DALLAS — Each year, Tom Landry examines his roster and decides what his Dallas Cowboys can win. Most times, the chore takes about as long as drying a dish. Scribble, scribble goes the pen and out comes the same answer: Super Bowl .
People quit chuckling at Landry's annual goals back in the late 1960s, when the Cowboys began appearing in championship games as if they had reservations. Folks suggested he become more creative and add to his list. Landry showed them his tight smile and went back to winning football games.
Things were going fine until, say, 1983, when the Cowboys played the Rams in the NFC wild-card game at Texas Stadium. By then, there were rumors that it would take a wheelbarrow to distribute all the pink slips if the Cowboys lost. Team unity was nonexistent. The only thing the Cowboys could agree on is that they disliked each other.
And that was that. The Rams beat the Cowboys, 24-17, on a frozen Texas day that magnified every hurt and made simple tackles sound like someone was getting hit with a waffle iron.
The next year, inspired by their sudden and unexpected departure from the playoffs, the Cowboys bickered even more, became embroiled in a quarterback controversy and lost to the then 0-11 Buffalo Bills. For the first time in 10 seasons, the Cowboys failed to advance to postseason play.
"We started needing to get slapped awake in '83," said Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' president. "In '80, '81 and '82, I guess, we were so close (three NFC championship game losses) that all of the sudden we lost track of the real world and all we thought about was winning it, going for the Super Bowl. If we didn't get to the Super Bowl, everything was a failure. You have the tendency to forget that you have to play games in-between."
Meanwhile, Landry's tight smile was replaced by a grimace.
Shortly before the 1985 season, Landry took out pen and paper. He wrote--and it must have hurt: Eastern Division champions .
For the Cowboys to settle for anything less than a visit to the Super Bowl was like substituting Spam for steak. "But it was reality," cornerback Everson Walls said.
"Well, you've just got to know your personnel and you've got to know the teams that your playing," Landry said. "You have to set goals that your team has a reasonable chance to make.
"But they can fool you," he said. "They may go all the way to the Super Bowl."
Wouldn't you know it? Almost two years to the day after their 1983 win, the Rams get another crack at ousting Dallas from the playoffs. This time, however, the Cowboys say they're ready. No more dissension. No more doubts.
"Now when you come off the field after scoring a touchdown, you'd think you just saved everybody's life," quarterback Danny White said.
"Just call it unity," Walls said.
A year ago, Walls publicly endorsed a change in quarterbacks, from White to Gary Hogeboom. Now, Walls and White have lockers next to each other and all is forgiven, or at least understood.
This isn't utopia, mind you. There have been moments of unrest and frustration. Running back Tony Dorsett and the Cowboys' management took turns calling each other names before a contract was satisfactorily restructured. Hogeboom didn't send a thank you note when Landry named White the starting quarterback in 1985. And defensive tackle Randy White wasn't thrilled when six Cowboy defensive backs wearing sunglasses and hats conducted a television interview shortly before a kickoff against the St. Louis Cardinals. Dallas lost the game, but unlike past years, the Cowboys quickly and quietly settled the problem.
If nothing else, the Cowboys have discovered they need each other. The superiority complex that came with five Super Bowl appearances in 1970s is rarely seen.
"It's not like when everybody knew they were going to get in the playoffs," defensive back Dennis Thurman said. "It's not a gimme like we used to feel it was. Now we have to work."
Said Dorsett: "We wear that star on the side of our helmets, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to win because of that tradition. Some people respected you so much that they didn't play well, or they always were waiting to get beat instead of going out to play to win. It's not like that anymore."
The Cowboys did the necessary things to win the NFC Eastern Division this year. They swept the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. St. Louis, favored to win the division and the conference, was never a contender.
Dallas also demonstrated a knack for survival. The Cowboys lost to the Detroit Lions early in the season and then won four consecutive games. The Chicago Bears visited Texas Stadium and left with a 44-0 victory that had the critics predicting an immediate Dallas collapse. Instead, the Cowboys won their next two games.
What's going on here? Dallas loses to the Cincinnati Bengals, 50-24, and then turns around and beats the favored Giants, 28-21. A division title soon is theirs, the first since 1981.