The Legend of ‘Vaudeville Left’: When Lance Rentzel’s Busted Play Broke The Steelers’ Hearts
Long before the legend of Bradshaw and Swann and Three Rivers cast a curse over America’s Team in the 1970s, it was the Dallas Cowboys who worked their own magic to frustrate the Pittsburgh Steelers into submission. From 1965-72, Tom Landry’s Cowboys won seven consecutive games over Pittsburgh by an average of nearly 12 points per contest.
It didn’t matter when or where. The Cowboys owned the Steelers. They won at the Cotton Bowl. They won at Texas Stadium. And on a cold day in October of 1967, Dallas entertained the Pitt Stadium crowd by authoring one of the more disjointed last-minute drives in franchise history to steal an unlikely victory.
Pitt Stadium was the full-time home of the Steelers for six long seasons of misery in which they posted a 19-54-3 record. It was commonly agreed that the only thing worse than the product on the field were the aesthetics surrounding it. There was no doubt about it, Pitt Stadium felt more like a dungeon than a castle.
Years later, longtime Dallas-area sportswriter Frank Luksa reflected on one of pro football’s truly bleak settings. Recalled Luksa: “Pitt Stadium, former home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was one of the most picturesque in the NFL. It was a picture of gloom.
“On days the Dallas Cowboys played there, it seemed the sun always shone elsewhere. Sundays at Pitt Stadium trigger memories of overcast on the best of afternoons. On the worst, it rained or snowed, or a combination of both. The ensuing slush was color-coordinated with the gray, rusting stadium.
“Topping the scene, as viewed from the press box, was a hill behind the stadium. There were trees on that hill but they never grew leaves. Just bare, stark limbs. A perfect setting for a cemetery, which was exactly what the location was used for.
“A high punt or pass sailed into the air against a backdrop of tombstones. Had the Steeler quarterback been named Bela Lugosi, no one would have noticed.”
But the 1967 meeting between the 4-1 Cowboys and the 1-4 Steelers brought about a welcome change for patrons. The usual crowd of rubber-neckers in the bleachers were afforded a rare opportunity to pose as authentic football fans. Yes, a football game had broken out in western Pennsylvania, one filled with thrills, spills, and late-game dramatics.
With Don Meredith inactive due to an injury, Craig Morton started at quarterback for the Cowboys. But if Steelers head coach Bill Austin was hoping that Meredith’s absence would slow Dallas’ vaunted passing offense, he was in for a significant disappointment. Morton connected with “Bullet” Bob Hayes for two long touchdown plays to put the Cowboys ahead 14-0 in the second quarter. Hayes would finish the game with 7 receptions for 170 yards.
As good as Morton was for Tom Landry’s club that day, he wasn’t even the best quarterback on the field. That distinction belonged to TCU alum Kent Nix, who shredded the Dallas defense all afternoon with pinpoint passes. On his way to piling up 313 yards through the air, Nix brought the Steelers back from their early deficit to tie the game at 14-all early in the fourth quarter. And when Dallas went back in front moments later with a 34-yard Danny Villanueva field goal, Nix was there to lead another scoring drive. His 11-yard touchdown pass to J.R. Wilburn with 1:12 remaining put the Steelers ahead for the first time in the game 21-17.
The Pittsburgh defensive unit took the field for the final time confident of victory. They clapped their hands, and joked amongst each other. Surely, there was no way that Morton could move the Cowboys 77 yards in less than 70 seconds.
As Cowboys left tackle Ralph Neely approached the line of scrimmage for the first-down play, he offered up a warning for Pittsburgh’s premature celebration.
“I looked at No. 62 (Lloyd Voss) and told him, ‘Say, buddy, this thing ain’t over yet.’ But he didn’t believe me.”
The undoing of Voss and the Steelers that day was a play that became etched in franchise lore, forever known as “Vaudeville Left.” It was the Cowboys’ version of the “Holy Roller,” a play so imperfectly executed that it ripped the hearts from the upset-minded Steelers.
On first-down-and-10 from the Dallas 23, Morton rolled to his left and threw deep downfield in the direction of Lance Rentzel. Having caught up with the ball at the Pittsburgh 35-yard line, Rentzel turned upfield, but was hit from behind, causing him to fumble the ball forward. Dan Reeves, trailing the play, tried to pick up the ball for Dallas. He missed, and the ball continued to trickle downfield. Finally, Reeves fell on the ball at the Steeler 6-yard line.
“We hadn’t practiced that play all week but we ran it real smoothly,” shrugged Rentzel afterwards. “Didn’t the ball bounce nicely, though?”
Said Reeves of his juggling act: “When I saw Lance fumble, I headed for the ball. It bounced perfectly twice and I figured to grab it on the third bounce and run it in for a touchdown. But it didn’t bounce and I couldn’t hold it when I reached for it. So I knew I had better fall on it before I messed everything up.”
The next play was equally disjointed for the Cowboys, though no less successful. Rentzel was Morton’s primary target on first-and-goal, but good coverage forced Morton to scramble from the pocket. Having bought extra time, Morton was able to spot Pettis Norman in the end-zone. Norman, who had been knocked off his feet earlier in the play, stood all alone in the end-zone as he hauled in the game-winning touchdown. It was Norman’s first scoring grab in two seasons.
“I kept yelling ‘Craig! Craig!’ I don’t know if he heard me or not,” Pettis said. “But when I got back to the bench, Willie Townes said he was hoping Craig would hurry up and throw me the ball so I would shut up.”
The scapegoat for this particular Steelers meltdown proved to be cornerback Brady Keys, the defender that Rentzel beat on the “Vaudeville Left” play. It seems that Key’s last instructions from his head coach were to avoid letting Rentzel get deep. Give him the sideline, said Bill Austin, but nothing long. But when Rentzel faked a sideline route, Keys bit on it, and was helpless to defend against Rentzel’s double-move upfield.
So while the Cowboys celebrated a 5-1 record in the visitors locker room, Austin put his veteran cornerback on waivers.