The 1978 Dallas Cowboys were coming off a Super Bowl title and they made a strong running at a repeat bid, with a second half surge and a run through the NFC playoffs. In the end, the push for two in a row came up just short.
Dallas’ championship of 1977 was built on defense, and the ’78 team continued to be stingy. There were first-team All-Pros in Randy White up front and Cliff Harris at free safety. There were Pro Bowlers in end Harvey Martin, linebacker Thomas Henderson and strong safety Charlie Waters. Collectively, they ranked third in the NFL in points allowed.
Roger Staubach was 36-years-old, but the quarterback was still going strong, submitting a Pro Bowl season with 3,190 yards and 25 touchdown passes. He was surrounded by more Pro Bowl talent at the skill spots, from Tony Dorsett in the backfield to Tony Hill at receiver to Billy Joe DuPree at tight end. It’s no surprise the Cowboy offense was the NFL’s best at lighting up the scoreboard.
Dallas opened the season at home on Monday Night Football. The Baltimore Colts, led by MVP quarterback Bert Jones were in town, but it was never a game. The Colts would collapse this season and it started in Big D in front of the national audience. Staubach was 16/22 for 280 yards and four touchdown passes. Dorsett carried 15 times for 147 yards and also took a 91-yard TD pass from Staubach. The final was 38-0.
Dorsett ran for 111 yards at the lowly New York Giants and defensive back Bennie Barnes intercepted two passes to key a 34-24 win. Dallas then lost its first game the year at the Los Angeles Rams, a consistent playoff team out of the NFC West. Staubach threw four interceptions in the 27-14 loss.
The Cowboys returned to form by beating the St. Louis Cardinals 21-12, with Dorsett rushing for 154 yards and fullback Robert Newhouse getting two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat back a surprisingly stiff challenge from a poor team. Dallas then went to the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football and in an ugly offensive showing, lost 9-5. The Redskins were flying high and would start 6-0. The Cowboys were starting to fall behind in the NFC East.
Staubach was locked in for a home victory over the Giants, going 17/32 for 246 yards and three touchdown passes. The Cowboys went to St. Louis and again the Cardinals—a rival in the NFC East prior to the realignment of 2002—gave the champs a tough challenge. Staubach needed to hook up with Hill twice in the fourth quarter to tie the game before kicker Rafael Septien won it in overtime with a 47-yard field goal, 24-21.
Dallas had their first meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles on October 22. The Eagles were pushing toward their first playoff trip of the Super Bowl era, and their defense was ready to play. The Cowboys were able to survive a tough 14-7 fight. Then a real bump in the road game.
Thursday Night Football was an innovation in 1978 and the first such meeting came when Dallas hosted the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes were a playoff perennial and would be so again this year, but this was an exceptionally mediocre team in Fran Tarkenton’s last year. They didn’t look it in Dallas on this night though. The Cowboys committed four turnovers, lost the battle in the trenches and lost the football game, 21-10.
One week later, Dallas played another future playoff team, the Miami Dolphins, on the road. The Cowboys turned it over five times, fell behind 20-3 and couldn’t dig out of the hole, losing 23-16. Over the last two games, Dallas lost the turnover battle by a combined nine-zip and the record was down to 6-4.
Their backs to the wall, head coach Tom Landry and his team came out with a vengeance against the Green Bay Packers, running over a decent team for 313 rush yards as Dorsett and Newhouse ran wild. The result was a 42-14 road win. Dorsett piled up 152 yards the next week in a 27-7 win over New Orleans.
Some momentum was restored and with the Redskins sliding, the Cowboys were right in the thick of the NFC East race. The two rivals met on Thanksgiving Day with their records at 8-4 and first place on the line. A dominating rushing performance again turned the game Dallas’ way.
As the nation ate turkey, the Cowboys got a huge game from their third running back, Scott Laidlaw, who carried 16 times for 122 yards. Dorsett was not forgotten, going for 72. The defense shut down the good Washington runners, John Riggins and Mike Thomas and the result was a 37-10 Dallas blowout. In spite of the midseason hiccup, Dallas was again in first place.
The Eagles were still giving chase and a road trip to Philly awaited in the season’s penultimate game. Dallas took care of playoff-bound New England 17-10, behind 243 passing yards from Staubach. When the Eagles lost in Minnesota it meant the Cowboys had clinched the division. They also had at least the #2 seed wrapped up.
Dallas still won in Philly, forcing five turnovers and taking a 31-13 win. There was a chance at the 1-seed, but the Rams would need to lose. Perhaps given that, Landry decided not to play Staubach in the season finale at the New York Jets. It didn’t matter—backup Danny White delivered a win and Los Angeles closed out a victory to set the playoff bracket.
The Cowboys drew the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round. The Falcons were in the playoffs for the first time ever, and had won a thrilling wild-card game over the Eagles. Atlanta didn’t flinch at the sight of the defending champs. They led 20-13 and then knocked Staubach out of the game with a concussion. Dallas was on the ropes.
It was the unheard of skill position players, White and Laidlaw, who delivered. Laidlaw established the ground game, while White completed 10/20 passes for 127 yards. The Cowboy defense forced Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski into an 8/23 for 95 yards showing and two second-half touchdowns gave Dallas a 27-20 win.
Now it was on to Los Angeles for a showdown NFC Championship Game. The defenses stayed in control, with a scoreless first half. Dallas got a 7-0 lead in the third quarter and also recovered a Los Angeles fumble inside the red zone. The Cowboys were running the ball—Dorsett finished with 101 yards—while the Rams could not. Dallas was also getting turnovers—they intercepted LA quarterback Pat Haden three times. Eventually that all added up.
Staubach threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and Haden broke his thumb. Vince Ferragamo came in and Dallas picked off the backup two more times. The last one saw Henderson, whose flashy lifestyle and persona gave him the nickname “Hollywood”, take it 68 yards to the house and flip the ball over the goal post to celebrate. The final was 28-0 and Dallas was going back to the Super Bowl.
The game with the Pittsburgh Steelers was a battle to see which franchise would be the first to win three Super Bowls. This one wasn’t meant to be for Dallas. After a back-and-forth first half, the Cowboys were hurt by a key dropped pass in the end zone, a key turnover and a questionable pass interference call. They fell behind 35-17 and though Staubach rallied them to within 35-31, a final onside kick was covered by the Steelers. The repeat bid was over.
Even with the end of the drive for two straight titles, the 1978 Dallas Cowboys were an outstanding team. What’s most surprising is that their time going to Super Bowls was done for a while. They certainly didn’t disappear—they held the #1 seed in the NFC for the 1979 playoffs and made the NFC Championship Game each year from 1980-82. But not until the revival of Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith did Dallas return to the biggest stage in sports.