12th Man Wasn't The Crowd In '81 Against Cowboys
It was a loss that irked the late Dallas Cowboys executive Tex Schramm till the day he died, according to some accounts. And it was one of the most zany wins the Lions ever had.
It happened on November 15, 1981, at the Pontiac Silverdome.
The 8-2 Cowboys came to town to face the 4-6 Lions. These were the Cowboys in the heyday of their "America's Team" label. The Lions were a talented team that was trying to find itself. A few weeks earlier, coach Monte Clark turned to untested rookie QB Eric Hipple in a Monday night home game against the Bears. The Lions started out 2-4 under the leadership of Gary Danielson. In Hipple's debut, now legendary, he threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more in a 48-17 romp.
On this particular Sunday against the Cowboys, Hipple would have no such heroics. But he did keep the Lions close, and drove the team down the field in the waning moments, the game tied, 24-24.
What happened at the final gun can only be described as controlled chaos.
Watching the game on TV, I couldn't believe my eyes. In one moment, the Lions had just run a play that failed to get out of bounds. It was fourth down, so spiking the ball was out of the question. The Lions were inside the Cowboys' 30-yard line. In the next moment, the Lions showing rare late-game smarts, kicker Eddie Murray and the field goal unit were on the field. The clock was ticking down to 0:00.
Somehow, the Lions managed to get set, snap the ball, and get off a kick. The football traveled end-over-end, straight thru the uprights, about 45 yards away. The clock expired when the ball was in the air.
The Lions had won, 27-24.
Later, it was determined that the Lions, in their haste to get the kick team on the field, actually had 12 men on the field when Murray thumped the ball home. The next day, the newspapers ran a photo taken from press box level, going so far as to number the Lions on the field. Sure enough, there were 12.
Schramm, the Cowboys president, was livid. He protested to the league. Not only did the league dismiss the protest, commissioner Pete Rozelle said, "No matter how many Lions were on the field, it was an exciting game, and the 12th man had no bearing on whether the kick was good."
Longtime Cowboys exec Tex Schramm, who died in 2003
Schramm stewed about the loss for a long time. Some say he never really got it out of his system.
The Lions would go on to play the Tampa Bay Bucs on the final Sunday in Pontiac, the NFC Central title squarely on the line. They were 7-0 at home. But the Bucs beat them, as Hipple was intercepted in the end zone during the final drive.
Two years later, Murray would blow a much more famous kick in the NFC playoffs in San Francisco, otherwise known as the "Monte Clark prays" game.
I still think about that '81 Lions-Cowboys game from time to time. I was watching it in the front room of our fraternity house, the blackout lifted. I can see Murray appearing on the field, out of nowhere -- almost as if he'd been there during the play before. It all happened so fast. The Lions ran a play, it was fourth down, and suddenly they were in FG formation. Then they got the ball snapped and the kick was on its way. All in a matter of seconds.
Rarely have the Lions shown such competence.