The 1980 Dallas Cowboys represented a new era in franchise history. Legendary quarterback Roger Staubach retired after the 1979 season and Danny White took over. The long-time understudy proved he was more than capable of being the leading man, and even though White didn’t get the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl, they remained in the NFL elite.
Dallas was synonymous with winning and with playoff football in those days under head coach Tom Landry. They were just two years removed from back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, including a 1977 championship. The 1980 team kept the winning going, and even without Staubach, they did it on the strength of the most potent offense in the league.
The left side of the offensive line, Pat Donovan and Herbert Scott were each in the Pro Bowl and they lead the way for Tony Dorsett to gain nearly 1,200 yards on the ground. Tony Hill was the top receiver, going over 1,000 yards.
White threw for nearly 3,300 yards, with a 28/25 TD-INT ratio—while that interception total was high, even given the standards of the era, it wasn’t unacceptable, the way it would be today.
Overseeing the offense was coordinator Dan Reeves, soon to be John Elway’s mentor in Denver. This Cowboy offense was truly outstanding work—they’d had other units that were more talented, to say nothing of the quarterback change, but still scored more points than anyone else in the NFL.
It was enough to cover for a defense that was still pretty good—ranking 13th in points allowed—but definitely on the decline from its halcyon days of 1977. Dallas had Pro Bowlers at defensive tackle, in Randy White, and middle linebacker, with Bob Breunig, but age was catching up at other spots. Most notably with defensive end Harvey Martin and strong safety Charlie Waters.
The 1979 regular season had ended with Dallas beating the Washington Redskins in come-from-behind fashion to both win the NFC East and knock the Redskins out of the playoffs. The league put the two archrivals on the Monday Night stage to open the season. The ‘Skins had a tough year in front of them and it started on this night. The Cowboys came into RFK, and the combo of Dorsett, Ron Springs and James Jones ran for 177 yards in a 17-3 win.
A second straight road trip to Denver didn’t go quite as well, with an early 17-0 deficit and a 41-20 defeat. Dallas came home to face Tampa Bay. Though the Bucs would finish the season 5-10-1, from the perspective of Week 3, they were still the team who had reached the NFC Championship Game in 1979. Dallas again fell behind, this time 17-7, and fans couldn’t be blamed for wondering if this whole Danny White thing was going to work out.
White would turn it around though, hitting Billy Joe Dupree on a pair of short touchdown passes, and completing 24/33 passes for 244 yards. Dorsett ran for over 100 yards and the Cowboys won 28-17. White continued to be sharp the next two weeks against bad opponents. He was 16/20 for 217 yards in a 28-7 road win over Green Bay, and then went over the top for two touchdown passes against the Giants—46 yards to Hill and 29 to Butch Johnson—to lead an easy 24-3 home win.
Dallas hosted the San Francisco 49ers on October 12. One year later, this two teams would be the class of the NFC and play one of the great conference championship games of all time. The 49ers weren’t there yet, as the young Joe Montana continued to take some lumps in the learning process. He and his team took a lot of lumps in this game.
White threw for 239 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Dorsett and Springs led a rushing attack than ran for 234 yards. And in the most mind-boggling stat of all, Dallas forced ten turnovers while committing none of their own. The final score? How about 59-14.
The principal rival in the NFC East this year was the Philadelphia Eagles, who had made the playoffs as a wild card each of the previous two years. The Eagles were playing well again in 1980 and had enough respect to be a three-point favorite over the Cowboys when the teams played an early Sunday afternoon game in Philly. The Eagles showed that respect was earned, shutting down the Cowboys, intercepting White three times and beating the 17-10.
Sunday Night games were a rarity at this time, and the October 26 prime-time game was a marquee matchup. Dallas was going to host the San Diego Chargers, whose passing offense was considered the most explosive in the NFL. The Chargers also had an offensive coordinator who would become a nemesis of the Cowboys, that being Joe Gibbs—one year away from getting the head coaching job in Washington.
Dallas fell behind 17-7, but the defense was again forcing turnovers, collecting seven in all. White threw a touchdown pass to Johnson to get the Cowboys back into the game and the rushing attack got rolling, producing 198 yards in all. Dallas rattled off four unanswered touchdowns in the second half and won 42-31.
The St. Louis Cardinals were a divisional foe at this time, joining the NFC East’s four current teams in the alignment that existed prior to 2002. The Cardinals weren’t very good, but they led 17-13 in the fourth quarter and were driving, when Dallas defensive back Dennis Thurman intercepted a pass and took it 78 yards the other way. Dallas again fell behind, 24-20, before White threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Hill to survive the road trip.
But another shaky performance on the road against a bad NFC East team the next week had a different ending. White regressed badly in the Meadowlands, throwing five interceptions against the Giants. It negated a brilliant 183-yard outing from Dorsett and Dallas lost in overtime, 38-35, to the worst team in the NFC East. They were now 7-3 and two games back of the high-flying Eagles.
Dallas was in the midst of a run of divisional games against shaky opponents, none of whom would win more than six games in 1980. St. Louis made the return trip to the Big D and the Cowboys continued to play down to the competition.
They dug themselves a 14-0 hole before turning it into a 31-21 win. Dorsett ran for 122 yards, and Hill caught seven passes for 126 yards. Then they trailed Washington at home 10-7, a game the Cowboys were a (-12) home favorite. Linebacker Larry Cole pulled this one out, with a 43-yard interception return to secure the 14-10 win.
After four straight mediocre performances, the team’s traditional Thanksgiving Day feast was what they needed. Dallas stomped lowly Seattle 51-17 and by the end of the weekend they had pulled back to within a game of Philadelphia in the NFC East.
A big game at Oakland was next. The Raiders were in the midst of a tight race for the playoffs themselves, and would ultimately win the Super Bowl. It made Dallas’ performance even more impressive—Dorsett ground out 97 yards, and the defense prevented Oakland from getting a running game going. It was the difference in a physical 19-13 win. When Philadelphia lost a big game at home against Atlanta, the Cowboys and Eagles were tied for first at 11-3.
Dallas and Philadelphia were set to meet in the season finale, but before that, the Cowboys had to get through a Monday Night game in Los Angeles. The Rams had eliminated the Cowboys from the playoffs in 1979 and LA needed this game to make it back this year. One team played desperate, and one team looked like it had somewhere else to be. Dallas was completely manhandled, giving up 242 yards on the ground and trailed 38-0 after three quarters before scoring two meaningless touchdowns.
The loss was consequential. Instead of a clean head-to-head game with Philadelphia for the division title, the Cowboys only path to first place was to win a tiebreaker on net points. And to do that they would have to win the finale by 25 points.
Dallas actually got in position to make it happen. White threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers and in the fourth quarter, the lead was 35-10. Now they just had to hang on. It was a surreal setting, a blowout game being contested as though it were a nailbiter. The Eagles drove for a touchdown and tacked on 10 more points. The Cowboys’ 35-27 win wasn’t enough, though the victory did ensure homefield advantage in the wild-card game.
A rematch with the Rams was up, and it’s hard to imagine what more motivation the Cowboys could want—this was the team that ended Staubach’s career a year earlier and was two weeks removed from inflicting a humiliating defeat.
The Cowboys got an early field goal, but the Rams answered with a touchdown run by Jewerl Thomas. A missed extra point kept the score 6-4. Another Septien field goal tied the game, but both Dallas drives had stalled at the 11-yard line. Meanwhile the Rams scored another touchdown to lead 13-6. A third Cowboy drive inside the red zone finally produced a touchdown, as Dorsett rolled in from twelve yards out. The game was tied at halftime.
If nothing else, after being pounded in the trenches two weeks earlier, Dallas had put on its big-boy pants for this one. Dorsett was rolling up the yardage and so was the rest of the team. On a day when both White and Ram quarterback Vince Ferragamo were erratic—three interceptions each—the running game was the difference.
Dallas ran for 338 yards, 160 from Dorsett and they pulled away in the second half. The final was 34-13 and it earned the Cowboys a visit to top-seeded Atlanta. Dallas was a 2 ½ point underdog the following week.
It was the final game of the divisional round weekend and Philadelphia had already won at home. It looked for much of the game like Atlanta would as well. The Cowboys allowed a long touchdown pass to Steve Bartkowski early and trailed 10-0 in the first quarter. A field goal and short White touchdown pass got them back in the game, but the Cowboys were still behind 17-10 at half, and they trailed 27-17 into the fourth quarter.
White found veteran receiver Drew Pearson for a touchdown pass to cut the lead to three points. The Cowboy defense came up with a stop, and they had one more chance to win. This was the setting Staubach always excelled in—breaking someone’s heart. And White showed he wasn’t bad at it either.
The quarterback finished the day 25/39 for 322 yards and with the money on the table, he led a 70-yard touchdown drive that ended with another touchdown pass to Pearson with 47 seconds left. Dallas missed a key PAT, but it proved not to matter. They had pulled out an improbable 30-27 win.
Danny White’s run ended up short of the Super Bowl the next week in Philadelphia. It was (-3) degrees with the wind chill and neither team was able to throw the ball. But the Cowboys couldn’t get the running game going, while the Eagles could. Dorsett was held to 41 yards while counterpart Wilbert Montgomery went off for 194. A game that was tied 7-7 at halftime ended up as a 20-7 loss that didn’t feel that close in the second half.
It was the start of a new era in Dallas, for both better and worse. White’s play showed the team would continue to win and advance in the playoffs. 1980 was the first of three straight years to the NFC Championship Game. But a franchise that defined itself by the Super Bowl would also settle into a pattern of coming up one game short. Not until Troy Aikman was the Cowboy quarterback in 1992 would the team make it back to the biggest game.