Uniquely Talented Linebacker Henderson Helped Make Doomsday Defense a Force

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Thomas Henderson (#56) chases down nemesis Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida in January 1979.

The Dallas Cowboys’ history is replete with stories of small college players who made it big in Big D.  Cliff Harris came from tiny Oachita Baptist College in Arkansas and starred at free safety for Dallas from 1970 through 1979.   Fort Valley State in Georgia produced future Cowboys’ Hall of Famer Rayfield Wright, and Elizabeth City State College gave Dallas stalwart lineman Jethro Pugh who wore the star for 14 solid seasons.

Also among the products of smaller schools was an unforgettable linebacker who brought speed, tenacity and power to the Cowboys in the mid-1970s.  Thomas Henderson, a first round pick out of Langston University in Oklahoma in the Dirty Dozen Draft class of 1975, saw his star burn brightly in Dallas for four seasons before substance abuse problems led to his untimely departure from the Cowboys.

Henderson, who turns 65 years old today, played with speed that was unmatched among NFL linebackers of his era.  In his second regular season NFL game, Henderson returned a kickoff 97 yards for a score in the Cowboys 37-31 win over rival St. Louis. Later in that season in Super Bowl X, Henderson nearly took another kickoff all the way settling for an electrifying 48 yard return.

The versatile and intelligent linebacker was equally adept at covering speed backs like Terry Metcalf coming out of the backfield, meeting battering ram backs like Earl Campbell in the hole or taking talented tight ends like Russ Francis out of their game.   Whether it was making a big tackle on defense or turning a game around with a great special teams play, Henderson was a player Cowboys’ opponents had to watch out for.

The Austin, Texas product seemed to come up big during the Cowboys’ biggest games during his peak in the 1977 and 1978 Super Bowl seasons.  In 1977, Henderson contributed a sack in Dallas 37-7 divisional round win over the Bears, an interception, five tackles and three assists in the NFC title win over Minnesota and five tackles and two assists in Dallas 27-10 victory over Denver in Super Bowl 12.

Henderson continued his excellent play in the 1978 post-season.   He recorded four tackles, five assists and a sack in Dallas’ 27-20 divisional round win over Atlanta, and put the icing on the cake of Dallas’ 28-0 rout of the Rams in the NFC Championship game with a 68 yard interception return for a score.  In Super Bowl XIII, Henderson and teammate Mike Hegman stripped Terry Bradshaw of the ball to allow Hegman to register a fumble return for a touchdown.

The abrupt end to Henderson’s Cowboys’ career was caused by a demon he could not control then, but one he has since mastered.  He now works to help others from falling into the same traps he did.   While it is easy to wonder what might have been if Henderson had been able to continue his Cowboys’ career into the 1980s, there’s no denying that he made an impact few other Cowboys’ players have made in such a short time period with the team.

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Random Game Sunday- Dallas 44 Buffalo 7, November 13, 2011

With the Cowboys over half a year away from taking the field for the 2018 season, we are going to go back in time to check out a random game from the team’s past and make some observations after watching that game.  Most of my collection of over 125 Cowboys’ games is from the relatively recent past, but I have collected some older games over the years and You Tube also allows for the viewing of some games I do not have in my collection.  Today’s game is from November 13, 2011 at Cowboys Stadium as the Cowboys face Chan Gailey and the Buffalo Bills in a rare contest between the  inter-conference foes.     

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Terence Newman begins his 43 yard interception return for a touchdown to close out the scoring in the Cowboys’ 44-7 win over Buffalo.

THE SET-UP

Dallas entered the game with a 4-4 record.  After winning two of their first three games, the Cowboys dropped three of their next four to fall below the .500 mark.  A 23-13 win over Seattle at home got their record even heading into the game with Buffalo.

The visiting Bills started play on November 13th with a 5-3 record.  After winning their first three contests, the Bills lost three of their next five heading into the game with the most recent loss coming in week eight by a 27-11 score to the New York Jets.

TONY WAS TERRIFIC

The Cowboys’ rout of the Bills was sparked by the great play of quarterback Tony Romo, whose 148.4 QBR for the game was the second highest in the NFL in 2011.  Benefiting from excellent protection from his line of Doug Free, Kyle Kosier, Phil Costa, Montre Holland and rookie Tyron Smith, Romo completed his first 13 throws in route going 23 for 26 for 270 yards and three touchdowns in the game.

Romo’s QBR rating was the fourth highest of his career, trailing his 151.7 mark against the Colts in 2014, a 150.5 figure in a 2012 Dallas win over the Eagles and his 148.9 rating in the Cowboys’ 38-10 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Buccaneers in 2006.

BIG PLAY ABILITY

Many complained about the 2017 Cowboys’ inability to make big plays in the passing game. That was not a problem in 2011.

Romo’s 56 20 yard plus passing plays on the season was the second highest total for a season in his career, behind only the 61 such plays he produced in 2009.

Two of the big plays hit for scores against the Bills.   On the Cowboys’ opening drive Romo threw a 34 yard scoring pass to Dez Bryant, who made a leaping catch over Bills’ corner Terrence McGee for the acrobatic score.

In the early minutes of the second quarter, a well-designed play on first down isolated Cowboys’ receiver Laurent Robinson on Bills’ corner Drayton Florence and Robinson beat him for a 58 yard touchdown on a beautiful post-pattern.

CARRYING THE LOAD

In his rookie year of 2011, running back Demarco Murray began to show signs that he would be a star in the NFL.  He gained 135 tough yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown against Buffalo, concluding a four game stretch in which he ran for 601 of his 897 yards on the season.

Murray’s ability to hit the accelerate out of cuts into the second level was on display in the early part of the game, as he helped the Cowboys offense dominate from the beginning grind-it-out runs that wore down the Bills’ defense.  In the fourth quarter, Murray, backup runner Phillip Tanner and the Cowboys’ offensive line combined to hold the ball for over six minutes leading to a Cowboys’ field goal that extended the Dallas lead to 37-7.

NEXT MAN UP

An early season injury to talented Cowboys’ wide receiver Miles Austin left a void in the Cowboys lineup, but backup Laurent Robinson stepped into that void to have the best season of his six year NFL career.

Robinson scored 11 of his 15 NFL touchdowns in his only season with the Cowboys, with two coming in the victory over Buffalo.  He would finish the season with 54 catches for 858 yards and a 15.9 yard per catch average as he became a reliable target for Romo.

RELIABLE AS THEY COME

Rookie Dan Bailey made all three field goal attempts he tried in the game, showing that the Cowboys had solved a problem at placekicker that had plagued the game for over a decade.  Bailey would end up making 32 of his 37 attempts on the year (86.5 percent), and his career would continue going up from there.   His 88.2 career success rate on field goals is the third best all-time for kickers with at least 50 field goal attempts.

 

A GOOD DAY FOR THE DEFENSE

Rob Ryan’s risk-taking defense had its ups and downs, both during the 2011 season and during Ryan’s tenure as Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.  On this day however, the defense did a superb job creating mistakes for a Bills’ offense that to that point had been careful with the ball.

A first drive sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick by Canton-bound Demarcus Ware set the tone early for a defense that pressured Fitzpatrick all game long.   Later in the first half, Ware and defensive backs Terence Newman and Gerald Sensabaugh sniffed out Bills’ screen pass attempts and made excellent open field tackles to prevent big gains.  In the third quarter, backup defensive back Danny McCray did the same on a pass to dangerous Bills’ halfback Fred Jackson.

In the second half, a hard hit by safety Sensabaugh caused Jackson to fumble with Jay Ratliff recovering in Dallas territory to thwart a Bills’ scoring opportunity.  In the final quarter, Newman provided a final big play with a 43 yard interception return for a score. The interception was one of two on the day for Newman, who finished his Cowboys’ career with 32 picks (tied with Lee Roy Jordan for the seventh most in Cowboys’ history).

MOVING THE CHAINS

In the game Romo and the Cowboys’ offense excelled at converting on third down, picking up eight first downs in 12 opportunities.  The Cowboys’ quarterback did so with the help of a variety of receivers.

On Dallas’ first drive, Romo hooked up with little used receiver Jesse Holley on a perfectly thrown 25 yard seam pass on a third and four play.  Bryant’s 34 yard touchdown came on the next play.

The next time Dallas got the ball, a five yard pass to Jason Witten on third and three from the Buffalo 25 kept the drive alive.  Four plays later on third and goal from the Bills five, Romo escaped a Buffalo blitz by spinning to his left and finding Robinson alone in the corner of the end zone for Dallas’ second touchdown.

In the drive leading to Murray’s score that put Dallas up 28-7,  Romo connected with Murray (17 yards), Witten (17 and 10 yards) and Bryant (11 yards) on third down passes that kept the chains moving for Dallas.

THE RESULT

The Cowboys’ win was part of a November to remember for the Boys, who won the following week in overtime at Washington and defeated Miami 20-19 on Thanksgiving Day in a Romo-led final quarter comeback.  Unfortunately the Cowboys final month was not as productive. Dallas lost four of its final five games, including a crushing 37-34 week 14 loss at home to the Giants.  By the time Dallas traveled to New York in the final week of the season in a NFC East title showdown,  the Cowboys had lost the momentum they’d built in November.  The Giants defeated Dallas easily in the contest, and the Cowboys’ once promising season ended in the disappointment of an 8-8 finish.

 

 

 

Too Tall Was Often Too Much for Cowboys’ Opponents

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Ed “Too Tall” Jones zeroes in on Tampa quarterback Doug Williams during the Dallas Cowboys’ 38-0 1981 divisional playoff victory over the Bucs at Texas Stadium.

For a decade and a half from the mid-1970’s through the 1980’s, towering Ed “Too Tall” Jones was as much a part of the Cowboys’ landscape as Tom Landry’s fedora and the hole in the roof at Texas Stadium.  Jones, who turned 67 on February 23rd, was one of the top defensive players in team history.

Arriving in Dallas in 1974 after being selected as the first pick in the NFL draft, the Tennessee State product proved to be a multi-talented player who not only anchored the Cowboys’ line for 15 years but also made those playing with him in the Doomsday Defense better.

Equally adept at stopping the run or at rushing the passer from his left defensive end position, Jones played in 20 playoff games (including three Super Bowls) during his 15 year career in Dallas and often came up big during crucial moments.   In the 1977 NFC championship game, Jones’ tackle caused a first quarter fumble by Minnesota’s Robert Miller that teammate Harvey Martin recovered at the Vikings’ 39 yard line.  Two plays later, Roger Staubach found Golden Richards in the end zone for a TD to give Dallas a lead they’d never lose as the Cowboys won their fourth NFC Championship.

In Super Bowl 12 against Denver, Jones had three tackles and two passes deflected as a relentless Cowboys’ defense dominated the Broncos in a 27-10 win that gave the Cowboys their second NFL title.

Jones’ height and excellent timing made him a threat to block opponents’ passes and kicks, and his efforts often led to easy touchdowns for teammates.  In both 1985 and 1987, Jones blocked passes by New York Giants’ quarterback Phil Simms that led to touchdown returns by Jim Jeffcoat in comeback Cowboys’ wins.

On the Cowboys’ kick blocking team, Jones was an imposing presence who often made big plays. The Cowboys’ miracle 1974 Thanksgiving Day Clint Longley-led comeback win over Washington would never had happened if not for Jones’ block of a Mark Moseley fourth quarter field goal attempt that would have given the Redskins a two score lead.  In 1983 with the Cowboys on the ropes at home against the New Orleans Saints in a week four contest, Jones blocked a Morten Andersen field goal try that Ron Fellows returned for a 62 yard score in a Cowboys’ 21-20 comeback win.

Jones was a three time Pro Bowler and was an All-NFL selection in the strike shortened 1982 season.   Despite losing a season in his prime when he left the NFL to pursue a boxing career, Jones’ 129 career Approximate Value (see Pro Football Reference.com for details on this tool) trails only Randy White’s 149 and Mel Renfro’s 130 among Cowboys’ defensive players.

It is hard to understand why Jones and his trademark number 72 are not memorialized in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. Although sometimes playing second fiddle to teammates like Harvey Martin and Randy White, there’s no denying that Jones was a dominating force in one of the NFL’s best defenses in the 1970’s and early to mid 1980’s.   Perhaps only Jason Witten has equaled Jones in terms of longevity plus top performance in Cowboys’ history.  Hopefully Too Tall’s efforts will be recognized in the near future and he’ll have a place in the Ring along with several of his teammates from the Cowboys’ first glory days.

 

Making Them Count

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Dallas Cowboys tight end Jeff Robinson hauls in a Vinny Testaverde pass for a Cowboys touchdown during the Browns-Cowboys game Sept. 9, 2004 at Texas Stadium. Dallas defeated Cleveland 19-12. (UPI Photo/Ian Halperin)

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A backup tight end who was known more for his long-snapping ability than for his pass catching skills is the only player in Dallas Cowboys’ history with more than one regular season reception who scored a touchdown on each catch.
Jeff Robinson, who turns 48 on February 20th, was a 15 year NFL veteran who played for the Bill Parcells-led Cowboys in 2003 and 2004.  In addition to helping to solidify the Cowboys’ kicking game by being a reliable snapper, Robinson contributed on offense on rare but always productive occasions.   Robinson caught a total of four passes for a whopping 10 yards during his time in Big D, but he found the end zone each time to write a rare footnote in Cowboys’ history.
The University of Idaho product’s first touchdown as a Cowboy was his longest in distance (five yards) and certainly his most significant.  The 2003 Cowboys under the direction of Parcells had emerged from three consecutive 5-11 seasons to become NFC playoff contenders.  With a surprising 7-3 mark heading into week 11 of the season, Dallas hosted the 8-2 Carolina Panthers with the best record in the NFC at stake.
With about five minutes gone in the third quarter and the score tied at 10-10, the Cowboys’ Roy Williams intercepted Carolina’s Jake Delhomme and returned the ball to the Panthers’ 11.  On second and four from the Panthers’ five with everyone in Texas Stadium looking for a run, quarterback Quincy Carter faked the run and a leaping Robinson at the back of the end zone for a score that gave Dallas a 17-10 lead.  Carolina evened the score at 17-17 on its next possession, but the upstart Cowboys did the visitors one better as they scored at the end of a 63 yard drive to retake the lead for good in an eventual 24-20 Dallas win.  In the post-game press conference, Parcells commented that Robinson’s catching a touchdown pass was “like a pitcher hitting a home run.  It’s gravy”.
Later in the season, Carter and Robinson hooked up again for score at Philadelphia on a three yard pass that evened the Cowboys-Eagles a NFC East match-up at 10-10 at halftime.
In 2004, Robinson caught one yard touchdown passes from veteran Vinny Testatverde in a week two Dallas 19-12 win over Cleveland and from unproven Drew Henson in a 30-10 drubbing by the Ravens in Baltimore.
The most memorable year in the long-time pro’s career probably came in 1999 when he played for the eventual Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams.  Robinson caught 6 passes for 76 yards and two scores in the regular season, and snagged a 13 yard touchdown from Kurt Warner in the Rams’ 49-37 NFC Divisional Round playoff win over the Vikings.
The one other Cowboy who almost joined Robinson on the “every catch for a TD list” was a player known more for throwing spirals than catching them.  Quarterback Danny White caught TD passes from Ron Springs in 1983 against the Los Angeles Raiders and in 1985 against Cleveland for two of his three career receptions.   His only other reception came on a pass from White himself.  In the 1980 opener at RFK Stadium against the Redskins, Washington’s Monte Coleman blocked a White toss back into the quarterback’s hands for a nine yard loss.

Random Game Sunday- Cowboys 28 NY Giants 7- December 2nd, 1979

With the Cowboys over half a year away from taking the field for the 2018 season, we are going to go back in time to check out a random game from the team’s past and make some observations after watching that game.  Most of my collection of over 125 Cowboys’ games is from the relatively recent past, but I have collected some older games over the years and You Tube also allows for the viewing of some games I do not have in my collection.  

Today’s game is from December 2, 1979 when the Cowboys took on divisional rival New York in a crucial late season contest at Texas Stadium. 

 

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The Set-Up

The Cowboys entered week 14 of the 1979 season in a tailspin.  After starting the year with a 7-1 record, the two time defending NFC Champions appeared to have their tickets punched for a trip to Pasadena in January to represent the conference in yet another Super Bowl.  But a 1-4 record over the five games leading up to the early December battle Dallas thinking not of lofty goals like a Super Bowl appearance, but of merely surviving in the playoff chase.

The Giants entered the game having won six of their last eight games, with one of the losses coming on a last-minute Cowboys 16-14 victory at Giants Stadium that was engineered in large measure by big plays from Dallas’ Roger Staubach, Drew Pearson and Tony Dorsett.   That trio would play a large role in a Cowboys’ victory that would get Dallas on the right track in pursuit of its fourth straight NFC East title.

A Dynamic Duo

Few quarterback/receiver combinations were as iconic as the Staubach-Pearson duo that helped the Cowboys to many a big win in their seven years together.   Pearson caught 27 regular season touchdowns from Staubach, with three of them coming in this game.

Pearson’s first score came in the second quarter on a beautifully executed seven yard slant pass that erased a 7-0 Giants’ lead.  Pearson got a great inside release against New York’s Terry Jackson, and Staubach hit him perfectly in stride with a laser of a throw to get the Cowboys on the scoreboard.

In the third quarter Pearson ran a great corner route, again against Jackson, to score from eight yards out.  Later in the period, even after being hobbled during an overzealous celebration following his second score, Pearson beat Ray Rhodes on a 44 yard post-pattern for a score with Staubach putting the ball right on the mark to expand Dallas’ lead to 21-7.

The three touchdown game was the first of Pearson’s career, a mark he would equal in 1980 in a 59-14 rout of the San Francisco 49ers.  The Staubach-Pearson scoring plays were the final ones they’d engineer together

Safety First

Young Giants’ quarterback Phil Simms got outfoxed by Cowboys’ All-Pro safety Cliff Harris in the third quarter, when Harris intercepted a throw down the middle in the third period.  Harris hung back but made a great break on the ball to record his 29th and final regular season interception for the Cowboys (he would retire following the 1979 season).

Harris’ first two interceptions as a Cowboy came on September 28, 1970, also against the Giants.  His seven career picks v.s. the New Yorkers was the most against any opponent.

Versatility is a Plus

A “glue” guy for the Cowboys of the 1970s and early 1980s was defensive back Benny Barnes, a player who played many roles in his NFL career.  Barnes’ versatility was on display in this contest.

First in the second quarter, Barnes separated New York punt returner Steve Odom from the ball resulting in a Ron Springs recovery deep in Giants’ territory.  Later in the same period, Barnes kept pace with speedy Giants’ wideout Earnest Gray to bat away a deep pass that had trouble for the home team written all over it.

“Martinized” on Both Sides of the Field

A Cowboys’ fan’s list of New York Giants’ defenders who’ve caused Dallas problems over the years certainly features Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor at the top of the list, but this game was played two years before LT joined the Big Blue.

In 1979, one of the main men (along with talented middle linebacker Harry Carson)  of the Giants’ defense was talented defensive end George Martin, and the University of Oregon product was a dominant force in the contest.  Martin registered a sack and a blocked pass in the second quarter, and was someone the Cowboys had to account for in pass protection throughout the game.

An equally dominant force on the other sideline was a player who shared a surname with his New York rival.  Dallas’ Harvey Martin made many big plays in the contest, picking up a sack and disrupting the Giants all game long.  Martin’s quick moves on several stunts allowed fellow linemen Dave Stalls, Bruce Thornton and Larry Bethea pick up sacks in a game where the Cowboys dropped Simms five times.

A Virtual Lock

Staubach’s win over the Giants was his 16th in 17 career starts against the Giants.   His only loss came in an early season 1974 contest when a disjointed Dallas team was in the midst of a four game losing streak.

The Heisman Trophy winner was great against other divisional foes during his Cowboys’ career as well, posting a 14-3 mark against the Eagles, a 13-5 record v.s. St. Louis and nine wins in 15 games against Washington.

Tony Tough

Many of Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett’s memorable runs came on plays where the speedy tailback broke into the secondary and ran for long distances without being touched.   In this contest, Dorsett gained 108 yards in 29 tough carries, with his longest run being only for 12 yards.  During the contest, Dorsett surpassed the 1,000 rushing yard mark on the year, becoming only the second player at that point in NFL history to have 1,000 or more yards in his first three years as a pro.

Going for a Long Drive

Early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys’ defense put up a great goal-line stand that prevented the Giants from cutting into Dallas’ 21-7 lead.  Taking over the ball at its own eight following the visitor’s failed scoring effort, Dallas went 92 yards in 17 plays over a whopping 9:57 with Dorsett scoring on a two yard touchdown to salt away the win.

The drive featured heavy doses of runs by Dorsett (42 yards) and backfield mate Robert Newhouse (25 yards), with passes from Staubach to Tony Hill and Jay Saldi sprinkled in as the Cowboys’ textbook perfect drive ended the competitive part of the contest.

The Result

The Cowboys’ win kept Dallas’ hopes of a divisional title alive and setup a week 15 contest at Philadelphia against the upstart Eagles. Dallas would win that game 24-17 and take out the Redskins at home in week 16 by a 35-34 score to win the NFC East with an 11-5 record.

 

 

 

 

Versatile Laidlaw Contributed to Cowboys’ Success in Mid-Late 70’s

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When asked about his team’s ability to continue to win despite suffering injuries to regular players, former Baltimore Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver cited the team’s “deep depth” as a reason for its success.

During their run of 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966 through 1985, the Dallas Cowboys were also a team that was able to plug a replacement piece into the machine and keep rolling right along.  One key replacement player for Dallas in the mid to late 1970s was running back Scott Laidlaw, who celebrates his 65th birthday today.

The Stanford product was a member of the Cowboys’ “Dirty Dozen” draft class of 1975 and made the team as a back-up to Robert Newhouse at fullback.  Laidlaw’s versatility and pass catching ability made him a perfect fit in Tom Landry’s multiple offense, that featured perhaps the best screen pass game in NFL history.

Laidlaw contributed right away in the 1975 season, gaining 24 yards on a perfectly executed shuffle pass from Roger Staubach to help set up Dallas first score in a surprising 18-7 opening day win over the powerful Los Angeles Rams.

In 1976, the multi-talented back rushed for 104 yards in Dallas’ opening week win over the Eagles. In his post-game press conference, Coach Landry said that “Laidlaw was just tremendous. He ran with a lot of authority, and ran hard in tight situations”.  One week later, he scored his first two NFL touchdowns in Dallas’ 24-6 week two win at New Orleans.   Later in the season, Laidlaw ran for 88 yards on 15 carries and scored Dallas’ only touchdown in a 17-10 loss at Atlanta.

Arguably Laidlaw’s best stretch of play as a Cowboy came in the latter part of 1978 season. With Dallas attempting to battle back into the NFC East lead after going 6-4 over the season’s first 10 games, Laidlaw provided some top level performances in the final quarter of the year.  On Thanksgiving Day in a showdown with the rival Washington Redskins, Laidlaw ran for a career high 122 yards and scored two touchdowns as the Cowboys erased Washington 37-10.   In a week 14 match with the talented New England Patriots, he caught two passes for 48 yards and ran for 40 more in the Cowboys’ 17-10 win.  And in week 15 at Veterans’ Stadium against the Eagles, Laidlaw scored on a 44 yard screen pass from Staubach and ran for another touchdown as Dallas won 31-13.

Laidlaw’s strong play did not end when the 1978 regular season was over. He ran for 66 yards and scored two touchdowns in Dallas’ 27-20 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in a first round playoff contest at Texas Stadium.

The 14th round draft pick’s final year in Dallas came in 1979.   His best game that season came in a week five rout of the Cincinnati Bengals as his two short touchdown runs early in the contest helped spark Dallas to a 38-13 rout.

Dallas’ success during its America’s Team heyday was largely due to contributions of familiar names like Landry, Staubach, Dorsett, Pearson, White and Martin.  But that success can also be attributed in significant measure to the team’s ability to have players in backup roles who were ready to step in and contribute when necessary. Scott Laidlaw was one of those players.

 

 

Random Game Sunday- Dallas 17 Arizona 3- October 13, 1996

With the Cowboys over half a year away from taking the field for the 2018 season, we are going to go back in time to check out a random game from the team’s past and make some observations after watching that game.  Most of my collection of over 125 Cowboys’ games is from the relatively recent past, but I have collected some older games over the years and You Tube also allows for the viewing of some games I do not have in my collection.  Today’s game is from October 13, 1996 when the Cowboys took on the Arizona Cardinals at Texas Stadium. 

THE SET-UP

Both teams entered the week six divisional showdown with 2-3 records.  The Cowboys were coming off of a bye following their week four 23-19 victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia. The game marked Michael Irvin’s first game of the 1996 campaign after the Playmaker had been suspended for the first four games of Dallas’ schedule.

The Cardinals were also coming off of a bye following their 31-28 overtime win at St. Louis against the Rams. Veteran quarterback Kent Graham threw for four touchdowns in that game.

PAT AND JOHN

As was the case for a good deal of the 1980s and 1990s, Pat Summeral and John Madden called the contest for FOX Sports.  There was something special about having Pat and John call a Cowboys’ game.  They were easy to listen to, informative and often humorous.  For my money, the Summeral/Madden team was rivaled only by the Summeral/Brookshier duo for the best TV crew to call a Cowboys’ game.

RUNNING STRONG

Emmitt Smith ran for 112 yards and scored the game’s only two touchdowns.  1996 was not an easy campaign for the future Hall of Famer, as Smith had to fight through injuries and an overall slump by the Cowboys’ once dominant offense.  On this day and for most of his career, seeing the Cardinals proved to be good for what ailed Smith.   His 25 career touchdowns against Arizona were the most against any team.  Smith posted 11 100 yard plus games and the Cowboys were 19-6 in the 25 games Smith played as a Cowboy against Arizona.

BATTLE OF THE TITANS

Intra-divisional contests allow fans to watch some fantastic one on one battles over an extended period of time. This Cowboys-Cards game featured two that were always fun to watch.

In the interior line, Dallas’ All-World guard Larry Allen squared off against Arizona’s massive Eric Swann in a match-up of dominant forces.   Few players could hold their own against Allen, but Swann’s size and strength made him a worthy opponent for Dallas’ future Hall of Fame lineman.

On the outside, Irvin went up against Aeanas Williams.   Irvin caught five balls on the day for 51 yards as he tried to shake the rust off from his suspension.  Williams shadowed Irvin for most of the game and came away with a nifty first half interception deep in Cards’ territory when Troy Aikman tried to find Irvin on a deep pass.

UNDERRATED STAR

When one thinks of defensive linemen in Cowboys’ history, the names Lilly, Martin, Jones, White, Haley and Ware (who despite officially being termed a linebacker was a defensive end in everything but position name) come to mind.  There have been others through the years who were underrated, such as Jethro Pugh, Larry Cole and Jim Jeffcoat to name a few.

Added to the list of underrated defenders should be rangy end Tony Tolbert, and the UTEP product had a strong game to thwart Arizona’s offensive attack.  Tolbert had two sacks in the contest, part of his career high 12 from the 1996 season, a campaign in which he was selected to his only Pro Bowl appearance in his nine year career.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Staying with the defensive line, Leon Lett was active and destructive in this early season contest with a divisional rival.   Quick off the ball, rangy and relentless, Lett looked primed to become one of the NFL’s best in his sixth year in the league. Unfortunately, his 1996 season would end prematurely with his year long suspension for a violation of NFL policies, a suspension that would take him out of the lineup when he was playing his best football.

LESS IS NOT MORE

Aikman was 23-37 for 199 yards in the game, displaying his usual pin-point accuracy on most of the short or intermediate passes he threw in the game. But in this game and the 1996 season in general, big plays were hard to come by for the Cowboys’ offense.

Dallas only 20 yard plus completion of the contest came late in the second half, when Aikman hooked up with trusty backup receiver Kelvin Martin on a 25 yard play that helped Dallas get in range for a Chris Boniol field goal that gave Dallas a 3-0 halftime lead.  After having 39 20 yard plus passing plays in 1994 and 43 in their Super Bowl winning season of 1995, Dallas had only 33 in 1996.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

Arizona came into the contest hoping to establish the ground game with speedy running back Leshon Johnson.  Dallas’ run defense, with middle linebacker Fred Strickland leading the way, would not let that happen as they held Johnson to only 21 yards in 14 carries.

PLAYING KEEP AWAY

Madden made a point early in the contest that Arizona’s offensive game plan made it clear that they would not be challenging Cowboys’ All Pro cornerback Deion Sanders.  That proved to be true, as quarterback Graham and the Cards’ passing game stayed away from Sanders for virtually the entire afternoon. That meant a lot of action would be coming to the other side of the Cowboys’ defense, and Kevin Smith helped up well against talented Arizona receivers Rob Moore and Frank Sanders.  A beautifully executed interception by Smith in the final minute of the game ended any hopes of a Cards’ comeback.

THE END RESULT

Dallas gritty, if not particularly artistic, win was a step on the Cowboys’ path to rebounding from a 1-3 start to win the NFC East for the fifth straight season.

The Cards’ loss was their sixth straight at Texas Stadium dating back to 1990. Arizona would go 7-9 on the year, losing to the Cowboys again in a low scoring affair (10-6) in Tempe in December.