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The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part II (1966-1970)

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. And today I embark on that journey by creating my own History of the Dallas Cowboys. It so happens their history conveniently breaks down into 5-year segments quite well. Today we'll look at what is likely the least interesting period in the team's history, 1960 to 1965 (it's actually a 6 year segment but no big deal as not much noteworthy happened during this time). 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:

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part I

1966 - 1970

So, while I don't recall any of these games, I am quite familiar with these events from this time period. However, I realize I hadn't truly appreciated the two indisputable conclusions I've come to as I researched this era in Cowboys history:

  1. These were arguably the most dominant teams in Dallas Cowboys history
  2. Point number one is rendered virtually meaningless by each season's heartbreaking conclusion

The Cowboys of this era were absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball. They dominated opponents throughout the entire five year period. They scored points in overwhelming numbers. The defense was so fearsome it earned the nickname "Doomsday". Together the two units generated huge, jaw-dropping point differentials. They dominated division opponents, winning the NFC East division all five seasons. As I said above, they were an NFL force of nature as powerful as any other Dallas Cowboys unit, even the triple Super Bowl-winning 1991-1995 squad.

And yet, the team won no Super Bowls and only so much as reached a single Super Bowl. Instead, the team is most remembered for a series of demoralizing playoff defeats, including the infamous Ice Bowl. In short, it is a team of unmet potential that resulted in the team being dismissively labeled "Next Year's Champion". Honestly, I looked forward to researching this era but came away despondent at the end results. Those who actually lived through it as coaches, players and fans no doubt suffered the deepest sorrow that sports can deliver.

On-Field Results

After averaging 4.25 wins per season over the team's first six years the Cowboys averaged 10.4 wins the next five:

Remember, this is during an era of 12 and 14 game seasons. The 86% win percentage in 1968 still remains a franchise-high. This is the beginning of a 20-year run during which the Cowboys:

  • Won more games than they lost every single year
  • Made the playoffs 19 of 21 seasons
  • Won 2 Super Bowls
  • Appeared in 5 Super Bowls
  • Won 20 playoff games
  • Won an aggregate 208 regular season games of 281 played for an 80% winning percentage (80%!).

How remarkable is that final number? In the 31 seasons since that 21-year run ended the Cowboys have won 80% of their games exactly 3 times (1992, 2007 and 2016). Landry and the Cowboys AVERAGED the team's 3 best seasons over the past 30 years for that entire 21 year run.

The point totals for each season shows the true dominance of the late 60's squad. The '66 and '68 point differentials of 14.7 and 17.5 rank 1st and 2nd in team history (the league record is the New England's 2007 19.7). The 1969 number ranks 6th in team history; so three of the team's six best point differentials ever occurred during this five year period. Remarkable.

The team ranked among the league's top 5 in both points scored and yards gained virtually every year. Remember, these rankings are out of the 16 NFL teams that existed during this era; so being top-5 is the equivalent of being top-10 in today's 32 team NFL.

The defense was also very good, if not quite as dominant as the offense. The following summarizes each season and is one of my favorite tables. The heavy presence of green and virtual absence of red is spell-binding to me; teams simply aren't THIS GOOD over five full seasons very often:

There's a lot to digest in the above image, so let me point out a few things:

  • Only one coach, but two quarterbacks. This is unusual; normally a dominant team doesn't change starting quarterbacks in the middle of a successful run. A transition at the QB usually results in a significant decline from dominance.
  • Same thing at running back with four different players leading the team in rushing over five years. In addition to Don Perkins, Dan Reeves, Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas the team also fed the ball to Walt Garrison.
  • Four different players leading the team in AAV.

This demonstrates what a complete and deep team the Cowboys fielded throughout this period. I want to highlight the bottom section of the table:

We clearly see here the true greatness of those '66 and '68 teams. They scored 30+ points per game. They yielded 17 or fewer to outscore teams by 14 points on average. That's simply unheard of. The Simple Rating System at the bottom is a measure that's probably unfamiliar to many. It's used by Pro Football Reference to provide a single measure of the quality of the team. They describe it as a point spread against an average team. This means the 1968 Dallas Cowboys were a 2 touchdown favorite against an average NFL team in 1968. None of the '90's teams achieved an SRS number higher than 10.2. The 2007 New England Patriots, considered by many as the most dominant team in NFL history, have a 20.1 SRS. Other than that the highest I can find is the 1985 Bears at 15.9. I have not researched every season but I can't find any other team that has a higher SRS than 12...indicating the 1968 Dallas team was one of the very best teams in NFL history.

The rest of the NFC East simply had no chance during this time; the Cowboys went 30-9-4 (77%) against division foes.

Against the Redskins, Giants and Eagles they went 23-5 (82%). Note the Giants for some reason flipped out of the East (actually called the Capitol division in those days) in '67 and '69. The division added the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969; those five teams would remain the NFC East for the next 32 years.

Unfortunately, as I'll document below, the seasons all ended with losses:

Key Players / Player Acquisition

So, who were the players that made up these talent-filled rosters? The list of honorees from this era is an embarrassment of riches. The number of Pro Bowl and All Pro honorees is long and deep:

Seriously, a team could go 15 years and not rack up the awards won by the late 60's Cowboys. Thirty-four Pro Bowl seasons and 22 1st-Team All Pro seasons; an average of 7 Pro Bowlers and 4 All Pros each season. Thirteen different players awarded All Pro or Pro Bowl selections. Quarterback, running back, wide receiver and offensive lineman represented on offense. Lineman, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties represented on defense. Even the punter was good!

One thing I find interesting is the 1969 team wasn't as good as the 1968 team yet had 9 players named 1st team All Pro. I think this indicates, as it does today, that perception and reputation play as big a role in winning awards as actual performance. I believe those awards were granted as much for the reputation those players earned during their more dominant '68 season as they were for their '69 performance.

I also want to point out how fearsome the defense was:

  • Tackle Bob Lilly: 4-time All Pro; 5-time Pro Bowler
  • Linebacker Chuck Howley: 5-time All Pro; 4 time Pro Bowler
  • Cornell Green: 3-time All Pro
  • Mel Renfro: 5-time Pro Bowler
  • Lee Roy Jordan: 3-time Pro Bowler; 1-time All Pro

Opposing offenses were practically facing a Pro Bowl team, with half the defenders having played in the game around this time. Doomsday indeed!

Note also the ridiculousness of that dominant '68 team adding rookie Calvin Hill in 1968; all he did was win All Pro, Pro Bowl and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards.

So, how were these players acquired? The draft played a significant role:

So, again, I'm still amazed at 20 round drafts. It's also noteworthy how many times a player picked up after the 10th round ends up being a significant player. Larry Cole, Mark Washington and Sweeny Williams (who played his entire career with the Green Bay Packers after a trade) in this case. Note the two first round picks in 1969 and 1970:

  • Calvin Hill was an unknown name and hailed from Yale, a school not known for producing NFL players. The pick was widely ridiculed by many and questioned by Cowboys fans. Turned out to be a terrific pick.
  • And yet, the following year, with the team possessing the previous season's offensive rookie of the year at running back, the team used it's first round pick on another running back. (Imagine the Cowboys taking a running back in this year's first round to get a sense of how unusual this was.) But the team had Duane Thomas ranked as the 3rd best player in the entire draft. The only negative noted was that he could be problematic and sometimes yelled at his coaches. It's fair to say that scouting report was amazingly accurate in every way.

So....these were very good drafts for the most part, but not as good as those from 1961 to 1965 (when the team three times drafted players who generated over 400 AAV throughout the course of their careers). The team usually found at least two long-time regulars and in 1970 hit the mother-lode with five starters. Also acquired that year was a free agent rookie who, by the time training camp ended, had claimed the starting safety position and would hold the position for the next ten years, generating 93 AV in the process. Cliff Harris would become a Ring of Honor member, be named to the NFL's 75 Year team and by all rights should be a member of the NFL's Hall of Fame.

Key Games

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.

Game # 1

  • Season: 1966
  • Date: 1967.01.01
  • Opponent: Green Bay Packers
  • At stake: NFL Championship and the opportunity to play in Super Bowl I
  • Result: loss
  • Score: 27 - 34

This was the first real game of significance for the 7-year old franchise. The Cowboys had won the NFL's Eastern Division by a full game and a half with a 10-3-1 record. Their reward was to face the 12-2 Green Bay Packers. The Packers were defending NFL champions, had won four of the six previous NFL Championships en route to winning six of eight. These were the legendary Vince Lombardi Packers, one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.

The Cowboys, however, were an unstoppable force in 1966 (see above) making this a compelling matchup of exciting young upstart against grizzled champions.

The Packers received the ball and promptly marched for a touchdown. Pro Bowl kick returner Mel Renfro then fumbled the ensuing kick-off and the Packers returned the ball for a second touchdown. Before the Cowboy's high-powered offense even took the field the team was down 14-0. The offense responded with two touchdowns to tie the score. But a 50 yard touchdown from QB Bart Star to Carrol Dale restored the Packers lead. A Cowboy's field goal made the score 21-17 at halftime.

Another FG cut the deficit to 1 point but two more Starr touchdown passes should have ended the game. However, Bob Lilly blocked the extra point and kept the Cowboy's feint hopes alive, down 14 points with under 5 minutes remaining.

The Cowboys then mounted a furious comeback:

  • A miraculous 68-yard Don Meredith to Frank Clark touchdown pass on 3rd and 20
  • A 3-and-out on the next Packers drive
  • A shanked punt under pressure that gave the ball to the Cowboys at Green Bay's 47
  • A 21-yard Meredith to Clark connection and a blatant pass interference in the end zone give the Cowboys 1st down at the Packers 2-yard line

The following sequence of plays was a comedy of errors that unfortunately hinted at future post-season performances:

  • A 1st down run netted 1 yard
  • A 2nd down play-action pass left Pettis Norman wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown. But not only did Norman drop the ball but left guard Jim Boeke moved too soon, resulting in a 5-yard penalty.
  • On the following play (2nd down again) Dan Reeves dropped a simple, wide-open screen pass. It's not clear from the video whether he had room to score but there's not a Packer in the entire television shot.
  • On 3rd down Meredith under throws an open Pettis Norman. The catch is made, but short of the goalline. An accurate pass almost certainly results in a touchdown.
  • On fourth down Meredith rolls right but is under immediate pressure from Packer linebacker Dave Robinson. Meredith tosses a desperation heave that falls for a season-ending interception. Many think RG Leon Donahue should have blocked Robinson but the real culprit was Bob Hayes. The coaches failed to realize Hayes was in the game despite it being a short-yardage play. Hayes was responsible for chipping the rushing linebacker and provides absolutely no resistance, giving Robinson an unimpeded path to the quarterback.

A dominating season of football came down to one yard and the Cowboys came up with a bewildering, slapstick series of miscues, blunders and gaffes. Needless to say it was a disappointing ending to what could have been a history-changing comeback.

LINKS:

Game #2

  • Season: 1967
  • Date: 1967.12.24
  • Opponent: Cleveland Brown
  • At stake: opportunity to advance to the NFL Championship and the right to play in Super Bowl II
  • Result: win
  • Score: 52 - 14
    • The 1967 Cowboys were not as good as the 1966 Cowboys. They won the "Capitol" division with a 9-5 record as their division foes all finished under .500. This enabled the Cowboys to face off against the "Century" division winning Cleveland Browns in Dallas the day before Christmas.
      This game was never a contest. The Cowboys quickly jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Then an 86-yard touchdown from Meredith to Hayes extended the lead to 21-0. It was 24-0 before the Browns finally scored a touchdown to reduce the lead to 17 points.
      The Cowboys, however, then scored 4 straight touchdowns, highlighted by Cornell Green's 60 yard interception return. A meaningless 75-yard Paul Warfield touchdown catch yielded the 52 -14 final. Following the heartbreaking conclusion from the previous year this had to be an emotional release for Cowboys players and fans alike.
      I have to admit that doesn't look like the box score of a 52 - 14 shellacking. The Cowboys did gain 80 more yards. But they also turned the ball over more than the Browns. Not seen there is the 60 yards from Green's interception return or the 141 yards in punt returns (on only 3 punts) from Bob Hayes. That add another 200 additional yards to the Cowboys already hefty 400 offensive yards and then the final score begins to make a little more sense. Big plays on offense, defense and special teams are a pretty good recipe for success.

      Game #3 - The Ice Bowl

  • Season: 1967
  • Date: 1967.12.31
  • Opponent: Green Bay Packers
  • At stake: 1967 NFL Championship and the right to play in Super Bowl II
  • Result: loss
  • Score: 17 - 21
    • There's very few NFL games that are known by name. Plays more often inspire names (think of the Immaculate Reception or The Catch). But any NFL fan over the age of 20 is well-aware of the Ice Bowl. Books have been written about it; documentaries aired, endless interviews and stories written (including this one). Now more than 50 years later the game still resonates with NFL fans.
      Most are familiar with the events surrounding the game so I won't go into it beyond a few observations:
    • Just like the previous year the Cowboys quickly fell behind 14-0. And just like the previous year Dallas was victimized by a long touchdown pass.
    • The Cowboys scored ten points in the second quarter while not recording a single first down. A Bart Starr fumble was returned for a touchdown. Then a fumbled punt by Hall of Famer Willie Wood led to a field goal, allowing the Cowboys to go into halftime down only 14 - 10.
    • The Cowboys executed the best drive of the game in the 3rd quarter, moving from their own 8 yard line all the way to the Packers 20. But the drive ended when an effective Meredith scramble ended with a fumble recovered by the Packers at the 13 yard line.
    • On the first play of the 4th quarter Dan Reeves surprised the Packers with a halfback pass to Lance Rentzel for a 50-yard touchdown pass and a 17 - 14 Cowboys lead.

    When the Packers took over possession at their own 32 yard line with four-and-a-half minutes remaining their prospects for any kind of scoring drive were dim. Consider:

    • The day had grown colder and the field conditions had degenerated from very bad to horrible; the conditions were more like a chunky ice rink than a football field.
    • The players had been outside for nearly three hours at this point and the effects of prolonged exposure were taking their toll.
    • The Packers offense had been wholly ineffective after those two initial scores. Ten drives and 31 plays had netted a total of -9 yards. The Cowboys defense was completely suffocating the Packer offense.

    And yet we all know what happened next. There was no one big play but instead a series of short and medium gains, all of which seemed to benefit from Cowboys defenders slipping on the slick field. Perhaps the key play on the drive was a short screen pass to Donnie Anderson on 2nd-and-19. Chuck Howley was in position to limit the play to no gain but slipped, allowing Anderson to gain 13 yards. Howley then fell again on the following play when Anderson picked up the first down.

    The play that bewilders me most is an 8 yard run from the 11 yard line by 3rd string fullback Chuck Mercein (who accounted for half of the Packer's 68 yards on the drive). On the play Bob Lilly is unblocked but bites on a sweep to the right and moves himself out of the play, allowing Mercine a wide open lane. The irony is high when one of the key plays in this game involves the brutish, no gimmicks Packers using mis-direction to fool the Cowboys best player.

    Two failed running plays and two time-outs left the Packers facing 3rd-and-goal from the one foot line with 15 seconds and no time-outs. I imagine everyone in the stadium was happy the Packers decided the game would end on the next play and didn't kick a tying field goal. Many observers claim had the game been extended into overtime frostbite would have claimed victims both on the field and in the stands (in fact several Cowboys suffered from minor frostbite).

    And so for the second year in a row the Cowboys lost the NFL Championship on the final play of the game in heartbreaking fashion. It would not be the last time.

    Links:

    Game #4

  • Season: 1968
  • Date: 1968.12.11
  • Opponent: Cleveland Browns
  • At stake: opportunity to advance to the NFL Championship and the right to play in Super Bowl III
  • Result: loss
  • Score: 20 - 31
  • Above I've laid out the case for the 1968 Dallas Cowboys being among the best teams in NFL history. The reason that argument is somewhat absurd is this game. The Cowboys were simply terrible. Throughout the day the high-powered Cowboys offense sputtered. However a Chuck Howley strip sack and fumble return for a touchdown plus a D. D. Lewis interception enabled the Cowboys to take a 10-3 2nd quarter lead..

    Similar to the previous Packers games the defense surrendered a long touchdown pass, this time a 45-yarder to a wide open Leroy Kelly, making the score 10-10 at halftime. The beginning of the 2nd half was disastrous. Meredith threw a pick-six interception on the first play. The next series also resulted in a Meredith interception, however, the ball was perfectly thrown but bounced off Lance Rentzel's hands. The Browns immediately followed with a 35-yard touchdown run for a 24-10 lead.

    Landry replaced Meredith (who had completed as many passes, 3, to the Browns as he had to Cowboys players) with Craig Morton. Morton initially sparked the team, resulting in a field goal. But he fared no better, his stats padded by a meaningless score when the game was effectively over.

    The stats above show that '68 team was truly, truly dominant in both phases of the game but the team's performance against Cleveland showed none of that. It had to be a bitter, demoralizing loss for players, coaches and fans. In fact, it was Don Meredith's final game as he retired that off-season despite being only 30 years old; a sad conclusion to a great career that was largely unappreciated by Cowboy fans of the time.

    Links:

    Game #4

  • Season: 1969
  • Date: 1969.12.28
  • Opponent: Cleveland Browns
  • At stake: opportunity to advance to the NFL Championship and the right to play in Super Bowl IV
  • Result: loss
  • Score: 14 - 38
  • There's not much to say about this game. The Cowboys again seemingly had one of the best teams in the NFL. And the Cowboys again played absolutely terrible when the stakes were increased. The defense, which had allowed five rushing touchdowns total in '68 and '69 combined allowed three in this game alone.

    The offense was anemic, unable to generate any yards and turning the ball over three times. Browns quarterback Bill Nelson had arguably the best game of his career. The score was 24-0 at halftime. It was a humiliating, embarrassing defeat.

    Links:

    1970 Super Bowl run

    The 1970 Cowboys finally won a playoff game. In fact they won two, by scores of 5 - 0 and 17 - 10 over Detroit and San Francisco. Neither game was very exciting or particularly interesting. They were, however, playoff wins and that's why I'm noting them here. Those two wins enabled the Cowboys to play in Super Bowl V against the Baltimore Colts.

    Super Bowl V is arguably the worst, ugliest game in Super Bowl history. It generally doesn't show up on any "worst Super Bowl" lists because it wasn't decided until the final play of the game and those lists consist exclusively of blow-out games

    But don't be fooled, Super Bowl V was terrible football. Eleven turnovers. The Cowboys committed 133 yards in penalties. Baltimore averaged 2.25 yards on 31 rushing attempts and committed 7 turnovers and somehow won the game. Their lone touchdown came on a fluky 75-yard touchdown that three different players touched. Dallas passed for only 127 yards on 26 attempts and included three interceptions. Even the refs were bad, wrongly awarding the Colts a fumble on the goal line when no Colts ever seemed to have touched the ball and Cowboys center Dave Manders had clear possession when the play ended.

    Just a brutally ugly football game. And the closing sequence is, yet again, a final minute nightmare for Cowboys fans:

    • With 4 minutes remaining in a 13 - 13 tie a Cowboys punt traps the Colts on their own 5-yard line.
    • Three plays yield five yards and the Colts punt
    • The Cowboys take over at the Colts 48-yard line with 1:52 remaining and needing only a field goal to win. I tried using Pro Football Reference's win probability calculator to get the Cowboy's odds of victory at this point but it didn't work. My guess is the Cowboys had about a 75% chance of winning based on the situation.
    • A sack of Morton on 2nd down is nullified by a holding penalty....which is enforced 15 yards from the spot of the foul resulting in a 24-yard loss and 2nd and 35.
    • Morton is intercepted on the next play and the ball returned to the Cowboys 28 with 59 seconds remaining
    • Two plays later rookie kicker Jim O'Brien nails a 25-yard field goal for the win

    Bob Lilly reacts by infamously throwing his helmet half the length of the field. I don't blame him. At this point the Cowboys have been one of the best teams in the NFL for five consecutive seasons and have nothing but last-second heartbreaks and humiliating embarrassments in the post-season. Had I been older then I would have wanted Landry fired; his teams consistently played far below their abilities whenever the stakes were raised. It's dumbfounding to me now and had to dismay and discourage anyone associated with the team at the time it happened.

    A couple more comments, first on Craig Morton. I never really saw Morton play, but I can look through the stats and gamelogs and based on those he was a quality quarterback. His 75 career rating with the Cowboys was right in line with good quarterbacks of the era. He replaced Meredith in 1969 and the team won two division titles and advanced to Super Bowl V.

    But my memory is my father and all his Cowboys-watching buddies constantly screaming at him. They were not fans. And the playoff statistics are mind-numbingly bad:

    • 49 completions on 137 attempts - a 36% completion rate
    • 630 yards on 137 attempts - 4.6 yards per attempt
    • 4 touchdowns - 2.9% touchdown rate
    • 10 interceptions - 7.3% interception rate

    Honestly, it's remarkable that 1970 team managed to win two playoff games as these are Morton's numbers that post-season:

    Completing 1 of three passes, throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and compiling a 33 passer rating is not usually a recipe for post-season NFL success. I understand my father's rantings a bit better now.

    Second, the NFL of this era was boring. The scores were low. Offense was rare; most teams ran the ball but often to little effect. Games were often decided by blooper-reel plays with balls bouncing around. The kicking game was erratic and unreliable. I'll get into this more on Part III but the NFL of the late 60's / early 70's was a poor example of the sport.

    Links:

    Season recap

    Detroit box score

    Detroit full game

    Detroit post-game

    San Francisco box score

    San Francisco full game

    Super Bowl V box score

    Super Bowl V "highlights"

    Super Bowl V play=by-play

    Super Bowl V pre-game show (hilarious)

    Super Bowl V - Highlights with music / no narration - all highlights should be like this

    THe Youtube videos of these old broadcasts are priceless. The simple (some would say amateurish) presentation and ads capture a different sports world than the one we live in today. Worth checking out for that alone.

    And...I'm at 4,500 words. I'm beginning to think this project is going to be bigger than I imagined. Kudos to anyone who made it this far. Part II will be more enjoyable.

    Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.