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Writing the Cowboys Canon

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Merry Christmas everybody.  As you wait for the finale on Sunday, give yourself the gift of great Cowboys memories.  Play the "Build the Cowboys Canon" game:

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A major task for art and literary critics is canon building -- deciding which standards in their fields are fundamental and obvious. Scholars can debate standards endlessly.  If they can reach a consensus, however rough,  on what makes a painting, poem, novel, song, musical composition or film great, they can apply those standards to their discipline and generate a list of great works.

The idea of all-time Cowboys greatness has been the subject of debate all year and especially last week, as Texas Stadium was closed down.  It's also prompted by a new DVD set issued by NFL Films,  "Dallas Cowboys Greatest Games."    The set contains ten games:

  • The five Super Bowl Wins
  • The '92 and '93 NFC title wins over San Francisco;
  • The '95 NFC title win over Green Bay;
  • The '75 "Hail Mary" playoff win over Minnesota;
  • Danny White's 1980 playoff comeback over Atlanta.

Consider me underwhelmed.  These are certainly ten of the most important games in Cowboys history.  But I want to debate the value of a "greatest game."  What makes greatness?  If we are creating the canon of "Greatest Cowboys Games" what criteria should we apply?

I'm going to suggest these rules:

1.  The game has to be important.  It has to be a Super Bowl, playoff game, or regular season game with significant meaning;

2.  The opponent has to be worthy.  Playing a near-perfect blowout win over a patsy doesn't count.  Beating a dominant foe does.

3.  The Cowboys have to play at or above their standards.  I have some problems with placing Super Bowl 12 on this list.  Sure, it's an important win in the franchise's history, and the defense was dominant, but the offense should have scored 50 points that day.  Tom Landry, as was his wont in many such games, put too many moving parts in play.  The Cowboys dropped passes.  They fumbled in the Broncos red zone.  They missed field goals.  The first half of that game was ugly.

It was a championship win, but it was hardly a work of art.  It was, in fact, very sloppy.

To make the pantheon, the Cowboys can't say they could have done better, that they left a lot of points on the table or gave up needless scores.

4.  The game has to be valuable as a game.  It needs some combination of big plays,  drama,  lead changes, comebacks,  extraordinary individual performances, or successful David vs. Goliath confrontations. The game has to be an exemplar of pro football, to considered great.

5.  To be a great Cowboys game, I think a candidate needs to satisfy at least three of the four criteria listed above.

Based on these rules, we have to accept a sad fact: some of the greatest Cowboys games are losses.

The Ice Bowl, Super Bowls X and XIII and the '82 NFC Title Game loss to the 49ers are some of the signature games in league history.  If we're talking greatest games in Cowboys history, we have to include them. 

Or do we? Are we in fact looking for greatest wins in Dallas lore?  It's Christmas day.  I'm in a festive mood.  I think you are too.  Let's take losses, no matter how heroic, out of the equation.

Based on that change, here are my candidates for the "Greatest Cowboys Games."  Given the team's rich history, I find it self-defeating to limit myself to ten games, so I won't.

1.  The 1967 Divisional Playoff win over Cleveland -- Tom Landry's first playoff win was a 52-14 demolition of the Browns.  This was the signature win of the Don Meredith era.  This team lost in the Ice Bowl the following week and the old vets still maintain that they had the matchups and firepower to beat Green Bay in humane conditions.

2.  Duane's Masterpiece -- The 1970 Cowboys offense was one dimensional.  QB Craig Morton played the stretch run with a damaged elbow ligament and lost his deep ball.  His stats for this NFC Championship Game were unimpressive -- 7 of 22 for 101 yards, with 75 of them coming to the backs.  Bob Hayes was shut out by the 'Niners' secondary, though he did draw a key interference penalty late in the game.

The 49ers tough, young defense knew the Cowboys were going to run, and were still overrun by rookie sensation Duane Thomas, who gained 143 yards on 27 carries.  Thomas started strong and stayed strong all afternoon.   Duane glided, so he never looked like he was doing much. -- until you looked at the yard markers and realized he had just ripped you for eight yards on an apparent three yard sweep. 

He got help from Mel Renfro, who shut down the Niners deep demon Gene Washington, and from a Doomsday front that finally saw its streak of 24 consecutive quarters without a TD allowed broken late in the 4th.  The 17-10 win put Dallas into its first Super Bowl.

Duane Thomas is an artist these days.  I spoke to him at Oxnard this year and he told me he thought of his games as performance pieces.  He named this game as one of his masterpieces.  If you saw it, you would have to agree.

3.  Super Bowl VI -- One of the great game plans of Tom Landry's career.  He faced a Dolphins team with six Hall of Famers on its roster, a Hall of Fame coach, and dominated it.  This Cowboys team still holds the record for fewest points allowed in a Super Bowl.

4.  The 1972 Divisional Win over the 49ers.  The Hail Mail game gets the ink, but the legend of Captain Comeback began here.  Roger Staubach had missed the '72 regular season with a separated shoulder and subbed for Craig Morton in the 4th quarter, when the 49ers had a seemingly secure 28-13 lead. 

The 49ers had demolished Dallas 31-10 on Thanksgiving Day and were taunting a Cowboys team that had knocked them out of the playoffs in '70 and '71.  They shut up after Staubach and his mates put up 17 points in the last seven minutes of the game.  The footage of Larry Cole rolling on the Candlestick Park sideline in hysterics after Ron Sellers' game-winning TD grab is my favorite image in Cowboys history. 

The 30-28 comeback is the missing classic in Cowboys history.  If anybody knows where a copy of this game exists, I'd love to know.

5.  The Triumph of the Uncluttered Mind -- Clint Longley's 24-23 Thanksgiving Day 1974 win remains the most oddest big win in Cowboys history, the closest we'll likely come to seeing someone come out of the stands to lead a stirring win. 

The Redskins were division champs that year and knocked Roger Staubach out en route to a 16-3 lead.  Longley rallied the Cowboys twice;  first to a 17-16 lead and then to the final game-winning, last-minute bomb to Drew Pearson after the Redskins had retaken the lead.

Longley was truly flying blind.  The next time the game highlights are aired, count the steps on his drops.  On some plays Longley was taking nine, eleven and thirteen step drop backs.  There are no passes in NFL playbooks that call for this.  He was literally running back and winging it -- and he beat the smile off the smug George Allen's face.  He'll always be a Cowboys legend for this, even if he did later punch Roger Staubach.

6.  The 1975 NFC Title Game -- Everybody knows the Hail Mary game from the week before, but that game, the final drive aside, was a snoozer.  The Cowboys gave up the lead on a fluky fumble inside their own five early in the game.  Vikings end Carl Eller gave Rayfield Wright and the Cowboys offense fits all day.  It was a punt fest for 55 minutes.

The next Dallas game, however, ranks with Super Bowl VI as a Landry all-timer, one of those rare big games where everything he planned was executed to perfection.  Dallas had to travel to Los Angeles to play the favored Rams, whose 2nd-rated defense had given up just one 300 yard game all season.  They were first in scoring defense, allowing an average of 9.6 points per game.  They had scored 21 defensive points in a blowout divisional playoff win over the East champion Cardinals.

Tom's kids destroyed them 37-7, racking up 410 total yards, 190 of them on the ground.  The miracle in Minneapolis and the guts loss against the Steelers in Super Bowl X are better remembered, but this was the Dirty Dozen's crowning, maiden-season win. 

7.  The Captain's Farewell -- It was the '79 finale.  It was a win-and-in duel between old rivals.  It was also Roger Staubach's final victory.  And he did it in style, leading two late TD drives to give Dallas a 35-34 win over Washington.  Harvey Martin carried a wreath to the Redskins locker room door after the game to commemorate their "death."  Ah, good times.

8.  Danny White Breaks Atlanta's Heart -- The most notable big game of his tenure came in the 1980 divisional playoffs.  Hey, the NFL Films folks got some of these games right. 

9. Danny's Biggest Comeback -- The '83 Redskins went 14-2 and set a league record for points in a season.  They won the NFC, but the Cowboys roped them in late in the season opener.  Washington had a 23-3 halftime lead and was so dominant most people in the Eastern time zone switched off and went to bed. 

They missed 28 straight Dallas points which pushed them to a 31-23 lead before a last-minute Washington TD made the final 31-30.  Sadly, White lost his mojo in the late-season "no, Danny, no!" rematch loss. 

10.  24-21 breaks the streak -- the '91 Redskins were Joe Gibbs' last great team.  They rolled to a 14-2 record and destroyed Buffalo in the Super Bowl.  They were 11-0 and gunning for perfection when a desperate 6-5 Cowboys team came to town. DC  Richie Pettibone's blitzers knocked Troy Aikman from the game with a nasty knee injury in the first quarter. 

Backup Steve Beuerlein replaced him and led Dallas to a textbook upset.  The Cowboys controlled time of possession, grinding out several long scoring drives.  This was Michael Irvin's coming out game as a Redskins' killer -- he destroyed Darrell Green for 9 catches and 123 yards, one a juggling, catch-and-spin with an errant pass that broke the game open early in the 4th;

11.  The Little Old Team from Dallas that Could -- three weeks later, Dallas faced up to their biggest bully.  The Eagles had beaten Dallas eight straight times, going back to the Buddy Ryan days.  In week three, a 24-0 Eagles drubbing, Bud Carson's line sacked Troy Aikman 11 times and held Dallas to 90 total yards. 

In the rematch, RT Nate Newton held Reggie White to one early sack.  His mates shut out Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons and the rest of the Eagles' rush.  The teams traded field goals and punts in the wind and cold until Kelvin Martin returned a punt 85 yards to give Dallas a 15-10 lead.  The Cowboys made their one TD drive late.  Irvin iced the 25-13 win with a four-yard TD catch.  In the locker room after the game, Newton told the press, "we're just a little old team from Dallas trying to win some games." 

The win vaulted Dallas over the Eagles in the standings and a win over Atlanta the next week put J.J.'s Cowboys in the postseason for the first time and knocked the Eagles out.  The losing streak was over.  The Cowboys would not be little at anything for a long time. 

12.  "It's a Moosedown!"

The Aikman Cowboys had one more piece of business to settle with Philadelphia before they moved on to a bigger stage.  Philly had ripped them 31-7 in a '92 week four Monday-night game the press treated as an October Super Bowl.  One month later the teams traded haymakers for three and a half quarters in Texas Stadium before the Cowboys ended the bout with a brutal, seven-punch flurry.

Starting deep in their own territory, with a slender 13-10 lead, Dallas lined up in a two-TE, two-RB set and dared the Eagles D to stop Emmitt Smith.  The Cowboys ripped through the tiring Philly front with six consecutive Smith runs, five of them off-tackle plays directly at Reggie White.  One first and ten from the Philly 14, Norv Turner crossed up Bud Carson with a pass to Daryl Johnson, who bobbled the ball, then gathered it for the score.  In the booth, Brad Shram screamed, "touchdown Moose!  Touchdown Moose!  It's a Moosedown!"

First year starter Erik Williams got Player of the Week honors for handling White.  It would be the first of many such results.  Dallas blew out the Eagles 34-10 in the playoffs, but they were easy pickings for Dallas after this game.

13.  The Catch--and Run:  Every Cowboys fan worth their salt knows where he or she was when Alvin Harper caught Aikman's skinny post and ran 70 yards to the San Francisco nine yard line.  Kelvin Martin's TD three plays later reversed the result of the first The Catch disaster eleven years earlier and sent Dallas to their sixth Super Bowl.

14.  Super Bowl 27 -- In a halftime interview, NBC's Jim Gray asked Jimmy Johnson if he feared a Buffalo comeback, since the Bills had overcome a 35-3 playoff deficit against the Oilers and were now trailing 28-10.  "We're not Houston," he replied.  Indeed they were not.  The Cowboys arrived with a 52-17 win. 

15.  One-Armed Emmitt -- Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman calls it the most courageous performance he's seen in a game.  Emmitt Smith loaded the Cowboys' '93 title hopes onto his separated shoulder, grimaced, and then finished off the Giants 16-13 in overtime.  The win kept Dallas in the top seed and gave Smith a week off to heal.  A loss would have dropped Dallas to the 5th seed and forced them to start backup Lincoln Coleman in a wild card game. 

16.  They're Brass, George -- When Jimmy Johnson guaranteed a win over San Francisco three weeks later, and told the press they could print the headline in big, bold letters, 49ers coach George Seifert questioned whether the Cowboys Kahuna's cojones were made of brass or paper mache. 

J.J.s' guys delivered the most emphatic win of his reign.  Erik Williams broke Ted Washington's leg on Dallas' first TD drive and Aikman was six inches shy of a perfect half, leading Dallas to TDs on four of five 1st half drives.  A slightly overthrown bomb to Harper would have been the fifth.  Dallas 38, San Francisco 21, in a game that wasn't that close. 

17.  Taking Plan B to a Title -- Troy Aikman may never remember this game.  His performance was not a notable one, though that's understandable.  He took a 49ers DTs knee to his head on Dallas first 2nd half series in the NFC title game and left Texas Stadium in an ambulance, suffering from a severe concussion.  He remained in a fog through the title game.

He and the offense sputtered in the first half of the Buffalo rematch and trailed 13-6 at the half.  On Buffalo's first 2nd half drive, Leon Lett stripped the ball from Thurman Thomas.  FS James Washington picked it up and wound his way to a game tying touchdown. 

Lacking a sure passing game, the Cowboys turned to game plan B on their next offensive series.  Norv Turner called "power right," a counter behind pulling guard Nate Newton, half a dozen times.  Emmitt Smith hammered his way to a go ahead TD and the Cowboys never looked back.  Washington, the Plan B free agent pickup who helped start the Cowboys renaissance, capped his career game with a late pick and Dallas had back-to-back titles.

In the locker room after the game, the normally loquacious Jimmy Johnson froze when asked if he would lead the charge for a third consecutive title.  A short time later, he was gone.

18.  One Last Roundup for the Triplets -- The '95 NFC Championship Game was the last hurrah for the dominant Cowboys offense, which overcame an inspired Mike Holmgren game plan and their own pedestrian linebacking corps in a 38-27 shootout.  Green Bay ran a two TE package that Dallas could not stop, pitting Keith Jackson against an over-matched MLB Robert Jones for several big plays.

The Cowboys got two early TDs from Irvin and finished with two grinding drives, each of which ended with Emmitt Smith TD runs.  Two weeks later, the Cowboys sputtered in the second half but beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.  Jay Novacek's back gave out that off-season and the team began its slow decline. 

19.  Rounding up the Colts -- The '06 Colts are Tony Dungy's and Peyton Manning's lone Super Bowl winner.  They were the breakthrough club for Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and the rest of that superb Colts offense. 

They were 9-0 when they faced a 5-4 Dallas team led by a green kid named Tony Romo, who was making his 4th NFL start.  The Cowboys had little margin for error and they stayed within their limits. They sacked Manning, and forced two drive-ending fumbles.  They kept the ball away from Indy with a steady, first-half ground game.  They scored a game-tying touchdown on a Kevin Burnett 3rd quarter fumble return.

They won the game in the fourth quarter with a superb passing sequence that set up Colts' CB Jason David.  Terry Glenn had beaten him several times early with slants and then torched David late with slant-and-gos.  Marion Barber scored two late TDs and the defense stopped Manning's guys on downs inside the Dallas ten in the waning minutes.  Cowboys 21, Colts 14.

The loss sent Indy into a 2-4 tailspin, before they recovered and won out.  It was the most disciplined, complete win of the Parcells Era. 

20.   ?????

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How's that for symmetry?  Nine Landry masterpieces, nine from the '90's Cowboys and one from the Tuna.  That's my list but I'm hardly ironclad about it. In fact,  I'm an open source kind of guy.  Put your pointy hats on and join me in the canon building.  What games would you add?  Which would you drop?  Why?