The 1978 NFL season was a seminal moment in the development of league history, so much so that I would make the case that it’s where the league as we understand it today really began. The following changes took place prior to the season…
*The schedule was expanded from 14 games to 16 games
*Two teams were added to the playoffs, moving the field from 8 to 10 and requiring the creation of a “wild-card game” while the three division winners got a week off after the regular season.
*Perhaps most important, new rules were put in place for the first time that limited the amount of contact that could be used against a wide receiver, as the league looked to open up the offenses.
The 16-game schedule, four rounds of playoffs with byes and wide open passing games are accepted facts of life in the NFL today. They all began in 1978.
As the league moved into modernity, the ending of the 1978 season would be defined by its past. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys had each won two Super Bowls at this point, and when they got together in Miami to end this year, it was a fight to be the first to three rings. Pittsburgh won a 35-31 game with fourteen future Hall of Famers on the field and became the NFL’s most decorated franchise of the Super Bowl era.
Pittsburgh and Dallas weren’t the only success stories in the 1978 NFL season. Here’s the rundown on other teams that enjoyed big years….
*The Los Angeles Rams were the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs after a chaotic preseason that saw a coaching change made just prior to the start of the regular season.
*The Houston Oilers drafted the game’s brightest young star in Earl Campbell and made the playoffs for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Campbell ran a close second to Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw in the MVP race.
*The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos won division titles in the AFC. The Patriots came undone with organizational chaos at the end of the season, while the Broncos survived a tough four-team fight in the West.
*The Minnesota Vikings said goodbye to a legend in quarterback Fran Tarkenton, but not before the future Hall of Fame quarterback pushed his team into the playoffs one more time.
*The Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles each made the playoffs for the first time in the Super Bowl era, with the Falcons winning a thrilling wild-card game and then giving Dallas all they could handle in the divisional round.
*And the Miami Dolphins, out of the money in recent years after the early 1970s dominance, made it back to the postseason for head coach Don Shula.
*Of the teams that didn’t make the playoffs, of note were the Washington Redskins, who started out 5-0 under the new head coach/QB combination of Jack Pardee and Joe Theisman. But the rest of the season didn’t go quite as well, as the ‘Skins ended up 8-8.
These were the relevant teams of the 1978 NFL season. Each team has its own game-by-game narrative published individually on TheSportsNotebook.com. The links are below. Read more about how the 1978 season unfolded, as seen through the eyes of its best teams.
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.
As part of The Sports Notebook’s NFL Championship Sunday extravaganza, we’re featuring two years that represent different types of NFL championship history. In 1978, the games weren’t especially competitive, but you had two of the league’s signature teams step up and make the mark. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys were each gunning to be the first franchise to three Super Bowl wins as they got set for Championship Sunday following the ’78 season.
Pittsburgh won consecutive Super Bowls in 1974-75, and won the AFC Central each of the ensuing years before losing in the playoffs (the Central of this era was the Steelers, Houston Oilers—now the Tennessee Titans, the Bengals and the Browns). This was the era of the “Steel Curtain” defense and the Pittsburgh D was the NFL’s best. A tough front four was led by end L.C. Greenwood and tackle Joe Greene.
The linebacking posts were manned by future Hall of Famers in Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Mel Blount and Donnie Shell were in the secondary and also among the league’s best. And we haven’t even gotten to the offense, with Terry Bradshaw at quarterback, Franco Harris running the ball and a dynamic receiving duo of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The Steelers’ offensive line was a tough, physical unit personified by its center and anchor, Mike Webster. A 14-2 season produced a runaway division crown and an easy playoff win over Denver set them up in this game.
If the Steelers were the traditional power, then Houston was the up-and-comer. The Oilers drafted Heisman Trophy running back Earl Campbell and hoped he could do what the previous years’ Heisman winner Tony Dorsett had done for Dallas, and that’s win the Super Bowl his rookie year. There was not tremendous talent around Campbell, but it was manageable, and head coach Bum Phillips, father of today’s Texan coordinator Wade, put it all together. After a 3-3 start, Houston rallied to a 10-6 finish, then decisively beat Miami and New England to reach the AFC Championship Game.
Dallas had won the Super Bowl the prior year, but in this first season of the 16-game schedule (they’d gone 12-2 the year before), the Cowboys took some time to find their rhythm. They were sitting at 6-4 after a couple midseason losses, before righting the ship, winning six straight and getting the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They would play the Los Angeles Rams. Each team had finished 12-4, but the Rams won a Week 3 game in LA because Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw four interceptions in the 27-14 final.
The NFC Championship Game was a contrast in styles. Dallas was the NFL’s most prolific offense, with Staubach, second-year running back Dorsett, and Pro Bowlers in receiver Tony Hill and tight end Billy Joe Dupree. The only skill players not in the Pro Bowl were Drew Pearson, a cagey veteran receiver, and fullback Robert Newhouse, who would be the best the franchise had at the position until current Fox analyst Daryl Johnston came to town in the 1990s.
Los Angeles’ strength was its defense, particularly up front. They had three Pro Bowlers in the front four, with the legendary Jack Youngblood, Larry Brooks and Cody Jones. The only one who didn’t make it was Fred Dryer, and he still enjoyed a Pro Bowl career. Although for myself, as a junkie of the 1980s-early 1990s sitcom Cheers, I’ll always remember Dryer for his portrayal of sleazy broadcaster Dave Richards and the fact he came in second to Ted Danson in the battle for the lead role as Sam Malone.
Coming in second was a problem for the Rams, who’d never been to the Super Bowl, despite consistently winning the NFC West in the 1970s. Still rankling was a 1975 NFC Championship loss to these same Cowboys by a humiliating 37-7 count right here in the LA Coliseum. With first-year head coach Ray Malavasi at the helm, the fan base hoped the near misses of the Chuck Knox era would be a thing of the past.
The schedule for Championship Sunday had Houston-Pittsburgh kicking off at 1 PM EST, with Dallas-Los Angeles going at 5 PM EST. A Steelers-Cowboys game would be a “Three Rings” battle in the Super Bowl, but the prospect of Houston-Dallas had its own unique storylines. Pittsburgh-Los Angeles (a matchup we would ultimately see one year later) could offer a popular team along with the nation’s #2 market. Houston-Los Angeles would be kind of dry for fans, although the networks still would mind having that large media market in LA. In short, there weren’t too many bad options when it came to the Super Bowl matchups.
As far as Championship Sunday went, the only bad option would be if both games turned up as blowouts and that’s what happened. The artificial turf at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium was covered in sleet on gameday and Campbell could never get traction, rushing for only 62 yards, after a year where he’d piled up 1,450 yards and got some MVP votes along with Bradshaw. But before using that as an excuse, we must note that Pittsburgh also held Campbell to under 100 yards in both regular season meetings, where the road team won each game.
And we also have to note that on this day, Campbell could’ve rushed for 200 and it wasn’t going to matter, because his team turned the ball over nine times. The Steelers had five turnovers of their own, but also scored two first quarter touchdowns on the ground. Then Bradshaw hit both Swann and Stallworth for scores in the second quarter. It was 28-3 at halftime and ended 34-5. Pittsburgh punched its ticket to Miami’s Orange Bowl in two weeks.
The Cowboys-Rams game was a defensive battle in the first half, exactly as Los Angeles would have preferred. Even though they had current USC athletic director Pat Haden at quarterback, and Haden was a reliable passer, they couldn’t win a scoring race with the Cowboys. But even though the Rams’ defense had been the statistically superior unit in 1978, Dallas had more playmakers. Up front, Harvey Martin and Randy White had been co-MVPs of the Super Bowl a year earlier, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, whose showboating style drove head coach Tom Landry crazy, was at linebacker and both safeties, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris were Pro Bowlers. Great players swing championship games and that’s what Dallas did in the third quarter.
Waters intercepted successive Haden passes and each one set up a Dallas touchdown. Trailing 14-0, Haden then broke his thumb. Los Angeles drove to the 10-yard line, before a fumble and ensuing touchdown drive the other way all but sealed the game at 21-0. But playing in Los Angeles, we had to hear from Hollywood Henderson didn’t we? With under two minutes left he intercepted a pass and took it 68 yards to the house, doing a finger roll with the ball over the goal post to seal the win. Los Angeles had now lost two championship games at home to Dallas by a combined score of 65-7. The Cowboys would get a chance to repeat.
Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl showdown 35-31, the competitive game that Championship Sunday lacked. But if the day of the conference championships didn’t give us drama, it gave us a display of greatness in consecutive games. And if you want to read about a Championship Sunday that was more dramatic, check out the recap of 1987.