From the moment the ball was snapped and the Dallas receivers headed downfield, Roger Staubach could see that the Green Bay defense had reacted so quickly that the pass wouldn't be easy to complete. Wide Receiver Tony Hill, a hummingbird with hands, was being shadowed by Cornerback Mike McCoy along the left sideline, and when Hill broke toward midfield, Free Safety Howard Sampson began closing on him. Any pass to Hill would have to be gunned between Sampson and McCoy on an absolutely flat trajectory from 25 yards down-range. It was a pass Staubach had thrown in dozens of critical situations during his 11 seasons as the Cowboys' quarterback, usually for big yardage, and he could see that it was the only pass that would keep Dallas' third-period drive from sputtering to a halt. From the broadcast booth in Texas Stadium last Saturday night, Staubach could see all these things, but there was nothing he could do about them. So, like everyone else in the crowd of nearly 55,000, Staubach watched anxiously as Danny White cocked his arm. What White did was fire a perfect strike to Hill for a gain of 19 yards and a first down.
The pass to Hill was neither the first White completed Saturday evening nor the longest, but it went a long way toward dispelling any doubts Dallas fans might have had about White's arm and his tenacity. Staubach, who retired last March, had proved the worth of his arm by becoming the NFL's alltime passing leader, and he had proved there was more to the job than just hitting receivers by bringing the Cowboys from behind to win 23 games in the fourth quarter, 14 of those in the final two minutes. When Staubach hung it up at the age of 38, the Cowboys were left with a large gap to fill, and one Great White Hope to fill it.
White answered a lot of questions, and probably a few prayers, in his first appearance as Staubach's successor. In just a little over two quarters of playing time in the preseason opener against the Packers, he completed seven of 13 passes for 99 yards and guided Dallas to its first two scores in a 17-14 victory. Twice when White was forced to scramble out of the pocket, he turned potential losses into big plays, running for 11 yards the first time and throwing a 24-yard pass to Tight End Jay Saldi in the third period to set up the Cowboys' first touchdown.
White's debut as No. 1 quarterback—he has been the Cowboys' No. 1 punter for the last four seasons—had been awaited in Dallas with a mixture of eagerness and dread, but most of the misgivings were soon forgotten. "To say that we have as much confidence in Danny as we did in Roger, after all the things he did for this team, would be ridiculous at this point," said Wide Receiver Drew Pearson, "but we've worked with Danny for four years, and we all know what he can do."
August 17, 1980
Earlier in the week at the club's training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Cowboy President Tex Schramm had grandiosely billed Saturday's game as "the start of the Danny White Decade." As the principal architect of the strong Dallas teams of the past 15 years, Schramm knew the Cowboys faced a difficult period of transition. "One of the reasons for our great success in the '70s," said Schramm, "was the tremendous confidence everybody in the organization had that no matter what happened, in the end Roger would somehow find a way to win the game. When a player who has been such an integral part of your team leaves, the personality of the team can never again be quite the same. That's not to say it can't be as successful, just not the same. So the Cowboys of the '80s will adapt to Danny White."
Nobody expected that to happen right away, least of all White himself. There was still the memory of four frustrating years in Staubach's shadow to erase, so for White, the Packer game was important primarily because it was his first opportunity to be seen in public without his commas on. During his understudy days the annoying little punctuation marks had followed White's name like midget footmen. At official functions he was Danny White comma the Cowboys' backup quarterback comma. At dinner parties he was Danny White comma the heir apparent to Roger Staubach comma. And when the TV cameras panned the sidelines, he was Danny White comma who could probably be starting for most teams in the NFL comma. "I heard that last one all the time," White says, "and it slowly drove me crazy. I would hear people say I could be starting somewhere else, and that would remind me how frustrated I was. It got so bad that when people introduced me as Danny White, backup quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, I felt like strangling them."
Though it is widely known only in Memphis, White, in fact, did begin his professional career as a starter. The Cowboys selected White, who played for Arizona State, in the third round of the '74 college draft, but when the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League offered him a contract worth twice what Dallas would pay, White signed. He played for them a season and a half, completing 183 of 350 passes for 2,635 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also led the league in punting one season, and he might very well have stayed in Memphis had the WFL not folded at the midpoint of his second season. Even in Memphis, though, he spent part of his time as a backup—to John Huarte, who had won the Heisman Trophy in 1964, thus preventing a Naval Academy cadet named Roger Staubach from winning it two years in a row.
White's career with the Cowboys got off to a promising start in 1976, then went steadily downhill. When Staubach injured his passing hand and had to be taken out of a game with Chicago during White's first season in Dallas, the rookie came in and threw two touchdown passes for a 31-21 Cowboy victory. That put Dallas in first place in the NFC East with a 6-1 record, and with Staubach still nursing the hand before a game against the pathetic New York Giants, White assumed that Dallas Coach Tom Landry would call on him to start. It wasn't until the Cowboys were lined up to be introduced that Danny saw Staubach and realized that he, White, would be spending the afternoon on the bench. "It was a real blow to me," he says, "because I felt the coach didn't have any confidence in me at all. If the Cowboys believed that Roger was better injured than I was healthy, then I began to think that maybe I belonged somewhere else."
Nothing that happened to White as a rookie could have prepared him for his second season in Dallas. That year White threw only 10 passes, completing four, and on the strength of that heroic performance—with a little help from Staubach—the Cowboys went to the Super Bowl and defeated Denver 27-10.
In 1978, with Staubach resting for the playoffs, White started Dallas' final game of the regular season in New York against the Jets, and hit 15 of 24 passes to lead Dallas to a 30-7 win. Two weeks later White got still another opportunity when Staubach was knocked unconscious near the end of the first half of the divisional playoff game against Atlanta. The Cowboys trailed 20-13 when Staubach was helped off the field, but in the second half White calmly orchestrated two touchdown drives and the Cowboys pulled out a 27-20 win. Dallas went to the Super Bowl again but lost to Pittsburgh 35-31. White was on the bench, so don't blame him.
No matter how unsettling it was for White to watch Staubach's weekly miracle show, he never expressed or displayed resentment. "That was the problem all those years," he says. "I could never get mad enough at Roger to beat him out. Not that I could have." When the team's front office initiated its ill-advised campaign to have the Cowboys be known as "America's Team," White began calling Staubach "America's Quarterback," and Staubach called White "America's Punter." Last season, before Staubach had made up his mind to retire, White slipped a note into Staubach's locker. It said: "Roger, Danny needs your locker for next year. Please turn in your equipment as soon as possible." It was signed "Coach Landry."
The Cowboys struggled last season—losing three straight games in one stretch—and it was only because Staubach had one of his most phenomenal afternoons on the final day of the regular season that Dallas slipped into the playoffs at all. White had his best season ever as a punter, finishing second in the NFC with an average of 41.7 yards per kick, and he was miserable the whole time. "To be the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys had always seemed a great thing to me," White says, "but there comes a time when you have to decide if you're going to be a starter or a backup for the rest of your career. Being a backup quarterback on a world championship team was one thing, but being a backup on a loser was something else.
"After we had lost our third game in a row, I finally decided to go to Coach Landry, because I had begun to get the feeling the coaches thought I was content just to be the backup quarterback. I told him what was on my mind, and he just sat there listening without saying much. Coach Landry's not one to show his emotions much. The frustration had built up inside me so badly that I would've been happy even if he had told me I was doing a lousy job, just so I'd know where I stood. But all he told me was that he wished he had more players who wanted to start as badly as I did."
Now that White has the job he has coveted for so long, he will find it as difficult to keep as it was to obtain. As soon as White was elevated to the vacant No. 1 position, the heretofore unknown Glenn Carano suddenly became Glenn Carano comma. A great prospect comma a surefire starter someday comma the heir apparent comma. "In several years there's going to be competition," says Schramm. "The only reason Carano isn't in a position to challenge now is because Danny has more experience. Danny's got the job until Carano takes him out of it. We're very pleased with Carano."
Former Dallas Defensive End Pat Toomay, now retired, has seen the Cowboys play the same kind of game with other incumbents. "There's an element of fright instilled into all the players in the Dallas system," he says. "They like to make a player feel he's in danger of losing his job to someone else, hoping that that feeling will make him a better player. To me it would add to the pressure. I've always felt a good athlete placed enough pressure on himself."
All that Landry will say is that Carano may be good enough to take the position from White. "We like competition," he says. "We think it brings out the best in people."
Danny White hopes it brings out the best in Danny White. Period.