Tom Landry was a civic icon in Dallas, having been the only head coach the Cowboys had ever known since their inception in 1960. He won two Super Bowls, reached three others and made the franchise a playoff perennial. The 1985 Dallas Cowboys were his last team to reach the postseason.
Dallas was coming off a 1984 season that saw them miss the playoff party for just the second time since 1966. The Washington Redskins had become the new power in the NFC East, with Joe Gibbs’ team having won three straight division titles, reached two Super Bowls and won one.
The opening Monday Night game of the season was Redskins-Cowboys in Texas Stadium and Dallas had to make an early statement. And that’s exactly what they did. Six different players intercepted passes, they pulled away and thumped Washington 44-14. The message that Dallas wasn’t going to disappear was received.
Veterans led the team, starting with 32-year-old defensive tackle Randy White, who was 1st-team All-NFL with 10 ½ sacks. Defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones recorded 13 sacks at the age of 34. Tony Dorsett was now 31-years-old and the great running back had some wear and tear, but still churned out over 1,300 yards. Mike Renfro, at age 30, caught 60 passes for 955 yards.
Quarterback Danny White at age 33 was productive, with over 3,100 yards and a 59% completion rate. But he also made mistakes at a rate you would attribute to a younger quarterback, with a TD-INT ratio of 21/17.
There was also some young talent mixed in with the veteran corps. Jim Jeffcoat bolstered the defensive front and got 12 sacks coming off the edge. Corner Everson Walls intercepted nine passes and made the Pro Bowl. White had two targets who were also Pro Bowlers in their prime, wide receiver Tony Hill and tight end Doug Cosbie.
Dallas came off the Washington win and appeared to still be celebrating when their road game at mediocre Detroit began. The Cowboys dug themselves a 26-0 hole before White nearly brought them back. He went 23/38 for 226 yards, mostly to Cosbie and Hill who caught 11 passes apiece. But they came up short 26-21.
Two workmanlike wins over AFC teams, the Cleveland Browns and Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) followed. The defensive front got four sacks against the Browns, a future playoff team, in a 20-7 win. The Oilers weren’t very good, but it was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter before Dallas finally broke through. Dorsett ran for 159 yards, the Cowboys won the turnover battle five-zip and ultimately took the game 17-10.
Sunday Night football was not the norm in 1985, so the Cowboys-Giants game from the Meadowlands was a rare prime-time treat for fans. The Giants were coming off a playoff year and third-year coach Bill Parcells would have them firmly in the NFC East race throughout this year. The game was worth the stage it was put on.
White and Phil Simms staged an aerial war, and White was up to the task. He went 31/46 for 342 yards, with Renfro and Hill both racking up 100-plus yards receiving. It wouldn’t have been White if he didn’t also throw four interceptions, but Dorsett’s running helped compensate for some of that and Dallas stole a big 30-29 road win.
The winning streak continued in a home game with the mediocre Steelers. White was 25/36 for 269 yards, Dorsett rolled up 113 yards and the final was 27-13. Then a hiccup came at Philadelphia. Four turnovers, and the inability to stop Eagles’ quarterback Ron Jaworski resulted in a 16-14 loss.
Dallas still seemed in a funk when a home game with lowly Atlanta began, falling behind 10-0. But the Cowboys got rolling, Dorsett galloped for a 60-yard touchdown run and they won 24-10. A Monday Night visit to the subpar St. Louis Cardinals saw the roles reversed. This time it was Dallas jumping out to the 10-0 lead, but the failure to run the ball was costly as the Cardinals gradually took over and won 21-10.
A return trip to Washington was up next and with the NFC East a packed race, the game was big. The Cowboy defense came up. They intercepted Joe Theisman three more times, including two by Walls. Jeffcoat had five sacks all by himself and Dallas won 13-7.
The story of the 1985 NFL season was the dominance of the Chicago Bears, and they came to Texas Stadium for a nationally televised late Sunday afternoon game still undefeated. The game was nothing short of a disaster for the Cowboys. They gave up two early defensive touchdowns, turning the ball over five times for the game. In the end, the Bears scored as many points as Dorsett had rush yards. He ran for 44 yards and Chicago won 44-0. Dallas’ humiliation made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Chicago was demolishing everyone and Dallas didn’t waste time licking their wounds. They came back with a 34-17 home win over Philadelphia, as White went 20/38 for 243 yards and three touchdowns, all the while staying away from mistakes.
The Cowboys were 8-4 and tied with the Giants for first place, while the Redskins were a game back at 7-5. Dallas was in great tiebreaker position, already 3-0 against their two rivals.
It was time for the late afternoon Thanksgiving feast in Texas Stadium and a revenge date with St. Louis, an NFC East rival prior to 2002, was on the menu. White was brilliant again, 14/26 for 235 yards. Cosbie was the target on 111 of those yards and Hill caught two touchdowns, including a 53-yard strike when Dallas clung to a 21-17 lead. The final was 35-17. On Sunday, Dallas sat back and watched both New York and Washington lose.
But they gave their good fortune right back in a horrific performance at Cincinnati. Playing a team that would only finish 7-9, the Cowboys gave up 274 yards rushing and were ripped in the air by the combination of Boomer Esiason-to-Cris Collingsworth. In the fourth quarter, the score was a stunning 50-10, before Dallas got two meaningless touchdowns at the end.
You couldn’t dismiss this loss the way the Chicago game could have been. And with the Giants coming to Texas Stadium now tied for first again, the Cowboys had to bounce back. Just like they did after the Bear debacle, Dallas stepped up in a big situation.
They were trailing 14-7 in the second quarter and Simms had the Giants on the move. Jeffcoat then got his hands up on a pass, intercepted it and rumbled 65 yards for the tying touchdown. It was one of three interceptions on the day for the Cowboy defense and it changed the momentum, to say nothing of making things even on the scoreboard. Even with White being knocked out and Gary Hogeboom having to come in, Dallas won 28-21.
The sweep of the Giants & Redskins meant the Cowboys had the NFC East clinched. They were the 3-seed, though there was still the chance to move up to #2 in the final week of the regular season. This wasn’t as big a deal as it would be today when that seed differential means a first-round bye is at stake. The format of the time was three division winners and two wild-cards, so Dallas was assured a week off. But getting to the 2-line would still mean a divisional round game at home.
Dallas needed to win and hope the Los Angeles Rams lost on Monday Night Football, where they were playing a good Los Angeles Raiders team that needed the win for the #1 seed in the AFC. The problem was that the Cowboys were playing the desperate San Francisco 49ers, who were the defending Super Bowl champions, but playing a win-or-go-home game for the last wild-card spot.
White didn’t play, and even though Hogeboom led the Cowboys to a 16-7 halftime lead. But there was no running game and the 49ers dominated the second half in a 31-16 win. Dallas would travel to Los Angeles in two weeks for the divisional playoffs.
The Cowboys had a good track record when it came to playoff visits to L.A. They won NFC Championship Games on the road against the Rams in 1975 and 1978 by scores of 37-7 and 28-0. This one didn’t work out quite as well.
Dallas couldn’t stop the great Los Angeles running back Eric Dickerson. He rolled up a playoff record 248 yards rushing. The game was close at halftime, just 3-0 Rams. But the Cowboys had no running game of their own, they were turning the ball over—six times in all—and Dickerson finally broke them down. He ripped off two long touchdown runs in the second half and the final was 20-0.
It was an overachieving year for the Cowboys, given the age of so many key players and team insiders knew when it was over that new personnel was needed. Unfortunately for Landry, he wasn’t able to find the right combination. He coached three more seasons, but never again made the playoffs. The 1985 Dallas Cowboys were the last hurrah of a coaching legend.