Successful seasons in any sport are defined by championships. In the NFL, that’s winning the Super Bowl. Every other team will have fallen short. We love winners in America. We are obsessed with being #1. That is always the goal.
But successful teams are also defined by stretches of excellence. No team wins the Super Bowl every season. If you have a winning record, if you make the playoffs, if you win playoff games, if you get into the conference championship game — these are all measures of success.
By all of these measures, the Dallas Cowboys have been one of the most successful teams in the history of the NFL. But the team’s history is defined by two different eras: the 30-year stretch starting with their first playoff team through their last Super Bowl victory, and the last 20 years, which have left the Cowboys questing for another championship, but continuously coming up short.
The Dallas Cowboys’ Great 30 Year Run
For three decades — from 1966 to 1995 — the Dallas Cowboys had a championship run to rival any team in any sport.
- Five Super Bowl wins: 1971, 1977, 1992, 1993, 1995.
- Three more Super Bowl appearances: 1970, 1975, 1978.
- 16 NFC (or NFL) Championship game appearances: 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995.
- 20 consecutive winning seasons: 1966-1985.
- A won-loss record of 378-227, or .624, during those 30 seasons.
- Top five scoring offenses 15 times (in 30 seasons).
- Top five defenses in points allowed 11 times (in 30 seasons).
The Cowboys’ Last 20 Years
Unfortunately, since the Cowboys last Super Bowl victory, at the end of the 1995 season, things have not gone as well. Over these last 20 seasons — 1996 to 2015 — the Dallas Cowboys have managed:
- No Super Bowl wins or appearances.
- No NFC Championship game appearances.
- Nine winning seasons, with the longest stretch spanning five years from 2005 to 2009.
- Eight playoff seasons, but only two playoff victories.
- A won-loss record of 156-158, or .496, 128 points below their previous 30-year run.
- Top five scoring offenses 4 times (in 20 seasons).
- Top five scoring defenses 5 times (in 20 seasons).
Why the Difference?
This is a very good question, without simple answers. Let me offer a couple of points to consider.
First, the salary cap era began in 1994, just before the end of their 30-year run, and it prevented the Cowboys from stockpiling as much talent as Jerry Jones’ wallet could buy. Cap management and how to allocate limited resources to build the best roster have challenged the Cowboys ever since.
Second, Jimmy Johnson, the second-most successful Cowboys head coach behind the legendary Tom Landry decided he couldn’t co-exist with Jerry Jones and resigned after the 1993 Super Bowl win, near the end of the 30-year run, taking his roster-building and team-motivating acumen with him. Would Jimmy have been as successful under a salary cap? He didn’t have the same success for the Dolphins, but this is a question we’ll never have an answer for.
What did happen in the wake of Johnson’s resignation was a carousel of head coaches. The Cowboys have been through six head coaches since Jimmy left — Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips, and Jason Garrett — and only Switzer, who inherited the team Johnson built, took the Cowboys to an NFC Championship and Super Bowl.
Has team talent been the difference? Certainly it has been for many of the Cowboys teams of the last 20 years, but it’s worth noting that the original “triplets” — Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin — played a few years beyond the great 30-year run, but did not have the same success.
Where are the Dallas Cowboys Today? How Close Are They To Getting Back on Top?
This is a bit of a teaser, because this article is not intended to answer these questions, but rather to pose them.
Over a series of articles, tied together with a common theme titled the Cowboys’ Championship Quest, I’d like to begin delving into those questions with you. As a fan of the Cowboys through both periods — spanning 50 years — I am always asking, is this the year the Cowboys finally return to championship form?
One can look at any number of things through this lens. For example:
- The Cowboys roster. Where has Dallas invested its resources, and how does this compare to recent championship teams?
- Offense v. Defense. Dallas is built around it’s offense more than it’s defense. Can you win a championship this way?
- Who shall lead them? Tony Romo has been central for more than 10 years to the Cowboys’ championship quest. With Dak Prescott now an option, is it time for a transition plan?
- Can Dallas run its way to a championship? Did Dallas make the right choice in drafting Ezekiel Elliott?
- How far can Dallas go this season? Winning record? Playoffs? Division title? Playoff win(s)? NFC Championship? Super Bowl? Lombardi Trophy?
Those are just a few examples.
What do you think? What questions would you ask to assess whether the Cowboys are on the right track, and how close they might be to a championship run?