Tom Landry had been consistently producing one of the NFL’s best teams going back to 1966. He had reached three Super Bowls and won one in 1971. The 1977 Dallas Cowboys were his best team and gave the legendary coach a second Super Bowl ring.
Roger Staubach was 35-years-old, but the future Hall of Fame quarterback was still playing at a Pro Bowl level. He posted an 18/9 TD-INT ratio, completing 58 percent of his passes and 7.3 yards-per-attempt. While those numbers don’t stand out in our modern era, in the more defense-friendly world of 1977, they were near the top of the league.
Staubach’s favorite target was All-Pro wide receiver Drew Pearson, who caught 48 passes for better than 18 yards a pop. Preston Pearson (no relation) was a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield, with 46 receptions. Billy Joe DuPree was a good tight end.
But Dallas had thrown the ball well in 1976, but it was the lack of a consistent running game that kept them out of the Super Bowl. The front office made a big move by trading up in the draft and selecting Heisman Trophy-winning running back Tony Dorsett. It was a trade that paid off in spades. Dorsett ran for over 1,000 yards, averaging almost five yards a pop and began a Hall of Fame career.
Dorsett got reliable help from Robert Newhouse, who ran for over 700 yards. What makes each back’s performance even more impressive is that no one on the Dallas offensive line had a Pro Bowl year. Herb Scott at guard and Pat Donovan at tackle were both 24-years-old and starting to emerge, but it was the skill position talent that ultimately fueled the Cowboy offense to be the second-best in the NFL.
Harvey Martin had a dominating year at defensive end. His 20 sacks—a statistic compiled in retrospect, as they weren’t formally counted until 1982—got him Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Martin was joined on the defensive front by Pro Bowl tackle Randy White, who picked up 12 ½ sacks of his own. The secondary had hard-hitting Pro Bowl strong safety Charlie Waters. And free safety Cliff Harris intercepted five passes and was chosen for 1st-team All-Pro. The Dallas defense as a whole ranked eighth in the league for points allowed.
The season opened with a big battle against the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes had won three of the last four NFC titles, including in ’76. The Dallas defense went on the road and stepped up. They intercepted Fran Tarkenton three times, including two by Harris. They forced five turnovers overall. Playing in a September rain, the Cowboys went to overtime and won 16-10.
Dallas came home for some lighter fare against bad teams in the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys forced five more turnovers against the Giants. Staubach went 18/29 for 235 yards. It was 28-0 by the second quarter and ended 41-21. Against the Buccaneers, linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson got the party started with a 79-yard Pick-6. Dallas outrushed Tampa 205-76, Staubach played well, and the result was a 23-7 win.
Riding high at 3-0, the Cowboys got set for games with the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Redskins. In the divisional alignment of the era, the Cardinals were in the NFC East. Moreover, both the Cards and Redskins were prime contenders in the division race.
Dallas trailed 24-16 in St. Louis after three quarters. In the era before the two-point conversion, this was a two-score deficit. But Dorsett was having the best game of his young career. He rolled up 141 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown run cut the margin to 24-23. Staubach then threw a TD pass to Golden Richards to win it, 30-24.
In a late afternoon home date with the Redskins, the Cowboys trailed 16-14 at the half. Kicker Efren Herrera came through with a couple of long field goals in the third quarter to get the lead. The Dallas defense was shutting down Washington’s running game. In the fourth quarter, the game broke open. Staubach threw a 59-yard TD strike to Drew Pearson and the Cowboys won 34-16.
The run of NFC East opponents continued with a trip to mediocre Philadelphia. A ten-point favorite, the Cowboys might have had an emotional letdown after the Cardinal and Redskin wins. Staubach was sacked five times and the offense struggled. But the defense played well and forced three turnovers. Waters blocked a punt for a touchdown. Dallas got out of town with a 16-10 win.
The lull continued for at least a quarter against the mediocre Detroit Lions at home. It was in the second quarter, leading 3-0, that the Cowboys snapped back to life. Staubach threw touchdown passes to DuPree and running back Scott Laidlaw. It was 23-0 by halftime and ended in a 37-0 whitewash.
Dallas was 7-0 and halfway through what was then still a 14-game regular season schedule. The road trip to New York was a little sluggish. The Cowboys didn’t run the ball well. But they didn’t turn it over, they played dominant defense, and the special teams produced a touchdown. The result was a 24-10 win.
St. Louis came in for a Monday Night Football appearance. The Cardinals were at least in contention for what was then a single wild-card berth, and still hoping to get back in the division race. The Cowboys led 17-10 in the fourth quarter. But they gave up two TD passes to the potent St. Louis passing game, led by Jim Hart. A 24-17 loss ended the undefeated season.
And the road didn’t exactly get easier with a late Sunday afternoon road date in Pittsburgh. The Steelers, the NFL’s dominant franchise of the 1970s, weren’t having a vintage year. But all struggles are relative and this was still a team that would ultimately make the playoffs and was playing desperate here in the latter part of November. Dallas led 13-7, but their rush defense got pummeled to the tune of 264 yards. The game went awry and ended in a 28-13 loss.
The two-game losing streak had tightened the NFC East. Dallas was 8-2, with St. Louis giving chase at 7-3, and Washington at 6-4. Another late Sunday afternoon game, this one with the Redskins, now loomed exceptionally large.
Dallas trailed 7-0 at the half on a day where windy conditions made passing difficult. But the defense locked in. Staubach threw a short TD pass to Richards that tied it in the third quarter. A touchdown run from Dorsett in the fourth quarter won it 14-7. The Cardinals also lost. The division race wasn’t over, but at 9-2, the Cowboys had a two-game lead with three weeks to go.
They were also well-situated to earn the top seed in the NFC. The Los Angeles Rams were at 8-3. While the tiebreaker situation wasn’t locked in, it was at least favorable to Dallas. Minnesota was 7-4, but with a head-to-head win in hand, the Cowboys were close to at least wrapping up the 2-seed.
Dallas took care of the latter at home against Philadelphia. Leading 17-14 after three quarters, Dorsett took off on an 84-yard touchdown run. The rookie went off for 206 yards and keyed a massive 268-72 edge on the ground. The 24-14 win ensured that at least the divisional round playoff game would be at home.
A Monday Night visit to San Francisco offered the chance to secure the 1-seed. The 49ers were not a good team, but they engaged the Cowboys in a back-and-forth shootout. Staubach went 14/19 for 220 yards and made no mistakes. In a 7-7 tie, he threw a 36-yard TD pass to Preston Pearson. At 14-14, Staubach hit Dorsett on a 20-yard scoring toss. With a 28-21 lead, Staubach found Butch Johnson from 22 yards out. A 42-35 win ensured the road to the Super Bowl was coming through Dallas.
Over in the AFC, the Denver Broncos had also secured homefield advantage. A potential high-profile season finale between the Cowboys and Broncos was now a little tuneup for the playoffs. Dallas won 14-6 and closed out a stellar 12-2 regular season.
The playoff journey began on the day after Christmas with an early afternoon kickoff against the Chicago Bears. The Cowboys were a hefty (-11) favorite. A short touchdown run by backup running back Doug Dennison gave them an early 7-0 lead. In the second quarter, Staubach threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to DuPree. A field goal made it 17-0 at the half.
Getting a lead helped take Chicago’s MVP running back, Walter Payton, out of the game. Payton was held to 60 yards on 19 carries. Dorsett and Newhouse shared the load in a balanced attack that produced a 233-81 rush yardage edge. But the real story was turnovers. Waters intercepted three passes. Dallas turned Chicago over seven times in total. A pair of Dorsett touchdowns made the score 34-0 by the end of the third quarter and it ended 37-7.
Minnesota upset Los Angeles in a mud-drenched game later that day, so it was the Vikings who came to Big D for the NFC Championship Game. It was a great time for football in the Lone Star State. Dallas was a double-digit favorite in this New Year’s Day game. The following day, the top-ranked Texas Longhorns were playing for the national championship in the Cotton Bowl.
Staubach tossed a 32-yard touchdown pass to Richards in the first quarter. A missed PAT kept it 6-0. Newhouse ran in from five yards out to make it 13-0 in the second quarter. The Vikings launched a couple of drives, but red-zone stops from the Cowboys forced field goal attempts. Dallas countered with a drive of their own that ended in a short field goal, and it was back to 16-6 by the half.
Minnesota was playing without Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, and it was left to Bob Lee to try and rally the team in the second half. But Dallas was stuffing the Viking running game, while getting another balanced effort from Dorsett and Newhouse. They forced four turnovers. A scoreless third quarter passed, before an 11-yard touchdown run from Dorsett in the final period secured the 23-6 win.
Even though the University of Texas would fall apart the next day, the great football fans of Dallas were still going to the Super Bowl.
Denver had held serve in the AFC, setting up a big storyline. Craig Morton, the veteran Bronco quarterback, had taken the Cowboys to the Super Bowl in 1970, before being displaced by Staubach a year later. While the ensuing years could have left no serious person in doubt that Staubach was substantially better, this was still a big revenge opportunity for Morton.
This was also the first Super Bowl ever played at the New Orleans Superdome. While the city itself had hosted this game—including in ’71, when the Cowboys won at Tulane Stadium—it was the first time in a modern venue that would see more than its share of memorable Super Bowl moments in the years to come.
Dallas was a (-6) favorite, and their defense was peaking in the postseason. That would become even more apparent today. The Cowboys grabbed a 10-0 lead behind a short touchdown run from Dorsett, along with a field goal. Another field goal in the second quarter made it 13-0 at the half.
In the meantime, the Cowboy defensive front was making life miserable for Morton. Martin and White spent the late afternoon and early evening in the Bronco backfield. The result was a deluge of turnovers—eight in all, a Super Bowl record to that point.
Denver got a field goal in the third quarter. Dallas responded when Butch Johnson made a spectacular catch of a 45-yard touchdown pass from Staubach. Johnson’s outstretched catch left him with broken ribs. The Broncos finally got in the end zone to make it 20-10.
In the fourth quarter, Dallas was driving again and looking to put this one to bed. Landry dialed up some trickery. Newhouse got the handoff and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Richards, who made a nice over-the-shoulder grab himself. It was 27-10, and that was where it ended. The Cowboys were champs. For the first–and thus far only–time in Super Bowl history, game MVP honors were shared. Martin and White were co-MVPs for the dominance of the line of scrimmage.
Dallas made a noble bid at a repeat title in 1978, getting back to the Super Bowl. But they lost a classic game to Pittsburgh. While they continued to contend in the ensuing years, changes came. Staubach retired after 1979. Three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game from 1980-82 ended in losses. A late collapse in 1983 resulted in an early playoff exit.
It wasn’t until 1992, when Jimmy Johnson was in charge, that Dallas again hoisted the Super Bowl trophy—ironically, by setting a new record for forced turnovers, when they collected nine from the Buffalo Bills.