1975 Dallas Cowboys: A Playoff Return & Super Bowl Trip

Dallas saw an eight-year streak of making the playoffs come to an end in 1974. The 1975 Dallas Cowboys not only got back on track, but they reached a Super Bowl and began another string of postseason appearances that would last a little bit longer.

There were a lot of changes in store for the 1975 season. Dallas was moving forward without key veteran contributors in running back Calvin Hill and defensive tackle Bob Lilly. The latter retired, while the former went to the fledgling World Football League. With the personnel changes, twelve rookies would make the Cowboy roster. Head coach Tom Landry also made a big strategic change. He instituted the shotgun offense. Today, it’s a standard base formation. Back then, it was a novelty.

The quantity of rookies might have been historic, but the biggest contributors were still the proud veterans. Roger Staubach was 33-years-old, and the future Hall of Fame quarterback had another Pro Bowl season. His 57 percent completion rate ranked sixth in the league, while his 7.7 yards-per-attempt was a stellar third. A 17-16 TD/INT ratio, with a 4.6 interception rate was a little high, but in this era, the latter stat still ranked 10th among starting quarterbacks.

Staubach’s prime target was a rising young star in Drew Pearson, who caught 46 passes and averaged nearly 18 yards per catch. Jean Fugett at tight end was a reliable option underneath.

The running game shifted to a more fullback-centric approach in Hill’s absence. Robert Newhouse ran for 930 yards, and his 34 receptions were third on the team. Halfback duties were split between Preston Pearson (no relation to Drew) and Doug Dennison. While Preston Pearson was a reliable receiver out of the backfield, both halfbacks were held to fewer than four yards a carry.

Offensive tackle Rayfield Wright, another future Hall of Famer, anchored the line. The defensive side of the trenches had the best player in that famed rookie class—tackle Randy White, destined for Canton himself. Harvey Martin was a quality pass rusher at end, getting 9 ½ sacks.

The back seven was anchored by Pro Bowl free safety Cliff Harris and veteran middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. The 34-year-old intercepted six passes.

All in all, Dallas wasn’t dominant, but they were balanced. In a 26-team league, they finished eighth in points scored and ninth in points allowed.

The season opened with a late Sunday afternoon home game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had reached the NFC Championship Game in 1974, and were headed for  12-2 season this year (the schedule didn’t expand to 16 games until 1978). One of those losses came right here in Big D. The Cowboy defense held the Rams to 20 passing yards. They intercepted three passes, including two by Mel Renfro. Dallas built an 18-0 lead, allowed a meaningless touchdown late in the game and won 18-7.

A challenging early home sequence continued with a visit from the St. Louis Cardinals. A division rival prior to the realignment of 2002, the Cardinals were the defending NFC East champs and would contend again this year. Dallas, aided by a 97-yard kickoff return from rookie Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, took a 28-17 lead. The Cardinals rallied to tie it 31-31 and force overtime.

But Staubach was having a big day. He went 23/34 for 307 yards. Billy Joe DuPree, a young tight end, caught six balls for 100 yards. The last one was a TD pass in overtime that won it, 37-31.

Dallas went on to Detroit, where the Lions were opening the brand-new Silverdome on Monday Night Football. A mediocre team, the Lions hung with the Cowboys and only trailed 15-10 after three quarters. But with Drew Pearson having a big night—six catches for 188 yards—Dallas dominated the fourth quarter and ruined Opening Night in Detroit, 36-10.

The Cowboys didn’t play well in the Meadowlands against a bad New York Giants team, and they trailed 7-6 in the fourth quarter. What they were doing was running the ball. A 196-96 edge in rush yardage was ultimately decisive. Staubach flipped a short touchdown pass to Fugett and Dallas escaped, 13-7.

Riding high at 4-0, a visit from the lowly Green Bay Packers, seemingly light-years away from the glorious Vince Lombardi era that ended just seven years earlier, looked like easy pickings. The Cowboys ran the ball well, with Preston Pearson gaining 101 yards and Newhouse going for 92. But they didn’t take care of the football—four lost fumbles and five turnovers overall. Dallas blew a 17-9 lead and suffered a 19-17 upset loss.

A visit to Philadelphia, another bad team, also turned into a struggle. Dallas didn’t run the ball well and trailed 17-10. Staubach bailed them out by going 27/49 for 314 yards. Roger found Drew Pearson on a touchdown pass to tie the game and a field goal delivered a 20-17 win.

The calendar flipped to November and Dallas was starting to struggle. Three straight games against poor competition had resulted in two narrow escapes and a loss. Now, the Cowboys were going to Washington for a late afternoon date with the Redskins. George Allen’s Redskins had made the playoffs each of the last four years and were again in the hunt.

Dallas built a 14-3 lead. But the national television audience would see a classic game. Washington rallied to tie it 17-17. The Cowboys got six turnovers, one of which was a Pick-6 by Harris that put them up 24-17. But the Redskins were carving up the Dallas pass defense. Washington tied the game 24-24 and then won in overtime, 30-24.

The Cowboys were still 5-2, but the playoff format of the time only allowed for one wild-card and Dallas had stiff competition from both St. Louis and Washington in the NFC East. They needed to get back on track.

A Monday Night home date with the subpar Kansas City Chiefs seemed like the right recipe. But the Cowboys were sloppy, losing five fumbles. They blew a back-and-forth game, 34-31. With the record at 5-3, it might not have been time for panic, but there was certainly urgency in the air.

The next game was on the road against a terrible New England Patriots team. Staubach played efficient football and went 10/14 for 190 yards and no interceptions. Dallas enjoyed a rushing yardage edge of 171-99, and they built a 34-17 lead. The Patriots made a late push, but this week’s 34-31 final saw Dallas end up on the right side.

A balanced running game continued to work at home against Philadelphia, to the tune of 205 yards. Preston Pearson added four catches for 109 yards and the Cowboys won 27-17. Normally, this would be the point that Dallas would look ahead to their customary Thanksgiving feast. But 1975, along with 1977, saw the league give St. Louis the late afternoon Turkey Day spot. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving date became permanent.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving was a windy day in Big D for the rematch with the Giants. Staubach found Fugett for a 54-yard touchdown pass and Dallas built a 14-3 lead after the first quarter. Then, they just salted it away, with no one scoring the rest of the way.

At 8-3, Dallas was playing well again, and the race for the playoffs was red-hot. St. Louis was also 8-3, while Washington was 7-4. The Cowboys had games with both in the immediate future. The next two weeks would decide their fate.

The road trip to St. Louis could not have been a bigger disaster. Dallas dug themselves a 28-3 hole, thanks to two long touchdown passes. The final score of 31-17 was deceptively respectable. The Cardinals were in first place. The Redskins won to pull even with the Cowboys at 8-4.

Stakes for Washington’s visit to Dallas could not have been higher—the winner was going to the playoffs, the loser was going home. Whomever won would be a game ahead with one to play. A Redskin win would secure a head-to-head sweep, while a Cowboy win would ensure that they could still take the tiebreaker based on division record.

The game was on Saturday afternoon in the late time slot. Dallas fell behind 10-0, marking five straight quarters of poor play in the season’s most important games. Staubach turned it around by finding Golden Richards on a 57-yard touchdown pass. Roger then ran for a TD to get a 14-10 lead by halftime.

That 14-10 score held through the third quarter. Dallas added a field goal in the fourth quarter. Moreover, the Cowboys were crushing the ‘Skins on the ground, 204-81. Eventually, Washington broke. A short TD pass from Staubach extended the lead to 24-10. Defensive back Charlie Waters sealed it with a Pick 6. The 31-10 win was sending the Cowboys back to postseason play.

There was still hope of winning the division, but Dallas needed help, and with only four teams per conference in the playoffs, there was no first-round bye at stake. Staubach was dealing with some aching ribs, so Landry let him rest in the final week. It proved a wise decision. St. Louis won anyway. And the Cowboys, behind backup Clint Longley, making his only career NFL start, beat the lowly New York Jets in old Shea Stadium, 31-21.

Dallas was 10-4 and playing well. They were still an eight-point underdog at top-seeded Minnesota. The Vikings had gotten an MVP year from Fran Tarkenton and were the two-time defending NFC champs. The divisional playoff game was the early afternoon kickoff on Sunday.

After a scoreless first quarter, the Cowboys trailed 7-0 at halftime. They shifted momentum in the third quarter, getting a tying touchdown run from Dennison, and then a fourth-quarter field goal had Dallas ahead 10-7. But Minnesota drove for a go-ahead touchdown. The Cowboys got the ball on their own 15-yard line with 1:51 left for their final chance.

Staubach was having a good day, finishing at 17/29 for 246 yards and no mistakes. He made two epic throws on this drive. The first one came on 4th-and-16 to keep the season alive and get the team to midfield. The second was the play this game is remembered for.

Drew Pearson ran a deep route in the final seconds. Near the goal line, he and Minnesota corner Nate Wright fought for position. Pearson won that battle and caught the football for a stunning touchdown. Viking fans argued for offensive pass interference. But to no avail. Dallas had a stunning 17-14 win.

Feeling the momentum, the Cowboys went to Los Angeles to meet the Rams for the NFC Championship. Dallas struck first when Staubach threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Preston Pearson. It was the start of a pattern. Preston Pearson would catch seven passes for 123 yards. Three of those would be for touchdowns. One of those would be in the second quarter, along with a short Staubach-to-Richards  TD pass. The Cowboys were up 21-0 by halftime.

Dallas just kept pounding away. They won the rush yardage battle 195-22. Preston Pearson’s third touchdown blew it open in the third quarter. The lead rose to 34-0. Much like the season opener, L.A. didn’t score until the issue was long decided. With Staubach going 16/26 for 220 yards, this one ended 37-7.

The Cowboys were in the Super Bowl for the first time since their championship season of 1971. Facing the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas took a 10-7 lead into the fourth quarter. Staubach would go 15/24 for 204 yards. But in this game, Roger was also making mistakes. He threw three interceptions, while the Dallas defense couldn’t come up with a takeaway. Even though the secondary only allowed nine completions, they went for 209 yards. Dallas fell behind 21-10, tried to rally, but came up short in a 21-17 defeat.

1975 was still a comeback year for the Cowboys. They had returned to the playoffs, and this started a nine-year string of consecutive postseason appearances. And while Dallas had missed out on winning it all, that wasn’t long in coming—in 1977, the Cowboys captured another Super Bowl championship.