The 1986 Dallas Cowboys marked the beginning of the end of the Tom Landry era. After a strong start, they were a contender for a second straight NFC East title and a Super Bowl. By season’s end they were sub-.500 and would never contend again in the Landry era.
Dallas was trying to get younger. Tony Dorsett, the great running back was now 32-years-old and their big play receiver Tony Hill was 30. Both had decent years—Dorsett rushed for 748 yards and Hill had 770 receiving yards, but they were a far cry from their once-explosive selves. Former Pro Bowl tight end Doug Cosbie dipped to 28 catches with 312 yards.
So the Cowboys added Herschel Walker from the now-defunct United States Football League to go with Dorsett in the backfield. Walker ran for 737 yards and was also the team’s leading receiver with 76 catches for 837 yards. Dallas used its first-round draft pick on UCLA wide receiver Mike Sherrard who caught 41 passes for 744 yards.
The quarterback position was in flux. Danny White, the 34-year-old veteran started six games and played well. He completed 62% of his passes and his 7.6 yards-per-attempt was solid. White had eliminated the mistakes of his younger days and has a TD/INT ratio of 12-5. But an injury put the job in the hands of 24-year-old Steve Pelleur for much of the year.
Pelleur’s 57% completion rate and 7.2 yards-per-attempt were good enough, given the era. But the 8-17 TD/INT ratio left a lot to be desired. The Dallas offense ended the season ranked 14th in the NFL in points scored.
The biggest problem was that the Cowboys lacked talent on the meat-and-potatoes spots in the offensive line and defense. There were no Pro Bowlers in either spot and the defense was where the age factor really stood out.
Three defensive lineman—Too Tall Jones, John Dutton and Randy White were on the wrong side of 30. They were all still respectable players and all of them—particularly White, a future Hall of Famer—had been great players in their day. But that day was past.
Dallas did get a boost from 25-year-old defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, who recorded and the secondary tandem of free safety Michael Downs and corner Ron Fellows, who each intercepted five passes. The Cowboy defense ended the season ranked 18th in the NFL.
The season started on Monday Night Football and the New York Giants were in town. After a scoreless first quarter, the running backs got rolling. Dorsett caught a 36-yard touchdown pass and Walker went over from a yard out and a 14-0 lead. But the Giants, off two straight playoff seasons and looking for a breakout year, took leads of 21-17 and 28-24.
White had the last word—he completed 23/39 passes for 279 yards and no interceptions. Hill caught five balls and went over 100 yards. Walker finished the deal with a 10-yard touchdown run that won the game 31-28.
Dorsett was great at lowly Detroit, going for 117 yards in an easy 31-7 win. The passing game was back and humming at home against mediocre Atlanta. White went 23/30 for 280 yards and four touchdowns, including a 22-yard strike to Sherrard that put the Cowboys up 35-27 in the fourth quarter. But three turnovers caught up to Dallas and they eventually coughed it up, losing 37-35.
The defense owed the team a good game and they provided it at the St. Louis Cardinals, picking off Neil Lomax four times, including a Pick-6 from Fellows. Walker caught five passes for 82 yards in the easy 31-7 win.
Dallas went to Denver for a high-profile game against John Elway and a Bronco team that would eventually make the Super Bowl. White’s body was starting to give and Pelleur was forced into action. He got no help, with the running game only producing 41 yards. He didn’t help himself, throwing three interceptions. The Cowboys dug themselves a 22-0 hole and lost 29-14.
The schedule was tough in the early going—the Giants, Broncos and Washington Redskins constituted most of the league’s elite and when Washington came to Texas Stadium on October 12 it marked the third game against the trio in six weeks. The Cowboys were ready and played their best game of the season.
It started on defense, with the potent Redskin ground attack held to 71 yards. Dallas also got four sacks. Pelleur was outstanding, going 19/30 for 323 yards, with Walker being the prime target—his six catches produced 155 yards. Dallas led 16-0 at the half and it could have been worse, with one drive stalling inside the five-yard line. The final was 30-6.
The Cowboys had taken out their two top NFC East rivals at home and they continued the march through divisional games by winning at Philadelphia and beating St. Louis at home (the Cardinals were an NFC East time prior to 2002).
The Pelleur-to-Walker combination bailed Dallas out in Philly, as the two combined eight times for 62 yards and the Cowboys overcame some poor rush defense to win 17-14. White returned for the Cardinal game and threw second-quarter touchdown passes to Sherrard and Hill to open both the game and the offense up. Walker sandwiched a 19-yard touchdown run in between and the rout was on to the tune of a 37-6 final.
Dallas was 6-2 and primed for a trip to the Meadowlands. The Giants were also 6-2. Oddsmakers saw the teams as essentially even, spotting New York as a three-point favorite based on homefield. This would prove to be a seminal game in the history of both franchises.
White got the start and early in the game he broke his hand. His season was over. Pelleur came in and played very well against a great defense, going 28/38 for 399 yards. Walker carried 26 times for 120 yards. But he was sacked five times and on three times scoring drives for the Cowboys were stopped by missed field goals from reliable veteran Rafael Septien.
Meanwhile, the Giants ran for 199 yards of their own and pulled out a 17-14 win. New York never lost again and won the first of what would be two Super Bowl titles in a five-year span. For Dallas, the collapse had begun.
Dallas hosted the Los Angeles Raiders, another power of the early 1980s that was set for a late collapse. But the Raiders would keep their hopes alive a little longer. In a sloppy game in the late afternoon at Texas Stadium, Pelleur threw five interceptions in a 17-13 loss. The Cowboys responded with a 24-21 win at a poor San Diego team, although even here they were forced to rally from 21-10 down.
With the record at 7-4, there was still every chance to stay in the playoff race when Dallas went to Washington for a late afternoon game at old RFK Stadium. The Redskins were tied with the Giants for first place and again, the oddsmakers still liked Dallas—the fact they were only a three-point road dog indicates the Cowboys and Redskins were seen as even on a neutral field. The game would prove how mistaken that assessment was. Dallas was in a 34-0 hole by halftime and lost 41-14.
There was still hope for the last wild-card spot. Dallas only trailed San Francisco by a half-game. But the traditional Thanksgiving Day game didn’t provide the Cowboys any kind of kickstart to the stretch drive. Even though Dorsett ran for an early touchdown against a good Seattle team, Dallas was outrushed 201-127, trailed by seventeen points at the half and lost 31-14.
The 49ers lost on Sunday, so there was still hope in Big D. But it was illusory. Dallas went to NFC West-leading Los Angeles and got crushed in the trenches. Pelleur was sacked five times, the Cowboys only generated 84 rush yards and they were run over by the great Eric Dickerson. The final was 29-10.
Any glimmer of hope was officially gone by the end of the next week with a terrible home loss to the Eagles. Walker did his best to keep his team breathing, taking an 84-yard touchdown pass from Pelleur and running for 120 yards. But the defense gave up a late touchdown pass in a 23-21 loss.
Dallas was now under .500. They would fail to post a winning season for the first since 1965. One game later they finished the collapse in a 24-10 loss to one more of the league’s elite, the Chicago Bears. Landry gave Reggie Collier a start at quarterback and he was sacked seven times. Dallas was a losing team for the first time since ’64.
And it wouldn’t be the last time either. They would struggle to a mediocre losing season again in 1987 and by 1988 they would collapse to 3-13. Jerry Jones bought the franchise following that season, dismissed Landry and brought in Jimmy Johnson. The good times were over for Tom Landry in Big D as of the second half of the 1986 season.