So, as we all know the Dallas Cowboys have a long and storied history. The team ranks:
- 2nd in Super Bowl wins
- 2nd (tie) in Super Bowl appearances
- 1st in playoff victories (despite many teams having played for decades longer)
- 1st in playoff games played
- 2nd in playoff appearances (again, despite many teams having played many more seasons)
- 2nd in total wins since NFL-AFL merger
- Most profitable sports franchise in North America
In short, the Dallas Cowboys have been a great NFL franchise and their history is worth celebrating. Today we'll look at what is arguably the most consequential period in terms of defining the franchise legacy, 1971 to 1975. I will add subsequent chapters, hopefully every week or so and be finished by the time training camp kicks into gear. In the process I hope to learn things I didn't know, remind myself of interesting things forgotten and relive things I'll never forget. Perhaps those who read these posts will learn a thing or two as well.
NOTE: much of the information I use in these posts comes from Pro Football Reference, which is an invaluable resource...so a shout out to those who run that site. Your work is much appreciated.
Catch up on earlier posts in this series:
So, we're finally to games I can remember...and boy are there a LOT of games to remember. In many ways, this is the period that truly established the Dallas Cowboys legacy in terms of:
- Ratings darlings
- National appeal
- Thanksgiving drama
- "Cowboys cool"
This period began with redemption through the team's first Super Bowl victory in 1971, saw an inevitable decline after 9 straight playoff seasons and then a sudden, stunning return to greatness on the strength of an historic draft. I was 6 years old when it all started and by the time the 1975 season ended my 10-year-old self had become a totally committed, die-hard, no-questions-asked Dallas Cowboys fanatic. It was a life-shaping five years for me in terms of my relationship with my favorite team in all sports.
Again, not a single season under .500 and all but one season with at least 10 wins; a .700 winning percentage overall. The 8 wins in 1974 were the first time the Cowboys tallied less than 10 wins since 9 in 1967. Winning consistently over ten years is an amazing accomplishment in the NFL. More remarkable, however, is the Cowboys did so utilizing three different starting quarterbacks (Don Meredith, Craig Morton and Roger Staubach). Normally, sustained success in the NFL is based upon having a single Hall of Fame talent at quarterback. That the Cowboys had three during this time period demonstrates not only the talent level of the team and the coaching prowess of Tom Landry but also the foreward-thinking front-office strategies.
The 1971 and 1973 squads, like those of 1966 and '68, were dominant. They both averaged more than 27 points per game while giving up just over 15, yielding per-game point differentials of 13 points each season. When you outscore your opponents by an average of nearly two touchdowns you'll win a lot of games.
The following summarizes each season and is one of my favorite tables. Unlike the 1966 - 1970 chart there's some actual red here but, again, it's almost exclusively greens and yellows. It's really hard to emphasize how hard it is for a team to be good-to-great in pretty much every measurement over five full seasons. That the Cowboys strung together (at this point) ten straight such seasons is an amazing accomplishment.
There's a lot to digest above so let's break it down:
- Division competition was much stronger than '66 to '70. Despite winning 7-of-every-10 games throughout this time the Cowboys won the Eastern Division only twice. Two other times they made the playoffs as a wild card (at that time there were three divisions in each conference and one wild card team joined the division winners in the playoffs in each conference). And in 1974, for the first time since 1965, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs.
- The 1973 team was the strongest of these teams based on Pro Football Reference's Simple Rating System. The rankings and measures say the '71 team was better but that team faced a fairly easy schedule.
- We see both the emergence of Roger Staubach as the team's #1 QB and team leader...and the last chapter in Craig Morton's Cowboy's career.
- We also see the transition from Bob Hayes to Drew Pearson as the primary pass-catching threat.
- Ron Sellers led the team in receiving in 1972; props to those who knew the name Ron Sellers before reading this post.
- The 1971 and 1973 teams were dominant offenses but the season between (1972) the offense was merely good. This can largely be attributed to Roger Staubach missing pretty much the entire season due a pre-season should separation. However, as we'll see later, he still played a storybook role that season.
Landry's innovative pro-set offense really reached it's true ambition during this period, with the offense ranking in the top 5 every year in yards and top ten every year in points. Top-ten rankings became a more significant accomplishment in 1970 when the NFL and AFL merged and 26 teams were now being ranked as opposed to 14 previously. The 1971 offense was first in both yards and points; the '74 offense first in yards; the '73 offense 2nd in points. (Note: I've inverted the rankings...meaning the higher the bar the better.)
The defense never managed to rank #1 in either points or yards but they were top five in yards every season and top 10 in points every season. In summary, these teams were consistently good to great on both sides of the ball.
Here we see that while Dallas was very good (but not totally dominant) over most of their Eastern division rivals they actually lost half of their games against the Redskins. This was the genesis of what would become the NFL's most compelling rivalry for the next 20+ years. This was partly due to the two teams being highly competitive during this time; the Redskins went 48-21-1 during this time, only a half game off the Cowboy's 49-21 record. But it was Redskin's coach George Allen's deep, compulsive detestation of all things Cowboys that turned a healthy, competitive dislike into deep-rooted hatred. Allen could barely contain himself at what he perceived to be the Cowboy's arrogance and his fire-and-brimstone act incited players and fans of the nation's capital. Many have said beating the Cowboys was more important to Allen than winning a Super Bowl.
To be fair, Allen took a team that hadn't made the playoffs in 25 years and immediately turned them into competitors, winning 9 games and making the playoffs as a wild card his first season. Every year, it seemed, the division race seemed to come down to the Redskins / Cowboys (until the Cardinals interloped in 1974).
But for the Cowboys, all that mattered during this time was what happened in the post-season.
Obviously the most important thing here is that intoxicating, solid blue column under 1971. Finally, following years of heartbreaking, last-second losses and humilating defeats the Cowboys finished their season with a win. The victory in Super Bowl VI was a cathartic experience for players, coaches and fans alike.
In total the team won 7 and lost 3 playoff games during this period, matching their .700 winning percentage during the regular seasons. Many of these games, as we'll see, were dramatic, memorable match-ups that rank high in the annals of Cowboy's history. It was these games that established Roger Staubach as Captain Comeback, capturing the imagination of not only Cowboys followers but NFL fans around the country. As a young child growing up in Dallas these games constitute some of my most indelible memories.
I like the above chart because it captures how close / dramatic a game was. Those 2 / 3 / 4 point games were each compelling and those who saw them can probably remember them. The big blowouts (both wins and losses) are also captured. I'd kind of forgotten that two of the seasons ended is disappointing playoff blowouts (even though I attended one of the games!).
KEY PLAYERS / PLAYER ACQUISITIONS
If the above is hard to read you can find a full-size version here.
While those early 70's teams were very good they didn't have quite the dominant talent of the teams of the late 60's. Those late 60's teams boasted 35 Pro Bowl and 22 All Pro seasons. The early 70's team, by contrast, had 30 Pro Bowl seasons but only 7 All Pro season.
Still, this was a talented team, with Pro Bowl / All Pros at QB and WR, along the offensive and defensive lines, linebacker and the defensive secondary. One telling sign is much of the awards were given to older players on the backside of their career, especially on defense. This is evidenced by the fact these players combined to win 29 Pro Bowls and 17 All Pro awards prior to 1970 but only 13 / 10 after 1975. Players like Lilly, Howley, Renfro and Green were all in their 30's when this era started.
I was surprised to find Staubach was named to the Pro Bowl only twice during this time...and never named All Pro (in his entire career). Not only did he win 75% of his games during his career, but he also led the NFL in:
- Passer rating 4 times
- Adjusted net yards per attempt 4 times
- Touchdowns once
- Interception percentage 3 times
- Rayfield Wright was a beast
- Bob Lilly was named All Pro once and went to the Pro Bowl three more times. These were his age 32, 33 and 34 seasons. For comparison, DeMarcus Ware's last season in Dallas he was 31.
- Two of the younger players, Cliff Harris and Drew Pearson, were both undrafted, rookie free-agents.
So, how did the team draft during this time? Well....a couple a pretty dismal drafts followed by a couple solid drafts and finally the unquestioned, no-doubt greatest draft in the history of the Dallas Cowboys.
So, still 20 rounds of draft picks! And yet, despite having 39 picks in 1971 / 72 the Cowboys found only one noteworthy player, Robert Newhouse (Ron Jessie and Tim Kearney never played for the Cowboys despite being drafted by them). Then a terrific top of the '73 draft hitting big on all three players (but nothing in the later rounds). The Cowboys drafted first overall in 1974 using a pick acquired from the Houston Oilers for Billy Parks and Tody Smith and selected Ed Too Tall Jones. (First, I was 100% sure that Too Tall pick was acquired from the Giants for Craig Morton...and learning I've been wrong all this time is disorienting. Second, Jones was the first player from a historically black college drafted first overall; another instance of the Cowboy's ground-breaking approach during this time.)
And then we come to the 1975 draft. Remember, the Cowboys had finished the prior season with a (for them) disappointing 8-6 record, missing the playoffs for the first time in 9 years. They were also considered an old team. Players like Lilly, Renfro, Howley, Hayes and Green had either retired or were no longer their dominant selves. Previous drafts had yielded little. I can remember the general mood among fans was a fairly willing acceptance that 1975 would be a rebuilding year and expectations were low.
But that was before the team had an almost perfect draft. Each of the team's first six picks became regulars and played for the team for years. In addition, three additional players picked later also became long-time regulars. Nine.....NINE regulars acquired in one draft. I could go through the delicious details, but I think this table summarizes it pretty well:
The 9 players above started 638 games for the Cowboys, went to 20 Pro Bowls and won 9 All Pro awards. Of course, much of that comes from the draft of Randy White in the first round (2nd overall as a result of.....trading Craig Morton! How did I not know this?). In addition to White the team drafted two offensive lineman who would start for the next 10 and 5 years respectively (Herb Scott and Burton Lawless). They would draft three (three!) starting linebackers in Bob Breunig, Mike Hegman and Thomas Henderson. Henderson, for those that don't know, was a Lawrence Taylor-type talent. He was so strong and physical he once knocked Earl Campbell backwards on a head-to-head hit; he was so fast he once scored on a 97-yard kickoff return. Personal demons derailed his promising career but for a while there he was an absolute beast on the field. Bob Breunig and Mike Hegman both played linebacker for ten years for the Cowboys. Randy Hughes teamed with Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters to form the most talented safety trio in the NFL.
It's absurd. It's like stocking half of a team in a single draft. The following shows each players total AV over their careers. For those not familiar with AV it stands for Approximate Value, was developed by Pro Football Reference and attempts to assign a value to each player for each season they played. It's not perfect by any means but it's a decent tool for evaluating lots of players over long periods of time.
Both the 1973 and '74 drafts were good solid drafts; the team added multiple, long-term starters in each. And yet, those drafts combined don't add up to the AV compiled from the 1975 draft. The 1975 draft was so good and so deep they earned the nickname "The Dirty Dozen" (12 of the draftees actually played the entire 1975 season).
Interestingly, this 1975 Cowboys draft is not considered to have been the best in the NFL in the 70's. The prior year the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted four players who were eventually enshrined in the Hall of Fame: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster. And four HOFers is better than one, no doubt. However, if you do the same exercise I did with the Cowboys we see:
So, the Steelers probably did have a better draft: more Pro Bowl and All Pro seasons and greater total AV. But, it's interesting to me the Steelers '74 draft is often cited for being historic but the Cowboy's '75 draft gets very little attention when in reality they were actually very close in terms of production. So, for all those who like to claim the Cowboy's 2016 draft as the "best in NFL history"....realize the bar is set pretty high and much will have to go right for it to top either of these mid-70's drafts.
This documentary is very interesting. A couple things stand out:
- The Cowboys focus on historically black colleges had, by this time, started to be replicated by other teams
- The Cowboys debated choosing Walter Payton instead of Randy White in 1975. Gil Brandt states the reason they chose Randy White was longevity, noting their in-house research showed only two running backs at that time had played for more than five years. This kind of thinking would become routine....oh, about 35 years later. Again, the Cowboys of that era were ahead of their time.
Each of these games were significant in their own way and make up key chapters in the Cowboys history book. They're also candidates for my Top 50 Games in Dallas Cowboys History, to be determined at the conclusion of this exercise.
1971 Super Bowl Run (Games 9, 10, 11)
We saw above the 1971 Cowboys were a dominant team. They ranked first in:
- Point differential
- Yard differential
- Offensive points
- Offensive yards
In addition they ranked 2nd in turnover differential and 3rd in defensive yards allowed. They were a superb, all-around team. They had a HOF quarterback, two All Pro caliber running backs (Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas) and a stifling defense. And yet, simply getting to the playoffs had proven treacherous. This is due almost exclusively to Tom Landry's inability to choose a quarterback. Weeks 1 through 5 Landry flip-flopped the starters from Morton to Staubach. Then, he switched to the two alternating plays. None of it worked. After a promising 2-0 start (and an average of 45 ponts scored) the team stumbled to a 4-3 record and were two games behind the Washington Redskins. Playoff prospects looked dim.
And if you think flip-flopping quarterbacks sounds insane today....most people thought it was equally insane back in 1971. Players, media and fans were howling for Landry to make a decision, any decision and pick a quarterback. Landry's own book talks about how agonizing the choice was. His failure to see that not making a choice was the worst possible choice is astounding for such an accomplished leader. Finally he named Roger Staubach the starter. From that point forward the Cowboys:
- Went 10-0, including three playoff wins (only one less than their previous five seasons combined)
- Outscored opponents 260 - 95 (average score of 26 to 9)
- Won the team's first Super Bowl after a half-decade of soul-crushing post-season defeats
Obviously, Landry made the right decision. But it's no exaggeration to say his inability to come to a decision for so long jeopardized not only the team's fortunes that year but for years to come. Roger Staubach was only in his 3rd season but he was 29 years old. If he wasn't going to be the starter he wanted to be traded; Morton felt the same way. There was no one satisfied with Landry's indecisiveness and it's somewhat of a miracle that he survived such silliness to craft a Hall of Fame career. The entire Cowboys history could have easily disintegrated in that fateful season.
Honestly, the post-season games themselves were anti-climatic. The Cowboys dominated, especially on defense where they surrendered a total of 18 points in the 3 post-season games. None of the games had much drama but were instead the culmination of 8 years of striving to ascend the summit and finally reaching the goal.
One of the most striking things to me is film from the conclusion of Super Bowl VI. The Cowboys had mercilessly destroyed the Miami Dolphins and yet on the sidelines there's no real jubiliation; players are matter-of-factly congratulating each other. It's bizarre to me because had I been part of a team that had suffered so mightily for so long and finally won I would have been ecstatic.
The players who recall that time say it was the most satisfying moment of their professional lives but it seems like they were relieved more than anything else. Regardless, the Cowboys were the no-questions asked best team in 1971 and the rightfful NFL Super Bowl VI Champions.
I will point out one thing, which Craig Morton fans will not like. But when comparing the 1970 and 1971 post-seasons the cause of the difference is indisputable. Here are the offensive and defensive rushing results:
If that's hard to read click here for a full-size view.
You can see that in both years the Cowboys dominated at the line of scrimmage. They outgained opponents by an average of over 100 yards. Clearly the run game was a source of strength on both sides of the ball.
The defense also stifled opponent's passing attacks in both post-seasons. Only three touchdowns allowed while causing 14 interceptions (or five more than the 2016 Cowboys generated in 16 games regular season games); an opponent passer rating of 40.
This chart well illustrates where the improvement came from. Everything is pretty much the same exept the Cowboy's passing offense where we see a huge, dramatic improvement. Astoundingly, the 1970 team came within a field goal of winning Super Bowl V while passing for an average of 89 yards per game and accumulating a 27 passer rating. The 1971 team didn't feature an explosive passing game, but 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and a passer rating of 97 was a monumental improvement. When combined with the already dominant ground game and defense opponents simply had no chance. Again, Landry made the right decision. Why it took him so long to get there is a mystery.
- Season: 1972
- Date: 1972.12.23
- Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
- At stake: right to advance to the NFC championship and opportunity to play in Super Bowl VII
- Result: win
- Score: 30 - 28
This is the day the Staubach legend was truly born.
After finally winning the Super Bowl in 1971 pretty much everything went wrong in 1972. Leading running back Duane Thomas distracted his way off the team, forcing an initial trade to New England (that was rescinded by the NFL when Thomas refused to line up as directed) and then a second trade to San Diego. Soon after 1971 passing leader Roger Staubach was lost for the entire regular season during a pre-season game. Get this....Staubach was hurt tackling an opponent returning an interception. That is simply something that would not happen in today's game and if it did it would be scandalous. But in the NFL of the 70's quarterbacks didn't act like delicate flowers and if the game called for a tackle they tried to make a tackle.
Imagine if the 1992 Dallas Cowboys, coming off a Super Bowl win, lost their starting quarterback and running back for the entire season....think they would have repeated in '93? Doubtful, considering they went 0-2 while missing only running back Emmitt Smith. So the Cowboys played 1972 with Craig Morton at QB and Calvin Hill at RB. The fact they had such high quality backups speaks volumes about the team's depth at that time.
Hill played well and Morton played....average (he finished 15th out of 26 teams that year in passer rating) and the Cowboys slugged their way to a 10-4 record and a wild card birth. Their reward was a third consecutive post-season matchup against the 49ers.
I remember this game vividly. It was played on a Saturday right before Christmas and was the afternoon game. The early game was an ugly affair that concluded on a play known as the Immaculate Reception. And while that game has been memorialized ad infinitum...virtually nobody remembers the much more exciting and equally dramatic afternoon tilt between the 49ers and Cowboys. In many ways this game resembled a more well-known 49ers / Cowboys matchup ten years later in it featured numerous turnovers (8 total), big plays, a dramatic comeback and late-game heroics.
The game started dreadfully for the Cowboys with 49ers returner Vic Washington returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. The Cowboys eventually fell behind 21-3 as (stop me if you've heard this before) Craig Morton struggled to move the offense in the post-season. Morton did manage to throw a touchdown pass to Lance Alworth and bring the Cowboys to within 21-13. But the 49ers responded, fueled by a Calvin Hill fumble inside the Cowboy's 5-yard line to put the Cowboys down 28-13 late in the 3rd quarter. It was then that Landry desperately inserted Staubach, who had played sparing in late-season mop up duty.
And Staubach did not immediately spark the team. But with 10 minutes remaining a 48-yard Calvin Hill gallop led the team to a FG which cut the lead to 12 points. Eventually Staubach took over with two minutes remaining and the team needing two touchdowns to win. What occurred over those two minutes is Cowboys legend as Staubach led the team on two touchdown drives surrounding one of the NFL's most bizarre - and successful - onside kick attempts.
Staubach's 4th quarter was a complete reversal of the team's passing proficiency earlier in the game:
This game crystallized the difference between the two quarterbacks. Morton was a good, competent quarterback. When the post-season arrived, however, he and the team repeatedly faltered. This can't all be blamed on Morton. His teammates repeatedly failed him. In this game one of his INTs was a perfectly placed ball that was simply dropped. The exact same thing happened at the end of SB V, leading to the Colt's game-winning FG. But all anyone sees is "Morton interception" and thinks it's his fault.
Staubach, by comparison, raised the play of his teammates at key times, as this game well demonstrates. Staubach was simply a natural leader and those around him became better players when he was in the huddle. In the end, this is what separated Staubach, not only from Morton, buy many other good but not great quarterbacks.
One final irony: the Cowboy's scored with 52 seconds remaining giving SF time to move into position for a game-winning FG. And SF QB John Brodie did just that, completing three consecutive passes....but the third was negated by a holding penalty. On the following play Charlie Waters intercepted Brodie to end the game. The similarities between this failed comeback and the Danny White-led comeback ten years later are eerie.
The comeback was stunning, glorious, unimaginable. In fact, the 18-point post-season comeback was the largest in NFL history at the time. I remember me and my two brothers literally screaming in joy at the television...so much so that my sister thought something bad had happened. It was the first time in my life where sports became this transcendent thing that brought people together and left a lasting impression. I spent the next several days on a sort of high, getting to stay up late to watch the highlights, reading the news accounts, reliving the game with my family and anticipating the sure miracles that would occur the next week.
And it finally ended the Staubach / Morton carousel. There was no doubt after that day who would lead the Dallas Cowboys moving forward. Morton had failed, again, in the big game - and against the exact same opponent and under the most trying circumstances Staubach had succeeded in miraculous fashion. Morton would play another season as a backup for the Cowboys but saw little playing time and was traded after the 1973 season (for what would eventually be Randy White!). Staubach went on to become an NFL legend.
Unfortunately, I learned the following Sunday that sports can be cruel as well as magical. The Cowboys were non-competitive against the hated Redskins in an NFC Championship game that ended with the Cowboys on the wrong side of a 26-3 score. The heady high from the previous week had been replaced by an empty, gnawing emptiness as that game reached it's inexorable conclusion.
Game Highlights - the first five and a half minutes of this video is the only video I can find of this game. Sad!
That's all I got. That such a memorable game has almost no recorded history available is a shame.
- Season: 1974
- Date: 1974.11.28
- Opponent: Washington Redskins
- At stake: Bragging rights
- Result: Win
- Score: 24 - 23
The Dallas Cowboys had enjoyed nearly ten years of uninterrupted success but when they took the Texas Stadium field on Thanksgiving of 1974 they were no longer one of the best teams in the league. They were still good, but their 6-5 record was their worst 11-game record since 1964 and playoff hopes were virtually non-existent; a loss would effectively end the team's season.
It had been a fairly consistent downhill trend from the 1971 Super Bowl VI victory. Great players had aged and poor drafts hadn't restocked the talent. Roger Staubach was still throwing to Drew Pearson and Calvin Hill would enjoy his final Pro Bowl season. In fact, the team would finish the season #1 in yardage differential (after finishing 1st, 4th and 3rd the three previous season.....the team could move the ball and stop others from doing so). However, the team finished a respectable but not great 8th in point differential.
The problem was turnovers...the Cowboys finished 19th in turnover differential demonstrating for approximately the 9,765th time that turnovers are vastly more important than yards when it comes to wins and losses. The season could be summed up in the the second game of the season when leading 7-0 and going in for a second score a Doug Dennison fumble and resulting 96-yard return by the Eagles Joe Lavender (really...Joe Lavender?) led to a 13-10 defeat in week two. It was just that kind of year.
So the primary motivation that Thanksgiving Day was simply beating the hated Redskins, who entered with an 8-3 record and were fighting for a division title. Things looked bleak for the Cowboys when the Redskins took a 16-3 lead after Duane Thomas (of all people) scored on a 9 yard TD pass early in the 3rd quarter. Things got bleaker on the next possession when Staubach was knocked out of the game after a scramble. Unlike previous seasons when the Cowboys had quality, experienced backup quarterbacks in 1974 they had only an untested free-agent rookie by the name of Clint Longley. It seemed the season was over.
Amazingly, however, Longley immediately started making plays, completing passes and quickly brought the Cowboys within a single score with a 35 yard touchdown pass to Billy Joe Dupree. Soon after Longley again drove the team for another touchdown capped by Walt Garrison's 1 yard run. In a short period of time Longley had drove the team to two scores and the Cowboys now led 17 - 16.
The Redskins, however, responded with a touchdown drive of their own with Duane Thomas, again, doing the scoring honors (Thomas scored six times after leaving the Cowboys, twice in this game). The Cowboys could move the ball but two turnovers (fumbles by Garrison and Drew Pearson) ended drives. One of those fumbles resulted in a chip-shot 23-yard FG attempt by the Redskin's Mark Mosely but Ed Too Tall Jones lived up to his moniker and blocked the attempt. Two minutes remained and the Cowboys needed 60 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Most know what happened next. It's been well-documented and seemingly every Thanksgiving the game is brought up again. Longely first executed a 4th-and-6 pass to Bob Hayes (in his final season). Then came the play that has been shown literally thousands of times over the years, Longley launching a 50 yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson. The unthinkable had happened. The sheer unlikelihood of Longley succeeding in that situation is demonstrated by this:
Staubach, a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career had been abysmal playing the league's #4 defense. Even now it seems unthinkable that a defense that stifled the Hall of Famer Staubach but couldn't stop no-name Clint Longley.
It's interesting to me the attention this game receives. In reality, it had very little consequence. The Cowboys flickering playoff hopes remained alive but they were extinguished the following week. Fallout from that game:
- The Redskins lost the division to the St. Louis Cardinals (who had a terrific team in the mid-70's featuring an exciting Air Coryell passing attack led by QB Jim Hart and WR Mel Gray) and would lose their wild card playoff game to the LA Rams.
- Clint Longley was assumed to have a bright future with the Cowboys. But in 1976 Danny White, who had been drafted in '74, joined the team after a stint in the World Football League. He quickly challenged Longley for the #2 QB spot and Longley did not respond well. In fact, he viciously sucker-punched Roger Staubach in the locker room, giving Staubach a scar that endures to this day. Drew Pearson didn't see the punch but he saw the aftermath and said there was blood everywhere. Longley allegedly raced out of the facility jumped in his car and was never seen again.
- Most importantly, though, the Cowboys gave a national Thanksgiving audience a dramatic, memorable holiday spectacle. This seemed to be in the team's DNA as every time they were featured by the networks they seemed to deliver excitement. I've often questioned people who've never lived or spent time in Dallas why they're Cowboys fans and their answer almost always mentions Thanksgiving in some form or another.
Super Bowl X Run (Games 14, 15 & 16)
- Season: 1975
- Date: 1975.12.28
- Opponent: Minnesota Vikings
- At stake: Right to advance to the NFC Championship
- Result: Win
- Score: 17 - 14
After missing the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons in 1974 expectations were low for the Cowboys entering 1975. But fueled by an historic draft that added a dozen rookie contributors the Cowboys again made the playoffs as a wild card team with a 10-4 record, finishing one game behind the Cardinals. Their reward was a late-December visit to Minnesota to face the league's best defense. The Purple People Eaters had claimed the defensive trifecta that year, finish first in rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed and were third in points allowed.
I remember this game vividly as it was one of the few times the Cowboys played a playoff game as the early game. My family, as was custom then, gathered in our bonus room with hope but also the realization they were playing a better team. The Vikings had been to the two previous Super Bowls and had the best record in the NFL that year. They were talented, experienced and playing at home in an environment that provided a distinct advantage.
But the Cowboys were the better team that day. They handily outplayed the Vikings throughout the game. However, a botched punt inside their own 5-yard line handed the Vikings a 2nd quarter touchdown. For a while it seemed like that might be enough as Dallas struggled against the league's best defense. Eventually, however, the Cowboys started moving the ball. A 3rd quarter drive yielded a short Doug Dennison touchdown run to tie the score.
Early in the 4th quarter another good drive added a 24-yard field goal to give the Cowboys their first lead early in the 4th quarter. A potential long touchdown was dropped by Golden Richards on the next drive and the Cowboys punted to Minnesota. The Vikings then generated their only successful drive of the entire game, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just over five minutes remaining. The teams then exchanged punts giving the Cowboys the ball with at their own 13 yard line with 1:51 remaining.
All the Cowboys had to do was drive 87 yards against the league's best defense. And that's exactly what they did. The series of events is almost unimaginable and included:
- Drew Pearson, who had zero catches in the game's first 58 and half minutes making four catches for 91 yards.
- Staubach being sacked for a loss of 8 yards after the center snap rolled along the ground; this had happened throughout the game.
- Staubach and Pearson hooking up for a 25-yard sideline reception on 4th-and-17.
- A Minnesota security guard running over and kicking Pearson as he was on the ground following the 4th down conversion.
- Preston Pearson dropping an easy pass in the flat with no Viking seemingly in sight.
- And the play we all know, Staubach tossing a 50 yard touchdown to Drew Pearson to take the lead with 25 seconds left.
- A disgruntled Viking fan throwing a half-filled whiskey bottle onto the field, striking referee Armen Terzien in the head. The fan was eventually found guilty of disorderly conduct.
- In the locker room, when asked about the play Roger Staubach famously says he threw the ball up and said a Hail Mary. The phrase became synonymous with desperate, late-game throws into the end zone and has lasted decades.
One thing that largely goes unmentioned is Dallas was simply and unquestionably the better team throughout the game. They gained 140 more yards, committed fewer penalties, made only a single turnover. Dallas may have been fortunate on the last drive, but the end result was a just one.
So, in a single play Dallas again fell in love with their Cowboys. I can recall how instantly everything changed. Suddenly everyone was talking Cowboys; they were all over the television news. The newspapers were packed with stories. Dallas was a smaller city then and the Cowboys had a bigger impact on the city than today. It's hard to describe just how energized the entire city became from one game, one play. The Cowboys would now advance to their eighth NFC Championship in ten seasons, this time to face another seemingly superior foe, the Los Angeles Rams.
Drew Pearson Ring of Honor Commemorative Video - I came across this and had never seen it before and if you lived through that era as a fan this video will give you a lot of warm feelings...might even get a bit dusty. I had never seen it before.
- Season: 1975
- Date: 1976.01.04
- Opponent: Los Angeles Rams
- At stake: Right to advance to Super Bowl X
- Result: Win
- Score: 37 - 7
Dallas fans had been energized by the previous week's miraculous, late-gamer heroics. The 1975 NFC Championship was nothing less than a 3-hour party. Needless to say the Cowboys dominated in every fashion. The Rams had surrendered a league-low 135 points, less than 10 points per game. It meant nothing.
The Cowboys were up 21-0 before the end of the half. The Dallas defense completely dominated; the Rams offense mustered only 118 yards (most gained late after Dallas was up 34 - 0). The Dallas defense accumulated over 440 of offense. Preston Pearson, the only player on the team not to have played his entire career with the Cowboys, scored 3 touchdown.
Just watch the videos. It's very compelling to me that whereas the early 70's teams were very buttoned up, mature, matter-of-fact this team was loose, full of energy, like a young puppy. The influx of youth was evident not just in talent but in a newfound swagger and confidence unhindered by haunting past Cowboys playoff failures.
Game Video - This is a marvel. It appears to be home recorded video of the pre-game show, the first quarter or so and the end of the game. There's a recap of the previous week's Hail Mary game, a tribute to Denton native and This Is The NFL host Phyllis George, play-by-play from Vin Scully....it's from a completely different time and will be appreciated by us old guys.
- Season: 1975
- Date: 1976.01.18
- Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
- At stake: NFL Championship
- Result: Loss
- Score: 21 - 17
It's difficult for me to express the atmosphere in Dallas the two weeks between the NFC Championship and Super Bowl X. The entire city seemed invested in the Cowboys. Every newscast covered the team. The morning radio shows (there was no sports talk back then...these are the rock music morning shows like KZEW and KTXQ) hyped the team endlessly. There was a silly song someone created that was played ad nauseum. Every kid at my school seemed to be wearing a Cowboys jacket, shirt, hat, gloves....whatever we had received for Christmas. Again, Dallas was a smaller place then and the Cowboys united everyone in way I had never experienced before. (There would be only one other time I can recall the city feeling this was...it was the 1992 season, which we'll get to).
Super Bowl X was also, in my opinion, the first "real" Super Bowl. The games before had been largely dull, one-sided affairs. The scores from the previous 9 games:
- 35 - 10
- 33 - 14
- 16 - 7
- 23 - 7
- 16 - 13
- 24 - 3
- 14 - 7
- 24 - 7
- 16 - 6
The only game that had any real drama was Super Bowl V, which as I outlined in my previous post was one of the ugliest, worst played games you'll ever witness. No team had scored more than 24 points the last 7 games. Six of the last 7 losers failed to score more than 7 points. Drama and especially excitement had been in short supply.
Super Bowl X, however, would change all that. There were several reasons for that:
- The teams themselves featured huge star power at coach, QB, RB, WR and all over the field. These were star-studded, high-quality teams.
- Rules changes: the league had recognized the NFL had become dull and changed many rules going into the previous 1974 season, including awarding home field advantage to the team with the best record, moving the goal posts behind the end zone, moving kick-offs back to the 35, reducing holding penalties from 15 to 10 yards, limiting how much defenders could interfere with receivers downfield.
- The Cowboys. The team brought a style that was simply unmatched by other teams. From the uniforms to Landry in a suit to the cheerleaders to their mesmerizing quarterback for whom no situation seemed to dire.
Here's how different things were at that time. I was super excited because CBS was going to have a three hour pre-game show. Yes, there was exactly one pre-game show and it lasted three hours. The game itself started at 1 PM Central time and was done by 4 PM. Nowadays, I do everything I can to avoid any and all mention of the Super Bowl from the end of the Conference Championships to the Super Bowl kick-off. Things were different then.
And the game itself was exciting, with big plays, lead changes, 4th-down attempts, dirty plays, controversial coaching decisions and late-game dramatics. I actually watched the entire game on Youtube and these are my observations:
- Landry immediately goes to the bag of tricks, having Thomas Henderson take the opening kick-off on a reverse and he almost goes for a touchdown, taking the ball to the Steelers 45. Only fellow rookie Randy Hughes split-second late block on Roy Gerela prevented the Cowboys from scoring an opening play touchdown.
- Special teams proved a huge difference for both teams as there were:
- Two missed field goals and a missed extra point by Pittsburgh
- A fumbled punt snap by Pittsburgh, with Dallas scoring a 29-yard touchdown on the next play
- A blocked punt by Pittsburgh that resulted in a safety and initiated a five minute sequence of events that turned a 10-7 deficit into a 21 - 10 lead
- After scoring 10 points on their first three drives, the Cowboys offense was inept. The next 8 drives, lasting until there was 3 minutes remaining, went:
- Punt (amazing considering the offense had a 1st down at the Pittsburgh 21-yard line, but a 4-yard loss on a running play was followed by consecutive sacks to force a Dallas punt from the Steeler's 46-yard line. This negated an earlier, classic Staubach play where he scrambled to avoid the rush and converted a 3rd-and 14)
- Punt (blocked for safety)
Rarely did the offense look capable as the running game was consistently stifled and Staubach was sacked 7 times. Staubach also played poorly. He missed receivers, held onto the ball too long at times, made bad passes on both interceptions and, as we'll see later, didn't operate the hurry-up offense very well. He simply didn't have a good game.
- Lynn Swann was indeed spectacular. Outside of him the Steelers offense really didn't do much. Their running game also struggled (149 yards, yes, but on 46 attempts for 3.0 yards per attempt). Swann's four catches for 161 yards tells the story. Three of the catches were huge: his first tight-rope sideline catch led to the Steelers first touchdown to tie the game; his second juggling catch moved the ball from deep inside Steeler's territory to inside the Cowboy's 40; his 3rd, a 64 yard touchdown catch, was the game's kill-shot.
- Jack Lambert is a jerk. He not only famously threw Cliff Harris to the ground during a dead ball (the infamous play when Harris patted Steeler's kicker Roy Gerela on the head after a missed FG) but would repeatedly stand over / taunt / yell at various Cowboys. I didn't realize he was the Odell Beckham of his time.
- The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders looked pretty amateurish at the time.
- The Steelers had 194 yards of first half offense, but only 7 points and they held the ball only 12:21 to the Cowboys 17:39.
- Not only did the Steelers punter drop the ball once, but he had three kicks very nearly blocked.
- Both teams recovered several of their own fumbles. The key was probably Franco Harris having the ball knocked out on the Cowboys 2-yard line and the ball falling right back to him. Had the Cowboys recovered there it would have reversed the momentum at a key time.
- Tom Landry called a timeout late in the first half right before Roy Gerela attempted a FG. He was even ahead of his time when it came to icing the kicker! And it worked, Gerela hooked the 23-yard attempt.
- Cowboys in the shotgun formation through 3 quarters: 1-4 for 14 yards; 1 INT; 2 sacks for -27 yards
- Both teams went for first downs in short yardage situations. The Cowboys converted in the 1st quarter but the drive then stalled and they settled for a FG. The Steelers failed on a 4th-and-short, ending a promising drive at the Cowboys 36 on the following drive. The Steelers also failed on a bizarre 4th-and-long late in the game (we'll get to that in a minute).
The exciting first half had regressed into a field-position slugfest in the third quarter. Neither team scored and with 10 minutes left the key sequence of the game occurred. The Cowboys set up to punt from their own 12 yard-line, still up 10 - 7. The Steelers put two men on the same blocker in the middle of the line and easily blocked the punt for a safety. I can only assume there was some kind of blown assignment in the blocking scheme.
The ensuing free-kick was returned to the Cowboys 45. A Bradshaw scramble helped push the Steelers farther downfield but the drive stalled on a key 3rd-and-inches stop by the Cowboys defense. Gerela then converted the 36-yard field goal. The score was now 12 - 10.
The Cowboys muffed the ensuing kick-off and took over on their own 15-yard line. On first down Staubach forced a ball to a well-covered receiver and it was easily intercepted and returned to the Cowboys 6-yard line. This led tio the sequence where Harris recovered his own fumble. The Cowboys defense did prevent the touchdown and another Gerela field goal made the score 15 - 10. In three and a half minutes the Cowboys had surrendered eight points and control of the game.
The Cowboys again went three-and-out but a good punt put the Steelers at their own 34. Two plays netted only 2 yards and on 3rd-and-long Bradshaw converted the famous 64-yard touchdown pass to Swann. D. D. Lewis was unblocked but took a bad angle allowing Bradshaw to step up and deliver the throw. He was immediately decked by Larry Cole and knocked out cold, not knowing he had thrown a touchdown till being told later in the locker room. Naturally, Gerela missed the extra point.
The Cowboys now trailed 21 - 10 with 3:02 left and hadn't come close to moving the ball in nearly 45 minutes. But in typical Staubach fashion he immediately marched the team on a 78-yard drive, going 4-for-4 and tossing a 34-yard touchdown to Percy Howard. If you're not familiar with the name Percy Howard it's because that was his one and only catch he ever made in the NFL (if I recall correctly, he was injured the next year and never played a down again).
The Cowboys now trailed 21 - 17 with 1:48 remaining and possessing all three time-outs. They could have kicked away and hoped the defense would hold. They could have attempted a conventional on-sides kick. Instead, with 7 players lined up on one side, kicker Tony Fritsch kicked to the opposite side and with no interference and only three Cowboys near the ball the Steelers easily recovered, taking over at the Cowboys 42-yard line.
Three running plays yielded only 1 yard and the Steelers faced 4th-and-9. Bizarrely coach Chuck Knoll chose to go for it on 4th down, the play was easily stopped and the Cowboys took over at their own 38 with 1:22 remaining and no time-outs. I always assumed Knoll was scared of attempting a punt when his punter had already dropped one snap and had three other punts nearly blocked.
I can tell you....I and everyone at our house expected the Cowboys to win at this point. Momentum has swung wildly. They weren't in their own end zone, they were at the 38 and Staubach had just marched the team to an easy score. Things started well enough when Staubach corralled another bad shotgun snap and scrambled to the 50. However, he was unable to get out of bounds and the clock continued.
This is where, watching the game today, I was astounded at how poorly Staubach and the Cowboys executed the two-minute offense. Staubach was tackled with 1:11 left, yet the next play wasn't snapped until 49 seconds remained. The Cowboys just didn't move with the urgency you expected.
The play, however, was a successful one with Staubach throwing an first down pass to Preston Pearson. Pearson, however, turned inside instead of outside where he easily could have gotten out of bounds and stopped the clock. Making matters worse, after being stopped (at the 38 second mark) the referees switch the ball out. The new ball is tossed from the sideline, but bounces off a player and has to be recovered before being spotted. This all took 13 seconds, leaving the Cowboys with 25 seconds remaining. And though the Cowboys are lined up and ready before the ball is place, Staubach doesn't call for the snap until 20 seconds remain.
The end result is that from the 1:11 minute mark to the 0:20 mark the Cowboys ran only one play. It's hard to get only one play off in 49 seconds when you should be in in hurry-up mode, taking advantage of every precious second. In today's NFL environment where every decision and every play is scrutinized the Cowboy's failure to execute would have been heavily criticized and rightly so.
The end result was despite a first down from the Steelers 37-yard line the Cowboys were now reduced to throwing for the end zone on every play. Staubach again managed to recover an errant shotgun snap, miraculously avoided yet another sack but missed his target on first down. Second and third down attempts went incomplete and on fourth down, with only 3 seconds remaining, Staubach's final desperate heave was intercepted.
The most exciting Super Bowl to that point had ended in another last-play, heartbreaking defeat for the Cowboys. I can remember being somewhat shell-shocked that they hadn't pulled off the miracle. I had come to believe that these Cowboys would always win in such situations. It just didn't happen this time.
Full Game Video - Worth the watch. Be warned though, the audio is from the Steeler's radio broadcast and "features" Myron Cope, who has to be among the most annoying announcers ever. His nasal voice is grating, he complains throughout about where the booth is located and generally whines about everything from missed ref calls to having to stand up because fans are blocking his view.
Miscellaneous Videos - Video shot by something called TVTV. Off-field video of fans, players and events surrounding the Super Bowl.
And so...chapter III of the Dallas Cowboy's history came to an end. I didn't mean to write nearly 9,000 words...but that's what came out. Those of you who made it to the end I salute you. I'm pretty sure this is not only the longest FanPost in BtB's history, but probably the longest post of any kind. I learned much researching this and it was fun to go back and relive moments that are marked indelibly on my sports psyche.
I'm gonna need a break before I move onto Chapter IV.