All in all, it has been a Lousy year for gods in the NFL. Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry, who has been to five Super Bowls, and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who has been to four, both are an unheavenly 2-8. Worse, nobody is fainting from shock. Landry has lost 22 of his last 30 nonstrike games, and Noll is only .500 (65-65) since his last trip to the Big Bowl, in January 1980. It looks as if he'll miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and Landry, for the third. Another Hall of Fame name, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, is 5-5 and seemingly headed for a third consecutive non-playoff finish.
What's the world coming to when 64% of those responding to a recent Dallas Times Herald poll want Landry's hat on a plate, and the guy in New Orleans is being made a saint by the folks on Bourbon Street? Or when Dolphin fans are grumbling about a Shula defense that has finished 26th, 26th and 23rd the past three years and are saying, "Why can't our team be more like Buffalo's?" Or when Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback of Noll's finest teams, says, "Someone is not doing a very good job, and that someone is Chuck Noll," and down the river Cincinnati's Sam Wyche is suddenly looking like a genius.
Shula, Landry and Noll rank 1, 2, 3, respectively, in career wins among active NFL coaches. They are 2, 3 and 5 in victories among NFL coaches dead or alive. They've been to 14 Super Bowls and won eight. Landry, 64, the only coach Dallas has ever had, is in his 29th season with the Cowboys. Noll, 56, is in his 20th with the Steelers. Shula, 58, is in his 19th with the Dolphins, after having coached the Baltimore Colts for seven. All three were winning NFL games before Mike Shanahan, the Los Angeles Raider coach, got his learner's permit. One hundred ninety-seven NFL head coaches have come and gone since Landry was hired. Maybe the story isn't how these guys finally let things slip, but how in creation they kept it together so long.
Fans in Texas really got to whispering after Dallas blew a 20-point lead against the Philadelphia Eagles three weeks ago. With two minutes left and the Cowboys ahead by six, Dallas faced third-and-two on what Landry thought was the Philly 30. So he called a pass to get his team within field goal range. But on the play, quarterback Steve Pelluer was called for intentional grounding, which put Dallas out of field goal range. In fact, the Cowboys had been on the 23, and a simple dive would have set up the boot. After Dallas punted, the Eagles went 85 yards to get the win. Ugh.
Is Landry ready for a rocker? He has always butchered names—Gary Hogenbloom, for one—and he continues to call the Los Angeles Raiders the Oakland Raiders. "Ah," says Cowboy general manager Tex Schramm. "I remember, even at the height of his success, he'd look around on the sideline and yell for a player who had been gone for three years." But at least he used to know where the line of scrimmage was.
Landry is still in great condition—he rides an exercise bike 20 minutes a day and lifts weights every other day—and he still works long hours, taking game films home and watching them until midnight and then rising at six. "I work 65 hours a week," his secretary, Barbara Goodman, told The Dallas Morning News, "and I barely keep up with him."
No, what Landry-lynchers should gripe about isn't that he lost track of the line of scrimmage, but that his defense allowed the Eagles to march 85 yards in two minutes. And that this season's 2-8 start is the Cowboys' worst since 1960, their first year. And that Herschel Walker seems to be one name Landry completely forgets when Dallas gets near the goal line. Walker has only one rushing touchdown this year, while Pelluer has thrown four goal-line or end-zone interceptions.
In Pittsburgh, they're calling the Steelers the Torn Curtain, and Noll, who refused to be interviewed for this article, is getting ripped. Even his own quarterback, Bubby Brister, lit him up two weeks ago during a Q-and-A session at a banquet. Brister said the Steeler offense was so predictable that "we may as well punt on first down and get it over with." He questioned Noll's refusal to use the shotgun and then threw in: "Anybody who can rush the passer, call the stadium—we need help quick."
Brister now says he was just trying for laughs, but the truth was there for anyone to see: Pittsburgh stinks. In a 34-14 drubbing at home by the Houston Oilers on Oct. 16, the Steelers had two punts blocked (their 1988 total now stands at five) and jumped offside seven times, three of them in a row. In 10 games this year Pittsburgh has rushed for more than 100 yards only five times.
As for Shula, the road isn't so rough right now, but the next patch of highway looks precarious. The Dolphins have won only two of their last 13 games against AFC East rivals and are 0-4 against them this season—and they have four intradivision games in a row coming up. While neither Landry nor Noll has a star quarterback, Shula is blessed with maybe the best, Dan Marino, but the Dolphins' defense is so bad that Marino continues to write masterpieces in invisible ink. Against the New York Jets three weeks ago, he threw for 521 yards—the second-highest total in league history—and lost.