Best roster ever? Don't forget about '71 Cowboys on Thanksgiving
This year's tripleheader slate of Thanksgiving Day games is being hailed as the NFL's best ever, with much of the buzz building on behalf of the Packers-Lions appetizing early showdown in Detroit or the family-style grand finale that will be the highly anticipated Harbaugh Bowl in Baltimore.
But tucked in the middle of the day's football feast is a treat of another sort, a Dolphins-Cowboys game in Dallas that lacks the sizzle of the other two matchups, but could double as a tribute to one of the greatest rosters ever assembled in the league's modern era. If you like a little NFL history with your holiday football fix, don't overlook a Dolphins-Cowboys game that turns back the clock in this anniversary season in Dallas.
Forty years ago this fall, the 1971 Cowboys, laden with Hall of Fame playing and coaching talent galore, were on their way to beating Miami 24-3 in Super Bowl VI, finally throwing off the burden of their many big-game failures and laying claim to the first NFL title in the franchise's storied existence.
That Super Bowl might not be too memorable, but that breakthrough Cowboys team was remarkable in many ways. I don't think I fully appreciated just how remarkable until last week, when I started digging through their history and realized how much of it is virtually unmatched in league annals. Those Cowboys culminated a six-year quest for a Super Bowl title with a star-studded array of players and personalities, and even 40 years later it's hard to imagine a team with more of a rightful claim to fame.
"It's pretty amazing what we had, it really is,'' Hall of Famer and 1971 Cowboys tight end Mike Ditka said by phone this week, reflecting on the only Super Bowl champion ring he earned in his stellar 12-year playing career. "When you really look at that team, you don't see people build a club the way [head coach] Tom [Landry] built that team any more. I really thought of all the Super Bowls I've been around as a player, assistant coach and head coach, that was the most important one to me, because that was Tom's first win. People said he couldn't win the big one, and this and that. Well, we won that one. And I remember how elated we were as a team to win that one together.''
Just try wrapping your mind around the phenomenal collection of players and coaches who came together in that special championship season of 1971 in Dallas:
• The Cowboys that year featured nine eventual Hall of Fame players, with Landry and team president/general manager Tex Schramm also winding up in Canton. When you add in longtime Cowboys assistant coach Ernie Stautner, who made the Hall as a standout defensive lineman for the Steelers in the 1950s and early '60s, an even dozen members of the organization that year have been enshrined.
• No Super Bowl champion has ever featured more than the nine Hall of Fame players who wore the star that season in Dallas, a who's who that includes quarterback Roger Staubach, receivers Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth, Ditka, offensive tackle Rayfield Wright, defensive lineman Bob Lilly, cornerbacks Mel Renfro and Herb Adderley, and offensive lineman Forrest Gregg. Of the 22 players in the starting lineup for the Super Bowl against the Dolphins, 11 of them made either the Hall of Fame or the Cowboys' celebrated Ring of Honor.
• A mind-boggling three '71 Cowboys went on to NFL head coaching careers that included at least one Super Bowl season: Ditka with the 1985 Chicago Bears, Gregg with the 1981 Cincinnati Bengals and running back/assistant coach Dan Reeves, who took both the 1986-87-89 Denver Broncos and the 1998 Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl. Reeves may have been the league's last player-coach in Dallas in the early '70s, and his nine Super Bowl appearances as both a player (two) and coach (three as a fulltime assistant, four as a head coach) stands as the most ever.
The 1971 season was one of supreme vindication in Dallas, after the Cowboys had for five years in a row made the playoffs, beginning in 1966, but failed to win a championship. Derisively labeled "Next Year's Champions'' for their perpetual bridesmaid status, the Cowboys had lost twice in a row to Green Bay in the NFL title game, in 1966 and '67 -- with the second of those being in the fabled Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field. After back-to-back losses to Cleveland in the playoffs of 1968-69, Dallas narrowly was defeated in Super Bowl V in Miami, when Baltimore Colts rookie kicker Jim O'Brien converted a last-second field goal.
It may not have been quite now-or-never time for the '71 Cowboys, but the sense of urgency, and the feeling of a task left unfinished, hung over the entire franchise that season. Landry in recent years had started supplementing his talented roster with accomplished veterans such as Ditka from Philadelphia, Alworth from San Diego and Adderley and Gregg from Green Bay, hoping to add the final pieces to the championship puzzle.
"Supposedly for a lot of us, our careers were over,'' Ditka said. "Guys like me, Alworth, Gregg and Adderley, we were washed up. But Tom built a pretty darn good football team, and it's pretty amazing to see the vision he had, and to watch him make it work with the players he brought in. I know when he traded for me, he was very honest. He said, 'I don't know if you can play any more or not, but I'm going to give you the chance. Come down here and get in shape, and do all the things I want you to do.' I did, and we won, and what we had was a bunch of guys who really played for each other.''
Reeves had been a Cowboy since 1965, and had lived through all the agonizing playoff near-misses in Dallas. He was more coach than player on the '71 team, handling the running backs assistant job with the likes of two former NFL rookies of the year, Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas, as well as Walt Garrison on the roster. His memories of that season are of a team that had decided it would not be denied. The frustration of losing the previous year's Super Bowl spurred the Cowboys in '71, and kept the team focused, with its eyes on the elusive prize.
"We knocked on the door in '66 and '67, but lost to the Green Bay Packers for the right to go to Super Bowls I and II,'' said Reeves this week, before heading to Dallas to spend Thanksgiving with his extended family. "Then the next two years we lost to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference championship game. Then we finally get to the Super Bowl and lose on a last-second field goal to the Colts. So to finally win it in '71, after being right there for six years, we had all been together and suffered through all of those heartbreaks. It was finally our time.''
The "Next Year's Champions'' tag ate at those Cowboys, Reeves said. Landry in those days was far from the revered and respected figure he would eventually be. He was the coach who couldn't win the big one back then, and the Cowboys occupied a role later reserved for the likes of the Raiders, Vikings and Bills, other ultra-successful teams that struggled and failed to win with multiple shots at a championship.
"It bothered us, you'd have to not be human for it not to bother you when you come that close so many times,'' Reeves said. "At the time, you probably didn't realize the significance of it all, and how incredible it was to be so close for so long. Seeing the Packers beat us and go on to win the first two Super Bowls, you realize how much it meant.
"So many of their guys went into the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so, but we had some great players who never got that ring. I mean, if Don Meredith wins one of those two NFL title games against Green Bay, he's going to be known as a great quarterback. He's known as a good one, but he's more known today for Monday Night Football than for being a great quarterback."
The talent level of the '71 Cowboys is what ultimately stands the test of time. On offense, imagine fielding a receiver set blending the speed of Hayes and the hands of Alworth, the two future Hall of Famers. At quarterback, there was Craig Morton and Roger Staubach -- both of whom started multiple Super Bowls -- and the backfield went at least three deep with Hill, Thomas and Garrison. And the offensive line of tackles Wright and Ralph Neely, guards John Niland and Blaine Nye and center Dave Manders all earned multiple Pro Bowl trips. Dallas, in 1971, led the NFL in points with 406 (29.0 per game), ranked first in overall offense (359.6) and scored at least 42 points in five of its 14 regular season games.
"I always say we had a pair, and a spare,'' said Gil Brandt, the former scout who spent three decades as the Cowboys top personnel executive. "We had two good players at each position, and we had another guy, a third guy. We had great players. I don't think we had any weaknesses on our team. We had everything. There were teams some years that had guys you want to forget. But not that year. We had a bunch of guys you want to remember.''
On defense, the '71 Cowboys were equally loaded with playmakers. Lilly, Adderley and Renfro might have been the most decorated defensive starters, but standouts like linebackers Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley, defensive linemen Jethro Pugh and Larry Cole, and defensive backs Cornell Green, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris were all key contributors. Dallas might not have quite been known just yet as the "Doomsday Defense,'' but it was a unit that could turn the lights out on almost any offense, ranking third in yards allowed (247.7) and seventh in points (15.9).
"Lee Roy Jordan was the leader of that football team,'' Ditka said. "But we had so many good players on defense. A lot of those guys aren't in the Hall of Fame, but they're Hall of Fame players in my opinion. Guys like Cornell Green and Chuck Howley and Lee Roy, they were amazing players.''
But despite all their talent, don't think for a minute the '71 Cowboys went untested. Their season was hardly a magic carpet ride. Dallas started 2-0 that year, but then the defending NFC champions lost three of their next five games, falling to 4-3 and two games behind first-place Washington in the NFC East after a 23-19 defeat in Chicago on Halloween. It was in that game that Landry sparked a controversy by using a quarterback "shuttle,'' alternating Staubach and Morton into the game, often on successive plays.
Ditka recalls a players-only meeting shortly after that loss in which the leaders of the team stood up and cleared the air for everyone, making sure they were all on the same page as the final seven games of the season loomed. Landry that week came out and announced Staubach, the third-year veteran, would be the unquestioned starting quarterback for the first time, removing the divided locker room debate between him and Morton, who had started and lost Super Bowl V to the Colts the previous season.
"Tom was a very loyal man and Craig Morton was a really good guy,'' Ditka said. "So it was a tough call for him to make. But I remember that week we had a meeting where we basically just committed to each other. I know that sounds a little corny when you talk about it, but I think it was really important. We had a lot of guys stand up and talk, and when you have that many big names and guys who have been big names somewhere else, you've got a lot of egos in the equation. But we had to shelve some of those egos and we had to go out and do what was best for that football team.
"That was a fun run, because I can actually say I think everybody played for everybody else and nobody really worried about who got the credit or the blame. We made a commitment to each other that we weren't going to let each other down, and the coming together of that group of guys was pretty special. We were 4-3, we weren't going anywhere, just barely hanging on. Then all of a sudden, bang, we run the table. It was a pretty interesting year.''
The Cowboys won their final seven regular season games and all three of their playoff games, winning 10 in a row to close out the year and finally end their string of postseason heartbreaks. Dallas (11-3) won on the road in Minnesota in the NFC divisional round, beat San Francisco at home in the NFC title game, then dominated the Dolphins in the Super Bowl, winning on the same Tulane Stadium field in which they had lost to the expansion New Orleans Saints and rookie quarterback Archie Manning in Week 5. Alworth and Ditka scored Super Bowl touchdowns, and Staubach was named the game's MVP. Those Cowboys are still the only team to not allow a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and to this day, Dallas of 1970-71 and Miami of 1971-72 are the only two teams in the Super Bowl era to return and win the game after losing it the previous year.
Forty years later, there are some intriguing parallels between the '71 Cowboys and the modern-day version. There are those who would say an abundance of talent and consistently high expectations are familiar hallmarks of recent Dallas teams as well, as is the lack of championships to show for all those hopes.
And how's this for symmetry? As pointed out this week by Associated Press sports writer Jaime Aron, who has covered the team since 1999 and written an excellent new book called
And now here come the red-hot and resurgent Dolphins, winners of three in a row themselves as they head into Dallas for their first Thanksgiving Day trip there since that 1993 game made memorable by both the snow and Leon Lett's brain cramp. I don't know if the NFL schedule-makers were thinking of the Miami-Dallas game as an anniversary nod to the Super Bowl pairing of 40 years ago, and the '71 Cowboys. That landmark Dallas team will not be honored at this game, which seems like an opportunity missed.
But that's OK. Those Cowboys of 40 years ago didn't miss their opportunity, finally making their Super Bowl dreams come true. They were the champions of the NFL that season, and for once, next year didn't really matter.