After the 1972 Super Bowl the Cowboy's had removed the "can't win the big game" and the "next year's champions" labels. The way they had dominated teams in their 10 game-winning Super Bowl run had the media talking dynasty. But Duane Thomas was still demanding a new contract so the Cowboys traded him to the San Diego Chargers where he never played a down, including a much hyped game with Dallas during the season. To shore up their running back depth the Cowboys took Bill Thomas from Boston College in the first round with the 26th pick and Robert Newhouse in the 2nd with the 35th pick. Other notable draft picks were punter Marv Bateman in the 3rd with the 78th pick and TE Jean Fugett in the 13th round with the 338th pick. They also picked up UDFA Benny Barnes of Stanford who along with Newhouse would have the most notable careers with the Cowboys.
Talk of dynasty waned however when Staubach suffered a concussion against the College All-stars and shoulder separation that required surgery two games later (Staubach was wearing shoulder pads that were too small for his position which many thought contributed to his injury). Dan Reeves was called out of retirement as a backup until Staubach could return. Thus Craig Morton and Calvin Hill became the starters at QB and running back. Aging WR's Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth lost their effectiveness and newly arrived trades Ron Sellers and Billy Parks were called upon to pick up the slack, with Sellers leading all wide receivers with 31 catches (neither would be with the team in 1973). Calvin Hill led the team with 43 receptions. The defense led the league in fewest rushing yards allowed but their takeaways declined. This factor plus the decline in offensive production made the season a struggle for the defending champions and they finished with a 10-4 record and a 2nd place finish to the George Allen coached Redskins.
The season was not without its high points however. Calvin Hill became the first Cowboy to rush for over 1000 yds in a single season. Interestingly, both Walt Garrison and rookie Robert Newhouse had better yds per attempt than Hill. The other highlight is the first official season for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Previously the cheerleaders were recruited from local high schools and were known as the Cow belles and beaus. Fans have been forever grateful for this landmark change.
Dallas enters the playoffs, but this time as a wild-card. They faced the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs for the third consecutive year (previous two years in the NFC championship. The 49ers were coached by Dick Nolan, long-time Landry teammate, assistant coach, and friend. The 49ers also lost their starting QB, 37 year-old John Brodie, until the last game of the season and were led most of the season by Steve Spurrier. The 49ers went up 7-0 on a 97 yd kickoff return by Vic Washington. Things went downhill from there as the Cowboys turned the ball over several times and San Francisco led 21-13 at halftime. In the third quarter another turnover, fumble by Calvin Hill, led to another 49er touchdown, extending the lead to 28-13. At the end of the third quarter, down by 15, Landry replaced Morton with Staubach. Staubach fumbled to end his first drive, but SF missed their field goal attempt. Staubach led the team down the field (most of it on a 48 yd draw play by Hill). After a pass completion to Billy Parks, Toni Fritsch kicked a field goal to narrow the score to 28-16. With almost two minutes to play following a 49er short punt, Staubach completed passes to Garrison for 16 yds and a 20 yd touchdown pass to Billy Parks, a 32 second drive. Fritsch executed an onside kick that was recovered by Mel Renfro. After a 21 yd scramble by Staubach, and a 19 yd pass to Parks, who killed the clock out of bounds, Staubach had to find his secondary receiver Ron Sellers in the end zone for the go ahead score. The 49ers got the ball back with 52 seconds on the clock and Brodie completed 4 passes to put them in field goal range but the last play was negated by a holding penalty. On the next play, Brodie was intercepted by Charlie Waters to close out the 30-28 win for the Cowboys. Although the Cowboys out gained the 49ers 402 to 255, they turned the ball over 5 times but had none in the 4th quarter.
The next week, Dallas traveled to RFK stadium to meet NFC East Champion Washington Redskins. Dallas had split their season series with Washington but this time Staubach was to get the start. During the week prior to the game George Allen and the Redskin defense talked about how they would intimidate Staubach. They backed their words up by sacking him 6 times and limiting the Cowboy offense to 8 first downs and 169 yards on the way to winning 26-3. Washington would go on to lose to undefeated Miami Dolphins 14-7 with the Redskins only score coming on a 49 yd fumble return.
As a result of the Dolphins' win, Miami remains the only undefeated team of the post-merger era and Dallas and Miami are the only teams to win a Super Bowl after losing the previous year. Staubach would remain the starter going on to a HOF career and Craig Morton after another year with the Cowboys would leave for the New York Giants. Dan Reeves would retire again, followed by Mike Ditka, and both were soon added to the Cowboys coaching staff. The following year, (1974) the Cowboys added Drew Pearson, Golden Richards, Billy Joe Dupree, and Harvey Martin who would lead the team into the storied Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers and ultimately to their second NFL Championship in 1978.