From 1966 through 1983, the Cowboy franchise, led by head coach Tom Landry, was the standard of consistent excellence. They made the playoffs every year but one in that string. The 1974 Dallas Cowboys season was the odd one out—and even that team would have qualified for postseason play under the standards that came into existence just four years later.
Roger Staubach had a down year, at least by the Hall of Fame standards the quarterback would set throughout his career. Staubach’s 7.1 yards-per-attempt was good enough, ranking ninth among starting QBs. But his 53% completion rate was 14th, and his 4.2 interception rate was unusually high for him, ranking 12th.
All decline is relative though, and the Dallas offense was still a good one. Drew Pearson was an emerging star at wide receiver, and the 23-year-old made All-Pro with 62 catches for over 1,000 yards. Golden Richards was a big-play threat and Billy Joe DuPree was a tight end who could stretch the field.
Calvin Hill continued to be the focal point of the Cowboy running game, going for 844 yards and punching a Pro Bowl ticket. He got help from up-and-coming Robert Newhouse and veteran Walt Garrison. The offense line was keyed by a Pro Bowl right side, guard Blaine Nye and tackle Rayfield Wright. The Dallas offense ultimately ranked 8th in the 26-team league for points scored.
Defensively, the Cowboys had a couple of good young defensive lineman with Harvey Martin and Ed “Too Tall” Jones at the ends. Lee Roy Jordan was a veteran Pro Bowler at linebacker, and Cliff Harris also got Pro Bowl recognition at the free safety spot. The Dallas defense wasn’t great, but it was respectable, at 10th in the league for points allowed.
A late afternoon kickoff in Atlanta opened the season. The Falcons had contended to the bitter end for a playoff berth in a race that involved Dallas in 1973. But Atlanta would collapse this season and the Cowboys got that rolling. A 411-108 edge in total yards was led by Staubach going 13/27 for 252 yards. The final was 24-0.
On a Monday Night visit to mediocre Philadelphia, Dallas led 7-0 in the third quarter and was on the doorstep of adding more. Then the Eagles returned a fumble 96 yards for a touchdown. On a night when Pearson caught ten balls for 161 yards, and Dallas generally outplayed Philly, they dropped a 13-10 decision
It got worse at home against a New York Giants team that was awful. While Staubach went 20/37 for 256 yards and Pearson’s six catches netted 116 yards, Staubach was also sacked six times and threw three interceptions. Dallas didn’t run the ball and lost turnovers 5-4. They suffered a terrible 14-6 defeat.
And now they had defending NFC champion Minnesota coming to town. The Vikings had come here and beaten Dallas 27-10 in the previous year’s NFC Championship Game, and they took a 20-7 lead after three quarters in this one. Hill would rush for 95 yards and Dallas rallied to take a 21-20 lead. But Staubach also threw four interceptions and that was too much to overcome. A late Minnesota field goal sent Dallas to a third straight loss.
The St. Louis Cardinals, an NFC East rival in the alignment that existed through 2001, would emerge as a contender this year and were off to a 4-0 start. Oddsmakers weren’t sold yet, and still made Dallas a (-3.5) favorite on the road. Staubach would play well, going 19/29 for 236 yards. Pearson would have a big game, catching eight passes for 118 yards. Dallas would rally from a 28-14 deficit to tie it at 28-all. But the defense gave up big plays in the passing game, and once again, a fourth-quarter field goal sent the Cowboys to defeat, 31-28.
A 1-4 start is alarming under any circumstances. Further consider that prior to 1978, only one wild-card per conference could make the playoffs and the regular season was only 14 games. You have the landscape for an all-out fire alarm in Big D.
Rematches were ahead with the Eagles, Giants, and Cardinals, and the Cowboys had already reached the must-win point. They trailed Philly at home, 24-17 in the third quarter. But they were controlling the ground game, with Hill on his way to 140 yards. They were pressuring the quarterback, getting six sacks. Staubach was playing mistake-free football and the tide turned in a 31-24 comeback win.
On the road in New York, Dallas was facing an old friend. Craig Morton had been Staubach’s predecessor at starter until midway through 1971, and his backup the last two seasons. Morton was now with the Giants. The Cowboys got a short touchdown run from Garrison and a 32-yard Staubach-to-Pearson connection staked Dallas to a 14-0 lead. They intercepted Morton three times and churned out a 21-7 win.
St. Louis came to old (then new) Texas Stadium on the first weekend of November. A clean game with no turnovers either way saw Dallas trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter. A 12-yard TD run from Hill tied it. This time, the late field goal went the Cowboys’ way. They won 17-14 and were back to even at 4-4.
Dallas moved past the .500 mark by muscling up against San Francisco. The Cowboys enjoyed a 221-64 edge on the ground. 132 of those yards came from Hill and he scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 20-14 home win.
The Washington Redskins were a perennial contender in the 1970s, and the Redskins, along with the Cardinals, were who the Cowboys had to catch. Or, they at least had to catch one of them to have any hope of the playoffs. A road trip to D.C. for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff would begin a three-week stretch where they would play the ‘Skins twice.
But it couldn’t have gone worse. Dallas trailed 28-0 by halftime. Forced out of the running game, Staubach was erratic, going 16/38 for 174 yards. He was sacked five times. The Cowboys tried to rally, but the deficit was too big in a devastating 28-21 loss.
Dallas came back home to beat mediocre Houston 10-0 behind a 214-26 advantage on the ground. They were 6-5. St. Louis was leading the division at 9-2 and out of reach. Washington was 8-3. Catching the Redskins wouldn’t be easy, but at the very least, they were coming to Dallas for Thanksgiving.
This would be one of the historic games in the long Cowboy tradition of hosting the late afternoon game on Turkey Day. They were trailing 16-3. Staubach was knocked out of the game. For one day, Longley was a star. He went 11/20 for 203 yards and two touchdowns. His 50-yard strike to Pearson in the fourth quarter pulled out a 23-17 win and kept Dallas’ season alive for the moment.
The Cowboys were only a game back of the Redskins, but the tiebreakers were still working against them—those division losses to the Giants and Eagles early in the year were still taking a toll. So, Dallas needed to win their last two, and Washington had to lose their last two.
Lowly Cleveland came in for a late Saturday afternoon game. Staubach struck quickly, with touchdown passes of 35 and 41 yards to Richards. Staubach would finish 14/24 for 230 yards and three TDs. The Browns closed to within 20-17, but Dallas was also running the ball, to the tune of a 252-87 rush yardage edge. They pulled back away to a 41-17 win.
On Monday Night, Washington was on the road against the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams. The Redskins fell behind early, giving hope to Cowboy fans. But the Rams had nothing to play for, the Redskins had everything, and Washington rallied to win 23-17. Dallas’ string of eight straight playoff appearances was over.
They went on to close the year at Oakland, where the Raiders had the best record in the NFL. Staubach made some big plays throwing for 266 yards. But he was also erratic, at 17/39, and forced to play from behind, in a 24-9 hole. Dallas ultimately lost 27-23.
The final record was 8-6. If the second wild-card, which came into existence in 1978, had been around, Dallas would have gotten a third game with Washington. But by the standards of 1974, they were done.
Landry’s team wouldn’t stay down for long. By 1975, they simply picked up and started another playoff streak, this one lasting nine years. They returned to the Super Bowl in ’75 and won it again in 1977.