The 1984 Dallas Cowboys came into the season having made the playoffs each of the previous nine years and 17 of the last 18. That streak came to end when late-season failure against the league’s best ended a year steeped in quarterback controversy.
Danny White had been the Dallas starter since 1981 when he replaced the legendary Roger Staubach. White was productive, but also mistake-prone and head coach Tom Landry wanted to go with Gary Hogeboom. There was a back-and-forth between the two quarterbacks all year, with Hogeboom starting ten games and White getting six.
In the end the stats were fairly comparable—each had a mediocre completion percentage. White was a little bit better at getting the ball downfield and Hogeboom not quite as prone to interceptions. But either way, Dallas was going to need a lot of help surrounding their quarterback.
Normally that help would have come from running back Tony Dorsett, and he did rush for nearly 1,200 yards. But the 3.9 yards-per-attempt was on the low end for running backs who got a steady workload. The offensive line deserves its share of blame—a unit that had traditionally produced Pro Bowlers had no such performers in 1984.
Nor were too many big plays coming from the receivers. Tony Hill was still productive, with 58 catches for 864 yards, but otherwise the quarterbacks had to settle for throwing to the backs and tight ends. Dorsett and backup running back Ron Springs were third and fourth on the team in catches.
At least the leading target, tight end Doug Cosbie, was one of the best at his position. Cosbie caught 68 balls for 789 yards and made the Pro Bowl. He was part of a lineage of excellent Dallas tight ends that would later include Jay Novacek and Jason Witten. But the one thing Cosbie wasn’t was a big-play threat and his consistency was not enough to keep Dallas from ranking 18th in the NFL in points scored.
As bleak as this sounds, the defense played well, ranking ninth in the league in points allowed and keeping the Cowboys in contention. There was only one Pro Bowl player, but he was a great one—defensive tackle Randy White recorded 12 ½ sacks and was 1st-team All-NFL.
And there were other playmakers, like 23-year-old defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, who got 11 ½ sacks. Free safety Michael Downs intercepted seven passes. And though corner Everson Walls wasn’t a Pro Bowler this year, he was in every other season from 1981-85. The Dallas defense still had talent.
The previous year had ended in bitter disappointment, a wild-card playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams when Dallas was an 8 ½ point home favorite. The opening Monday Night of the season offered a chance for revenge as the Cowboys went west.
After falling behind 13-0 in the first quarter, Hogeboom began justifying Landry’s confidence. The quarterback finished the game 33/43 for 343 yards, with wide receiver Doug Donley catching nine of those balls for 137 yards. Defensive back Dexter Clinkscale picked off two passes and Dallas won 20-13.
Things quickly went awry in a 28-7 loss at the Meadowlands against the Giants. The Cowboys lost three fumbles and one was returned 81 yards for a touchdown. The Hogeboom-to-Donley combination bounced back at home against the Eagles. Hogeboom was only 22/40, but he generate 320 pass yards, with Donley catching five passes for 122 yards. Dallas churned out a 23-17 win.
In a late afternoon home game against a mediocre—but explosive—Green Bay Packers team, the Cowboys got four interceptions, two by Walls in a 20-6 victory. The winning continued at Chicago in an impressive performance against a team that would reach the NFC Championship Game.
Dorsett caught a 68-yard touchdown pass from Hogeboom in the first quarter and Dallas led 17-14 at the half. Even though Dorsett and the running game did nothing, and were outproduced by Chicago, who had Walter Payton, 283-59 in yardage, Hogeboom made the difference. He was 18/29 for 265 yards and no mistakes. Dallas won 23-14.
Two divisional games awaited and the first one was at home against the St. Louis Cardinals, an NFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002. The Cardinals would be a playoff contender to the very end and Hogeboom did not play well. He was 13/28 for 143 yards and two interceptions, ultimately being lifted for White. Dallas’ own pass defense was carved up by St. Louis quarterback Neil Lomax 31-20.
It didn’t get any better in Washington, against the two-time defending NFC champion Redskins. The two quarterbacks split time, but more important was the 241-90 deficit in rush yardage the Cowboys had to overcome. They didn’t come close in a 34-14 defeat.
At 4-3, a home game against the mediocre New Orleans Saints was suddenly important. It was on a Sunday night, a rarity in this time period. Hogeboom threw an early Pick-6 and Dallas trailed 27-6. They were in a lot of trouble when White entered the game.
The veteran quarterback re-earned the job with an amazing performance. He went 11/18 for 107 yards and pulled to within 27-20. Jeffcoat made the play of the game when he recovered a fumble in the end zone to tie it and the Cowboys pulled out an improbable 27-20 win.
White continued to play well at home against woeful Indianapolis, going 21/32 for 262 yards and two touchdowns. Hill had his best game of the year, catching eight balls for 125 yards and the result was an easy 22-3 win. But the brief era of good feeling ended in a 19-7 home loss to the Giants. The offense did nothing, and only some key defensive stops to force field goals kept the game competitive.
Dallas went to St. Louis for a key late Sunday afternoon game in Busch Stadium. Hogeboom was back in the lineup and did nothing to justify the choice. He finished 12/33 for 147 yards and threw two interceptions, while Lomax finished with 388 yards. But the opportunistic Cowboy defense recovered four fumbles and with the score tied 17-17, Hogeboom was able to find Ron Springs on a 26-yard touchdown pass to pull out the win.
At 7-4 and a game on deck with the hideous Buffalo Bills, Dallas should have been in command. But in an unthinkable result at Busch Stadium, the Cowboys gave up over 200 rushing yards to Notre Dame rookie Greg Bell. It was the game of Bell’s life, Dallas had no offense to speak of and a costly 14-3 loss was the result.
Instead of being alone in first place in the NFC East, the Cowboys dropped into a three-way tie at 7-5 with the Redskins and Giants. The Cardinals were a game back at 6-6. There were two wild-card berths available, with the 7-5 Rams and 6-6 Saints also being in the picture. The 49ers and Bears were firmly on the way to division titles.
Thanksgiving Day means the beginning of the stretch drive with a Dallas home game. They hosted the New England Patriots, who would contend for the playoffs to the bitter end before just missing. The Cowboys took a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter before giving up consecutive touchdowns. They rallied for a winning field goal to avoid another embarrassing loss. The rest of the NFC East held serve over the weekend, as did Los Angeles. New Orleans was blown out by San Francisco and disappeared from the race.
In a road trip to Philadelphia, the one non-contender in the NFC East, safety Dennis Thurman got Dallas out to a strong start with a 38-yard Pick-6. Dorsett ran well, gaining 110 yards and the 26-10 win kept the Cowboys alive, as all the other contenders won.
Dallas was alive, but there were a lot of problems with their position. Their 3-4 record in the NFC East was a big problem. The schedule was also tough, with games against Washington and Miami remaining. The Dolphins were on their way to the #1 seed in the AFC with Dan Marino enjoying an MVP year. In an ideal world, it would be better for the Cowboys if that Monday Night finale in the Orange Bowl weren’t a must-win.
But first there was the Redskins. A year earlier, Washington had come to Dallas in the penultimate regular season game with the NFC East on the line and crushed the Cowboys 31-10. This one wasn’t like that, but in its own way, it was worse.
White got the start and a pair of short TD passes, followed by a 60-yard strike to Mike Renfro, gave Dallas a 21-6 halftime lead. But White’s ability to get in his own way immediately hurt the Cowboys. He threw an interception to the great Redskin corner Darrell Green, who took it to the house. The Redskins rode that momentum to a 23-21 lead. White threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Hill, but Dallas eventually gave it back.
Dorsett only ran for 42 yards, and the Cowboys lost the turnover battle 4-zip. That’s no way to win a championship-type football game and Dallas lost this one 30-28. On a day when the NFC East contenders all faced off, St. Louis beat New York. The division title would be settled by the Redskins and Cardinals in a winner-take-all game to end the season. Dallas had to hope for a wild-card berth.
And it was going to be a long road back. For Monday in Miami to matter, the Cowboys needed the Giants to lose on Saturday, a home game with the Saints. Then they needed to Cardinals to lose to the Redskins. If all that happened, the Cowboys could take the final playoff berth if they won in Miami.
The weekend couldn’t have gone better. New York lost at home. St. Louis lost on the last play in Washington. As an added bonus, Los Angeles, who had clinched a wild-card, had lost on Friday night in San Francisco. Dallas could now host the wild-card game if they won. But there was still the minor matter of beating Miami, and a loss would put the Giants in the playoffs.
Miami had something to play for as well—the top seed in the AFC, where they were trying to hold off Denver. In the days when the final prime-time game of the year was scheduled at the start of the season, rather than flexed one week prior, it was about as significant a Monday Night finale as the NFL had ever seen.
The game started quietly and Dallas trailed 7-0 at the half. They were still down 21-14 in the fourth quarter when White came through, hitting Hill on a 66-yard game-tying touchdown pass. White was 20/35 for 246 yards, with two interceptions. It was a vintage performance, for better and for worse. But without Dorsett’s running—just 58 yards—it wasn’t enough to stop Marino. The great Dolphin quarterback threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns, the final one 63 yards to Mark Clayton to seal a 28-21 win. Dallas’ string of postseason appearances was over.
It was the end of an era and one that had been gradually sneaking up on the league for a couple years. Landry made one more brief surge in 1985, winning an NFC East title. But after that, it was three more years out of the playoffs and his eventual dismissal when Jerry Jones bought the team. 1984 was a harbinger of things to come.