The Dallas Cowboys have missed the glory and the money for two consecutive years, losing each time to Green Bay by a few yards and a few seconds. The Packers won the NFL title in 1966 by stopping the Cowboys on the two-yard line as the game ended, and they won again in 1967 by scoring from approximately that same spot as time was running out. This year, however, the story may be different. This may be the year the Cowboys pick up those precious few yards and seconds.
"We're either going to be a lot better or we are really going to slip," says Tom Landry, the scholarly, quiet man who has done the best job ever done with an expansion team, bringing the Cowboys to two division titles in seven years. "The attitude of this training camp has indicated we're going to be better."
The effort and the attitude should be automatic. For two years now, the Cowboys have sniffed at the $25,000 plus that awaits the NFL champion and have come away with only a fraction of it—the $5,000 or so that goes to the runner-up. Mere tipping money. Looking forward to the big payoff this year, the Cowboy players came to camp in shape. "We had only two guys who couldn't make their time in the mile run," Landry said. "And they didn't miss enough to matter."
The Cowboys won their conference title last year with Don Meredith, their quarterback, suffering a variety of injuries during most of the season. He appeared healthy when he reported to the Thousand Oaks ( Calif.) training camp, although it was rumored that he was one of the two Cowboys who failed to finish the mile under the six minutes required for backs.
Meredith, at his best, is one of the four or five championship quarterbacks in pro football. He has a strong arm and he is able to hit the square-out patterns which test accuracy, as well as the long shots which test timing. He is an intelligent signal caller and has, in full measure, the charisma which a quarterback needs to lead a team. He has been well battered in previous years and has shown he can take the punishment without letting it affect his poise. If he escapes injury and plays at the level he is capable of, which is high, the Cowboys could beat the Packers—or whoever—for the NFL title.
They should not have too much trouble reaching the championship game even if Meredith happens to get hurt. Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome constitute the deepest reserve of quality quarterbacks in football. As if this were not enough, the sensation of the early weeks in Thousand Oaks was Roger Staubach, the old Navy All-America who belongs to the Cowboys and will be available next year. Staubach was superb.
Meredith will be protected by a sound offensive line. Ralph Neely, the brilliant offensive tackle who was crippled by injury most of the 1967 season, is ready. Guard Leon Donohue is also back, helped by off-season surgery. Donohue and Neely played side by side in 1967 and had only two good legs between them. Dave Manders, who was on the Pro Bowl team at center after the 1966 season, missed all of 1967, Mike Connelly filling in for him. The Cowboy offensive line, if the stitches hold, should be one of the best in football this year.
The running backs will be the same, although the rapid development of Craig Baynham may push Dan Reeves at one spot. Don Perkins, who is a politician in New Mexico, remains, in the eyes of Dallas Texans, the best fullback around. He blocks like a demon and has learned to break tackles, too, although he is not big as fullbacks go. "Perk has great stability, and he's the best pass protector in the league," Landry says. The Cowboys have good young runners behind the first three, including Walt Garrison and Les Shy.
The retirement of veteran Frank Clarke has left the Cowboy receiving corps without depth, but the front-line catchers—Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel and Pettis Norman—are all back. Pete Gent was moved over to tight end to help out there. Two top draft choices will be working for pass-catching jobs and should make it. They are Dennis Homan of Alabama, an All-America, and David McDaniels, a tall, second draft choice from Mississippi Valley. The Cowboys may be a bit thin in receivers, but if Homan lives up to his potential and there are no serious injuries, this will not bother them.