It now has become perfectly clear why the Cowboys are known as "America's Team." Dallas, you see, simply doesn't want to be mentioned in the same breath with these 1979 Cowboys, not after the way they lost the championship of the Lone Star State to the Houston Oilers—Texas' Team—on Thanksgiving Day.
For more than a decade, braininess set the Cowboys apart from the NFL masses—and particularly the Oilers. No problem could withstand Tom Landry's computer, Gil Brandt's draft or the Cowboy mystique. Meanwhile, brainlessness kept the Oilers fogbound somewhere near Galveston. No problem was unfamiliar to Houston owner Bud Adams, mainly because he helped create most of them, or to his succession of head coaches, one of whom once announced, "This team is not going to take defeat standing up!"
Dallas went to five Super Bowls, and Cowboy fans carried their noses in the air. Houston went nowhere, finishing 1-13 in successive seasons, and Oiler fans hung their heads in shame. But last week at Texas Stadium it was the Cowboys who played like dunces and the Oilers who played like a team bound for the Super Bowl.
This is the season in which Dallas keeps forgetting that you are supposed to play the game with 11 men on the field. Not 10, as the Cowboys tried to do during a key play in their loss to the Washington Redskins two weeks ago. And definitely not 12, as they tried to do against the Oilers. That extra man proved fatal as Houston, instead of losing possession on a punt, turned the penalty against the Cowboys into a first down and then promptly scored on a 32-yard pass from Dan Pastorini to Ken Burrough to win the game 30-24.
For the Oilers it was their fifth straight victory—their longest winning streak since 1962—and with a 10-3 record they share the AFC Central lead with Pittsburgh, which beat Cleveland 33-30 Sunday on Matt Bahr's overtime field goal at Three Rivers Stadium.
In shocking contrast, America's Team has lost three straight—its longest losing streak since 1974—and four of its last five. Worse still, the Cowboys have slipped to an 8-5 record and trail Philadelphia by one game in the race for the NFC East championship, which the Cowboys have won six times in the 1970s. Landry's once-proud "Son of Doomsday" defense—now minus mouthy Linebacker Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, who was canned by Landry a few days before the Houston game—has given up 95 points in the last three games, and the Cowboys have been outscored 123-84 in the last five.
If there is one simple reason for this Texas turnaround, it is that Houston has overcome most of its difficulties through patience, poise, shrewd drafting and sharp trading, while Dallas has acquired new problems on top of the old, unresolved ones. Another plus for the Oilers is the present healthy state of Pastorini.
The quarterback could not throw a football 10 yards in April or with any "zing" in September, but now he has almost fully recovered from an ailing right arm and has completed 27 of his last 44 pass attempts (61 %) for 553 yards and five TDs. Over that span he had but a single interception. As a result, the Oiler offense, which had relied almost entirely on the running of Earl Campbell, is now a complete strike force.
"I really don't know exactly what it was," Pastorini says of his arm trouble, "but it scared the hell out of me. As I understand it, it was a viral infection of the nerve. My mobility was restricted, and still is somewhat, but not to the point where I can't overcome it with the rest of the muscles in my arm. I'd say I'm about 98% right now."
As welcome as Pastorini's rejuvenation is to the Oilers, Campbell remains the main weapon. Assigned a staggering workload while the quarterback regained passing strength, Campbell has carried the ball more often (297 times in 13 games), endured more tackles and punished more defenders than any other back in the NFL. After Campbell had hammered the Dallas defense for 195 yards, his best output of the season, and had scored on 61- and 27-yard runs, Cowboy Lineman Larry Cole said, "You can get a handle on Campbell, but the handle keeps breaking. It's amazing. You get your shoulder into his hip, and it seems like that hip is giving you a forearm."
Campbell leads the NFL with 1,346 yards rushing, 17 touchdowns and eight 100-yard games, but a better indication of his value to the Oiler offense is his short yardage performance. On second, third and fourth downs with less than three yards to go, Campbell has carried 63 times and gotten the first down 41 times.
One reason for Campbell's lusty stats is the superb blocking of Leon Gray, the offensive left tackle Houston obtained from New England last August for first-and sixth-round draft choices. The acquisition of Gray may turn out to be this season's smartest NFL deal, just as the deal that enabled Houston to draft Campbell No. 1 in 1978 was that year's slickest maneuver.
Gray has been the savior of an offensive line whose entire left side was wiped out by injuries. Tackle Greg Sampson almost died of a cerebral blood clot in training camp, and less than two weeks later Guard George Reihner and his backup, John Schuhmacher, went out with knee and back injuries, respectively. Had Gray not been acquired, Houston's running game would have been cut off at the handoff.
"Leon is probably the key to the whole year for us," says Houston Coach Bum Phillips. "It wouldn't have made any difference to me if we'd had to give up the very first choice in next year's draft. I'd have done it, because you're not going to get an All-Pro like him in the first round, or anywhere. He's a smart player, too. He got in here on a Monday and played on Friday, and he's been playing ever since. Took him longer to learn our names than our system."
On defense, the Oilers, one of the first teams to adopt the three-man-rush line, have often used a four-man line and have made 44 sacks, six more than in all of 1978 and six short of the club record. Pass coverage has improved, too, with the installation of J. C. Wilson at cornerback and Vernon Perry, a free agent out of Canada, at strong safety. Mike Reinfeldt, the weak safety, needs but two more pass interceptions to tie the NFL record of 14 set by Night Train Lane in 1952. Dallas' entire defense has 11.
Houston has also gotten All-Pro feats from the foot of Toni Fritsch, the Austrian field-goal kicker with the countenance of a truck-stop bouncer. Fritsch has succeeded on 17 of 19 field-goal attempts, including nine of 10 from 40 yards or more. His kicking has provided the winning margin in four games. "Every time I see him go out on the field," Phillips says, "I'm grateful for our country's immigration laws." Phillips also is grateful that Dallas traded Fritsch to San Diego in 1976, and that the Chargers released him in 1977.
Refreshingly, the Oilers have been free of disharmony this year. There had been a feud—the cause of which apparently was more female than football—between Pastorini and Tight End Mike Barber, but it has ended amicably. Grumbling by the defense, once common in Houston, was heard again when the offense got only three Fritsch field goals in a victory at Miami, but now there is solid evidence that every phase of Houston's football is reaching a competitive peak—at the perfect time.
Meanwhile, Dallas has reached a competitive abyss. The most astonishing aspect of Team America's dour season is the manner in which the Cowboys have lost. Though the Oilers socked it to "Son of Doomsday" on Campbell's bone-crunching line smashes, it was that bone-headed mistake—of the sort Houston once held a patent on—that doomed Dallas. Known for the most scholarly offense in football, practitioners of Landry's Flex Defense, intellectual masters of the printout game plan, the Cowboys now need remedial math when it comes to counting to 11.
In the Oiler game, Defensive Tackle Dave Stalls, a member of the field-goal specialty unit, stayed in on fourth down after Houston, trailing 24-23 with eight minutes left, was stopped at the Dallas 37-yard line. But instead of attempting a field goal—which would have had to travel 54 yards—the Oilers punted. This was the wrong specialty situation for Stalls, who realized his error before the ball was snapped—"What are you doing here?" teammate Jay Saldi asked him—but had no way to get off the field in time. "When they lined up for that punt," he said, "it wasn't the greatest feeling I've ever had, I can tell you."
Yellow flags fell—and so did the Cowboys' spirits. Houston got five yards and a first down—and the game-winning touchdown followed immediately. On the next play Pastorini buried the shell-shocked Cowboys with a 32-yard scoring pass to Burrough, and then the Houston defense shut down Roger Staubach's passing game the rest of the way.
A zoologist who is pursuing his doctorate in the area of behavioral research on sharks, Stalls is one of the brightest Dallas players. His gaffe was equally the fault of Mike Ditka, the Dallas special teams coach; in his rage over the penalty, Ditka almost buried a clipboard in the Tartan Turf. Said Stalls, "I thought it was a field goal, that's all there is to it. I thought I saw Fritsch come out onto the field. When he went off, I don't know." In fact, Fritsch never came onto the field.
That kind of error used to be unthinkable in Dallas, where Landry and his staff" work like bar-exam tutors preparing the Cowboys for every conceivable field situation but a volcanic eruption. The previous arithmetical goof came just four days before the Houston game, when Dallas was beaten by Washington 34-20. Redskin Quarterback Joe Theismann tossed a four-yard pass to John McDaniel for the first touchdown of the game. The distance obviously was nothing much, but neither were the Cowboys as they defended with 10 men.
Nor has the correct number always worked for Dallas as it used to. In a Monday night game against Philadelphia, back-to-back Dallas penalties unworthy of Phi Betes—defensive holding on a punt, and offsides on a field goal—enabled the Eagles to 1) Save a drive on the verge of extinction and 2) Disdain a field-goal try and go for a touchdown pass. Philadelphia won the game 31-21.
And l'affaire Henderson has helped Dallas not at all. His varying degrees of intensity had made him at once one of the NFL's most unreliable and most exciting players, because he often backed up his brags with truly dazzling performances. Henderson was colorful, and that may have been enough to ensure a short career as a Cowboy. But the Mouth That Roared through Super Bowl week last January finally reached the breaking point with Landry, who fired him the day after the Washington loss.
During a season in which he had performed erratically and, by his own admission, had been warned about his poor play 10 times by Landry, Henderson was at his worst in the Redskin game. That's how Landry rated both his play on the field and his TV mugging on the sidelines, where Hollywood appeared to be happily hot-dogging while his team was going down to a costly defeat.
After that game Henderson was confronted by Assistant Coach Jerry Tubbs, who told him, "Henderson, that sideline stuff out there wasn't too smart." Henderson, it is understood, reacted with a string of curses, shouting, "Trade me, you [bleeps], trade me, trade me."
The next day Henderson was called into Landry's office and told, "Thomas, it's reached a point where I don't think you can start for me anymore, and if you can't start, I don't think you can play. I'm going to put you on waivers. Somebody will pick you up, either San Francisco [1-12] or Detroit [2-11]." Henderson told Landry he didn't want to leave Dallas for a "low-echelon" team and would sooner retire.
"Coach, I knew this was coming," he said, "but not so soon. I worked my butt off for you for five years and this is what I get for it. But a lot of pressure has been taken off me. I'm still the greatest linebacker, bar none."
Later, in reference to his dismissal, Henderson said, "I'm surprised there wasn't a boycott or a march on downtown Dallas to protest it."
In the days that followed, none of the Cowboys seemed terribly concerned about Henderson's sudden departure, and at Thursday's game not one of the banners or signs adorning Texas Stadium advocated his cause. The strongest personal reaction came from D. D. Lewis, the Cowboys' right linebacker. Lewis had never applauded Hollywood's act and was glad to see him go. On TV, Lewis said Henderson was a distraction and that he had fallen asleep in team meetings.
Henderson's response was vintage Hollywood. "The only publicity he's ever gotten," Henderson said of Lewis, "is when he's talking about me. He has no class and he's making me have no class talking about him. It's really a shame when you stab a man when he's dead. His red neck is showing. Believe me, he has had trouble staying awake in those boring team meetings, too."
Then Hollywood warmed to his subject. "He's the dullest Cowboy who ever played," he said. "He's slow and old and no good. He can't cover backs out of the backfield. He's just trying to say the right things to impress Landry so he can keep his job. Mike Hegman should have been starting for him for three years now."
As a final word, Henderson cracked, "Right now, I'm glad I'm gone. I don't have to practice."
Dispiriting as the recent past has been, the Cowboys at least are in a position to take sole charge of their postseason fate, because they close out the regular season in division battles with the Giants, Eagles and the hated Redskins, with only the Philadelphia game on the road. Landry sounded optimistic on Thanksgiving night. "We've still got a chance," he said. "The toughest thing is that everybody expects us to turn it around. There's no guarantee we're going to turn it around. It's got to be done on the field."
And, remember Tom, only with 11 men at a time.