After three straight NFC Championship Game losses, the 1983 Dallas Cowboys spent much of the season looking they were going on a redemptive Super Bowl run. They ended on a dour note that foreshadowed the end of the Tom Landry era.
An explosive offense keyed Dallas’ success for much of the year. Tony Dorsett rushed for over 1,300 yards in a Pro Bowl season. Danny White played well at quarterback, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes, fifth in the league. White generated a solid 7.5 yards-per-attempt and threw 29 touchdown passes.
He also threw 23 interceptions, but in the world of 1983 that wasn’t as devastating as it would be today—nine quarterbacks threw 20-plus picks and White’s interceptions as a percentage of passes thrown actually ranked 10th in the league.
White had a balanced receiving corps with which to work. Pro Bowl tight end Doug Cosbie caught 46 passes for 588 yards. Three receivers, Tony Hill, Drew Pearson and Butch Johnson, were each over 40 catches. Dallas had playmakers and they ranked second in the NFL in points scored.
The defensive front four was also outstanding, keyed by two Pro Bowl veterans. 32-year-old defensive end Too Tall Jones recorded seven sacks and 30-year-old defensive tackle Randy White got to the QB 12 ½ times and made 1st-team All-Pro. More pressure on the quarterback came from linebacker Anthony Dickerson who got 10 ½ sacks.
But the defensive front was also aging—all four starters were over 30. And the back seven was problematic. Corner Everson Walls was excellent, making 1st-team All-Pro and safety Dennis Thurman finished with six interceptions, but otherwise the Cowboy defense just leaked too much. They ranked 20th in the league in points allowed.
The Washington Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champions and Dallas paid a visit to RFK Stadium on the opening Monday Night of the season. The Cowboys dug themselves a 23-3 hole and then came roaring back. White threw quick-strike touchdown passes of 75 & 51 yards to Hill in the third quarter to get his team back in the game. Dorsett finished with 151 yards on just 14 carries.
Dallas scored four straight touchdowns and took a 31-23 lead. Even though the Redskins got in the end zone again, there was no two-point conversion at the time, so a 31-30 win was preserved. The belief of many—including Las Vegas oddsmakers who made the Cowboys a slight road favorite—that Washington was a fluke and Dallas the real power in the NFC East, seemed to have been validated.
The Cowboys went on the road to play a decent St. Louis Cardinals team and fell behind 10-0. But another big surge turned the game. Dallas sacked St. Louis quarterback Neil Lomax five times and picked off four of his passes. White finished 19/27 for 234 yards and 31 consecutive points keyed a 34-17 win.
A third straight NFC East win (the Cardinals were in the NFC East prior to 2002) came at New York, where the Giants were beginning what would be an awful season in the first year under Bill Parcells. The defense again forced turnovers, picking off three passes. The big one came in the third quarter when Dexter Clinksdale went 68 yards to the house to give breathing room in what had been a 14-13 game. One more defensive touchdown, this one off a fumble, sealed the 28-13 win.
Unorthodox scoring continued to drive Dallas at home against mediocre New Orleans. They trailed 20-13 in the fourth quarter before Ron Fellows blocked a punt and went 62 yards for a touchdown. Even after a missed PAT kept the Cowboys down a point, they still rallied—Dickerson sacked Saints quarterback Ken Stabler for the game-winning safety in a 21-20 win.
Another deficit against another mediocre team followed in Minnesota when Dallas trailed 24-10 at the half. After cutting the lead to 24-20, Fellows came through again with a 58-yard interception return. Dorsett’s 141 rush yards keyed a big 200-44 ground advantage and the Cowboys pulled away 37-24.
Dallas had eliminated Tampa Bay from each of the two previous playoffs and were a healthy (-13) favorite against what was proving to be a terrible Buccaneers team in 1983. White threw an early 80-yard touchdown pass to Ron Springs and it should have been an easy day. Only it wasn’t, as the Cowboys again played down to the competition. It took another big play from White to a running back, this time 52 yards to Timmy Newsome, in the fourth quarter to tie the game. They won in overtime, 27-24.
An easy win finally came at home against subpar Philadelphia, as dominance running the football and stopping the run keyed a 37-7 win. Dallas was flying high at 7-0 and held a two-game lead over Washington in the NFC East. The Los Angeles Raiders, enjoying a big year that would ultimately culminate in a Super Bowl title came to old Texas Stadium for an anticipated showdown on October 23.
The weaknesses of the Cowboy defense, especially up front, were exposed, as they were gashed for 219 rush yards while gaining only 81 yards on the ground themselves. But that same defense continued to be incredibly opportunistic, forcing six turnovers. One was a nine-yard fumble return for a touchdown by linebacker Mike Hegman that gave them a 38-34 lead.
The Raiders drove deep into Dallas territory, but a red zone stop forced a field goal. It still wasn’t enough—Los Angeles launched one more long drive, kicked one more field and Dallas had finally lost a game, 40-38.
Danny White got rolling with the deep pass in the Meadowlands the following week. Even though he completed just 16/34, those sixteen completions produced 310 yards passing and five touchdowns. The defense forced six more turnovers and got six sacks, two apiece from Jones and Randy White in an easy 38-20 win.
The passing game changed character the next week in Philadelphia. Now Danny White was about precision, completing 21/24 for 268 yards, finding Springs seven times out of the backfield in a 27-20 win. A road trip to San Diego though, saw the wheel of fortune finally spin against the Cowboys.
This time it was Dallas who was victimized by the unorthodox touchdown. They gave up a blocked punt for a TD to start the game and ultimately fell behind 24-6. Even though they rallied, that score was the difference in a 24-23 loss that would loom large as the season wore on.
It didn’t loom large in the short-term though. The state of Missouri—St. Louis and Kansas City—came to Dallas and got blasted. The Cowboys scored 76 points in the two games. Dorsett rushed for over 100 yards in each one. The running game helped Dallas survive a strong Chiefs passing game in a 41-21 win. And it was the difference in the 35-17 Thanksgiving Day win over the Cardinals where both Danny White and Lomax threw the ball well.
The stretch drive was here and Dallas was rolling at 11-2. Washington was also 11-2, and the Cowboys would host the Redskins in the season’s second-to-last game. It was already apparent that the winner of the NFC East would be the #1 playoff seed and these two teams, along with the Raiders, were seen as the class of the entire league.
Dallas showed their bona fides when they went to Seattle—who would make the playoffs and ultimately the AFC Championship Game—and put a 35-10 beatdown on the Seahawks. Dorsett ran for two early touchdowns, White threw for two more and the defense held the excellent Seattle runner, Curt Warner, to just 22 yards.
The Cowboys were ready for the Redskins to come to town in the battle for first place…or so they thought. It turns out that the 1983 Dallas Cowboys would not win another football game. They dug an early 14-0 hole and even though it was 14-10 at half, Danny White threw three interceptions and the game ended 31-10.
Dallas still held the tiebreaker, so there was a chance at the NFC East—in fact, had the Cowboys not lost to San Diego they would have gone into their Monday Night finale in San Francisco still in control of the race. But when the Redskins beat the Giants on Saturday, it meant the MNF game was meaningless. Dallas lost 42-17 to San Francisco, a team they were in line to play in the divisional playoff round.
That presumed beating the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs. The Rams were a mediocre 9-7 and had barely snuck into the postseason. The Cowboys were an eight-point favorite. But on the afternoon after Christmas, they gave their fans a lump of coal. It came in the form of three interceptions by Danny White. Dallas trailed 24-10 before a late touchdown made the final appear closer. The 24-17 loss ended the season.
Going back to 1966, the Cowboys had made the playoffs every year but one. This was the last year of that streak. They missed in 1984, and an NFC East title in 1985 couldn’t stop the downward turn of the franchise that would ultimately result in Landry being fired following the 1988 season.