The Dallas Cowboys are in first place once again, and perhaps they finally will be Next Year's Champions, but the little old man in the shoeshine parlor in the Marriott Motor Hotel is skeptical. "Something weird always happens to the Cowboys," he said sagely. "You get to wonder if the Man Upstairs likes us. Why, here's what He probably will do to us this time. The Cowboys will be in the Super Bowl, the score will be tied, and they will have the ball with time for one last play. Roger Staubach will fade back. He'll wait. Then he'll spot Bob Hayes standing all alone in the end zone. And Staubach will throw a perfect pass. Touchdown? Heck, no! The ball will explode in midair, flutter to the ground—and the Cowboys will lose in sudden death."
If the Cowboys are deflated once again, it will hardly shock their fans, for they have been well schooled in the gentle art of defeat, Dallas style. While the Cowboys always seem to have the best team "on paper," as Redskin Coach George Allen claims, football, alas, is played on a field and they usually have come up with ways to fold—ones not dreamed of in origami, the gentle art of Japanese paper folding. Dallas has compiled the third best record in pro football in the last five years. "But what do we have to show for it?" asks Dan Reeves, their player-coach. "Zip!"
In those five years the Cowboys have somehow managed to lose one Super Bowl game, two NFL championship games and two conference championship games, not to mention a Runner-up Bowl. "It sure has been frustrating," says Bob Hayes, who has lived through all the disasters. "I've seen it all, I hope. So many bizarre happenings! Like the Ice Game at Green Bay; my first hockey game, really. Like someone going offside or fumbling just as we were about to score a big touchdown late in the game. Like deflections turned into interceptions—the reason we lost the Super Bowl. But it must end sometime."
Must it? If there is a new way to lose, the Cowboys will find it. Perhaps it's a case of over-think. A computer assembled them, a computer instructs them and a computer even inspires them, but most of the time the Cowboys clank around like a '51 Ford Victoria stuck in reverse. "According to the charts we should be the best," says Tex Schramm, the Dallas general manager. "Unfortunately, we always seem to live in a state of distraction. Or adversity. Something like that. Just one dilemma after another."
For Schramm and Coach Tom Landry, this has been the Cowboys' most dilemmaful year since they helped create the team back in 1960. What to do, for example, about Duane Thomas, the running back who bad-mouthed the players and the management? Who to play at quarterback, Roger Staubach or Craig Morton? Pay Ralph Neely, who broke his leg in a mid-season motorcycle accident, or not pay Ralph Neely?
These and other vexing questions have plagued Schramm and Landry, and so far they have solved only one: after months of vacillation that threatened to destroy the team, Landry finally settled on Staubach as the No. 1 quarterback. With Staubach and Morton alternating in various ways, the Cowboys had a 4-3 record. Now, with Staubach in the saddle, they have won four straight, picked up 2½ games on the Washington Redskins and moved into first place in the NFC's Eastern Division.
Their 1971 problems started in training camp when Thomas, the club's best running back as a rookie last season after replacing the injured Calvin Hill, demanded that the Cowboys renegotiate his contract. When Schramm refused, Thomas called him "sick, demented and completely dishonest" and, as an afterthought, said Landry was a "plastic man." Schramm laughed off the allegations directed at him, saying, "That's not bad—he got two out of three." A few days later he traded Thomas to the New England Patriots.
Thomas reported to the Patriot camp in Amherst, Mass., but when Coach John Mazur told him to get down in a three-point stance, Thomas demonstrated the two-point stance he preferred and told Mazur, "This was how we did it in Dallas, and this is how I'm going to do it' here." Mazur showed Thomas how he would not do it here, ordering him from the field, and before long Thomas once more belonged to the Cowboys. But he refused to rejoin the team unless the Cowboys gave him a new contract.
The week after Dallas' opening game Thomas relented and became a Cowboy in good standing. In a sense he won his point or, more precisely, resorted to his favored two points. Thomas has since replaced the reinjured Hill in the regular backfield, but all season long he has been a loner and, according to Schramm, "exceedingly quiet." When the Cowboys travel, Thomas takes the middle seat in a three-seat row so no one will sit beside him and pulls a yellow stocking cap over his ears.
After one game Jethro Pugh, the defensive tackle, asked Thomas, "How's your knee?" Thomas, who had injured the knee that day, glared at Pugh and shot back, "Why do you want to know? Are you a doctor?" Although Thomas' behavior puzzles his teammates, they accept it and will continue to do so as long as he performs well on the field. Said Dan Reeves, who spends hours each week helping Thomas memorize the game plan, "Whether you like Duane or not, there's one thing you must admire about him. Most people in the world, and I'm not excluding myself, are wishy-washy. They go with the flow. Not Duane. You know where he stands on everything."
The Thomas case, however, was not Landry's gravest concern. All winter long he had worried over the quarterback situation. On one hand he had Morton, the classicist (drop back 6½ yards, set, release within three seconds) with six years' experience. On the other he had Staubach, the unorthodox scrambler (drop back 4 yards, set, duck and run) with two years' experience. "I can't predict Roger," Landry said hopelessly. "I never know what he's going to do." What Landry meant was that Staubach would never be programmed.
In Dallas the fans generally favored Staubach—Star-Spangled Staubach, they call him. "The boy went to Navy, and he's the only player on the field who ever stands at attention when they play the national anthem," said one season-ticket holder. "Besides, how can you like Morton? He went bankrupt last year, didn't he, and he's got his own little identity crisis."
Morton, it turns out, worked with a hypnotist during the last 12 games of the 1970 season and also allowed himself to be used as a subject for a reading by a natural psychic medium.
Edward J. Pullman, a 58-year-old hypnotist, met Morton once a week and used hypnosis on game days when he talked to the quarterback by telephone. "The object," Pullman says, "was to relieve Craig of game pressures, boost his confidence, free him from further injury by conditioning him to relax on the instant of body contact, keep his sore elbow from being a conscious hindrance and, generally, open up the full potential of his abilities." Amen.
Morton is not certain how much the hypnosis helped. "How can you measure it?" he says. "It is supposed to work on the subconscious, and that's unmeasurable. It might have helped when I got hit, but that is normally an automatic reflex. It seemed to have helped on the interceptions and losing the ball because of a fumble." Indeed, during one seven-game period Morton threw only two interceptions.
In his telephone conversations with Morton, Pullman would utter a hypnotic term—Black Salt—that he calls a "post," not to be confused with a post pattern, and then launch into the deep stuff, not to be confused with a deep pattern. "You're in a deep sleep, but you can hold the phone. You feel fine. You must remember everything I told you, all the suggestions I gave you. You must be perfectly relaxed and calm, and you have all the ability you need to work the game today. Everything I gave you must come through today, and you're going to be amazed at the results. You will experience no pain. You are going to fall but not get hurt."
After completing seven of 14 passes in a win at Kansas City, Morton called Pullman. "I'm really excited," Morton said. "None of the fluid came back on my elbow, which is kind of amazing because it usually balloons right up. And I had my knee twisted a bit, but it went right away."
Before the Super Bowl Pullman phoned Morton, who had injured his throwing arm, and outlined a 10-point program that, he said, would help him beat Baltimore. One of the points concerned interceptions. "You will hit your receivers with fantastic accuracy," Pullman said. "You will not overthrow or underthrow your receivers." They must have had a bad connection. Morton was intercepted twice in the last quarter, and Baltimore rallied to win 16-13.
In his séance with the medium, Mrs. Lois Shawgo, Morton was seen in previous lives as a German general in the 15th century and as Sean Devlin, or Seaon Devers, a wealthy owner-trainer of thoroughbred racehorses around Galway Bay in the 19th century. As the general, Morton was run through with a spear and suffered a wound that bothered him when he sat down on a chair. The medium asked him if he ever felt a similar pain. Morton said he did.
Meanwhile, Staubach was suffering, too. He was convinced Landry intended to play Morton regularly, and he told the coach he would not settle for No. 2 again. "I'm impatient for success," Staubach says. "I told the coach I wanted to go elsewhere if I was not No. 1 in Dallas. He agreed with me. My age is against me, remember. I'm 29 now, and I want to be a starter for seven or eight years. They tell you about experience. Well, experience is confidence. And I have plenty of confidence."
For some reason Landry did not—in his own judgment, that is. And this is a man who has the final, definite, unquestioned say on every phase of the game. "They don't even inflate the footballs unless Tom's around to check the pressure," says one Dallas observer. Landry is essentially a humorless man. According to people in Dallas, he last made a funny back in 1964, when he told Billy Lothridge, a rookie punter who had pulled Landry's shirttail during a post-game celebration, "Son, do you think you could adjust to the cold, cold climate of Canada?"
Landry rotated and alternated Staubach and Morton during the exhibition season with about equal results. "They were the same," he said. "Neither one had an edge." So Landry said the Cowboys would have "two No. 1 quarterbacks." He announced that Staubach would start the first game, but Staubach suffered a groin injury and Morton had to play. All Morton did was complete 10 of 14 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-37 win over Buffalo. The next week Staubach was scheduled to start again, this time in Philadelphia. On his first pass attempt, Staubach was intercepted and, simultaneously, racked up by Mel Tom. He had to leave the game. Tom was fined $1,000 for his not-so-cheap shot. "They should give me the $1,000," Staubach said.
Morton once again replaced Staubach and passed the Cowboys to an easy victory. After two games Morton was the No. 2 quarterback in the conference statistically. "Great," he said. "No. 2 in the NFC and No. 2 in Dallas." Landry started Morton against Washington, then switched to Staubach in the third quarter of a losing game. Staubach started against New York the following week, only to have Morton replace him in the second half. Morton started the next game, against New Orleans, but Staubach relieved him in the third quarter of another loss.
Landry began to catch flak. "He's got that position so screwed up that nobody can play it," said Pete Gent, a former Cowboy. And, of course, Don Meredith, the last full-time No. 1 Dallas quarterback, had a number of words. "Landry's responsibility as a head coach is to pick a quarterback," Meredith said. "Now, after he has spent this long, he still does not have any idea which one is best. Then get another coach. I'm somewhat disappointed, but I'm sure not nearly as disappointed as Morton and Staubach, not to mention the other 38 players who are involved in this wishy-washy decision."
Said Landry: "When you know only 10% or 15% of the facts, as Meredith does, it's easy to pop off like that. Take the whole picture, and it's just not that easy."
After Staubach played most of the game in a 44-21 win over New England, Landry disclosed that he had a new plan for the next game, against Chicago. "I'm going to shuttle the quarterbacks each play," he said. (He had already been shuttling tight ends to bring in the plays.) And he did, disastrously. Although the Cowboys moved the ball, they were unable to finish off their drives and lost 23-19. There were more grumblings. Wide Receiver Lance Alworth complained that on one play he was expecting a bulletlike Staubach pass but instead got a soft Morton pass and overran the ball.
Landry brooded about the Chicago game. "How did the players like the shuttle system?" he was asked. "I didn't ask them," he snapped back. A few days later, though, Landry abandoned the two-quarterback plan. "Because of the possibility that part of the team might be concerned that we don't have an established quarterback, I've decided to go with one," he said.
What happened was that Dan Reeves kept insisting that it was imperative for the Cowboys to have one leader. "It's time for a change," he said. "Going with Craig again would not be a change. Roger is the change."
That night Landry called Staubach and told him he was No. 1. However, he refused to explain the reasons behind his decision. Landry's problems were far from over. Enjoying an off day, 14 Cowboys went motorcycling around Lake Grapevine, north of Dallas, and Neely, the 6'6", 265-pound offensive tackle, stubbed his toe on a rock. Result: a broken leg and a dislocated ankle, and Neely was lost for the season. "All of us have done stupid things in life," Neely says, "and I'm paying for mine right now." The other cyclists have managed to remain anonymous.
According to the standard players' contract, the Cowboys are not legally obliged to pay Neely for the rest of the season, since his injury was suffered off the field. "I'm certain we'll pay him," says Tex Schramm, "but you can bet there will be no more motorcycles around here."
When Neely was injured, Don Talbert filled in. When Talbert was injured three weeks ago, 38-year-old Forrest Gregg filled in while Landry summoned Tony Liscio from a Dallas real-estate office. Liscio had been traded from Dallas to San Diego and then to Miami, but retired rather than report to the Dolphins. In his first Cowboy practice he pulled a hamstring. In his second workout he injured his shoulder. Two days later he worked all but one offensive play against Washington. "If anyone wants me next week," he said, "I'll be in the whirlpool."
On Thanksgiving Day Liscio hauled himself out of the whirlpool and started as the Cowboys formally dedicated their lavish new Texas Stadium in suburban Irving with a 28-21 win over the Los Angeles Rams. Staubach. a doubtful starter until the pregame warmup because of a shoulder injury suffered in the Cowboys' 13-0 defeat of Washington four days earlier, and Los Angeles' Roman Gabriel matched touchdowns most of the way, and the score was tied 21-21 at the start of the fourth quarter. Then Staubach got the Cowboys on the move. On a busted play he ran 11 yards to the Ram six for a first down, but he reinjured his shoulder on the play and had to leave. Morton removed his warm-up jacket, made a few practice throws and raced onto the field to a great ovation. One by one all the Cowboys in the huddle either patted him on the back or the fanny or gave him a soul brother slap. Two plays later Morton sent Duane Thomas wide left with a pitchout, and largely on his own, Thomas battled into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
In beating the Rams, Dallas extended its Texas Stadium record to 3 and 0. The new edifice, which is sort of a cross between the Taj Mahal and the Roman Coliseum in their heydays, is easily the best stadium in all football, with the slippery Tartan Turf and a corny message board the only negatives so far. On the board a fumble gets an "OOPS," a hard tackle a "CRUNCH," a routine tackle a "GOTCHA" and a Cowboy touchdown a "JUST TASTE IT." The seemliest message displayed Thanksgiving Day concerned the Stadium plumbing, which still does not work: "NOTE FROM OUR PLUMBER: WATER ON DEC. 4."
All 65,000 seats are covered by a partial dome, but the playing field lies open to the sun, the stars and the rain, if it happens to be raining. A 10-yard stripe of sun moves slowly and eerily from one end zone to the other during the course of an afternoon.
Like everything in Texas, the stadium is an expensive place to visit. To buy a season ticket for a $7 seat, a fan also had to purchase a $250 stadium bond. For a reserved seat between the 30-yard lines, the bond costs $1,000. "We didn't want to be altruistic and use public funds for a private business," said Schramm. "The stadium was built by the people who would use it most often." Then there are the Inner Circle suites. I or a $50,000 bond the wealthy—or the thousand dollar millionaires, as some Texans call themselves—can get a 16X16-foot box at the stadium mid-level. The $50,000 bond entitles a person to buy 12 seats for each game at $10 apiece. Most of the 80 boxes sold so far have been lavishly decorated, like in Louis XIV, by one of Cowboy Owner Clint Murchison's firms. "I had my architect tell me it would cost $6,000," one box-holder complained, "and then their architect said it would cost $17,000."
"The whole place is weird," says Billy Truax, the Cowboy tight end. "You're down there on the field, and you know they're up there. It's like the lions and the Christians all over. We'd better keep winning. Thumbs up is better than thumbs down."
Hopefully for the Cowboys, this will finally be their thumbs-up season.