Since their founding in 1960, the Cowboys had been gradually gaining steam. They lost epic championship games to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in 1966 and 1967. Dallas returned to the playoffs in 1968 and 1969. In 1970, Tom Landry’s team reached the Super Bowl. They were pounding on the door. But they were also gaining a “can’t win the big one” reputation. The 1971 Dallas Cowboys not only kicked the door down with a Super Bowl championship, but they found the franchise quarterback who would lead them throughout the coming decade and moved into a new stadium to boot.
Roger Staubach had won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 at the Naval Academy. He went on to serve an obligatory five-year stint in the Navy before being able to play professionally with Dallas, starting in 1969. He was behind Craig Morton. Given that the Cowboys were winning games, Morton wasn’t easy to displace, but a quarterback controversy that built to a crescendo by mid-season of 1971 was resolved in Staubach’s favor.
By season’s end, Staubach had a 60 percent completion rate and averaged 8.9 yards-per-attempt. Morton completed 55 percent of his passes for 7.9 yards each. That wasn’t the real difference though, and both statistical lines were good in this era. What separated the two was that Staubach, with a 15-4 TD/INT ratio was only intercepted on 1.9 percent of his passes. By contrast, Morton’s ratio was 7-8, and he had a 5.6 interception percentage.
Whomever was at quarterback had speedy Bob Hayes to throw to. The former track star caught 35 passes for a dazzling 24.0 yards-per-catch. Veteran Lance Alworth added 34 catches. A tight end named Mike Ditka caught 30 more balls. Fullback Walt Garrison was a reliable safety valve, and his 40 receptions led the team.
A balanced running attack was led by Duane Thomas and supported by both Garrison and backup halfback Calvin Hill. When you put it all together, Dallas scored more points than any other NFL team in 1971.
The defense was pretty good too, led by a tough line. All-Pro Bob Lilly was at tackle. Jethro Pugh recorded 13 ½ sacks and Larry Cole was a good pass rusher off the end. Veteran linebacker Chuck Howley made the Pro Bowl and intercepted five passes. An excellent secondary had Pro Bowlers in cornerback Mel Renfroe and strong safety Cornel Green. The Cowboy defense ranked seventh in the 26-team league for points allowed.
Dallas opened the season at a terrible Buffalo team, and the defense was clearly not rounded into form. The Cowboys trailed 30-28 in the third quarter. But they won the rushing yardage battle, 160-66, and the turnover margin by a 4-1 count. Morton played well, going 10/14 for 221 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Dallas rallied to a 49-37 win. There were certainly no signs of a quarterback controversy.
Another easy win came at mediocre Philadelphia. Cornerback Herb Adderly intercepted three passes, the rush yardage edge was 150-32 and the final score was 42-7. The Cowboy offense was humming as the Washington Redskins came to town.
The Redskins had been mediocre of late, but this Week 3 game was the first sign that new head coach George Allen was going to make a positive impact. Dallas dug themselves a 14-3 hole. Staubach was summoned into the game. The Cowboys rallied, but being outrushed 200-82 was the prime reason for a 20-16 defeat.
Monday Night Football at home against the New York Giants was historic. It was the last time Dallas would play a home game in the Cotton Bowl. It was also the first time they would win an MNF game, an innovation in only its second year. Both quarterbacks played extensively in a game that was tied 6-6 in the second quarter. Staubach threw a short TD pass, Morton threw a long one, and the Cowboys prevailed 20-13.
Morton got the start at lowly New Orleans and played poorly. He threw two interceptions and dug a 17-0 hole. Staubach came in and went 7/10 for 117 yards and a pair of TDs, but it was too late. Six turnovers overall spelled a 24-14 loss. In an era when there wasn’t a lot of parity, losses like this weren’t dismissed as “it’s just the NFL”, the way they are today. Landry continued to wrestle with his quarterback options.
Texas Stadium would become an iconic place for future generations of NFL fans, a frequent site of high-profile late Sunday afternoon games, prime-time battles, Thanksgiving Day affairs and playoff games. The partially enclosed stadium made its debut on October 24 against New England. Staubach played and was sharp—13/21 for 197 yards, no mistakes and touchdown passes of 35 and 28 yards to Hayes. Dallas won easily 44-21.
Staubach was clearly emerging, but Landry understandably struggled with the notion of benching a trusted veteran. In Chicago, that struggle hit absurd levels. Landry used Staubach and Morton to shuttle the plays in and out from the sidelines, with a different QB each play. Morton did most of the passing and while he made big plays—20/36 for 257 yards—he also threw three interceptions. Staubach was 7/11 for 87 yards. Dallas lost to a mediocre team, 23-19.
We were at the halfway point of what was then a 14-game schedule and Dallas was 4-3. This was an era when only four teams per conference—three division winners and one wild-card—made the playoffs. The Cowboys were in trouble. Landry made his decision—he was riding with Staubach the rest of the way.
It would be a mistake to think that things instantly turned around. Playing at home against a bad St. Louis Cardinals team, the Cowboys trailed 10-6 in the second half. Staubach threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Dikta to get the lead, and Dallas later won the game 16-13 on a late field goal.
The following week was when the Cowboys started to settle in with a consistent victory formula. They hosted the Eagles and won the rushing battle 179-44. Staubach was 14/28 for 176 yards, the turnover edge was 5-1 and the final score was 20-7.
At 6-3, Dallas was right in the thick of a packed playoff race. Washington was 6-2-1, leading the NFC East. In the push for the wild-card, the Detroit Lions were 5-3-1. The NFC West runner-up—either the 5-3-1 Los Angeles Rams or the 6-3 San Francisco 49ers—would also be in the mix.
There was no margin for error and the visit to RFK Stadium to face the Redskins on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving was enormous. Dallas was up to the challenge. Staubach played efficiently, going 11/21 for 151 yards and no mistakes. The rush advantage was 146-65. The defense was magnificent, pitching a 13-0 shutout. The Cowboys were in first place with four weeks to go.
But there was no time to celebrate, because the Rams, at 6-3-1, were coming to Texas Stadium for Thanksgiving Day. Ike Thomas started the party for Dallas by returning the opening kick for a touchdown. That started an excellent back-and-forth game for the national TV audience. Staubach threw a 51-yard touchdown strike to Hayes and later threw a 21-yard scoring pass to Alworth. The ultimate difference though, in the new Staubach era, was turnovers. Dallas didn’t have any, and they collected three. They won the football game, 28-21.
A late Saturday afternoon home date with the New York Jets turned into a rout. Thomas again opened the game by taking the kickoff to the house. Staubach threw a pair of 27-yard touchdown passes to Hill in the first quarter alone. The balance of the Dallas running game can be underscored by this fact—all of the times in this narrative that you read of decisive Cowboy edges on the ground, Thomas’ 112 yards against the Jets were the only time an individual Dallas runner went over 100 yards. They won this one, 52-10.
Washington was keeping pace in the NFC East, although at 9-3, Dallas now had a game and a half lead for the wild-card. They went to New York and jumped all over the Giants. Staubach threw a 46-yard TD pass to Hayes, a 10-yard scoring toss to Hill, and then back to Hayes for an 85-yard strike. Staubach finished 10/14 for 232 yards. The 42-14 win sewed up a playoff spot.
The division title was still out there, and Dallas would play a late Saturday afternoon game in the season finale. They hosted the St. Louis Cardinals (the Cards were an NFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002). Thomas opened the scoring with a 53-yard touchdown run, later added a short scoring burst, and then caught a 34-yard TD pass. Dallas was ahead 21-3 and coasted home, 31-12.
Since committing to Staubach as the starter, the Cowboys had swept seven straight games, closed with an 11-3 mark and were NFC East champs.
There was no seeding in the playoffs prior to 1974. The matchups, including homefield, were set by a pre-determined rotation among the divisions. That inequity meant that Dallas would visit the Minnesota Vikings for the divisional playoffs—even though the Cowboys and VIkes, both 11-3, were the top two teams in the NFC.
On a frigid Christmas Day at old Metropolitan Stadium, the two great teams played a defensive struggle for a half. Dallas led 6-3. But the mistake-free football played under Staubach would again bear fruit. The Cowboys forced five turnovers and committed zero. In the third quarter, Thomas ran in from 13 yards out, and Staubach hit Hayes with a nine-yard TD pass. In spite of being outgained 311-183, Dallas won comfortably, 20-12.
They came back home to play the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC Championship Game. After a scoreless first quarter, Hill’s 1-yard TD run opened the scoring in the second quarter. The 49ers got a field goal in the third quarter and a tight battle went into the final period at 7-3.
Dallas’ defense was shutting down San Francisco’s running game. The Cowboys would grind out 172 yards, led by Staubach’s 55. The passing game was hindered by allowing six sacks, but a short TD run from Thomas in the fourth quarter helped the Cowboys chisel out a tough 14-3 win. They were going back to the Super Bowl.
Don Shula’s upstart Miami Dolphins were the last opponent. How far the Super Bowl has progressed as an American institution is underscored by the fact that this edition—only the sixth—was played at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. How far Dallas had progressed during the 1971 season is underscored by the fact they were installed as a solid six-point favorite.
The first Cowboy drive bogged down near the goal-line. Landry took the points with an early field goal. Staubach found Alworth on a second-quarter touchdown pass that opened up some breathing room at 10-0, but a Miami field goal cut the lead to 10-3 at the half.
What Dallas had going for them was complete dominance of the line of scrimmage. They would win the rushing battle, 252-80, with Thomas’ 95 yards leading the way. And they had Staubach’s mistake-free brand of football. Roger went 12/19 for 119 yards and no interceptions. Thomas ran for a TD in the third quarter to open up the lead to 17-3. In the fourth quarter, Staubach tossed a short scoring pass to Ditka to blow it open. The final was 24-3. Staubach was the game MVP, and the Cowboys were champs.
More than champs, Dallas had ushered in a new era. Staubach would lead the way all the way through the 1970s. The Cowboys had winning seasons every year, made the postseason every year except one, reached the Super Bowl three more times, and won another championship in 1977.