When the Dolphins tangle with the Cowboys on Thursday afternoon, it won't be the first time the two teams have shared the big stage, by any stretch. Consider: since 1991, when the NFL and the TV networks agreed that a team from each conference will visit Detroit and Dallas in alternate years (thus allowing both CBS and Fox to reap the benefits of covering the Cowboys game), the Dolphins have played the Cowboys at Dallas exactly four times during the regular season. All four of those have been thanksgiving games. Clearly, somebody considers Dolphins-Cowboys to be a headliner.
Indeed the two teams have played a storied series, the first game of which is the most noteworthy: Dallas' long-awaited breakthrough victory in Super Bowl VI. On Tuesday, Sports Illustrated's Don Banks, wrote a retrospective of the game, noting that the 1971 Cowboys had more Hall of Famers than any other team to play the game (albeit many of them, such as Mike Ditka, Herb Adderly, Lance Alworth and Forrest Gregg, has played the bulk of their careers elsewhere). On one level, that made the championship all the sweeter, especially for long-suffering vets like Ditka:
"Supposedly for a lot of us, our careers were over,'' Ditka said. "Guys like me, Alworth, Gregg and Adderley, we were washed up. But Tom built a pretty darn good football team, and it's pretty amazing to see the vision he had, and to watch him make it work with the players he brought in. I know when he traded for me, he was very honest. He said, 'I don't know if you can play any more or not, but I'm going to give you the chance. Come down here and get in shape, and do all the things I want you to do.' I did, and we won, and what we had was a bunch of guys who really played for each other.''
More Dolphin hunting after the break...
Since then there have been other great contests between these two teams, one of the most exciting of which, a close contest in 1981, was detailed on these pages in our "ten best regular season games" series. But that's a little off topic; the narrative today is that a startling number of Miami-Dallas tilts have happened on Thanksgiving. To wit:
1973: The following year, Miami went undefeated and, after losing their second game of the season, to Oakland, continued to pile up wins. They came to Texas Stadium having won eight in a row. Dolphins jump out to a 14-0 lead behind a short Larry Csonka run and a 45-yard pass from Bob Griese to Paul Warfield and nurse it until the fourth quarter, when Walt Garrison finished off a drive with a one-yard plunge. The main storyline was the suffocating Miami defense, which sacked Roger Staubach three times and held Dallas to 136 net passing yards. The Dolphins went 12-2 en route to a second consecutive Lombardi.
1993: The famed Leon Lett game, which was aired on the NFL network last night. On a snowy field, where footing was treacherous, both teams' big backs found surer footing. Keith Byars started the scoring with a long 77-yard run and street free agent Lincoln Coleman outrushed Emmitt Smith. In the second quarter, the Cowboys responded with a long, grinding drive then, with almost no time left in before halftime, went ahead on a brilliant Kevin Williams punt return. The Cowboys couldn't score again, however. Two Miami drives ended in field goals from close range and, as the clock ticked down, the Dolphins were driving for a winning kick. It was blocked by Jimmy Jones but, as it skittered towards the end zone, poor Leon tried to fall on it only to touch it and render it live. After falling on the loose ball at the one yard line, Miami had another go at much shorter range, and kicked the game winner.
1999: Jimmy Johnson, now the Dolphins'; coach, brings his troops to Dallas for another Thanksgiving classic...which wasn't particularly classic. The Cowboys defense harassed Miami signalcaller Dan Marino all afternoon, holding him to 19 of 41 passing and collecting five interceptions in a game that was tight until the final period, by which time he had been replaced by Damon Huard. The Cowboys' diminutive OLB, Dexter Coakley, broke a scoreless third-quarter tie with a 46-yard pick six. After a field goal early in the fourth, Troy Aikman hit Rocket Ismail with a 65-yard scoring strike to put the game out of reach.
2003: The Cowboys are newly resurgent under Bill Parcells who has magically and mystically lifted the franchise from its three-year, 5-11 malaise. The Sunday before, Dallas edged Carolina in a battle of first-place teams, after which Parcells tearfully sniffed that the media couldn't call his players "losers anymore." In my first-ever game at Texas Stadium (I had hand-painted an "Our Tuna Ain't Dolphin Safe" sign), Miami quickly returned them to loser status. Quarterback Jay Fielder, smoothly operating offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense, had a big game throwing to wideout Chris Chambers and handing it off to Ricky Williams. The Cowboys defense has no answer in a convincing 40-21 defeat, leaving ol' Rabble wiping his eyes on his homemade sign.
So, what will 2011 add to this history? Will we hearken back fondly, remembering the day the Dallas defense befuddled an opposing quarterback? Will we shudder at the boneheaded play that cost the game in the final seconds? Will we smile at the thought of for Tony Romo touchdown passes? The spectacular catch by Dez Bryant? Will we see this as the game that exposed a defense long on heart but short on talent? With this series, you never know...
Here's to a happy and restful holiday for all--with a convincing Cowboys victory for dessert!