For seven straight years, Dallas had been in the playoffs. For three straight years, they had at least reached the NFC Championship Game. While the 1973 Dallas Cowboys weren’t able to return to the top of heap and win a second Super Bowl in three years, they did keep both of the aforementioned streaks going.
It was after Tom Landry settled on Roger Staubach as his quarterback midway through 1971 that the Cowboys won their first championship. Staubach was hurt through all of 1972 before returning to lead a dramatic playoff win. In ’73, Roger’s 8.5 yards-per-attempt were the best in the league and his 63 percent completion rate was second. Where he slipped was interceptions. While a 23-15 TD/INT ratio was fine in the context of this era, his 5.2 percent interception rate only ranked 14th among the 17 QBs with enough throws to qualify.
Staubach’s big-play targets were the trio of Otto Stowe, Bob Hayes, and a young Drew Pearson. Dallas also had a good up-and-coming tight end in Billy Jo DuPree. The running backs, notably Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison were a big part of the passing game, something that was not the norm in an age where more offenses simply threw the ball downfield.
Hill was one of the league’s better runners, rolling up over 1,100 yards. The veteran Garrison and the youthful Robert Newsome combined to add almost 900 more. They ran behind a tough offensive line, led by All-Pro right tackle Rayfield Wright and left guard John Niland.
All in all, the balanced Cowboy attack scored the second-most points in the NFL. And the defense, which ranked seventh in points allowed, wasn’t bad either. The front four was anchored by 34-year-old Pro Bowl tackle Bob Lilly, who was then flanked by good pass-rushing ends in Pat Toomay and Harvey Martin. Veteran linebacker Lee Roy Jordan was a Pro Bowler. The corners had a Pro Bowler on one side in Mel Renfro and a ballhawk on the other, with Charlie Waters intercepting six passes.
Dallas opened the season in Chicago. With the score tied 3-3 in the second quarter, Staubach threw touchdown passes from 21 yards to Stowe and 18 to Hayes. But they allowed a special teams touchdown and let a poor Bear team tie the game 17-17. Eventually though, the six turnovers collected by the Cowboy defense added up, and they won 20-17.
The home opener was on Monday Night against New Orleans. Dallas took a bad team to the woodshed. Leading 12-3 at the half, the Cowboys blew it open when Newhouse ran for one TD and caught another. The final was 40-3. And the blowouts continued six days later when the St. Louis Cardinals came to town. Staubach went 17/22 for 276 yards and no mistakes. Dallas outrushed St. Louis 250-44 and coasted to a 45-10 win.
A 3-0 record compiled against a weak schedule set the Cowboys up for a Monday Night date in Washington. The Redskins had won the NFC East a year earlier and then took out Dallas in the NFC Championship Game.
The Cowboys got 103 rushing yards from Hill and took a 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Staubach had been knocked out and veteran Craig Morton was in. Afte the Redskins tied the game 7-7, Morton made the fatal mistake—he threw a Pick-6 deep in his own end. In a wild final 2 ½ minutes, Dallas managed to get down to the Washington four-yard line and faced a 4th-and-goal. Morton’s short pass to Garrison was complete, but he was tackled a yard short of the goal line. The Cowboys lost 14-7 and, at least for now, were still the second-best team in their own division.
If Monday Night in Washington had been a defensive battle, the road trip to face an excellent Los Angeles Rams’ team would be a shootout. The problem is that Staubach also threw three interceptions, Dallas lost a couple of fumbles, and they lost the football game 37-31.
After two straight losses to contenders, a home game with the lowly New York Giants was a welcome respite. Hill ran for 123 yards. Dallas let New York hang around into the third quarter before Staubach threw consecutive TD passes that blew it open and led the way to a 45-28 win.
A late afternoon game in Philadelphia should have been more easy pickings. But the Cowboys dug a 10-0 hole early. They committed four turnovers and collected none. The surprise 30-16 loss left them at 4-3. In this era when only one wild-card team made the playoffs, and the regular season schedule was just 14 games, Dallas was in trouble.
They also had a tough game waiting at home, in the playoff-bound Cincinnati Bengals. The Cowboys met the urgency of the moment. Staubach went 14/19 for 209 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Jordan intercepted three passes. The 38-10 win was easily Dallas’ best game of the season to date.
The Bengals were situated right in between a schedule spot that was otherwise the Giants and Eagles. Dallas made their return trip to New York. The Cowboy D forced six turnovers, including two interceptions by Waters, and won 23-10. In the home game with Philly, Dallas again dug themselves a 10-0 hole and Staubach would be intercepted three times. But this time, the Cowboy ground attack got ginned up. They ran for 286 yards and pulled away to win 31-10.
We had reached Thanksgiving, and Dallas was 7-3. They were tied for first with Washington in the NFC East and tied for the wild-card with the Atlanta Falcons. The final four weeks would be an intense race for the playoffs.
Given that, having to play the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving was less than ideal. The Dolphins were the defending Super Bowl champs, and en route to a repeat title. Dallas fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, and then Miami’s ruthless defensive efficiency just took over. The Cowboys couldn’t run the ball and they couldn’t get it downfield in the passing game. They lost 14-7. Washington and Atlanta both won on Sunday. With three weeks left, Dallas was on the outside looking in.
A must-win visit to Denver against a pretty good Bronco team had its challenges. The offensive line didn’t clear the way for a running game, nor did they protect Staubach, who was sacked seven times. But Roger made big plays. He went 14/28 for 240 yards and stayed away from mistakes. Pearson caught four balls for 93 yards. It was enough to churn out a 22-10 win.
While the Redskins won to keep the NFC East lead, the Falcons lost. Dallas was back into a tie for the wild-card spot. And as far as Washington goes, they were on their way to Texas Stadium for a high-profile late Sunday afternoon showdown.
The game was tight for the first half and Dallas led 3-0. In the second half, the Cowboy offense got rolling. Hill would ultimately clear the 100-yard mark on the ground and run for a couple touchdowns. Staubach would spread the ball around and go 16/25 for 223 yards. The defense kept dominating. The only Redskin points came on a blocked punt long after the affair was settled. Dallas won 27-7.
There was one game left, with Dallas and Washington both tied at 9-4 and having split head-to-head. Atlanta lost again and was 8-5. The tiebreaker system of the time had net point production much higher than is the case today. The good news for Dallas is that their position in this tiebreaker was commanding. Even if they lost, it would be almost impossible to slip behind the Falcons. And so long as they took care of their own business, they would likely hold the edge on Washington.
The season finale was in St. Louis. In the second quarter, Staubach broke a 3-3 tie with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Pearson. A subsequent field goal made it 13-3 at the half. Dallas was now in control, and they didn’t let up. Newhouse ran for 124 yards. Pearson’s five catches went for 140 yards. Staubach threw two more touchdown passes in the second half. The Cowboys coasted to a 30-3 win and secured the NFC East crown.
Dallas was 10-4, while both Los Angeles and the Minnesota Vikings were 12-2. But the rules prior to 1975 seeded the division winners on a rotation system, rather than by merit. In 1973, it was the NFC East’s turn to have homefield throughout the playoffs. So, the points differential tiebreaker meant the road to the Super Bowl would run through Texas Stadium.
Los Angeles came in for the final game of Divisional Round weekend. The Cowboys were surging, having won their last seven games, and that momentum stayed with them. Hill ran in from three yards out to start the scoring. Pearson caught a short TD pass from Staubach. A field goal gave Dallas a commanding 17-0 lead in the second quarter.
The Rams punched back, but the Cowboy defense made stops when they had to. L.A. got two field goals before the half and another early in the fourth quarter. But there was no two-point conversion in the NFL until 1994, so the 17-9 Cowboy lead was still a two-possession margin.
Even so, Los Angeles got in the end zone to cut the lead to a point. Dallas was deep in their own end. It was time for one more big play. Staubach and Pearson hooked up on an 83-yard touchdown pass. That was the dagger and the Cowboys ultimately closed out a 27-16 win.
Minnesota was up next. Could Dallas take out 12-2 teams in back-to-back weeks? The answer to that would be no. The Cowboys couldn’t get the running game going and Staubach was intercepted four times. The game was still competitive into the fourth quarter, and they only trailed 17-10. It was similar to 1972, when Dallas had only trailed Washington by seven points in the final period. But, like ’72, the fourth quarter saw a collapse. The Vikings tacked on ten points and sent the Cowboys home with a 27-10 loss.
Dallas had reached a point in their development where any year that didn’t end in the Super Bowl felt like a disappointment. But this was still four straight years of reaching the NFC Championship Game. They did take a step back in 1974, missing the playoffs for the only time in the decade. But by 1975, they were back in the Super Bowl. And by 1977, they were back to hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.