The Dallas Cowboys were a team that had paid their dues. As a rising power in the late 1960s, they lost back-to-back playoff heartbreakers to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. When Dallas made their breakthrough to a Super Bowl in 1970, they lost that game on a last-play field goal. Finally, 1971 was the year Tom Landry and his Cowboys went the distance.
Dallas got off to a middling start. Landry was still undecided between Craig Morton or Roger Staubach as his quarterback. The head coach settled on Staubach when his team was 4-3 and chasing the Washington Redskins in the NFC East. At the risk of understatement, the choice of Staubach proved to be a good one.
The Cowboys won the final seven games of what was then a 14-game schedule. They were a tough team in the trenches, with John Nyland and Rayfield Wright making All-Pro on the offensive line and Bob Lilly doing the same on the defensive side. The addition of Staubach, to go with a balanced running game, took Dallas to a new level and they scored more points than anyone in the NFL.
A five-day stretch in November was the key. On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, Dallas shut out Washington in 13-0. Then the Cowboys had their turkey feast in beating another contender in the Los Angeles Rams. Dallas never looked back.
The Redskins had jumped into contention on the strength of hiring George Allen as their new head coach. Allen, a successful coach with the Rams, had been fired in Los Angeles over disputes with the front office. Allen came to Washington, brought in veterans, turned the team around and even though they didn’t keep pace with Dallas, Washington was squarely in the hunt for what was then a single wild-card spot.
Ironically, it came down to a Monday Night in Allen’s old stomping grounds of Los Angeles. In the season’s penultimate game, the Redskins beat the Rams 38-24 and grabbed the NFC’s final playoff spot.
Los Angeles was edged out in the west by the San Francisco 49ers. John Brodie was only a year removed from winning the MVP award and the quarterback had another good season, with tight end Ted Kwalick working underneath and speedy Gene Washington stretching the field. Forrest Blue, the league’s best center, anchored the 49er offensive line.
San Francisco’s defense was even better, ranking sixth in the NFL in points allowed (compared to the offense ranking ninth in points scored), thanks to the All-Pro work of linebacker Dave Wilcox and corner Jimmy Johnson. The 49ers won a 31-27 decision over a decent Detroit Lions team in the season finale to nip L.A. by a half-game in the NFC West.
The Minnesota Vikings were turning into the perennial power of the NFC Central. The Vikings had serious problems with instability at quarterback, but the quality of both lines more than made up for it. Ron Yary was one of the league’s top offensive tackles. Carl Eller was terrific at defensive end.
And no one, anywhere in the NFL, manned the trenches better than Alan Page. The defensive tackle won the MVP award. It would take 15 years for another defensive player–Lawrence Taylor to win the honor, and hasn’t happened since. Minnesota finished 11-3 and outpaced Detroit by 3 ½ games in the Central.
The Baltimore Colts were the defending Super Bowl champs and top talent on defense kept the Colts a threat to repeat. They had an All-Pro player at all three levels of the defense—Bubba Smith up front, Ted Hendricks at linebacker and Rick Volk in the secondary.
Johnny Unitas was still on hand at age 38, but the great Johnny U was only able to play five games. He was replaced with a younger man…the 37-year-old Earl Morrall. The old pros were fading fast, but they put Baltimore back into the playoffs.
But the Colts were facing a rising threat within their own division. Don Shula, Baltimore’s coach in the late 1960s, had jumped ship to the AFC East rival Miami Dolphins. Shula’s team had snagged the wild-card berth in 1970 and they were looking to take the next step in 1971.
Bob Griese had a breakout year at quarterback for the Dolphins, winning All-Pro honors. Miami had their own “Big Three” of All-Pros, including Larry Csonka at running back and the great big-play threat, Paul Warfield, at receiver. Larry Little anchored the offensive line.
Miami ranked in the top four of the NFL both offensively and defensively. They took the early lead on Baltimore in the AFC East. Even though the Colts beat the Dolphins 14-3 in the season’s second-to-last game to keep the division race up for grabs, Miami closed it out in the finale. The Dolphins were AFC East champs. The Colts were the wild-card.
Another compelling race took place in the AFC West. After a down year in 1970, Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs resumed their winning ways behind 36-year-old quarterback Len Dawson. K.C. had one of the game’s best receivers in Otis Taylor, with the great Willie Lanier anchoring the defense from his linebacker spot.
Kansas City was in a tough race with an Oakland Raider team coached by John Madden. The Raiders could score points. They had a four-way combo of Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, Marv Hubbard in the backfield, Raymond Chester at tight end and Fred Biletnikoff at wide receiver. Oakland ranked second behind Dallas in points scored.
But the Raiders, in spite of veteran All-Pro Willie Brown at corner, were a below average defensive team. In one of several key Week 13 matchups, Kansas City beat Oakland 16-14 and that was the difference in the AFC West. At 8-4-2, the Raiders were not going to catch the Colts for the wild-card spot either.
The AFC field was filled out by the Cleveland Browns. With Leroy Kelley at running back, the Browns easily took home a Central Division that had no other teams finish over .500.
It was Christmas Day when the NFL kicked off the postseason. The format of the time did not allow teams to earn seeding position based on record. The matchups were determined by a rotation system. That rotation said 1971 was a year for the NFC East to play at the NFC Central and the AFC East to play at the AFC West. Hence, each conference had its best two division winners play in the first postseason game.
The Cowboys and Vikings, kicked off in Minneapolis. Minnesota’s quarterback problems were too severe to beat an opponent like this. Grant tried two different QBs, each of whom were picked off twice. Dallas won 20-12.
But it was the late afternoon on this 1971 Christmas Day that has lived on through the ages. The Chiefs and Dolphins played an all-time classic in Kansas City. In the second half, Miami scored tying touchdowns when trailing 17-10 and 24-17. The game went overtime…and then to a second overtime. It did not end until the Dolphins’ All-Pro kicker Garo Yepremian won it with a field goal. Miami’s 27-24 win remains the NFL’s longest game.
Sunday’s games started in Cleveland, but even homefield could not disguise that the Browns were not on a par with the AFC’s best. Baltimore got two second-quarter touchdowns from running back Don Nottingham and coasted to a 20-3 win. Later that afternoon in San Francisco, the 49ers won the turnover battle 3-0 over the Redskins and took the football game 24-20.
On the day after New Year’s, the conference championships were settled. And the men up front began to assert themselves for Dallas. The Cowboys outrushed the 49ers 172-61 and a 14-3 win sent Dallas back to the Super Bowl.
The powers of the AFC East played their third game of the season in Miami’s Orange Bowl. It was a changing of the guard moment. The young Dolphin defense completely dominated. Griese needed only attempt eight passes all day, one of them a 75-yard touchdown pass to Warfield. Miami won 21-0.
When the Cowboys and Dolphins came to Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, the oddsmakers were firmly in Dallas’ camp. The Cowboys were a solid six-point favorite. Dallas more than validated the confidence. Another dominant display in the trenches led to a 252-80 edge in rushing yardage. Staubach went 12/19 for 119 yards and steered clear of mistakes. Dallas won easily, 24-3 with Staubach picking up game MVP honors.
Dallas was still a comparatively young franchise, having just been born in 1960. But they had more than paid their dues by the time they finished the climb in 1971.