The Seasonal Narrative of the 1972 Dallas Cowboys

Tom Landry’s Cowboys ended several years of postseason frustration in 1971, when they won the franchise’s first Super Bowl. That championship season was keyed by Landry’s settling on Roger Staubach as his quarterback midway through. The bid for a repeat title took a big hit when Staubach was injured in the preseason. But the 1972 Dallas Cowboys still made the playoffs and—aided by Staubach’s recovery—won a memorable postseason game.

After Staubach separated his shoulder in the preseason, Landry went back to reliable veteran Craig Morton, who had steered the team to the Super Bowl in 1970. Morton was an effective quarterback—his 55 percent completion rate and 7.1 yards-per-attempt were both in the upper one-fourth of the league’s starting QBs. What held Morton back, at least compared to Staubach, was mistakes. Morton was intercepted on 6.2 percent of his passes, a figure that placed him 19th among the 24 qualifying QBs.

The passing game was further hindered when speedy Bob Hayes was hampered all year with a hamstring injury. Dallas still had a deep threat in Ron Sellers, who caught 31 passes for 653 yards. But the offense as a whole became very focused on the running backs. The tandem of halfback Calvin Hill and fullback Walt Garrison not only combined to rush for over 1,800 yards, but they were the team’s two leading pass-catchers. Both Hill and Garrison made the Pro Bowl.

A big reason the running game was so effective was the presence of a pair of All-Pros on the offensive line, left guard John Niland and right tackle Rayfield Wright. Overall, while the offense took a step back from ’71, when it was the best in the NFL, they still ranked a respectable 10th in a 26-team league.

The Cowboy defense was led by a good secondary. Corner Mel Renfro and strong safety Cornell Green were both Pro Bowlers, while young cornerback Charlie Waters intercepted six passes. In the trenches, there was big Bob Lilly, now 33-years-old, but still a Pro Bowl player. The defense ranked sixth in the league for points allowed.

Dallas opened the season at lowly Philadelphia. After a sluggish first half where the Cowboys only led 7-6, they opened up. Morton went 13/29 for 235 yards. A 37-yard touchdown pass to Sellers got some breathing room and a 154-70 edge in rush yardage keyed an easy 28-6 win.

A road trip to New York to face a decent Giants team followed a similar storyline. Dallas led 10-7 at the half and still clung to a 16-14 lead in the fourth quarter. But with a 139-84 advantage on the ground, they ultimately put New York away, 23-14.

Dallas went on to Green Bay, where the Packers would ultimately win a division title. In a game the Cowboys generally played pretty well, they also turned it over five times. That was the primary cause of a 16-13 defeat.

They went on to Pittsburgh, where the Steelers were having a breakout season that would set their tone for the balance of the entire decade. After falling behind 13-3 in the second quarter, the Cowboys put the game in Hill’s hands. The running back not only rushed for 108 yards, but he threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to Sellers that delivered a 17-13 win.

The Baltimore Colts had been a top team—in fact, the one who had broken hearts in Dallas in the Super Bowl just two years earlier. But the Colts would collapse this year. Morton carved them up to the tune of 22/30 for 279 yards, with Sellers catching seven balls for 113 yards. The defense dominated in an easy 21-0 win.

At 4-1, the stage was set for a trip to Washington D.C. to face the Redskins, Dallas’ prime challenger in the NFC East. The game started off well. Morton went up top to Sellers from 39 yards and built an early 10-0 lead. Dallas still led 20-7 in the third quarter. But in a fourth quarter that would prove a prelude to this season’s ultimate ending, the defense fell apart. The Redskins scored the final 17 points and won 24-20.

The Detroit Lions were a contender and their Monday Night visit to Texas Stadium was a big one. Morton put the passing game on display early, with a 38-yard TD strike to Billy Parks, then a 33-yard toss to Hill, and the Cowboys led 14-0. Morton finished the night 11/19 for 206 yards and three TDs. Dallas led 28-17 in the fourth quarter and hung on to win, 28-24.

Morton continued to play well in San Diego, against a bad Chargers team. He went 15/21 for 161 yards. Dallas scored a touchdown on special teams and appeared to be coasting home, with a 31-0 lead. But they weren’t running the ball well and couldn’t put this one away. The Bolts roared back, but the Cowboys held on, 34-28.

A sequence of soft opponents continued when the St. Louis Cardinals came to town. Morton hit Sellers with a 41-yard touchdown pass. An early 10-0 edge was stretched to 23-10 by the half. Waters delivered the dagger blow in the third quarter with a Pick-6 that made it 30-10. The final was 33-24.

Hill needed just 15 carries to get 100 yards in Philadelphia. Dallas systematically built the lead, and their 28-7 win had the unusual twist of coming with two safeties. The Cowboys were 7-2 and riding high into Thanksgiving.

San Francisco was whom Dallas ousted in the previous year’s NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys took an early 7-0 lead in the now-traditional late Thursday afternoon feast. But they were turning the ball over—four times, compared to just one for the 49ers. Two of those turnovers were turned directly into touchdowns. This one got away and turned into an ugly 31-10 loss.

The bright side of the loss? Staubach was now healthy enough to get some mop-up duty. Morton was playing well enough that Landry would stick with him. But there was now an option lurking.

At 8-3, Dallas was in good position for the playoffs. While they were two games behind Washington in the NFC East, the Cowboys were a game up on the 7-4 Lions for what was then just a single wild-card. Dallas the tiebreakers from that Monday Night win over Detroit. And in the era of a 14-game schedule, there were just three weeks left.

The Cowboys made their return visit to St. Louis (the Cardinals were an NFC East team through 2001). It was a late afternoon kickoff. The Lions, having kicked off two hours earlier in Green Bay, were in the process of getting slaughtered. The playoffs were there to be clinched, and Dallas took advantage. Hill rushed for 120 yards, Dallas had 209 rush yards as a team, and they coasted to a 27-6 win.  

Washington had also won and thereby clinched the NFC East, so Dallas was locked in as the wild-card with two weeks to go. It took the edge off the Redskins visit to Texas Stadium the following Saturday. The Cowboys kept fine-tuning their ground game—Garrison went for 121 yards on just ten carriers, while Hill added 111 more. Dallas was up 28-3 by halftime and won 34-24. In the season finale at home against the Giants, Morton and Staubach split time in a game the Cowboys basically mailed in. A 23-3 loss meant they ended their regular season at 10-4.

Dallas went to San Francisco for a Saturday kickoff, one day before Christmas Eve. The Divisional Round began earlier that day in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers and Raiders produced one of the NFL’s most famous and controversial endings. The Cowboys and 49ers would play an epic battle themselves.

It didn’t look epic for much of the day, at least for Dallas. They allowed the opening kickoff to be run back for a touchdown. They gave up two more touchdowns in the second quarter. A couple of nice drives had to end in field goals. Trailing 21-6, the Cowboys needed something. Morton threw a 28-yard TD pass to Lance Alworth to make it a game again, 21-13 at the half.

But San Francisco responded in the third quarter. It was 28-13, and the two-point conversion in the NFL was still over two decades away, so this was a three-possession deficit. Morton was only 8/21 for 96 yards and two interceptions. In the fourth quarter, Landry called on Staubach to try and save the season.

Dallas got a field goal to cut the lead to 28-16. With just over a minute to play, Staubach found Parks on a 29-yard touchdown pass. They were back in it but needed the ball back. Then Renfro covered the onside kick. Staubach had a chance, and he made the most of it. A ten-yard touchdown pass to Sellers completed an improbable 30-28 comeback win.

In a stunning quarter of play, Staubach had gone 12/20 for 174 yards.  The veteran Alworth caught seven balls for 136 yards. There was no question anymore who the Cowboy quarterback was. They would get a Round 3 with Washington for the NFC Championship. And if that worked out, the undefeated Miami Dolphins were on the far side in the Super Bowl.

But Roger and the offense were shut down in RFK Stadium. The game was close for three quarters and the Cowboys only trailed 10-3 at the half. But, like the regular season game in Washington, the Dallas defense broke in the fourth quarter. The Redskins rolled up a touchdown, three field goals and pulled away to a 26-3 win. The bid for a repeat title was over.

The Cowboys still continued what was now a string of seven straight playoff years. Staubach had authored what remains one of the most legendary moments of his Hall of Fame career. And Dallas wasn’t going anywhere. They would make the postseason six of the next seven years with Staubach, reach three more Super Bowls, and win another title in 1977.