The 1982 NFL season was the strangest in the league’s history. A player’s strike after two games interrupted the season and it didn’t resume until November. When the league picked up on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, there was only time for a nine-game schedule. A decision was made to abolish divisional distinctions, expand the playoffs and just seed each conference 1 thru 8.
The result was a first round of the postseason that had a March Madness feel to it, with four games on both Saturday and Sunday, and jammed into what were then two timeslots (prime-time playoff games were still a ways off into the future).
This blog compilation focuses on the seasons of the league’s six most consequential teams, with a game-by-game narrative of each one. Each article exists individually on TheSportsNotebook.com and has been modestly edited to eliminate obvious redundancies. Playoff games are told in detail from the perspective of the team that won and treated as an epilogue for the team that lost.
You’ll read about the following…
*How the Washington Redskins, in the second year under Joe Gibbs, won the franchise’s first Super Bowl behind the running of big John Riggins.
*The Miami Dolphins made it to a Super Bowl behind a stingy defense, but were held back by offensive shortcomings that led them to draft Dan Marino the following spring.
*The Dallas Cowboys made the NFC Championship Game for a third straight year, but another loss began the gradual descent of the Tom Landry era.
*The New York Jets stepped up and made an AFC Championship Game, with a good defense and some great play from running back Freeman McNeil.
*The Raiders moved to Los Angeles and added two fantastic rookies in Marcus Allen and Howie Long. They rolled to a 1-seed in the AFC before suffering an upset to the Jets.
*The Green Bay Packers made the playoffs for the only time in the nine-year coaching tenure of Bart Starr behind an aggressive passing game led by quarterback Lynn Dickey and talented receivers in James Lofton and John Jefferson.
The 1982 Dallas Cowboys represented the end of a small slice in franchise history and a big slice in another way. It was the third straight year they lost the NFC Championship Game. And though it wasn’t the last time head coach Tom Landry would take a team to the playoffs it was the last time the legend won in the postseason.
Danny White enjoyed a Pro Bowl year at quarterback. He was efficient, with a 63% completion rate that was fourth in the league. He was aggressive, with an 8.4 yards-per-attempt that was second. The only problem was interceptions—he threw twelve in a strike-shortened season that only saw nine games. But in a league more oriented to the downfield game than is the case today, that was something you could live with.
White had plenty of talent around him. Tony Dorsett had another Pro Bowl season at running back, with his 745 yards being second in the league. Tony Hill was a top 10 receiver, catching 35 passes for 526 yards. Doug Cosbie was a solid threat at tight end, 30 catches for 441 yards. And White’s blind side was secure with the presence of Pro Bowl left tackle Pat Donovan. The Dallas offense finished fifth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense was even better, ranking third in points allowed. It started with great talent on the front four. Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Randy White were both 1st-team All-NFL at end and tackle respectively, while Harvey Martin recorded eight sacks at the other end. Linebacker Bob Breunig was a Pro Bowler, as was ballhawk corner Everson Walls who picked off seven passes.
Dallas opened the season at home on the Monday Night stage against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The teams had played in two Super Bowls in 1975 and 1978, the Steelers winning both. But they had missed the playoffs each of the last two years while the Cowboys had gone to a conference championship game.
The Dallas running game had problems from the outset, and Dorsett was held to 30 yards. Even though the Cowboys led 14-13 at the half, the lack of a running attack and four turnovers led to them falling behind 33-14 before a late spurt made the final score a respectable 36-28.
A road trip to a respectable St. Louis Cardinals team was tied 7-7 at the half. This time though, Dorsett was making headway and he gained 98 yards. Hill caught eight balls for over 100 yards while Martin got three sacks. Dallas pulled away 24-7.
The strike hit at this point and play did not resume until the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. When the players came back it was determined that the playoffs would be expanded to eight teams per conference. Divisional distinctions were also abolished and it would simply be the top eight in the NFC & AFC standings that qualified.
Dallas came back at home against Tampa Bay, the team they had eliminated in the divisional playoffs in 1981. In a poorly played game, White was at least efficient—11/16 for 158 yards and no mistakes. It was enough to get a 14-9 win. A more complete victory came over Cleveland on Thanksgiving Day. Dorsett ran for 116 yards. White was 13/22 for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Walls picked off two passes and the Cowboys coasted to a 31-14 win behind a 17-point second quarter surge.
The Washington Redskinshadn’t been in the playoffs since 1976, but were off to a 4-0 start under second-year head coach Joe Gibbs. Dallas went to the nation’s capital and jumped out a 17-0 lead, as they kept Washington’s power running attack to 66 yards. The Redskins cut the lead to 17-10, but Cowboy running back Ron Springs bolted 46 yards for the clinching score in a 24-10 win.
A Monday Night visit at the woeful Houston Oilers produced an easy win. After spotting the Oilers a 7-0 lead on a long touchdown pass, White began carving up the Houston secondary. He went 21/27 for 279 yards, finding ten different receivers and throwing for three touchdowns. The final was 37-7.
At 5-1, Dallas was all but assured of a playoff spot—each conference would have one team make the postseason at 4-5. The Cowboys padded their position with a 21-7 home win over mediocre New Orleans. Dorsett and the Saints’ George Rogers, each former Heisman Trophy winners, went over 100 yards, but the Cowboys had a passing game. White was 14/22 for 222 yards while New Orleans could do nothing through the air. Dallas won 21-7.
The Philadelphia Eagles had been the key NFC East rival the past two years. Dallas lost the 1980 NFC Championship Game in Philly and in 1981, the Cowboys outlasted the Eagles for the division title. This year’s Philadelphia team was on hard times and finished 3-6. But one of their moments came in Texas Stadium the day after Christmas. Dallas allowed a defensive touchdown in the first quarter, coughed up a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter and lost 24-20.
Another loss ended the season on the final Monday Night, but not without one of the most memorable moments in the history of Monday Night Football. Dallas had fallen behind 24-13 in spite of having scored a defensive touchdown on a 60-yard Pick-6 from Dennis Thurman. They were backed up on their own one-yard line.
Dorsett got the football, got into the open field and 99 yards later he was in the end zone. It was the longest touchdown run in the history of the NFL, remains the only run of that distance and quite obviously is a record that can only be tied, never broken.
The Cowboys eventually led 27-24 before losing 31-27. But it didn’t matter. The Redskins had clinched the 1-seed, and at 6-3, Dallas was settled into the 2-spot.
A familiar foe came in for the first round—Tampa Bay for the second straight year. The Cowboys were an eight-point favorite after their 38-0 win the year before and the regular season victory. This one came a little tougher.
Dallas drove into the red zone twice in the first quarter, but each time had to settle for a field goal. They were driving again when White fumbled, the ball popped in the air and Tampa’s Hugh Green grabbed it to go 60 yards for the touchdown. Another White interception set up a Buccaneer field goal. The Cowboy quarterback finally got settled down enough to throw a short TD pass to Springs for a 13-10 halftime lead.
Dorsett was running the ball consistently and finished the game with 110 yards. Another long drive got to the two-yard line but again bogged down with a field goal. The Cowboys were keeping the Buccaneers in the game and Tampa quarterback Doug Williams made it hurt with a 49-yard touchdown pass. Dallas trailed 17-16 heading into the fourth quarter.
Williams was having his own turnover problems though. He finished the day with three interceptions and one of them was a killer—Dallas’ Monty Hunter picked one off on the Tampa 19-yard line and went into the end zone.
White, for his turnover problems, was otherwise throwing the ball well in a microcosm of his season. He finished 27/45 for 312 yards and finished it off with a 10-yard TD pass that sealed the 30-17 win. Drew Pearson, the veteran wideout, caught seven passes for 95 yards.
Green Bay was the 3-seed and came to Dallas for the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The Cowboys were again a solid home favorite, at (-7). Once again, they scored first with a pair of field goals. Although this time kicker Rafael Septien hit from 50 yards and 34 yards, so it wasn’t a case of blowing a touchdown chance down close.
And once again, the road underdog came back with a touchdown. Packer quarterback Lynn Dickey hit Pro Bowl receiver James Lofton a six-yard touchdown pass. Dallas bounced back with a short touchdown run from Timmy Newsome. Dennis Thurman then came up with an interception that he took 39 yards to the house. The Cowboys looked in control with a 20-7 halftime lead.
Dickey was a quarterback similar to White, who threw downfield and made his share of mistakes. He and the Packers kept attacking and they mounted two good drives in the third quarter. Now it was the Cowboy defense’s turn to hold in the red zone. Both drives ended in field goals. Dallas got three points of their own and it was 23-13 at the quarter.
The Cowboys mostly controlled the running game, with Dorsett gaining 99 yards. The final tally shows the Packers with more rush yardage and it’s because of what happened on a reverse to Lofton. The speedy wide receiver took it 71 yards for a touchdown. Green Bay missed a big extra point, but the score was 23-19.
White finished 23/36 for 225 yards and a touchdown, which came with his seven-yard pass to Cosbie. But he made one huge mistake when Dallas got the ball back and in control of the game. White threw a Pick-6 deep in his own end and suddenly it was 30-26.
The Packers go the ball back and it was up to the defense to make a stand. Thurman was the one who delivered—he got his third interception of the day. The Cowboys drove it the distance for the touchdown that finally sealed the 37-26 win.
It hadn’t come easy—Dickey threw for 332 yards, but Thurman’s heroics gave Dallas just enough defense. Hill had a big game receiving, with seven catches for 142 yards. The Cowboys were back in the NFC Championship Game for the third straight year.
And for the third straight year, this was where the Dallas season ended. White was knocked out and backup Gary Hogeboom summoned. Hogeboom threw two interceptions, Dorsett was held to 57 yards, while Redskins’ horse John Riggins rumbled for 140. Washington didn’t turn the ball over the Cowboys lost 31-17.
What no one knew then was that, even though Dallas would be back in the playoffs in 1983, again in 1985 and that Landry would coach through 1988, was that the Green Bay game was his last playoff victory. It was a strong season in 1982, but slowly but surely the sun was starting to set on the Landry Era.