On August 21, 1976, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the San Diego Chargers in an NFL preseason matchup at Aloha Stadium. The NFL was a different world back then. Nowadays, we think of the Steelers, Patriots, 49ers, and Cowboys as four of the greatest franchises in the league, with a staggering 22 Super Bowl titles split among them. However, in 1976, those four storied franchises had just three Super Bowl victories combined. One of those victories belonged to the Dallas Cowboys. Now, 43 years and four Super Bowl titles later, the Cowboys have helped bring the NFL back to the Aloha State. Playing as the visiting team, Dallas emerged victorious in a 14-10 preseason tilt against its hosts, the Los Angeles Rams, at Aloha Stadium on Saturday.
“The fans were awesome from start to finish,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said. “Being here the last couple of days has been a great experience for our organization and (Hawai’i) has certainly made us feel welcome. It’s a real credit to the fans and the people here and we were very thankful for the opportunity.”
The long awaited NFL return to Hawai'i got off to a rocky start. The Rams won the pregame coin toss and elected to receive. On the ensuing kickoff, Cowboys linebacker Chris Covington went down with a scary injury and looked to be visibly in pain. Covington was able to walk off the field, but did not return for the remainder of the game. With quarterback Jared Goff and many of the Rams’ starters resting in L.A., quarterback Blake Bortles took the helm. Bortles started the game strong with a 26-yard completion on his third throw of the day, but the Rams offense moved backwards on consecutive plays and were eventually forced to punt. Star punter Johnny Hekker salvaged the situation with a 50-yard punt that pinned the Cowboys to their own 3-yard line.
With their backs to the wall on their own goal line, Cowboys starting quarterback Dak Prescott led the Cowboys on a 12-play, 97 yard drive to get on the scoreboard first. In his first and only drive of the game, Prescott completed 5 of 5 passes for 64 yards, including a 31-yard back shoulder throw to second year receiver Michael Gallup that dug the Cowboys out of a 3rd & 7 hole. Fourth round rookie running back Tony Pollard also impressed in his only drive, taking five carries for 42 yards and the opening touchdown.
“He’s played well,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s handled himself well. He hasn’t gotten caught up in (his ongoing contract dispute) at all. He comes to work everyday, and he’s a tremendous example for his teammates on how to go about things.”
On the next possession, the Cowboys defense stepped up and held the Bortles-led Rams offense to a 3-and-out, but a muffed punt by receiver Reggie Davis handed the ball back to Los Angeles. The Rams took full advantage of the Dallas blunder, punching the ball into the endzone on a Bortles completion to receiver Jojo Natson to tie the game at 7 apiece. On the Cowboys second possession, quarterback Mike White and running back Alfred Morris took over in the back field. The Rams held Dallas to a 3-and-out of their own, but took the imitation game too far as Natson muffed a punt to give the Cowboys a second chance. Luckily for the Rams, their mistake didn’t result in any lost points as Cowboys kicker Brett Maher’s 52-yard attempt sailed wide left of the goal posts.
With the score knotted at 7-7, Rams quarterback Brandon Allen took over for Blake Bortles. Bortles finished the night with 7 completions out of 11 attempts with 62 yards and 1 touchdown. Natson took a well-designed jet sweep for 9-yards, but that last yard proved to be the longest as the Rams were held to a 3 and out. The stalemate continued late into the second quarter, until a 10-play 49-yard Rams drive culminated in a go-ahead Greg Zuerlein field goal. Zuerlein later had a chance to add to the lead with 12 seconds left in the first half, but his 56-yard field goal attempt missed to the left.
The game turned sloppy to start the 3rd quarter, as the teams traded their first offensive turnovers on back-to-back plays. Cowboys quarterback Mike White’s deep pass attempt to receiver Jon’vea Johnson was picked off by Rams defensive back Dont’e Deayon. On the very next play, Rams quarterback Brandon Allen’s pass attempt to receiver Kendall Blanton was picked off by recently resigned linebacker Justin Phillips
“Often times you have to make some decision about a guy before you really get a chance to see them,” Garrett said of Phillips. “As he was walking out the door, I said ‘stay ready, we might want to bring you back.' He was ready. He did a really good job”
The Cowboys finally took the lead for good late in the third quarter. Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush led the team on a 6-play 72-yard drive, ending in an 8-yard touchdown reception from Rush to receiver Devin Smith.
The surprise performance of the game came in the form of Rams undrafted rookie Jalen Greene. Greene finished with 4 receptions on 6 targets with a game high 43 receiving yards and made some big catches. Greene’s teammate, quarterback Brandon Allen, had a game-high 115 yards, but failed to throw a touchdown while adding an interception. Cowboys running back Tony Pollard finished with a game-high 42 yards on 5 carries.
“Tony was very poised,” Garrett said. “He plays with maturity far beyond his years. It follows with what we’ve seen from him in practice. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s going about it the right way.”
The Rams and the Cowboys will both be heading home to prepare for their next preseason games. The Rams are scheduled to face the Denver Broncos at the LA Memorial Coliseum, while the Cowboys square up with in-state rival Houston Texans at the AT&T Stadium.