This was the season the Dallas Cowboys were supposed to be undefeated, untied, unscored upon and under orders from NFL headquarters to hold the score down. And when the defending Super Bowl champions opened the season on Monday night TV by rolling up 583 yards of total offense and routing Baltimore 38-0, white flags were waving all over the league. In fact, it seemed that first week in September that the Cowboys' biggest problem would be to find a way to cram more diamonds on the 1979 Super Bowl ring than the 28 they have on the 1978 model.
Or so everyone thought. Instead, Tony Dorsett, Roger Staubach, Harvey Martin, Ed Jones, Randy White, Drew Pearson and all those other All-Planet Cowboys began to go bump in the day as well as in the night. Last Sunday in the Orange Bowl, the Miami Dolphins handed supposedly invincible Dallas its second straight defeat, 23-16.
This left the Cowboys with a 6-4 record, and if the season had ended Sunday, they would not have qualified for the playoffs. With the expanded format this season, which gives each conference an extra wild-card spot, a team needs little more than two box tops and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to get into the playoffs. The Cowboys have yet to beat a legitimate contender, having lost to the Rams, Redskins and Vikings before the Dolphins. They barely scraped past Philadelphia and needed an overtime to beat downtrodden St. Louis. And with the Patriots, the Packers and a rematch with the Redskins ahead on the schedule, the forecast for Dallas may well be Doomsday.
The Cowboys never gave themselves a chance against the Dolphins, who extended their record to 7-3 while remaining within a game of first-place New England in the AFC East. Two weeks ago Dallas was losing to Minnesota 14-0 before it had run off its fifth play from scrimmage. On Sunday Dallas was losing to the Dolphins 14-0 before it had run off its third play. And in each game it was a Dorsett fumble on Dallas' first series that set up the opposition's second touchdown and put the Cowboys in a nearly hopeless situation.
November 13, 1978
Down 20-3 to Miami at the half, the Cowboys clawed and scratched the rest of the game, just as they will have to do for the last six games of the season. Rafael Septien matched Garo Yepremian's three field goals, and when Staubach passed to Billy Joe DuPree for Dallas' first—and only—touchdown with 4:44 left in the game, Dallas suddenly was dreaming about overtime.
Forget it. On the Cowboys' next possession DuPree fumbled a pass reception at the Miami 31, and Norris Thomas recovered for Miami. On the sideline Dallas Coach Tom Landry turned and threw up his arms in disgust. Dallas got the ball once more, but on its last play Staubach's desperation pass from the Miami 39 was intercepted by Charlie Babb near the Dolphin goal line.
As they left the Orange Bowl, the bedraggled Cowboys were a long shot to be back in Miami for Super Bowl XIII on January 21.
The Cowboys' problems this dreadful season have led to a lot of theorizing and alibiing in Dallas, with only the Cowboy cheerleaders escaping blame for the team's sorry record. Here are some of the most popular theories:
•"WE DON'T CARE WHO YOU ARE, JUST KEEP SAYING ALL THOSE WONDERFUL THINGS ABOUT us." This is the favorite of the Cowboy players, who admit that they have been overconfident. How can you blame them? They were lopsided winners over Denver in Super Bowl XII after ranking first in the NFL both offensively and defensively. In the off-season their two top NFC East rivals, Washington and St. Louis, appeared to self-destruct. The Redskins fired Coach George Allen, and the Cardinals went one better, firing Coach Don Coryell and also ridding themselves of such top players as Terry Metcalf and Conrad Dobler.
"We haven't played with enough intensity," says Dallas General Manager Tex Schramm, "and I think it's because we haven't had enough concern for our opponents."
Linebacker D.D. Lewis, the team's defensive co-captain, agrees with Schramm. "Sometimes it seems like we're just complacent as hell," he says. "We've got to get meaner on the field and not take any crap off other teams." Lewis cited the L.A. game in which he says Ram Linebacker Isiah Robertson repeatedly spit on Cowboy players, without retaliation. "That showed us where we were mentally," says Lewis. "If we'd wanted that game badly, we'd have been so fired up we'd have attacked Robertson."
•"THOSE SUPER BOWL RINGS ARE BREAKING UP THAT OLD GANG OF MINE." The Cowboys are not yet riddled with dissension, but the combination of complacency and losses has brought tension. Running Back Preston Pearson, for one, has pointed a finger at his teammates. "This team is too passive," he says. "People are intimidating us physically and jawboning at us, and we're not responding. If they want to continue to take all this and play passive football, then I don't want to be part of this team."
Other Cowboys, mostly veterans, bristled when some of their younger teammates turned charter flights home from the Washington and Los Angeles losses into disco parties with loud music from their cassette players. On each flight the pilot had to tell the players over the PA system that he couldn't land until they stopped socializing and took their seats. As one old Cowboy said, "It used to be pretty quiet coming home from a loss."
•"GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR CRIPPLED AND YOUR RETIRED ALL-PROS." Miraculously, last year the Cowboys didn't make a single roster change because of an injury after the start of the season. This year they have already lost Running Back Doug Dennison and Tight End Jay Saldi for the year. Center John Fitzgerald sat out two games with a bad back, and cornerbacks Benny Barnes and Mark Washington have lost playing time with assorted leg miseries. So has All-Pro Defensive End Harvey Martin, while Linebacker Thomas Henderson, who had hepatitis in the offseason and missed most of training camp, seldom plays on special teams, where he used to be a standout, because of ankle and hamstring injuries. The Cowboys also miss All-Pro Tackle Ralph Neely, who retired after last season.
The Dallas special teams have been the hardest hit. Their chief Kamikazes—Saldi, Barnes and Henderson—are all useless or ineffective as a result of their ailments. When Dennison, a kickoff return man, damaged a knee, he was replaced by Larry Brinson. Brinson promptly fumbled the opening kickoff in the Minnesota game, setting up the Vikings' first touchdown and giving them a lead they never relinquished.
•"THIS OFFENSIVE LINE CAN'T BLOCK A HAT." The offensive linemen take exception, pointing out that Dallas leads the NFC in rushing while averaging more yards per rush and yielding fewer sacks than it did in 1977. Nevertheless, if the Cowboys have an Achilles' heel, it is their offensive line. Dallas is averaging 155 yards per game on the ground, but it has averaged less than 100 in its four losses. Against Miami the Cowboys had just 89 yards rushing, their poorest output of the season. The inconsistency of the running attack—Dorsett averaged 112.5 yards rushing in Dallas' first four games but has averaged just 33.8 yards for the last four—has forced Staubach to go to the air all too frequently, often with disastrous consequences.
Before the season started, the Cowboys were predicting All-Pro status for Tackle Pat Donovan, 25, and Guard Tom Rafferty, 24. Then Landry stopped shuttling plays with his wide receivers and put Rafferty and Burton Lawless to work as messenger guards. Rafferty's play has suffered. Meanwhile, Donovan was moved to the more difficult left side as Neely's replacement, and he has not been as effective as he was a year ago. Donovan's old spot was taken by Andy Frederick, 24, but he couldn't do the job and had to be replaced by Rayfield Wright, 33, once an All-Pro but now gamely trying to recover from knee surgery.
•"THERE'S A LEAGUE-WIDE CONSPIRACY TO GET THE COWBOYS." This is the favorite of the Xs and Os crowd, which likes to argue that the rule change prohibiting the bumping of a receiver once he is more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage has hurt the Cowboys more than any other team. "The philosophy here has always been to stop the run," says Defensive Backfield Coach Gene Stallings. "That means we have played our cornerbacks and safeties in close to the line. In the past we could get away with this because we bumped the receivers as much as any team in the league."
Statistics reveal that so far this season the Cowboys have given up almost twice as much passing yardage as they did over the same period last season, and they have intercepted six fewer passes. On Sunday, Miami quarterback Bob Griese completed nine of 11 first-quarter passes for 159 yards.
•"OOPS, WE FORGOT THE 22 TRAP." This is the favorite of the Dallas computer, which promised to find an answer to the Cowboys' woes when Landry, apparently in a moment of self-doubt, ordered a revaluation of his offense and defense after the Viking loss. The Cowboys spliced together film of certain plays and certain defenses in an attempt to determine why they weren't working. This project was headed up by Special Assistant Ermal Allen, who also has the job of evaluating Landry's play-calling. Critics claim that the conservative Landry has been ultraconservative this season. Asked to assess his boss' performance, Allen pleaded the Fifth.
Landry merely said that given the circumstances, he'd be foolish to say he had graded out at 100%. Landry has been known to overlook certain plays that seemed to work in the past. This has raised hopes around Dallas of a season-saving scenario, in which Allen tells Landry he has discovered that the coach has forgotten all year to call Dorsett's favorite play—call it the 22 trap. "Of course," says Landry, clapping a palm to his forehead, "the 22 trap."
No such luck, Cowboy fans. In his film review, Allen reduced the Cowboys' woes to a single word—turnovers. Last year after 10 games, Dallas was plus 11 in this statistic. This year the Cowboys are minus 13—a swing of 24. Playoff teams almost never have more giveaways than takeaways. Particularly disturbing are the contributions of Staubach and Dorsett. Staubach has been intercepted 15 times, up 10 from a year ago. Dorsett has fumbled eight times—and lost six, almost all of them in key situations. Turnovers hurt Dallas against Miami. The Cowboys had five, the Dolphins none.
•"TONY DORSETT IS A MENACE TO COWBOY SOCIETY." This gained currency when Dorsett failed to appear for a Saturday morning practice three weeks ago. The next day Landry fined Dorsett and benched him as a starter against the Eagles. Dorsett angrily told reporters after the game that his family had come from Pennsylvania to Dallas to watch him play, that he was humiliated and that a teammate had slept through a practice without such severe punishment. Dorsett was referring to Safety Cliff Harris, who napped while his teammates practiced one day during the exhibition season.
There was a difference, however. Harris, contrite, called the Cowboys the minute he awoke. Dorsett never bothered to phone in, remaining incommunicado until he sauntered into the dressing room shortly before the game. When Harris heard what Dorsett was telling reporters, he hauled him into a locker-room shower to discuss the matter. In Dallas it is well known that if you have to tangle with Cliff Harris, you would be wise to bring Godzilla along as a tag-team partner. A witness to the shower scene described Dorsett as being "extremely attentive."
This wasn't the first time Dorsett had flouted team rules. In training camp this summer he strolled into a meeting 50 minutes late and, as one coach put it, "didn't seem to give a damn." Dorsett tried to make amends for his tardiness with an emotional apology to his teammates before the Minnesota game. Most Cowboy veterans tend to dismiss Dorsett's problems on the grounds of "immaturity." And some agree with All-Pro Wide Receiver Drew Pearson, who says, "Tony is no problem." But there are other Cowboys who say, "Dorsett's down to his last strike."
•"WE'VE BEEN DOWN THIS ROAD BEFORE." This is the favorite of team historians, who point out that in the past, only one team—the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers—improved its regular-season record the season after it won the Super Bowl. "When you're a Super Bowl winner, you face a constant battle of playing teams with chips on their shoulders," says Staubach.
Still, Staubach is optimistic. He points out that the first two times the Cowboys went to the Super Bowl, after the 1970 and 1971 seasons, they escaped from midseason holes deeper than the one into which they have now dug themselves. In 1970, Dallas' record fell to 5-4 after a humiliating 38-0 loss to St. Louis on Monday night TV. And in '71 the Cowboys were 4-3 at midseason and badly divided by Landry's practice of alternating Craig Morton and Staubach play by play. Dallas was undefeated the rest of the regular season both years—finishing 10-4 in 1970 and 11-3 in 1971.
Perhaps Landry was also thinking about this when he said before the Miami game, "Sometimes you need a little adversity to be able to respond." Around Dallas, Tom, four losses qualify as a lot of adversity.