Cowboys-49ers Rivalry Began With Roger Staubach’s First Comeback In 1972

Ask most NFL fans of a certain age what is significant about Dec. 23, 1972, in terms of last-minute comebacks, and the answer every time is going to be “The Immaculate Reception,” when Franco Harris picked a deflected fourth-down pass off the turf at Three Rivers Stadium and carried the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-ever playoff victory into the end zone against the stunned and forever-aggrieved Oakland Raiders.

It is considered by many the greatest play in NFL history. But if you’re from Dallas, and to a lesser extent San Francisco, that game isn’t even the best playoff comeback story that day.

The Immaculate Reception was merely the opening act on Dec. 23, 1972. What followed later that afternoon at Candlestick Park, in an NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, was the birth of the other great 1970s legend in the NFL.

Move over, Franco. Make room for “Captain Comeback.”

Roger Staubach wasn’t even the Cowboys’ starter in the first great finish of his career

Roger Staubach leads a fourth-quarter comeback against the 49ers in 1972
Roger Staubach | Howard Erker / Oakland Tribune Staff Archives/Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images

Looking back from a 50-year lens, it almost seems unfathomable that there was a time in Roger Staubach’s career with the Dallas Cowboys that he couldn’t even hold down the starting job, even after leading the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl title in 1971.

No offense to Craig Morton, but it took until the fourth quarter of the 1972 NFC Divisional Playoff game against the 49ers for Staubach to finally grab permanent hold of starting job, and it took a comeback from 15 points down in that fourth quarter to do it.

Staubach had entered the 1972 preseason as the Cowboys starter, but a shoulder injury in their third exhibition game knocked him out for all but four cameo appearances at the end of the regular season. Morton, who had led Dallas to Super Bowl 5 in 1970 – having beaten the 49ers in the first of three straight playoff meetings with San Francisco in the 1970 NFC Championship Game – started all 14 games in 1972 and led the Cowboys back into the playoffs, and back to Candlestick Park.

But this time it appeared that for the 49ers, the third time was going to be the charm. Having lost two straight NFC Championship Games to Dallas, the 49ers raced to a 21-3 lead in this Divisional Round and led 28-13 entering the fourth quarter.

Then Cowboys coach Tom Landry made the final quarterback change of Staubach’s career.

The legend of Staubach’s fourth-quarter comebacks is born at Candlestick Park

Landry finally pulled the plug on Morton at the end of the third quarter, but Staubach nearly allowed the game to be put away with a fumble. To the Cowboys’ great fortune, of which there would be an abundance the remainder of this game, the 49ers missed a field goal that would have given them an 18-point lead. Instead, Staubach engineered a scoring drive with the help of a 48-yard run by Calvin Hill – father of Duke and NBA legend Grant Hill — that yielded a field goal to make it 28-16.

The deficit was still 12 with two minutes left when the Cowboys took over near midfield. But it took Staubach just four passes and 30 seconds to deliver a touchdown, hitting Billy Parks from 20-yards out to cut the deficit to 28-23.

The fortuitous foot of Tony Fritsch gives Staubach the chance to complete the comeback

At that point, with 1:30 left, Dallas kicker Tony Fritsch pulled off a trick on-side kick, kicking the ball with his back leg to send the ball to his right after approaching the ball as though he intended to kick left. The deception confused the 49ers’ Preston Riley just enough to make him bobble the ball, and Cowboys’ cornerback Mel Renfro pounced to give Dallas one final chance.

On first down from the 50, “Roger the Dodger” scrambled 21 yards to the 49ers’ 29, then hit Parks again for 19 yards to the 10. And then the comeback was complete. Staubach threw over the middle and hit Ron Sellers for the touchdown that gave the Cowboys the win, 30-28. So improbable was the comeback, Dallas’ defensive unit, watching the final drive unfold from the sideline, rolled around on the ground in delirious disbelief when Sellers scored.

Cowboys safety Charlie Waters would later say that because of this game, they never believed they were out of a game with Staubach under center (or in the shotgun). Indeed, Staubach would lead 23 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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