit wide receiver Willie Miller for a 65-yard pass to get Los Angeles at Dallas’ 10 yard line. Yet it was veteran runningback Cullen Bryant’s fumble on the very next play that helped deepen the hole. With 89 yards to go, the Cowboys could take their precious time and possibly kick a field goal to make it a three-score game. Dallas made it a three-score game all right, but rather quickly thanks to Tony Dorsett’s 53-yard dash. Billy Joe Dupree capped off the drive with a touchdown catch of 11 yards to make it 21-0 Cowboys.

The Rams were not able to work any comeback magic, and they were certainly cursed at when Hollywood Henderson picked off Ferragamo for a 68-yard touchdown with a little over a minute remaining. If the Coliseum grounds had been drier, Henderson would have slam-dunked it over the goal post rather than laying it up. Henderson had beaten the Rams, but he hadn’t done it single-handedly. It was a team effort, as are all wins in the NFL playoffs.

Dallas exhibited the class Hollywood Henderson spoke of in the game’s prelude. Though having set the record for most conference championships won with five and being the fourth team to have a chance to defend their Super Bowl title, the Cowboys locker room was subdued and relieved. There weren’t any coaches being dunked into showers like when the ’76 Raiders won their conference title game. The Rams fans on the way to the exits exhibited more enthusiasm waving to the cameras. Certainly an arduous journey, the Cowboys players and coaches, especially head coach Tom Landry, were reserved. It seemed routine to win these grand contests. Perhaps upon accomplishing this step, they were already focused on the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had previously defeated Dallas in Super Bowl X and obliterated another Texas team 34-5 earlier that day in the AFC Championship game.

The Cowboys’ prolific defense was the dominant unit that day. All Pro safety Cliff Harris, Pro Bowler Hollywood Henderson, and journeyman defensive back Randy Hughes would each record an interception in addition to Charlie Waters’ two. Charlie Waters also recovered a fumble, as did Pro Bowl defensive end Harvey Martin, who also had a beautiful sack. Teammate Dave Stalls would record a sack, as Hollywood Henderson and Charlie Waters would split one.

If the offense had any hero, it was Tony Dorsett with his 101 yards and a touchdown on only 17 carries. No Cowboys receiver caught more than 2 balls for more than 20 yards. Tight end Billy Joe DuPree was the leading receiver with 3 catches for 48 yards and a touchdown. Legendary quarterback Roger Staubach went 13/25 for 126 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.

The Rams are the only team the Cowboys have vanquished in the conference championship without retribution, holding a 2-0 record. The Rams also sustained another shutout in 1985’s NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears, coached by former Cowboys assistant Mike Ditka. It was only as the St. Louis Rams that this franchise ever won a Super Bowl.

The Los Angeles Rams would get the next laugh and the last laugh against the Cowboys in the postseason. In the 1979 divisional playoffs, Vince Ferragamo hit Billy Waddy to upset the Cowboys en route to challenging the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV. The 1985 Divisional playoffs would see the Rams shutting out the Cowboys 20-0 in the same Coliseum. To date, it is the last postseason encounter between these two franchises.

Only two teams can transcend their capital: the Raiders and the Cowboys. When other teams have left a city, all that remains are the memories. Similarly, St. Louis Rams fans don’t really have a connection to these Los Angeles battles. It’s virtually a whole new franchise. Nonetheless, Cowboys fans can’t forget the classic battles their team had with the Rams.

Today’s Cowboys defense has proven to be as forceful in takeaways as those ’78 NFC Championship game Cowboys. It will take another performance like that to slaughter the Rams on Sunday for old time’s sake.