Turn Back the Clock: 1978 Dallas Cowboys

1978 was a great year for Tony Dorsett stat wise. Photo Courtesy: John Liu
1978 was a great year for Tony Dorsett stat wise. Photo Courtesy: John Liu

By Will Martin

Many fans of the Silver and Blue will make the argument that the 12-4 Cowboys of 1978 where the best team of personnel ever fielded in their history.

Fresh off a Super Bowl run one year prior-the last year the NFL ran a 14 game schedule-many experts predicted a return to the Super Bowl in Miami later that season.

Yes, they would lose in dramatic fashion to the Pittsburgh Steelers 35-31 January 21st of 1979.

Interesting how that Super Bowl alone would produce no less than 13 future NFL Hall Of Famers. Nine of those came from Pittsburgh. Only four from Dallas. Can we say “East Coast bias”.

Might that number have been different or reversed had Dallas completed a back-to-back for that year? One will always wonder. It was quite the year in Texas for both the Cowboys…and that other team down Houston way with rookie running back Earl Campbell.

Indeed the goal of Tom Landry was to make it back to the big game when training camp commenced that summer for the Dallas Cowboys.

No less than nine players would reach the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles on 1/29/79.

From the offensive side of the ball Roger Staubach was still leading the way at quarterback, Tony Dorsett at running back. Robert Newhouse and Scott Laidlaw handled the fullback duties.

Tom Rafferty and Herb Scott were your guards along with Rayfield Wright/Andy Frederick and Pat Donovan at the tackles. John Fitzgerald your center, Billy Joe Dupree at tight end. Drew Pearson and Tony Hill your wideouts, Rafael Septien had the kicking honors, Danny White was your punter.

On defense Bob Breunig, Thomas Henderson, and DD Lewis anchored the linebacker positions. Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones and Harvey Martin were your defensive ends. Randy White, Jethro Pugh, and Larry Cole played at tackle. Benny Barnes and Aaron Kyle protected the corners, as Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris were your deep men at safety.

The month of August would see the Cowboys play three of four games at Texas Stadium on the 5th, 19th, and 26th with victories over the 49ers 41-24, Houston Oilers 27-13, and 16-13 along with a road victory at Denver 21-14. A look at the past and future with two Super Bowl opponents within a one year frame.

Three wins in four tries would also be the story in September when the Cowboys opened 1978 at home on a Monday Night against the Baltimore Colts. Bert Jones was less than effective as Dallas rolled up the turnovers on defense in a 38-0 whitewash September 4th.

The following week in the Meadowlands the Cowboys would hold off the Giants 34-24 in a match where Thomas ‘Hollywood’ Henderson would leave the game with an ankle injury. He would be unavailable the following Sunday in Los Angeles as the Rams took advantage of a depleted secondary at the Coliseum in a 27-14 loss before 65,749 rabid fans and a whole lot of trash talking going on between the teams. Keep this in mind as we wind towards January. Rod Perry with the play of the day as he ran back a 43-yard interception for a touchdown.

September would end with a 21-12 home win over the St. Louis Cardinals with a great afternoon for Tony Dorsett.

October, like September, would begin on a Monday night on the road inside the nation’s capital. The Redskins would begin that year 6-0 only to fall to 8-8. The first team to do so. That distinction would not happen again until the Vikings went that same path in 2003.

On this October 2nd night a battle of defenses went in favor of the Redskins 9-5 as the game ended with Joe Theismann running out the clock going out of bounds for a safety. That didn’t set too well with some of the Cowboys players as they walked off the field of RFK Stadium.

On October 8th, 63,420 fans filled up Texas Stadium and were treated to a 24-3 romp over the Giants to improve to 4-2 with America’s Team returning to power football. One week later the Cardinals made Dallas work a little overtime before Rafael Septien would nail a game winning 47-yard field goal for a 24-21 victory.

October 22nd would be a physical matchup with the Eagles at home as Dallas prevailed 14-7. Four days later there was a Thursday Night home game (a new experiment the NFL was working on that is now a weekly deal on the NFL Network) with the Minnesota Vikings. This night was the flattest the Cowboys would be all season in a 21-10 loss courtesy of some razzle dazzle from Chuck Foreman and the Purple People Eaters keeping Roger Staubach off his game.

Going into November the Cowboys were looking at 6-3 record and a visit to Miami. Their first of two as it were. Despite a ten day respite Don Shula and special teams would eke out a win over the Cowboys 23-16 pushing Dallas to a 6-4 mark and thoughts of perhaps a team not ready for prime time.

November 12th at Lambeau was in the opinion of many the date that Tom Landry and his team reasserted themselves as the team to beat in the NFC with as complete a win as you could ask for. A convincing 42-14 defeat of the Pack. Big day for Harvey Martin, Too Tall, and Charlie Waters defending. Tony Dorsett and Robert Newhouse ate up huge chunks of yardage and clock possession to improve to 7-4.

Their record improved to 8-4 with a home win against the New Orleans Saints 27-7 on November 19th. 9-4 on Thanksgiving Day when the Cowboys met the Washington Redskins as the Cowboys exerted a full measure of revenge for the Monday Night loss eight weeks earlier. Joe Theismann was being hurried out of the pocket all afternoon, Drew Pearson and Tony Hill laid the hammer down on the Redskin secondary for a 38-10 win.

Another ten day break brought us to December 3rd. All week long the talk was all about how the Dallas secondary-namely Thomas Henderson-would handle Stanley Morgan and Russ Francis of the Patriots. In a word, Hollywood was epic. Playing like a man possessed Steve Grogan had little success finding his main receivers in a game Dallas squeaked by 17-10 to improve to 10-4.

December would then finish out with two road wins at Philadelphia 31-13 and the Jets at old Shea Stadium 30-7. The NFC East was the Cowboys to claim at 12-4 and now there was the matter of taking on the Falcons at home 12/30.

That date you might recall was not too good to Dallas five years prior when the Vikings came to Irving and the Cowboys lost to the team in Purple 27-10. Paul Krause with a 63-yard interception for a touchdown and Fran Tarkenton connecting for a 54-yard bomb to John Gilliam. This date 1978 would also prove to be a tester of a date.

I remember Turkey Day 11/28/74 was the first time I saw Roger Staubach knocked out of a game on a clean hit by Harold McClinton. It happened again when Falcon Robert Pennywell would lay a mean lick on the artful Roger. Pressed into service was Danny White.

Atlanta made the Cowboys sweat out a 27-20 victory when all was said and done. Leeman Bennett, Steve Bartkowski, and Claude Humphreys gave the Silver and Blue one tough test for a full 60 minutes, only to fall a bit short.

All that remained now was a return trip to Los Angeles…and not without some verbal fireworks.

At some point in 1978, fueled either by ego or other forces Thomas Henderson came up with a pretty bold declaration about how ‘The Rams had no class and that the Cowboys would go to their house and whoop them real good’.

What began as a scoreless first half in Los Angeles began to turn in Dallas’ favor on an interception by Charlie Waters that resulted in a latter score. The final touchdown of the game came on an interception by Henderson himself that Thomas ran back 68 yards for a touchdown, a flip of the ball over the goal post and a 28-0 Cowboys victory. Note: In two visits over three years to Los Angeles for a championship game the Cowboys outscored the Rams 65-7!

January 21st 1979 was a cloudy mild day in Miami where Super Bowl XIII would play. A rematch of Super Bowl X when the Steelers prevailed 21-17. Many in the stadium and many in the NFL circles of the time believe that the better team did not win on that day. However, in between a 75-yard Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth strike and a Mike Hegman recovery of a Terry Bradshaw fumble to a fumbled kickoff by Randy White (A cast on his arm led to said fumble), and let’s not forget a dropped pass to Jackie Smith, the one time Cardinal…it led to a 35-31 victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Yes that pass interference call on Benny Barnes on Lynn Swann left a lot to be desired…

Another quote from Thomas Henderson circulated all that week in the press. ‘Terry Bradshaw is so dumb that he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A’. That was a pretty funny line at the time. When the game ended no one was laughing on the Dallas side. Four Super Bowl trophies later we think Terry is doing all right. He has Jojo Starbuck in his life at that point also.

Roger Staubach had quite the year numerically in 1978. Completing 56% of his passes for 25 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions. Benny Barnes with 5 interceptions to lead the Cowboys who amassed 23 altogether. Tony Hill with 46 receptions and 823 yards, Drew Pearson with 44 and 714. Tony Dorsett rushed for 1,325 yards and 7 Touchdowns. TD also caught a touchdown pass for 91 yards early in the year.

Dallas outscored the competition by a 384-208 count. Only in the first period would the Cowboys be outscored 83-58. Third down conversions Dallas was better than 50% (118 for 235). Ball control worked in Tom Landry’s favor also as the Cowboys would average 33 minutes of time of possession per game to 27 for the opponent.

1978-the first year the NFL increased its season from 14 to 16 games-was a year the Dallas Cowboys tried to become back-to-back champions in the NFC. 9 Pro Bowlers who represented the Silver And Blue. Three Hall Of Famers who would represent in Super Bowl 13 for Dallas. That, along with nine Pittsburgh Steelers who also made the Hall of Fame.

It wasn’t until 1995 that another Super Bowl trophy would come by way of Irving, Texas.

Roger Staubach would play one more season in Dallas before retiring.