1976 Dallas Cowboys: A Late Fade Stops A Championship Push

Dallas was coming off a surprise trip the Super Bowl in 1975, when a young team came together quickly and made a run out of the wild-card spot. A perennial contender, they had won a championship in 1971 and were looking to add a second ring to their resume. The 1976 Dallas Cowboys overcame adversity and were in position to do just that. But a crucial regular season loss was followed by playoff disappointment.

Cowboy success in 1976 started with the league’s fifth-best defense. Defensive end Harvey Martin had 14 ½ sacks. Strong safety Charlie Waters was a playmaker and a Pro Bowler. Free safety Cliff Harris got All-Pro honors. There were emerging stars like Ed “Too Tall” Jones up front and Bob Breunig at linebacker, combined with old vets, such as middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan.

Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach continued to lead the offense. Roger finished in the top eight among NFL QBs for both completion percentage (56%) and yard-per-attempt (7.4). His 14-11 TD/INT ratio doesn’t look great by modern standards, but being intercepted just 3.0% of the time in the world of 1976 meant you ranked fourth in the league for avoiding mistakes.

Staubach’s prime target was All-Pro receiver Drew Pearson, who caught 58 passes for 860 yards. Tight end Billy Joe Dupree was a Pro Bowler who caught 42 balls, and whose 16.2 yards-per-catch was exceptional for his position. Scott Laidlaw added 38 catches out of the backfield.

Where Dallas struggled was running the football. Even with an offensive line that had a Pro Bowl right side, in guard Blaine Nye and tackle Rayfield Wright, the running game did not emerge. Doug Dennison’s 542 yards led the team, and Robert Newhouse added 450. Both were below four yards per carry. It’s a key reason the Cowboy offense, while good, settled for being 10th-best in a 28-team league for points scored.

Dallas opened the season at home against the lowly Philadelphia Eagles. A couple of early Cowboy drives ended up with field goals, but they opened it up in the second quarter. Laidlaw would finish with 104 rushing yards on the day. Staubach went 19/28 for 242 yards and Dallas coasted home to a 27-7 win.

Another bad opponent in the New Orleans Saints was up next. Any problems with the running game still remained in the distant future. The Cowboys outrushed the Saints 198-69. Staubach went 15/22 for 239 yards and made no mistakes. The defense got five sacks. And Dallas got an easy 24-6 win.

The first real test came when the playoff-bound Baltimore Colts came to Dallas for a late afternoon marquee event. The Cowboys got outrushed in this one, 184-92. But Staubach outplayed the eventual MVP, Baltimore quarterback Bert Jones. Staubach went 22/28 for 339 yards, two touchdown passes and no interceptions. In a back-and-forth affair, the Cowboys got the last word with a field goal and a 30-27 win.

Another soft spot in the schedule was up, with road trips to play a Seattle Seahawks franchise in its first year, followed by the New York Giants. Newhouse had a big day in Seattle, rushing for 120 yards. Even though the Cowboys spotted the Seahawks, looking for their first franchise win, a 13-0 lead, Dallas took the lead by halftime and won 28-13. In the Meadowlands against the Giants, Staubach threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to DuPree that helped put Dallas up 17-0 by half. Playing a consistent, clean game, the Cowboys won 24-14.

At 5-0, another big game in the late Sunday afternoon window was up. Dallas would play the St. Louis Cardinals. An NFC East team prior to 2002, the Cardinals were the two-time defending division champs. Playing on the road, Dallas seemingly did everything they needed to do to win. They outrushed the Cardinals 151-90 and won turnover margin 4-1. Staubach, while a somewhat erratic 21/42, still threw for 250 yards. But the Dallas secondary was carved up by St. Louis quarterback Jim Hart and they took their first loss of the season, 21-17.

A home game with the mediocre Chicago Bears would prove a surprising turning point for the Dallas offense. They continued to play well, and the running game continued to perform well. They outrushed the Bears 241-93. But Staubach was knocked out, with a broken bone in his hand. Danny White came off the bench and played reasonably well. The Cowboys won 31-21. Staubach would come back the following week. But he really wouldn’t be the same, and the ripple effect extended to the rush offense.

In the meantime, Dallas had to go to Washington. The Redskins were a perennial contender, back in the hunt this year. The defense had to step up and they did. The Cowboys held the ‘Skins to just 88 yards rushing, and the offense simply avoided mistakes. Dallas’ 20-7 win was comfortable.

The Giants made their return trip to Dallas. The offense bogged down, and the Cowboys were outrushed 186-96. They never found the end zone. But they got three field goals, and the defense delivered another masterpiece. Dallas escaped with a 9-3 win.

A Monday Night home game with an awful Buffalo Bills team was more the same. The Cowboys couldn’t run the ball. Staubach was erratic. But he made some big plays, with Pearson catching nine balls for 135 yards. It was enough for another escape, 17-10.

But the luck ran out in Atlanta. Playing another poor team, the Cowboys again did not run the ball, and this time they didn’t protect Staubach. He was sacked four times and threw three interceptions. Dallas led 10-0 in the fourth quarter, but the defense finally broke. The Cowboys lost 17-10.

The record was still a healthy 9-2, and prior to 1978, the regular season schedule was only 14 games. Dallas was being chased by St. Louis, who was 8-3, with Washington trailing at 7-4. The Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Cardinals would be massive.

This time, the Cowboy defense kept the St. Louis passing attack under control. Staubach ran for one touchdown and passed for another. The special teams came up with a blocked punt that produced a safety. It was enough to fight out a 19-14 win. The division wasn’t formally clinched, but Dallas had a two-game lead on both rivals with two weeks to go.

Staubach played his best game post-injury in Philadelphia, going 23/40 for 259 yards with no interceptions. The Cowboys cruised to a 26-7 win and locked up the NFC East. Now, it was about securing playoff position. At 11-2, Dallas led the pack for the 1-seed going into the final week. The Minnesota Vikings were in hot pursuit at 10-2-1.

The Cowboys had a difficult finale, hosting the Redskins, who needed to win to edge out the Cardinals for what was then a single wild-card spot. Playing in the late afternoon TV window, it was known that Minnesota had won earlier in the day.

Dallas clung to a 14-13 lead after three quarters. But they again were not controlling the ground game. They weren’t protecting Staubach, who was sacked five times. When Staubach did throw, he was awful—5/22 for 91 yards. Dallas collapsed in the fourth quarter and lost 27-14. Minnesota got homefield advantage. The Cowboys would get a home game in the Divisional Round, but had to settle for the 2-seed.

It turns out, even homefield wouldn’t save Dallas against the Los Angeles Rams. The Cowboys only ran for 85 yards. Staubach threw three interceptions. Once again, the defense kept them in it, and got three picks of their own. The special teams came through, with Waters blocking a punt to set up one touchdown. And, trailing 14-10  late in the game, Waters did it again—a blocked punt set up the Cowboys on the Ram 17-yard line. But they couldn’t finish the job, with a fourth-down pass to DuPree coming up less than a yard short of the marker. The next time Los Angeles had to punt they took no chances and just took a safety. The season ended with a  14-12 loss.

Dallas would rise from the ashes of disappointment. An offseason got Staubach’s hand healthy. And the front office, committed to upgrading the running game, swung a big trade to move up in the draft and pick a future Hall of Fame back in Tony Dorsett. In 1977, it all came together, and the Cowboys won another Super Bowl.