They are chipping away at Mount Landry. They have brought out the chisels, and in the still Dallas air you can hear the clink, clink as they take pieces out of the monument that most people thought would stand for all time.
The fact is, it has been so long since the Cowboys were losers that they don't quite know how to handle it around Dallas. In places like Atlanta, they know all about it: Give the coach a lame vote of confidence, fire him, promise the fans things will turn around, go to dinner and call it a day. That's how the experienced losers manage it. But Dallas went 21 years, from 1965 through '85, without a losing season, and Tom Landry was the calm, guiding force that kept the engine running. He was the master architect of both offense and defense, the man who guided Dallas to five Super Bowls, a revered symbol of quiet excellence.
Two losing seasons in a row have changed things. Last month Tex Schramm, president, general manager and ally of Landry for all 28 years of the Cowboys' existence, began dismantling the Landry legend. "There's an old saying, "If the teacher doesn't teach, the student doesn't learn,' " Schramm said on his radio show. That was the day after the Cowboys' 27-17 loss to Detroit, a team that had come into the game tied with Kansas City, the Giants and the Rams for the worst record in the NFL.
Two Sundays ago it was the turn of Bum Bright, the majority owner of the Cowboys. He spoke up after an 11-point loss to Atlanta—by then another team tied for the league's worst record. Bright said the Cowboys' play-calling "horrified" him. "It doesn't seem like we've got anybody in charge who knows what he's doing, other than Tex," he added.
December 21, 1987
Bright also allowed as how he thought that the top draft pick, defensive tackle Danny Noonan, and running back Herschel Walker weren't being used enough, considering all the money they get paid. Bright is in banking, mortgaging and oil. When you pay for a high-priced oil rig it gets put to use. Now.
O.K., maybe Bright's outburst was understandable. Postgame heat. Typical owner's tirade. But how about Schramm? His remarks came after he had more than 24 hours to think things over. And that "teacher doesn't teach" line didn't come out of the blue. It was set up with the following: "Some of the things we're doing are frankly mystifying. It's very seldom I put myself in a position of giving the players a reason for losing, but I'm not sure it's all on the players. When things aren't working and you continue to see the same things, it shakes your confidence."
In those words and the similar ones from Bright four weeks later, some observers see a pattern—a plan—to first undermine and then unload the 63-year-old Landry, who signed a three-year contract last summer. "The owner says what Tex tells him to," says Lee Roy Jordan, the Cowboys' All-Pro middle linebacker and defensive leader for 14 seasons.
"The Cowboys are Tex's baby: the club newsletter, the radio show, the cheerleaders, the souvenirs. It's all football according to Tex. And now there's a division on the team. Tex brought in the new offensive coach [Paul Hackett] last year, and this year he was behind the hiring of the new offensive line coach [Jim Erkenbeck] and special teams coach [Mike Solari]. I think it's a total division of the team.
"I'd say that over the last year and a half the management has worked on the idea of promoting the image that Tom can't coach anymore. It's not us, it's Tom's fault."
In his office in the Cowboy training complex, where visitors are greeted by three TV sets constantly playing tapes of past triumphs, Schramm stares out the window and murmurs, almost pensively, "I'd like to go back to the days when we were called arrogant."
He has heard the accusations about the undermining of his coach. He doesn't take to them kindly. "I don't feel I have to sit around answering things that people on the outside are saying about my relationship with Landry," Schramm says. "We've been together for 28 years. It's a very unique, strong relationship.
"This is an emotional game, and those things were said under stressful circumstances. I wish I hadn't said them, because they created a misimpression, obviously. I don't have any criticism of Tom's coaching today any more than I've had in past years."
Significantly, Bright has not backed off his statements, which may be ominous for Landry. In his four years as majority owner, Bright had never before publicly criticized the operation of any phase of the Cowboys. "I said I was horrified because every play we called, they dumped us," Bright said last week. "We weren't completing passes, the line was leaking bad, everything was rushed. I said I was horrified at the play-calling."
Bad coaching? Bright paused. His response was carefully chosen. No accolades, no rips, in fact no indication that he'd ever talked with Landry about the Cowboys. "In none of my other operations do I talk to people below the CEO [in this case, Schramm]," he said. "That's so there's no confusion about where the instructions come from."
Fair enough. Schramm signs the checks when a new oil rig is bought; Landry is the foreman on the job. The owner doesn't go out in the field every time a well runs dry. But how about his evaluation of foreman Landry?
"Goodness knows, Tom Landry has a reputation for being a good coach," Bright said. "But I don't watch him coach, and I don't try to evaluate his coaching versus anyone else's. I look at the bottom line, and with the Cowboys it's pretty evident that we don't have a good bottom line."
The hardest question of all: Would Bright ever fire Landry?
"That's an awfully harsh word to use," he said. "I don't think that would ever come about. Tom Landry would not be fired. The relationship with Tom and Tex is such...well, it just wouldn't happen that way."
Landry felt this kind of heat once before. In 1964, Cowboy fans got tired of five straight years of losses by their expansion franchise and called for Landry's scalp. Clint Murchison, the owner, responded by calling a news conference in which he announced that he had just signed Landry to a 10-year contract. That was a vote of confidence. Murchison's next news conference came 20 years later, when he sold the club.
It's Saturday, the day before the Cowboys will face the Redskins in RFK Stadium. The plane to Washington will take off in three hours. Landry sits in his office wearing a red-checked shirt and brown slacks. He doesn't look like a man under siege. He looks ready for a weekend's work.
"Do the remarks bother me?" he says. "Yes, of course they do. I'm human. The owner? Well, maybe it's a reaction to all the other bad things that have happened to him, the economy around here, for instance. It's just been devastating, just like our season has been devastating. A quarterback with a bad wrist [Danny White]; an offensive line that keeps getting banged up; our best wide receiver [Mike Sherrard] broke his leg in the preseason. Sure, the owner is upset.
"Tex? Well, I can't say what's in his mind. He's an emotional type of guy. Tex and I have been together a long time. We don't communicate about the day-to-day running of the team, but for 28 years, we've been compatible.
"As far as their digging a tunnel under me, running in their own coaches and all, that's simply not true. I have final say on all members of the staff and everything to do with football. I always will. No, I don't feel they're trying to undermine me, but I can't speak for every member of the organization. I know where we are now and I know where we're going and that it's going to take time to get there. That's why I asked for a three-year contract."
So what is wrong with the Cowboys? Roger Staubach says, "It's a team of whiners, of guys who play to their weaknesses instead of forgetting about them and playing to their strengths. You could see that in the poll that was taken a few years ago, when players were asked which quarterback they preferred. White or Gary Hogeboom, and they chose Hogeboom. If I'd been [White], I'd have gotten in the locker room and confronted every one of those guys.
"Instead of leadership, they had a bunch of people making excuses, and that's still the mood around there. And when you have that, you don't have a team."
Tony Dorsett, one of the Cowboys' greatest stars ever, sits on the bench and mopes. "You going to come to the Redskins game and watch my two or three plays?" he says to a visitor. The other players say Dorsett still has all his moves, but the Cowboy running game has changed. The quick traps designed for Dorsett, behind a mobile line, have been replaced by the raw power and speed of Walker working behind the blocking of a front wall that at times averages 294 pounds tackle to tackle, heaviest in the NFL.
"A man over 300 pounds, carrying 40 pounds of fat, well, to me he's not a football player," Jordan says. "It's very clear to me where the problem is. Tom's as good a coach as he always has been. He just doesn't have the personnel. To me the scouting department is the poorest part of the Cowboys' organization."
That was painfully obvious in Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Redskins, a defeat that dropped Dallas to 5-8 and guaranteed the Cowboys their second straight losing season. It wasn't a question of play-calling or heart or toughness. In fact, the Cowboys have played the hard, physical teams tough this year—two wins over the Giants, an overtime loss to the Vikings, this game against the Skins. The weak teams are the ones that have seen Dallas's lesser efforts: Remember Atlanta and Detroit? That's the sign of an inconsistent team, not a doggy one.
The Redskins beat the Cowboys on four plays—three long passes and a fumble return. It figured to be a heavy running day, because Dallas's first two middle linebackers (Eugene Lockhart and Steve DeOssie) were out and the job was in the hands of Ron Burton, a free-agent rookie. But Washington running back George Rogers could gain only 64 yards on 27 carries. The Redskins were ready to be taken, but no one was there to do the taking for the Cowboys.
Dallas couldn't put the heat on quarterback Jay Schroeder. The Cowboy blitzes were picked up. Every so often, Schroeder would hit a receiver on a deep crossing pattern, and that's all Washington needed. Bombs of 46, 56 and 47 yards produced or set up three of the four Redskins' scores. The Dallas safeties were run-conscious, which left their cornerbacks in single coverage, and Schroeder had the time to make the most of that.
The Cowboys offense ran off 77 plays—Dorsett got to carry the ball eight times for 40 yards—to the Redskins' 59. But it was an offense without punch when it counted. The line—immobile, gigantic, occasionally competent at pass-blocking—had Daryle Smith, who came to the Cowboys as a strike replacement player, at left tackle facing the Redskins' Dexter Manley. On the other side was an oversized eighth-round draft choice, 6'7", 310-pound Kevin Gogan, trying to handle Charles Mann. As it turned out, Manley made only one tackle and got no sacks, but Mann had a pair of sacks and several hurries.
"Sometimes they try to power you, sometimes they try the old finesse techniques," Mann said afterward. "They're not good at either."
White, the flexing function of his injured right wrist severely limited, threw long once in a while to prove that he could. Most of the 359 yards he got through the air came on posts and seam patterns and crosses, things over the middle, the easier throws. When he tried to work the sidelines, he couldn't do it. But he was what the Cowboys had. Backup Steve Pelluer had a bad knee.
A physically limited quarterback, an offensive line that's not big league, a defensive line that can't pressure the passer, a receiving corps with only one proven veteran—32-year-old Mike Renfro, who's hardly a terrifying deep threat—the problem isn't heart, it's people. Dallas just doesn't have enough tools.
Still, the Cowboys are among the league leaders in a couple of categories: innuendo and unease. "The higher you get, the farther you fall," Schramm says. "The media around the country are just as anxious to see us come down as to do well. But there's one thing the media don't want of the Dallas Cowboys, and that's to see us go away."