Halfheartedly, the Dallas Cowboys have moved into the playoffs again, their invitation engraved on a wild card. This means that they have qualified for postseason play for each of the last seven years, or ever since there has been a Super Bowl. In addition, they have made the Super Bowl the last two, and finally, last January, they demolished the Miami Dolphins to win their first world championship. But unless the Cowboys can cure an extreme case of split personality, it does not seem at all likely that they will be in Los Angeles on Jan. 14 when the NFL title is settled this season.
The best tip-off on how this very good football team has played all year came early in the second quarter of the game against Washington last Saturday. Moving with the crisp urgency that marked their drive to the championship in 1971, the Cowboys had just scored to go ahead of the Redskins 21-0. They had dominated the game easily, displaying almost flawless football both on offense and defense. You had the feeling, watching them inscribe their plays on the green artificial turf of Texas Stadium as meticulously as their coaches had drawn them on blackboards during the week, that they would dismantle the Redskins.
But Tex Schramm, the president of the club, sat in the press box staring glumly at the field, his mouth drawn down, the picture of a man watching his team take a horrible beating.
"Hey," a friend said. "Cheer up. You've got the game won."
"No, we haven't," Schramm said forlornly. "We don't have a big enough cushion yet."
The Cowboys built the cushion to 28-3 before the half, but then their personality split. All season long the Cowboys have played excellent football during the first two quarters of a game, then imitated somnambulists during the final two. Last week offered a classic example. In their scintillating first half the Cowboys out-gained the Redskins 210 yards to 84. They scored four touchdowns and shut off everything the Redskins tried to do, on the ground and in the air. But when they kicked off to Washington to start the second half, the picture changed completely. Washington, without Larry Brown, who was resting an injured knee, promptly marched 66 yards in 13 plays to score its first touchdown against a Dallas defense operating with what might best be described as languid determination.
Before it was over, the Redskins had two more touchdowns—and a 21-6 rout in the second half, which meant that Dallas just held on to win both halves by 34-24. "We were so far ahead, the defense began to try to contain them, instead of forcing the play," Coach Tom Landry said after the game. "We were cutting off the long gainers, but they were taking the short stuff, and the first thing we knew, there they were crossing the goal line."
It was all painfully reminiscent of the three games the Cowboys have lost this year, as well as of the 10 they have won. Overall, in the 13 first halves, they have outscored the opposition by 181 points to 91, but in the second halves their margin has been only 135-126. At least Saturday's turnabout was less complete than their first game with the Redskins, when the Cowboys led 20-7 at halftime but managed to lose 24-20. That particular second-half swoon kept Dallas from winning a divisional championship for the first time since 1965, which means that the Cowboys will be on the road for any and all playoff games.
Chuck Howley, the six-time All-Pro outside linebacker who tore ligaments in his left knee in the third quarter last Saturday and is now lost for the season, spoke before the game about the weekly Cowboy second-half collapse. "Our problem could be overcaution," he said. "In the first half we're fresh and we are not afraid to take chances. Then we lay back, trying to avoid looking bad in the game films. You know, the Cowboys have always been real big on statistics, so we're always conscious out there of how we'll grade out in the films on Tuesday morning. The irony is that when I look back on the big plays I've made in my career, I realize I've always been out of position when I made them."
The Cowboys did manage to show flashes of their old precision—particularly in their running—throughout the Redskin game. Both Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison rushed for more than 100 yards, Hill also topping the 1,000-yard season mark, the first time any Dallas player has. Both of the running backs credited their success to the exceptional blocking of the Cowboy line. It swept aside the Redskin front four almost contemptuously in the first half, and in the second it still managed to create enough passable holes to keep Hill and Garrison moving and to preserve the victory.
Washington began to wear down the beleaguered Dallas defenders, though. Billy Kilmer threw for three touchdown passes while using one of Larry Brown's replacements, a youngster named Herbert Mul-Key, to set up the air game. Mul-Key, football's equivalent of the old Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, ran eight times for 60 yards in his first pro game. For that matter, he never had played in college, either. Redskin Coach George Allen found him at a tryout camp last spring and placed him on the roster just before this game.
Anyway, Mul-Key, the best hyphenated runner since Turn-to, saved his longest gain for the last quarter, when he broke loose for 34 yards to the Dallas eight. Then Kilmer looked for Charley Taylor, who was covered closely by Mel Renfro, the balding Dallas cornerback. But Taylor managed to get a half-step on Renfro cutting across the end zone, and Kilmer hit him perfectly for another Washington touchdown.
Only 2:49 earlier Kilmer had brought the Redskins back into the game with a pass to Roy Jefferson. Noticing that Herb Adderley had come in to replace Charlie Waters, who was shaken up on a play, Kilmer called a quick-cut pattern against the cold Adderley. Jefferson gave him a fast head fake, broke by him and took the ball a couple of yards in the clear for the touchdown.
So when Washington got the ball back at 31-24, the 65,000 people who filled Texas Stadium began to twitch. They booed Quarterback Craig Morton and his floundering offense as they left the field, they booed the Cowboy pass defense as it gave up completions, and they booed the Cowboy rushing defense just for giving up small gains. Perhaps this finally stirred Dallas from its second-half blahs.
When Kilmer looked for Jefferson again, three Cowboy defenders converged on him. This meant that at least one of them was out of position—bad for Tuesday's grades, good for Saturday's score. The ball was batted up in the air, and Waters grabbed it as it wobbled around for the interception that led to a 26-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch that put the game out of reach. The Redskins did try to mount another drive, but this time Cornell Green, the Cowboys' strong safety, gambled and stepped in front of Jefferson on a sideline pass and intercepted.
Landry still has reservations about his defense, though he said after the game that he believed his offense—even without Roger Staubach—is superior to last season's. The Cowboys do have the same record they had after 13 games last year, but without being nearly as impressive. When they began their drive to the Super Bowl last season they won their last seven regular-season games in a row—and a couple of them by overwhelming scores against respectable opponents. By contrast, so far this season the Cowboys have beaten only the inept Eagles and Cardinals and the confused Colts by comfortable margins.
Landry is inclined to cite psychological reasons for the team's regular letdowns. "We haven't been playing with the same intensity we did last season when we began our move," he says. "We had been so hungry for so long last year; always coming close, but never winning the Super Bowl. Then we won the Super Bowl, and the big goal vanished. Our older players know how good they are and they enter so many games confidently, aware of their ability. We take a comfortable lead by halftime, then we have a tendency to lose our concentration and coast. The reaction of the other team, naturally enough, is the opposite. It comes out for the second half determined to turn the game around. Too often, that is exactly what it does."
Ernie Stautner, the defensive coach, offers a more pragmatic explanation for the Cowboys' troubles, particularly on defense. "All of our injuries have been concentrated in the defensive line," Stautner points out. "Pat Toomay has had a broken hand most of the season. That is a particularly bad injury for a defensive end, because it takes away his ability to grab an offensive tackle and move him around on the pass rush. George Andrie has a bad back which limits his ability to play, and Larry Cole missed five games with a hyperextended knee. Tody Smith started slow after knee surgery, then he got mononucleosis and was weak for a long time before we diagnosed it and took him out. Bill Gregory got a knee bruise and missed three games. Jethro Pugh had a sprained ankle that slowed him down and, last, but most important, Bob Lilly has been playing hurt all year."
Lilly, the perennial All-Pro defensive tackle, is one of the very few men who, merely by his personal contribution, can establish the whole character of a game. He started the season with a bone spur on his heel that limited his mobility, then ruptured a muscle over his knee and bruised his instep. Despite all these injuries, he played on.
"The injuries didn't bother me much against the run," he says. He is a big, rock-hard man with a face that conceivably could make him a fortune in Western movies when John Wayne retires. "But they took away at least half of my effectiveness on the pass rush, where you have to move around to break through. I get double-teamed a lot and, like most other defensive linemen, I get held most of the time. That's been happening for the last eight or nine years and I expect it. But to get away you have to be able to move, and I haven't been able to."
Asked how much Lilly's disability has affected the Cowboy pass rush, Stautner did not hesitate. "A slowed-down Lilly costs us a third of our efficiency," he replied. "Combine that with the rest of the injuries on the defensive line and our pass rush has been considerably less useful than it was last year. I think that accounts for a good deal of our letdown in the second half. Last year, when we had a club whipped at the half, we knew they would come out throwing in the second half, but we could put so much pressure on their passer that we forced mistakes, sacks and interceptions. This year we can't do that and some clubs have put themselves right back in the game because of it."
The Cowboys have sacked quarterbacks 31 times this year (the total was 42 for all of last season), but the present figures are somewhat misleading since nine came in the game against the feckless Eagles. Last Saturday, Dallas managed to reach Kilmer only one time, that on a blitz, when Howley dropped him for a nine-yard loss. Now, with Howley out for the season, even more pressure falls on Middle Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan (see cover), who at 6'1", 220 is nearly diminutive in the profession. Jordan is durable, if not large, and among the Dallas walking wounded that counts more than ever.
Still, as Lilly explains it, the major Cowboy problem is mental, not physical. "The injuries have made a difference," he says, "but that's not really it. It's the general attitude of the club. We even make more mistakes in practice than we did before. I guess it's been too easy for us on defense. The offense puts the points up and then we relax. We're not running for our life anymore—and in this league you have to run for your life every game."
At least the Cowboys will have an opportunity to redeem themselves by producing some full games in the playoffs. Their problem has been that they only run in the first half, and no one has ever won a race merely jogging the rest of the way.