Ah, the Dallas Cowboys. The NFL’s response to the New York Yankees has become the representative synonym for everything that sucks about box corporations, urban sprawl, and this ridiculous urge that exists in Texas to be bigger and more ostentatiously glittering and tacky than everyone else. In the NFL, they’re the most decorated team in the NFC East, perhaps the most decorated division in the league. They’re as ubiquitous as it gets as a team as well, so it’s funny to try to imagine a time the city of Dallas existed without its beloved Cowboys. Hell, it seems hard to believe there was a time when Texas had no professional football to speak of. Which is why it’s so weird to learn that the Dallas Cowboys aren’t one of the NFL’s original teams. They were, in fact, the NFL’s first expansion team, coming in to combat the AFL menace just before the start of the Super Bowl era.
Yes, the Cowboys were the result of a knee-jerk reaction by the olde tyme owners of the NFL to the AFL. When football was the up and coming kid of the professional sports scene in the 50’s, certain rich people of note took note of its growing popularity and asked the league if they could place teams in their football-less cities. And the olde tyme owners, showing the shortsightedness renowned in the NFL, rebuffed them time and time again. One of the rebuffed potential owners was Lamar Hunt, who felt the team ownership bug bite him after the 1958 NFL Championship turned him into a football fan. He asked the league to give him a team in Dallas, but the olde tyme owners said no. He then tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals and move them to Dallas, but the olde tyme owners again said no. Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was one of the more vocal opponents of placing a team in Texas, because his team had been the lone team to represent professional football fans in the south for decades. He didn’t want to risk losing his monopoly on the Sun Belt.
Most frustrated potential football team owners sucked up the negative response and moved on. Most frustrated potential football team owners were not Lamar Hunt. And Hunt found a forceful and productive way of reacting: He gathered a bunch of his rich buddies and started a brand new football league, the American Football League, to declare war on the NFL. Of course, with him being behind a startup, he got his new team, an outfit called the Dallas Texans. Meanwhile, oilman Clint Murchison tried to buy the Redskins from Marshall, but Marshall was a raging asshole who changed the terms of the sale at the last minute. Murchison called off the deal while Marshall also had a falling out with his team’s band leader. That would ordinarily not be a big deal, but this band leader also happened to be the same guy who wrote “Hail to the Redskins,” the fight song of the Washington Redskins. The pissed band leader sold the rights to the song to Murchison, who then went to Marshall and said he couldn’t play it during games anymore. Murchison had been another businessman trying to bring football to Dallas, and he used “Hail to the Redskins” as his leverage to get it.
Murchison’s team was supposed to be called the Dallas Steers. Then it was the Dallas Rangers, who unfortunately shared that name with a local minor league baseball team. So the team was renamed again to the Dallas Cowboys. For their first three years of life, the Cowboys and Texans shared the Cotton Bowl as a home field. The Texans drew the best crowds in the AFL and had the better record – they even won the 1962 AFL Championship. But the AFL was struggling to deal with the fact that its profile was so much lower than the NFL’s, and in Texas, big is everything. So Dallas wrapped its arms around the Cowboys, who played in the bigger, cooler NFL. After three seasons, Hunt decided the Dallas area was too small for the both of them and waved the white flag. The Texans bolted to Kansas City, where they have remained ever since as the Chiefs.
The first Cowboys team tied one game and lost every other game. Then from 1961 to 1964, they won a grand total of 18 games. But they had a huge ace card: Their head coach was former New York Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry, who created one of the NFL’s top defensive units before the Cowboys hired him in 1960. His record for the first five years is one that would get every head coach ever fired these days, but Murchison believed Landry knew what he was doing. He was right, too; the Cowboys finally broke even in 1965, and from there Landry slowly but steadily built them into a contender. In 1966, they went 10-3-1 and won the Eastern Conference, sending eight players to the Pro Bowl. In 1967, they played against the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship, which turned out to be one of the most memorable games in NFL history when the field heater broke down with the temperature being -34 and the Packers winning on a quarterback sneak. At the end of the 60’s, the Cowboys were one of the best teams in the league.
It was in the 70’s, though, when the Cowboys hit pay dirt. With players like Cliff Harris, Herb Adderley, Rayfield Wright, Mike Ditka, and Roger Staubach, the Cowboys went to the Super Bowl in 1970. That game was one of the most boring and mistake-filled Super Bowls ever played, and even though Dallas lost to Johnny Unitas and his Baltimore Colts, it was just a taste of things to come. Dallas would return to the Super Bowl four more times in the 70’s, winning against the Miami Dolphins in 1971 and the Denver Broncos in 1977. Although they added more and more big name star power like Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, Randy White, Tony Dorsett, and their iconic Doomsday Defense, they never did manage to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, who became a kind of arch-foe to the Cowboys in the big game. Still, though, you can’t knock what the ‘Boys were able to accomplish during the 70’s. Even though the Steelers won twice as many titles and the Dolphins won as many as the ‘Boys, it was the ‘Boys that emerged as the league’s glamor team and one of the marquee teams of the sport. During the decade, the Cowboys won 105 games, which was more than any other team. They appeared in five Super Bowls and won two of them.
Although the Cowboys were the team that was on the wrong end of The Catch against the San Francisco 49ers in 1981, there’s no real point which could signal the end of the great Cowboys of the 70’s. They sort of just dwindled down. They were good to start the decade, but the thing that happens to all great sports dynasties happened to the Cowboys. The good players from before got a little too long in the tooth. The scouting department turned over and the new guys weren’t as good at their jobs as the old guys. The coach – who, by the way, was still Tom Landry – rolled up a few more miles than anyone expected, and he had trouble adapting to the league’s new ways. In 1986, the Cowboys finished 7-9 to end a streak of winning seasons that started in 1966. No other NFL team has ever matched that streak, but that amazing streak didn’t stop the Cowboys from finally hitting free-fall in 1988. Landry – who had coached the team for all 29 years of its existence at the time – was finally fired after the season.
The end of the 80’s saw the introductions of players like Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Herschel Walker, but they also saw the introduction of rock bottom. Dallas had the league’s worst record in both 1988 and 1989. But 1989 also changed the ownership guard, and Cowboys fans heard the name Jerry Jones for the first time. Although he was from Arkansas, Jones was a Texan right down to the core of his being. He loved big shit, and no team was bigger than the Cowboys! So he saw it as his sacred duty to pull the ‘Boys right back to the top of the NFL. And he decided the right man for that job was University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, his old college roommate. Johnson got to work, trading, drafting, and cutting. How hard could it be? All the Cowboys needed was an entire team of decent players, right? So Johnson made an insane gamble to get that entire team of decent players. He put Herschel Walker on the trading board. While that put longtime Cowboys fans in an uproar, you can’t deny that Johnson had a point when he said that hey, they were losing with Walker; they could lose without him.
Enter the Minnesota Vikings. During those years, the Vikings were a very good team that believed they were one good running back away from being great. And when Walker was suddenly being shopped around the league, they decided he was going to be that player. The Vikes surrendered five players and eight provisional draft picks to get Walker. They got four other draft picks in return, but Walker was the centerpiece of the whole thing. Now, “provisional” here meant that the draft picks sent to the Cowboys were going to be waived if the players the Vikes originally sent to Dallas were still around past a certain date. They made the trade under the assumption that Dallas wanted the players they gave up. They figured out how bad they were mistaken when most of them were cut in short order; to Johnson, the trade centerpiece was those draft picks. And he used them to build the ‘Boys back up. They resulted in a lot of useful contributors, including Emmitt Smith, Alvin Harper, and Darren Woodson.
Just as it happened when Landry started out, the ‘Boys slowly hacked and built their way back to the top. 1990 saw them go 7-9. The next year they went 11-5 and got into the playoffs for the first time since 1985 on a Wild Card spot. They took out the Chicago Bears, but were handily destroyed by the Detroit Lions in the next round. And in 1992, the Cowboys were the Cowboys again. They went 13-3, featured the NFL’s best defense, beat the 49ers to win the conference, and proceeded to kill the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. The final score was 52-17 and the ‘Boys forced nine turnovers. And it could have been worse: During what was basically stoppage time (though you could argue that everything after the first quarter WAS stoppage time), Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett recovered a Bills fumble and roared toward the Buffalo end zone. He got close – so close that he started his celebration a little bit early, sticking his ball hand out to the side. Bills receiver Don Beebe was a little pissed off about how the game was going for his team, and he hurriedly ran down Lett and knocked the ball out of his hand right before Lett got across the line. The ball rolled out of the end zone and the Bills had a touchback. Lett scores that touchdown, the Cowboys have the all-time record for points scored in a Super Bowl. The Cowboys returned to the big game the next year to face the Bills again, but the Bills didn’t let themselves get trounced. They took a 13-6 halftime lead, but after running back Thurman Thomas fumbled in the third quarter, the team sort of mentally tanked it. The Cowboys came back and won that game too, but the 30-13 score wasn’t as lopsided at it looked. Even many players on the Cowboys that year admit the Bills were right in it until a field goal got them up to 30 with just over two minutes left in the game.
Let the good times roll, right? Well, not quite. When Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys and hired Jimmy Johnson to coach, the Dallas media portrayed the heartwarming story of two close college friends reuniting and taking over the world. That, however, was never the case. While they roomed together during their stints on the football team, that was only because of the alphabetical proximity of their names. They never exactly bonded – although they liked each other back then, it was more with the type of forced like you have just enough of to avoid drilling the other person. And by the time Johnson won his second Super Bowl, their already-strained relationship had soured. Johnson insisted that he walked away. Jones says he fired Johnson. But no matter what the story, Johnson wasn’t coaching the Dallas Cowboys anymore within weeks of that second Super Bowl. The new coach was former University of Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer. The Cowboys were denied the three-peat in 1994 when the Niners took then out in the NFC Championship, but returned to the Super Bowl the next year, where their old 70’s rivals – the Steelers – waited. This time the Cowboys were victorious against the Steelers, but the game could have gone in the other direction; the difference turned out to be a pair of interceptions Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell heaved into the arms of game MVP Larry Brown. Brown, who was considered one of the weaker links on the defense, was able to do that damage to the Steelers because Steelers coach Bill Cowher didn’t think O’Donnell was good enough to beat the recently-signed Deion Sanders, who lined up on the side opposite Brown.
So far, that was the most recent Super Bowl appearance for the Cowboys. The next few years were a period where games happened between insane off-field incidents. Michael Irvin was caught with a pair of prostitutes and cocaine and suspended. Leon Lett was suspended for drugs. Emmitt Smith and tight end Jay Novacek got injured. While Dallas was able to ride the rest of its talent to a 10-6 record and a division title in 1996, the lack of discipline got to them the next year. They won six games in 1997, missing the playoffs and causing Switzer to step down. Former Steelers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey coached for the next two years and got a playoff visit out of them only because the Cowboys were still riding Jimmy Johnson’s drafts.
The Cowboys fell to pieces in the millennium. They had to deal with a salary cap which prevented them from outspending everyone for the best talent. They also had to deal with Jerry Jones turning himself into the team’s general manager, which hasn’t been going well. Jones has the desire to produce a champion; that’s what caused him to pull former New York Giants and New England Patriots head coach Bill Parcells out of retirement in 2003. Parcells led the ‘Boys to a surprise playoff berth that year, but retired again after not getting anything better than average out of the team during the ensuing three years. 2006 saw the emergence of Dallas’s current starting quarterback, Tony Romo. Romo has been an excellent quarterback by most standards, but he’s been dogged by a few issues which prevent him from being mentioned in the same breath as Staubach or Aikman: One is that he gets bitten by the injury bug a lot. The other is that he can’t seem to win playoff games on the rare occasions the Cowboys are able to get into them now. His most famous moments were botching a hold for a field goal attempt during a 2006 playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks and an impressive 30-yard pass being overturned for a ridiculous reason against the Packers in the 2014 playoffs. They haven’t been BAD bad, like the Cleveland Browns have been bad – they’ve won five division titles in the millennium – but, well, the how ’bout them Cowboys days are falling back to history rather quickly.
Unlike pretty much every other team in professional sports, the Cowboys don’t retire jersey numbers. (Actually, I’ve noticed that NFL teams tend to not retire numbers in general, but that’s another observation for a different time.) Instead, the Cowboys stand out by introducing the Ring of Honor. It’s a ring around the inside of the stadium which acknowledges players, coaches, and other officials who made significant contributions to the ‘Boys. Bob Lilly was the first inductee in the Ring, and others include luminaries like Randy White, Bob Hayes, Tex Schramm, Charles Haley, and Don Meredith along with the household names: Staubach, Landry, Dorsett, Aikman, Irvin, and Smith. For a team founded in 1960, the Cowboys have rounded up a hell of a herd of football talent. Their all-time roster could go toe-to-toe with that of any other team in the NFL, including much older teams with rich, winning traditions like the Packers, Bears, and Giants. To wit, they had a running back – Tony Dorsett – who rushed for 12,739 career yards and 92 touchdowns, and he’s still only the second best running back the Cowboys ever fielded. Emmitt Smith holds the all-time record in the sport for rushing yards with an incredible 18,355 and rushing touchdowns with 164. There’s a serious case to be built for Smith being the greatest running back ever, although Smith seems to imply that his incredible longevity (he played running back from 1990 to 2004) had a lot to do with it. Hell, he admits that one of his contemporaries, Detroit’s Barry Sanders, should have been the one to blow the records way out to unreachable levels had Sanders not up and retired early; the implication is that Smith would have retired years earlier had Sanders stayed longer. There’s a similar debate among Cowboys quarterback enthusiasts: Who was better, Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman? The Cowboys have been so spoiled with talent that Tony Romo – who would have been the best quarterback to ever play on at least ten other teams – doesn’t even enter the debate, probably because he still hasn’t delivered a Super Bowl yet.
Tom Landry was one of football’s greatest innovators. We tend not to think of history when we watch games, but everything we see in football games now was once some weird, outlandish innovation at one time, including the forward pass. Landry’s contribution to football was the 4-3 defense. He invented the 4-3 while acting as the defensive coordinator of the Giants when he had the player over center – once a regular defensive lineman – stand up and scoot back a couple of yards. Upon becoming the coach of the Cowboys, Landry refined the 4-3 to counter Vince Lombardi’s Run to Daylight strategy, where runners went anywhere there was open space instead of to a particular hole. He wanted a flowing defense that blocked out daylight. And Landry was just getting started – see, when you invent an innovative defense, others notice. So it was Landry who also invented an offense to score on the 4-3: He implemented the man in motion for his own version of the shotgun, and was the first coach to use the shotgun on a regular basis. Landry also used a new team-building philosophy: He looked for size when finding linemen on offense and tall, lean linemen on defense. He also helped introduce conditioning programs and looked outside college football teams for talent.
A lot of teams have been given the nickname, but there is only one: The Dallas Cowboys are America’s Team. Now, this isn’t a designation that many fans agree with. I don’t like it myself, but interpret that how you will because the Cowboys did crush my native Buffalo Bills in two consecutive Super Bowls. The term “America’s Team” was coined for the team’s 1978 highlight film. The Vice President and editor-in-chief of NFL Films, Bob Ryan, came up with the term because he wanted to put a twist on the Cowboys’ film. He said he had been noticing for some time that wherever the Cowboys played, there were always large contingents of Cowboys fans in the stands. They were always the team getting national games on TV, and they showed up on the tube so often that their faces were as popular with the public as the President and any movie star. The Cowboys were clearly the most popular team in the country, so why not call them America’s Team? As much dissension as the term has, it’s still recognized and used by most sports media outlets – including Sports Illustrated and ESPN – in reference to the Cowboys. We can object to the term as much as we want, but if we really hated it that much, we wouldn’t recognize that whenever anyone uses it, there’s no question which team they’re talking about.
The Cowboys have what is, in my opinion, the most underrated tradition in sports. In the NFL, teams typically wear their colored jerseys at home and the white ones on the road. The Cowboys do it in reverse: Their home jerseys are their white jerseys. One of the original front office people involved with the Cowboys, Tex Schramm, was the person who thought that up. Tex wanted to be fan friendly, and he wanted fans to be able to see the wide variety of colors worn by Cowboys’ opponents. So he started the tradition of wearing white home jerseys in 1964. A number of teams have followed suit, and the team’s blue jerseys became attached to a jinx because they seemed to lose at home whenever they wore them.
While I’m on the subject of cool traditions, the Cowboys are also one of two NFL teams that got itself associated with Thanksgiving Day football games. (The other is the Detroit Lions.) That tradition kicked off in 1966, and it’s a popular conspiracy theory that the Cowboys sought a guarantee that they would play Thanksgiving games every year as a condition of playing that first one. The (then-) St. Louis Cardinals replaced the Cowboys as Thanksgiving hosts in 1975 and 1977. They were a fairly exciting team at the time because they played in a lot of close games, but their popularity left something out. They just weren’t a well-known or cared-about team. The Cowboys were Super Bowl contenders every year, and more to the point, no one showed up at Cardinals games. So Dallas went back to hosting in 1978.
The Cowboys have a sort of unusual rivalry with the Washington Redskins. That’s due to the high concentration of Cowboys fans living in Redskins territory. It’s also because the founder of the Skins, George Preston Marshall, was racist as hell. I mentioned earlier that his team owned a major chunk of the south, but Marshall had a problem with signing black players. The Skins were the last team in the NFL, MLB, and NBA to integrate; they took until 1962 and only did so under the threat of federal intervention. Naturally, their reluctance to take black players didn’t do a whole lot to capture the imaginations of many black people. When the Cowboys came along, they did the opposite and signed everyone, race be damned, who could play the fucking game. All the black football fans in the Washington area and the surrounding states loyal to the Skins jumped ship and signed on with the ‘Boys. While the Skins did field Doug Williams in 1987, when he became the first black quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl, that wasn’t until 25 years after the fact. So Cowboys fans became a part of the landscape in the Washington area because the founder of the Redskins was an asshole.
The Dallas Cowboys are something of a rarity in football: An expansion team of impact. Yes, people hate them, but every sport needs a bad guy, and it’s hard to deny that the NFL has definitely been a more interesting league with them running around.
It’s fun to cheer for the bad guy (in baseball, I’m a Yankees fan, so I speak from experience); Smith vs. Dorsett and Staubach vs. Aikman debates among others are enjoyable for fans; owner makes sure fans are entertained; haven’t done much that’s NOT iconic
Ubiquity breeds enmity; owner is a shitty general manager; are less America’s Team than Corporate America’s Team for a corporatized city; popular nickname gives team a wind of arrogance
Should you be a fan?
Well, if you truly feel drawn to the Dallas Cowboys, now is the time to hop on the bandwagon. Like the New York Yankees, they’re always going to be hated, so an adopting fan can’t half-ass it; they have to embrace the black hat. Unlike the Yankees, the burning fury hatred that usually accompanies sports villains seems to have been temporarily transferred away and replaced with a simmering why-do-we-waste-our-time-with-you hatred. But you can bet your ass that the burning fury hatred will return if the Dallas Cowboys ever turn into the DALLAS COWBOYS again.