Week in and week out, the Dallas Cowboys may be the best team in professional football. In the regular season. But in the big-money games, those for division or league championships, the Dallas Cowboys are the best team in football at coming up with fascinating ways to lose. Or, as many fans contend, they choke.
In each of the last four years Dallas has played for either a league or a divisional title and each time it has lost. Twice it lost honorably and narrowly to the Green Bay Packers; twice it lost disgracefully and by a wide margin to the Cleveland Browns. Yet in the last four years the Cowboys won more regular-season games than any of the teams in the old NFL.
Coach Tom Landry doesn't deny his club's tendency to choke when a title is at stake. "The hardest championship to win is the first," he once said. "After that a club knows that it is capable of winning and it gains a great deal in confidence."
Last week, before the Cowboys played the Packers in an exhibition game, Landry expanded on his theory. "Success breeds success," he said. "But failure has a carryover effect, too. If we had won that first game against Green Bay for the championship, there's a pretty good chance we could have won the next three. After we lost the second game our chances of winning a third were much worse than after the single loss, and after the third loss, to Cleveland, I think we were at a big psychological disadvantage in the playoff game last year. Once we break the spell we'll be as good as any other team in key games."
The first two losses, at Dallas and Green Bay, certainly don't support the theory that the Cowboys fold in the clutch. The first game was decided in the final seconds. Dallas was on the Green Bay two-yard line. Don Meredith, then the Cowboy quarterback, was hit hard by Linebacker Dave Robinson just as he was throwing a pass. The ball plopped into the hands of Green Bay's Tom Brown. The next year, in Green Bay, the Cowboys played well, only to again lose in the closing seconds, Bart Starr sneaking into the end zone behind the blocks of Jerry Kramer, who got the credit, and Ken Bowman, who didn't. The losses to Cleveland were more decisive (31-20 and 38-14), and a number of Dallas fans, including one high club official, attribute the first defeat to Meredith, the second to Craig Morton, his successor.
"I don't know exactly how to describe Meredith," the official said. "What would you say he was? I mean in his attitude. Flippant? No, I guess that's not really the word. I guess the word I want is frivolous."
Certainly Meredith lacked the determination of a John Unitas or the dedication of a Bart Starr, but it isn't fair to characterize him as frivolous. He was undeniably a flippant man with a fey, wry sense of humor and an occasional tendency to disregard training rules, but on the field he was tough and courageous, and during his last three seasons he played with a series of nagging if not crippling injuries—and with uncharitable boos ringing in his ears.
"I never felt that I gave less than my best when I played," Meredith said recently. "I gave it all I had and I don't know how I could have given any more."
Morton, who took over last year after Meredith's retirement, is also suspected of being frivolous. "I don't think he's as serious about the game as he should be, either," said the same official who criticized Meredith. "I can't understand why a man whose whole life is football can take it so lightly, but I don't know what to do about it."
Morton did little to alter this impression when the club left its California training camp last week to return to Dallas for the Green Bay exhibition game. He missed the plane. He said he hadn't been called in time and had overslept. His excuse wasn't really all that feeble. Four other Cowboys, including Lee Roy Jordan, the middle linebacker who may be the most gung-ho player on the team, missed the plane, too.
However, when the Cowboys got to Dallas, Landry named Roger Staubach, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner from Navy, as his starting quarterback against the Packers. Staubach is a fiery ballplayer who likes to run if his receivers are momentarily covered. He may be a more inspirational leader than Morton, if not quite as accurate a passer.
"No one on this team has his position made," Landry said by way of explanation. "I'll play the man who gets the job done, in practice or in the game." This is a reflection of Landry's off-season thoughts about the defects in the team and, possibly, in his own approach to the game. The Cowboys have become a mature team in the last few years and, although he hasn't said so, Landry obviously feels that some of his veterans have become complacent.
Staubach, who backed up Morton last season, has the confidence of the younger receivers. Reggie Rucker, who was on the taxi squad last year, worked out with Staubach during the off season, and he reflects their feeling. "The guy can't stand losing at anything," he said. "We used to run wind sprints together every day and I'm probably a tenth of a second or two faster than Roger at 40 yards, but I couldn't convince him no matter how many times I beat him. He was always after me to race him again and every time I beat him he said, 'I'll get you next time.' "
Staubach looked better than adequate even though the Packers beat the Cowboys 35-34 last Saturday night. That is, as long as he lasted. Unfortunately, his penchant for running makes him prone to injury. In the first quarter he was tackled hard on one of his impromptu forays and knocked dizzy. He wasn't seriously injured, but when he was still woozy after the half Landry decided not to put him back in.
Morton, who came in for Staubach and performed at least as well, has inherited not only Meredith's reputation for insouciance but his lack of popularity with the fans, too. Once, when he was forced into a hurried pass by a strong rush and overthrew a wide-open Bob Hayes, he was roundly booed.
He deserves better. Through the first three games of the 1969 season Morton was brilliant, leading the league in pass-completion average. In the fourth game he dislocated his right shoulder, which inhibited his throwing motion for the rest of the year, but he still completed 53.6% of his passes. An operation has repaired the damaged shoulder and he now throws as well as ever.
Too, Morton is honest. Before the Cleveland playoff game last year he admitted he was scared to death and he played that way. If he again beats out Staubach, the added year of experience under pressure should settle him down.
There is one more factor that may help account for the Cowboys' traditional hanging on the money. Most of the black players on the club are less than enchanted with Dallas and the attitude of its citizenry toward blacks. Don Perkins, who was a fine running back, retired while still in his prime and gave as one of the reasons his difficulty in finding suitable housing in Dallas. Another black player said, "Sure, they cheer us when we're on the field, but they can't see us off it. They make you feel like an animal act." Moreover, a few of the white players have no love for the blacks and don't bother to conceal it—a situation that exists on other clubs as well.
Finally, given the cumulative effects of a lack of confidence brought on by a succession of big defeats, breezy quarterbacks, complacent veterans and disaffected blacks, there is the possibility that Landry himself is a factor in pressure-filled games. His offense and defense are extremely complicated and require absolute concentration by every player to be successful.
In a regular-season game the Cowboys can put aside their discontents, but in the playoffs, with the added strain of their reputation for collapse, they tend to make mental errors, and mistakes in the Landry system cost dearly. In the Lombardi-style Packer game, on the other hand, the plays are relatively few and uncomplicated, and are so thoroughly rehearsed that they become instinctive. The old Packer powerhouses could execute them under any kind of pressure.
The Cowboys may eventually attain that kind of perfection, and they almost surely will get another chance this season to put the lie to their reputation. They appear to be the class of their division, so they will undoubtedly reach the divisional playoffs. And they have a big plus. They won't have Cleveland to contend with, the Browns having moved into the American Conference. Given one playoff victory, the Dallas El Foldos might even get the winning habit.