Roger Staubach came to the Dallas Cowboys in 1969 after winning a Heisman Trophy at Navy and then serving five years of a military commitment. Staubach led the Cowboys to four Super Bowls and won two of them. The 1979 Dallas Cowboys were the last season in this storybook career.
Staubach was 37-years-old in 1979, but there was no slippage in his game. He threw for over 3,500 yards, posted a TD/INT ratio of 27-11 and made the Pro Bowl. Other Pro Bowlers included wide receiver Tony Hill and the left side of the offensive line, Pat Donovan and Herbert Scott.
The Cowboy attack got further support from explosive 25-year-old running back Tony Dorsett and wide receiver Drew Pearson, each of whom were 1,000-yard players, even if they didn’t make the Pro Bowl. Dallas scored the fifth-most points in the NFL in 1979.
Defensively, the Cowboys were starting to slip. When they won the Super Bowl in 1977, the defense had been far and away the best in the game. Dallas’ defense was still very good in 1978 when they reached the Super Bowl before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year, the defense was decent, but at 12th in the league, it wasn’t a dominant force anymore.
There were still good individual players, starting with 1st-team All-Pro Randy White on the defensive line, along with fellow Pro Bowlers Harvey Martin at defensive end, linebacker Bob Breunig and free safety Cliff Harris.
But the flaws in this unit became quickly exposed at the St. Louis Cardinals to start the season. Dallas gave up 237 yards rushing and needed Staubach to throw for 269 yards and lead a drive to beat a bad team with a late field goal, 22-21.
Dallas then went to San Francisco, where the 49ers won just two games in the first year of Bill Walsh’s rebuilding project. Dorsett couldn’t get the running game going, and Staubach again had to carry the offense. He threw for 259 yards and a pair of second-half touchdown passes in an unimpressive 21-13 win.
A late Sunday afternoon home game with the playoff-bound Chicago Bears was up next. The running game got rolling, as Dorsett waged battle with another future Hall of Famer, Chicago’s Walter Payton, each going over 100 yards. Staubach again was the difference-maker late. He threw three touchdown passes and the last one was a 22-yarder to Hill in the fourth quarter to win it, 24-20.
Dallas was still not playing to expectations and that could be measured by their performance against the Las Vegas spread. If you were betting the Cowboys and giving the points, you’d lost all three bets. That turned into an actual on-field loss the next Monday Night in Cleveland. The Browns were a decent team, growing into a contender and the Cowboys played poorly in a 26-7 loss, turning it over five times.
The winning ways returned the next at home with the lowly Cincinnati Bengals and the first pointspread cover finally came too. Dorsett ran for 119 yards and Dallas covered a (-10) line in a 38-13 win. The win started a strong stretch for Dorsett. He ran for 145 yards in a 36-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings, then rolled for 103 more in a 30-6 Sunday night blowout of the Los Angeles Rams. Dorsett churned for 111 yards as Dallas beat St. Louis—an NFC East team prior to 2002—22-13.
Everyone in the NFL was ready for Dallas’ October 28 visit to Pittsburgh. Not only was it a Super Bowl rematch of the previous year, but the teams had also played in the Super Bowl following 1975 and were without question seen as the best two teams in the NFL. Even though Dorsett and Staubach were both shut down in a 14-3 loss to the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense, there didn’t seem a lot of reason for alarm.
But Dallas turned in a shaky performance against a subpar team in the New York Giants. They trailed 14-6 on the road in the fourth quarter before Staubach first hit Pearson on a 32-yard touchdown pass and then led a drive for a winning field goal. The Cowboys were 8-2, but not looking good. And it caught up to them the next three weeks.
The Philadelphia Eagles were on the rise in the NFC East, having made the playoffs in 1978 and challenging for the division title this year. They came to Big D on a Monday Night and jumped to a 24-7 lead. Staubach did what he does best and rallied the troops. It started with a 75-yard strike to Hill and was followed with a 2-yard scoring pass to tight end Billy Joe Dupree. But the Cowboys lost three fumbles, the Eagles made no mistakes and the visitors pulled back away for a 31-21 win.
Another NFC East challenge, the Washington Redskins, were up next. Staubach played horribly, throwing three interceptions and the team lost two more fumbles. Dallas trailed 24-6 after three quarters and lost 34-20.
The losing streak against up-and-coming hopefuls continued when the Houston Oilers arrived to play the Thanksgiving Day game. The Oilers had reached the AFC Championship Game the year before and had the league’s best running back. Earl Campbell would win the MVP award in 1979 and Houston was hungry to knock off their more heralded in-state rival.
Staubach threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Pearson to get the scoring going in the first quarter. Campbell countered by rumbling 61 yards to tie the game. Dorsett would be quiet with 54 yards, while Campbell made a loud statement with 195 yards. Dallas turned it over three times, Houston did not make mistakes. And the Cowboy secondary gave up a fourth-quarter touchdown pass that was the killer blow in a 30-24 loss.
Dallas was now in a three-way dogfight for the NFC East title. The Cowboys and Redskins were each 8-5, giving chase to the 9-4 Eagles. There would be two wild-card spots available, and the Bears were also in the mix at 7-6.
Staubach answered the bell when the Giants came to Dallas the next week, throwing three touchdown passes to Pearson in an easy 27-7 win. Dallas then went to Philadelphia for the season’s penultimate game. It was a windy Saturday afternoon and Dorsett was not able to run. But the Cowboys pieced together a running game through the work of rookie running back Ron Springs and fullback Robert Newhouse. They fought out a 24-17 win behind 185 rush yards as a team.
The NFC East was now a three-way tie at 10-5, and the Bears were giving chase at 10-6. The way the tiebreakers fell, the division title was simple—Dallas’ home game with Washington was for first place. Each team had tiebreakers on Philadelphia. The Cowboys’ victory over the Bears in September had at least ensured them a wild-card spot.
I’m a partisan Redskins fan and the events of December 16, 1979 remain among the most painful in my sports existence, so there’s only so much I can do in giving voice to them here. Dallas trailed 17-0 in the first half and 34-21 in the fourth quarter. I can say this—it was one of the many great performances of Staubach’s career. He led a pair of late drives for touchdowns and stole a 35-34 win. The Cowboys were division champs. The Eagles and Bears were wild-cards. The Redskins were out (by losing a divisional game they slipped behind the Eagles in the tiebreakers).
1979 was a very balanced year in the NFC, and Dallas’ 11-5 record was good enough to make them a #1 seed. The opponent in the divisional round was the Los Angeles Rams. While the Rams had been a consistent contender for most of the 1970s, this 9-7 team was clearly the weakest of their playoff teams—which Dallas had no trouble dispatching in 1975 and 1978.
Furthermore, the #2 seed in the NFC was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Bucs were also 11-5 and had Doug Williams at quarterback, they still weren’t far removed from being an expansion team. Everything was all set up for Dallas to return to the Super Bowl in Staubach’s final year and get another crack at beating the Steelers.
That’s what makes the ending so surprising. Staubach did not play well against Los Angeles, going 12/28 for 124 yards. He still rallied his team, turning a 14-5 deficit into a 19-14 lead late in the game. Then a 50-yard touchdown play off a tipped pass gave the Rams a 21-19 upset. Dallas had lost as a (-8.5) home favorite.
Staubach was offered a two-year contract by the Cowboys, but decided to retire. He had suffered several concussions in his career and had warned by doctors that the next one could be life-altering. He wisely decided to preserve what has been a bright career as a businessman who remains enormously popular in the Dallas area. Even with the tough loss to end it, the 1979 Dallas Cowboys remain a testament to his comeback skills and resourcefulness.