The first three years of the 1980s saw the Dallas Cowboys make three consecutive NFC Championship Games and come up short all three times. No ending was more painful than that suffered by the 1981 Dallas Cowboys, the unfortunate legacy of an excellent team that won a tough NFC East going away.
Dallas was a balanced team, ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The offense was anchored by the left side of the offensive line, with Pro Bowlers in tackle Pat Donovan and guard Herbert Scott.
They cleared the way for 1,600-yard rusher Tony Dorsett, who made 1st-team All-Pro. Ron Springs chipped in 625 yards as a #2 back that a lot of teams would have gladly taken to be their starter.
Danny White was in his second year as the starting quarterback, after replacing the legendary Roger Staubach. White cut his interceptions nearly in half, while maintaining his already strong play elsewhere. He completed an excellent 57 percent of his passes, threw for over 3,000 yards and had a solid 7.9 yards-per-attempt.
The defense was similarly strong up front, with a great player in tackle Randy White, a Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer. Defensive end, Ed “Too Tall” Jones also made the Pro Bowl. The secondary was outstanding, with a Pro Bowl rookie in Everson Walls, who picked off 11 passes. Dennis Thurman was a ballhawk on the other corner, with nine picks of his own. Free safety Michael Downs had seven interceptions and the Cowboys had a reliable veteran presence in strong safety Charlie Waters.
They had a legendary head coach in Tom Landry at the helm, and there was little the 1981 Dallas Cowboys didn’t do extremely well. They came out of the gate strong with a 26-10 at Washington. Dallas broken open a 14-7 game in the second half thanks to a ground attack that piled up over 206 yards. The game was the coaching debut of the Redskins’ Joe Gibbs and while the Cowboys would eventually have their share of problems at Gibbs’ hand, they wouldn’t start today.
Another strong running performance led Dallas past the St. Louis Cardinals, with Dorsett gaining 129 yards in a 30-17 win. The great back then went for 162 yards on Monday Night in New England, as Dallas won 35-21. In all three of their victories, the Cowboys had broken games open after halftime, a fruit of consistently winning the ground war by a substantial margin.
Dallas faced the New York Giants at home. White’s efficiency made the difference in a tough defensive game. He was 14/17 for 204 yards and no interceptions in the 18-10. The early season schedule hadn’t been tough for the Cowboys–of the first four opponents only the Giants finished with a winning record, and that was at 9-7–but undefeated was still undefeated and the calendar was flipping into October.
The winning streak ended in St. Louis, as Dallas was unable to gain significant edges anywhere, the game stayed close and the Cardinals won 20-17 on a late field goal. It wasn’t the best place on the schedule for a loss because it came just before a big game in San Francisco. The 49ers were off to a good start, the first time they were looking like a contender in the era of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana and anxious to use this nationally televised late Sunday afternoon game to demonstrate they belonged in the league’s elite.
San Francisco came ready to play and Dallas did not. The Cowboys only rushed for 83 yards, while being carved up by Montana. They trailed 21-0 by the end of the first quarter and suffered a stunning 45-14 rout. And as events unfolded, you could credibly argue that this October 11 game was the one that cost Dallas a Super Bowl title.
Dorsett came back strong the next week at home against the Los Angeles Rams, a team that had been a postseason foil for the Cowboys in the 1970s and then again in 1980. But the Rams were fading to a 6-10 year and Dorsett rolled for 159 yards in a 29-17 win.
Another late Sunday afternoon kick was up against the Miami Dolphins, who were on their way to the AFC East title. The Cowboys trailed 27-14 in the fourth quarter when White took over. He found tight end Doug Cosbie on a 5-yard touchdown pass then hit Springs on a 32-yard scoring pass to win it 28-27. White went 22/32 for 354 yards, and on the defensive side, Thurman and Walls had two interceptions apiece in a clutch win.
The comeback win, moving the Cowboys to 6-2, was even more important, because a road date in Philadelphia was next. The Eagles were leading the NFC East at 7-1 and were also the team that knocked Dallas out of the previous year’s NFC Championship Game. What’s more, they had simply outmuscled the Cowboys in that game, dominating the ground game on both sides of the ball. Dallas needed this win for the standings and they needed to show that they wouldn’t be pushed over again.
It was another game of facing a double-digit deficit in the second half against a good team. Dallas trailed 14-3, but they were stopping the run this time, holding Philly’s Wilbert Montgomery to 65 yards. White again rallied the troops and again it started with a touchdown pass to Cosbie. This rally ended with a 9-yard touchdown run from Dorsett in a big 17-14 win.
The run of tough games continued with a Monday Night visit from playoff-bound Buffalo. Trailing 14-7 at the half, White continued to build his resume of second-half rallies. He found Dorsett, who turned one pass into a 73-yard touchdown play. Then White hit wide receiver Tony Hill on a 37-yard TD. Dorsett would rush for 117 yards, while the Dallas defense shut down a good Buffalo running back in Joe Cribbs. The Cowboys won 27-14.
Maybe what Dallas needed was to dig themselves an early hole, because doing it the other way didn’t work. In a road trip to Detroit, White opened with two touchdown passes to Drew Pearson and built a 17-0 lead. But this time, the rally came from the other side. Dorsett couldn’t get anything going, while Detroit’s great Billy Sims ran for 119 yards, caught an 81-yard touchdown pass and helped the Lions steal a 27-24 win.
A home date with Washington was next, and the Redskins were gaining steam in the second half of the season. This game was tied 10-10 in the third quarter, but the Cowboys’ rule was simple–if they were running the football, they would eventually break through.
Dorsett gained 115 yards in this game, while Springs added 85. And the breakthrough came with a touchdown pass to Cosbie, who didn’t catch a lot of passes, but seemed to make a disproportionate amount of clutch touchdown receptions. Dallas won this game 24-10.
On Thanksgiving Day, national viewers got to see two of the best backs in football, with Dorsett and Chicago’s Walter Payton. Payton’s team wasn’t as good, but he was the better back on this day, rushing for 179 yards and helping the Bears hold a 9-3 lead into the fourth quarter. But a missed extra point by Chicago loomed large and Dallas made them pay for the mistake, as Springs eventually ran in for the winning touchdown in the 10-9 final.
A few days later, on Monday Night, Philadelphia dropped a tough game in Miami. The result was that Dallas, at 10-3, was in sole possession of first place in the NFC East, with a one-game lead. A road trip to the terrible Baltimore Colts went as expected. White was not able to play, but against the worst defense in the NFL, all backup quarterback Glenn Carano needed to do was hand the football off. The team rushed for 354 yards, with Dorsett’s 175 leading the way in a 37-13 rout.
As Dallas was winning in Baltimore, they got good news from an hour down the road in Washington D.C., where the Eagles were playing the Redskins. Philadelphia lost another tough game. The Cowboys had a two-game lead with two to play. The NFC East wasn’t in the books yet–the Eagles could potentially win a tiebreaker, and the rivals would go head-to-head in their next game. But Dallas was closing in.
The Cowboys followed their formula in the December 13 game with Philly. They dug themselves a little hole, trailing 10-0 in the second quarter. They ran the football and stopped the run, as Dorsett outrushed Montgomery 101-67. And eventually that broke the opponent. Thurman picked off Philly quarterback Ron Jaworski three times and Walls added another pick. White played mistake-free football and threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Butch Johnson for good measure. The 21-10 win clinched the NFC East.
Dallas had at least the 2-seed and a home game in the divisional round secure, and the 1-seed was still in play. The Cowboys and 49ers were each 12-3, but of course San Francisco had the tiebreaker. Dallas would go to New York to face the Giants on the final Saturday of the season where they needed to win and then hope.
The winds were gusting at 20 mph, and while Dallas had something to play for, the Giants were fighting for survival, as they sought their first playoff berth of the Super Bowl era, going back to 1966. Dorsett and Springs were both shut down, and Dorsett fumbled with the Cowboys trying to protect a 10-7 lead late in the game. The Giants tied it in forced overtime. Dorsett fumbled again in OT, though he got a reprieve when the field goal was missed. But White then threw an interception and finally, Dallas lost, 13-10. They would go into the NFC playoffs as the 2-seed.
Dallas faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had won the NFC Central with a mediocre 9-7 record. The game was scheduled early Saturday afternoon, the first game of second round action and the Cowboys were a solid (-8) favorite, the biggest spread of divisional weekend.
The game was scoreless through the first quarter, but Thurman made the first big play, intercepting Tampa quarterback Doug Williams. It set up a White-to-Hill 9-yard touchdown pass, and Dallas eventually took a 10-0 lead into halftime.
Dallas’ running game and secondary took the game over the second half. They won the rushing battle 212-74 and four different running backs, including Dorsett and Springs ran for touchdowns in the second half. Two of the scores were set up by interceptions, as the Cowboys’ picked off Williams four times on the day. Dallas pulled away to a 38-0 rout.
San Francisco eliminated the Giants and the showdown for the NFC Championship was set. The Cowboys-49ers game would produce one of the epic finishes in NFL history. Dallas held on to a 27-21 lead late in the game and had San Francisco pinned on their own 11-yard line with 4:54 left. The 49ers drove it down to the 6-yard line. Montana rolled right, couldn’t find anyone and tried to throw the ball out of the end zone. Wide receiver Dwight Clark skied and caught the pass with his fingertips for the touchdown.
That’s the standard recollection of this game and quite accurate, but Cowboy fans remember all too well that the story didn’t end there. White got the ball back and promptly hit Pearson on pass over the middle. The Dallas receiver looked ready to pull away, but he was barely pulled back by his jersey. Today, the play probably gets a flag for a horsecollar tackle and puts the Cowboys on the edge of field goal range.
As it was, they still had time, but White was sacked and fumbled on the next play. San Francisco recovered and that was the game. The 49ers went on and beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.
The 1981 Dallas Cowboys were an outstanding team, but there’s a lot of what-ifs. What if they hadn’t no-showed the regular season game in San Francisco and earned homefield advantage for the playoffs? That leads into all the what-ifs for the conference championship game itself.
The Cowboys would make it back to the NFC Championship Game in 1982, but lose again, this time to the Redskins. The proud Dallas franchise had seen its last Super Bowl under Tom Landry and wouldn’t return until ten years later with Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.