Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett rushed for a career high 1,646 yards during the 1981 regular season, and he added 86 more in Dallas’ first round playoff game 38-0 trouncing of Tampa Bay on January 2, 1982.
A staple of the Tom Landry-led Dallas Cowboys teams was a commitment to the running game. With a history of great runners like Don Perkins, Calvin Hill, Duane Thomas, Robert Newhouse and Tony Dorsett plus deep and talented offensive line units, the Cowboys generally moved the ball effectively on the ground.
The 1981 Cowboys certainly fit that mold. Dallas rushed for 2,711 yards during the regular season, the second highest total in the NFL, with star back Tony Dorsett gaining a career high 1,646 to finish second in rushing in the league behind New Orleans’ George Rogers.
In large part due to its sterling running game, Dallas was among the NFL’s elite in 1981. The Cowboys started fast, going 4-0 to start the year. After a pair of losses, Dallas ran off another four game winning streak with three of the four wins coming against teams that would win 10 or more games on the year. An upset loss at Detroit made Dallas 8-3 on the year, but the Cowboys ripped off another four game winning streak and clinched the NFC East title in Week 15 with a 21-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Cowboys’ opponent at Texas Stadium in the first round of the NFC playoffs was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by quarterback Doug Williams and a ball-hawking defensive backfield that finished second in the NFL with 32 interceptions. After 60 minutes of dominant play by the Cowboys, it was clear that the Bucs were not in the same class as a Dallas team that would be heading to its 11th NFC Championship game.
Dallas ran for 212 yards in the game, the sixth highest total in Cowboys’ playoff history. Dorsett led the way for Dallas with 86 yards, with Ron Springs (70), James Jones (32) and Newhouse (23) contributing to the impressive effort. Dallas also became only the second team in Pro Football since 1960 to have four players score rushing touchdowns in a post-season game as Dorsett, Springs, Jones and second year man Timmy Newsome all reached the end zone on running plays (the other team was the AFL’s San Diego Chargers, who got rushing scores from Paul Lowe, Keith Lincoln, Tobin Rote and John Hadl in a 51-10 playoff victory over the Boston Patriots in the 1964 post-season).
The Cowboys’ success on the ground was due not only to its talented stable of backs, but also to a top-notch effort by its offensive line. The middle of the line, anchored by center Tom Rafferty and guards Herbert Scott and Kurt Petersen, carved out several ridiculously large holes on goal line plays that made the Cowboys’ backs’ task much easier. Tackles Jim Cooper and Pat Donovan, along with tight ends Billy Joe DuPree and Doug Cosbie, also did their part to allow Dallas’ running game to control the contest.
The Cowboys’ defense was also outstanding on the day, featuring a relentless pass rush that led to four sacks and four interceptions. Dallas’ dynamic duo of Harvey Martin and Randy White both had a sack on the day. Left end Ed Jones did not pick up a sack, but he hurried Williams numerous times and had a rare interception. Next to Charlie Waters no Dallas defensive back had more interceptions in the post-season than cagey Dennis Thurman, and the Southern Cal product had two off of Williams. Rookie Michael Downs also got in on the fun with an interception of his own.
Dallas shutout was one of only 20 shutouts registered in post-season play since the NFL merger in 1970. No team in the NFL has more than Dallas’ three during that period (the Cowboys also shut out Detroit in the 1970 playoffs and the Los Angeles Rams in the 1978 NFC Championship Game).
The Cowboys’ 1981 season would have a bitter ending eight days later. At Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Joe Montana led the 49ers to a 28-27 comeback victory over Dallas to send the Niners to the Super Bowl and the Cowboys back to Dallas to wonder what might have been.