The Dallas Cowboys entered the 1971 season tagged "next year's champions" having developed a reputation for not being able to win the big games. They were a team loaded with pro-bowl and all-pro talent, had been to the playoffs the previous five years and had lost the previous year's Super / "blunder" Bowl 16-13 to the Baltimore Colts on a field goal with only seconds remaining. The 1971 draft considered by many as the worst in Cowboy's history, produced only two rookies for the talented roster of veterans, number one pick Tody Smith a defensive end from USC and Ike Thomas, a cornerback from Dallas' Bishop College (however both players were traded within two years for draft choices that produced Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Danny White, and Golden Richards).
Although Craig Morton had lead the Cowboys to Super Bowl V, Tom Landry still couldn't decide whether Morton or Roger Staubach should be the starter, so he alternated them each game, series, and often on each play to begin the season. He finally declared Staubach the starter after a crucial loss to the Chicago Bears in the 7th game that left the team with a 4-3 record and on the brink of elimination from playoff contention. Another issue was a disgruntled Duane Thomas, who after a stellar rookie season the previous year, demanded to have his contract renegotiated. The Cowboys traded him to the Buffalo Bills who nullified the trade after Thomas and Buffalo coaches couldn't get along. Thomas returned to Dallas but refused to talk to anyone for the remainder of the year. Finally, halfway through the season, Ralph Neely, their all-pro left tackle, broke his leg in a mid-season dirt bike accident and was lost for the rest of the season (Dallas signed former Green Bay lineman Forrest Gregg to replace him and later convinced Tony Liscio to return from retirement as well).
The season featured several firsts as well. Dallas won its first Monday Night Football Game on October 11, defeating the New York Giants 20-13 in their last game in the Cotton Bowl. Two weeks later they defeated the New England Patriots 44-22 on October 24 in their first game in Texas Stadium. Duane Thomas scored the first touchdown on a 56 yard run two minutes and 16 seconds into the game.
After a midseason loss to Chicago, the media and the fans were giving up on the Cowboys with all their talent ever winning a championship and possibly missing the playoffs entirely and there were doubts about Tom Landry continuing as coach. The team held a players-only meeting where it is reported that Bob Lilly, recognizing the frustrations of media and fans, said that Cowboys were only playing for themselves. That same week Landry named Staubach the starting quarterback and the team won the next 7 regular season games, 2 playoff games and the Super Bowl. Staubach finished the season as the top-rated quarterback in the league with a 104.8 rating (league average 62.2), 18 touchdowns, and only 4 interceptions. Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth caught a combined 69 passes for 1,327 yards and 10 touchdowns. Walt Garrison, Duane Thomas, and Calvin Hill added 1,690 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns. The team led the league in points scored (406 with 5 games over scoring 42 or more) and yards gained. The defense held opponents to 222 points, produced +16 takeaways and held opponents to one touchdown in the 25 quarters preceding the Super Bowl. The Cowboys led the league in points differential (13.1/g).
The Cowboys capped the season with one of the most dominating performances in Super Bowl History beating the up and coming Miami Dolphins 24-3 and Roger Staubach was MVP. In a play that forever characterizes the game Bob Lilly chased Bob Griese down for a 29-yard loss, one of the longest in Super Bowl history. Lilly later said that in the midst of the play he could see that Griese realized he had no place to go on the play and in the game (the play is also my avatar). The Cowboys held Miami without a touchdown, the only time in Super Bowl history that a team has not scored a touchdown.
Mike Ditka has said that the 1971 Cowboys are the best team in Cowboy history and maybe one of the best in NFL history. It is this team that earned the title "America's Team." Nine Cowboys players on the field that day are in the Hall of Fame (Herb Adderly, Lance Alworth, Mike Ditka, Forrest Gregg, Bob Hayes, Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Roger Staubach, and Rayfield Wright) in addition to Tom Landry, coach Ernie Stautner, and President and GM Tex Schramm. No other Super Bowl Winner has fielded 9 HOF players. Three players went on to coach NFL teams, Forrest Gregg (Cincinnati), Mike Ditka (Chicago and New Orleans) and Dan Reeves (Denver and Atlanta) with Ditka also winning a Super Bowl as coach of the Chicago Bears. Reeves has more Super Bowl Appearances (9) as a player and a coach than any other person in NFL history.
1971 was the ultimate season for those of us who followed the Cowboys beginning in 1960. By the way, the next season saw Staubach injure his shoulder and Craig Morton quarterbacked the Cowboys back to the playoffs. Staubach returned in time for the playoffs but the Cowboys lost to the George Allen coached Redskins in the NFC championship (the Redskins lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl). I see a lot of parallels from those years to these past three seasons and I think the Cowboys are on the brink of something special.