The Dallas Cowboys are in first place once again, and perhaps they finally will be Next Year's Champions, but the little old man in the shoeshine parlor in the Marriott Motor Hotel is skeptical. "Something weird always happens to the Cowboys," he said sagely. "You get to wonder if the Man Upstairs likes us. Why, here's what He probably will do to us this time. The Cowboys will be in the Super Bowl, the score will be tied, and they will have the ball with time for one last play. Roger Staubach will fade back. He'll wait. Then he'll spot Bob Hayes standing all alone in the end zone. And Staubach will throw a perfect pass. Touchdown? Heck, no! The ball will explode in midair, flutter to the ground—and the Cowboys will lose in sudden death."
If the Cowboys are deflated once again, it will hardly shock their fans, for they have been well schooled in the gentle art of defeat, Dallas style. While the Cowboys always seem to have the best team "on paper," as Redskin Coach George Allen claims, football, alas, is played on a field and they usually have come up with ways to fold—ones not dreamed of in origami, the gentle art of Japanese paper folding. Dallas has compiled the third best record in pro football in the last five years. "But what do we have to show for it?" asks Dan Reeves, their player-coach. "Zip!"
In those five years the Cowboys have somehow managed to lose one Super Bowl game, two NFL championship games and two conference championship games, not to mention a Runner-up Bowl. "It sure has been frustrating," says Bob Hayes, who has lived through all the disasters. "I've seen it all, I hope. So many bizarre happenings! Like the Ice Game at Green Bay; my first hockey game, really. Like someone going offside or fumbling just as we were about to score a big touchdown late in the game. Like deflections turned into interceptions—the reason we lost the Super Bowl. But it must end sometime."
Must it? If there is a new way to lose, the Cowboys will find it. Perhaps it's a case of over-think. A computer assembled them, a computer instructs them and a computer even inspires them, but most of the time the Cowboys clank around like a '51 Ford Victoria stuck in reverse. "According to the charts we should be the best," says Tex Schramm, the Dallas general manager. "Unfortunately, we always seem to live in a state of distraction. Or adversity. Something like that. Just one dilemma after another."
For Schramm and Coach Tom Landry, this has been the Cowboys' most dilemmaful year since they helped create the team back in 1960. What to do, for example, about Duane Thomas, the running back who bad-mouthed the players and the management? Who to play at quarterback, Roger Staubach or Craig Morton? Pay Ralph Neely, who broke his leg in a mid-season motorcycle accident, or not pay Ralph Neely?
These and other vexing questions have plagued Schramm and Landry, and so far they have solved only one: after months of vacillation that threatened to destroy the team, Landry finally settled on Staubach as the No. 1 quarterback. With Staubach and Morton alternating in various ways, the Cowboys had a 4-3 record. Now, with Staubach in the saddle, they have won four straight, picked up 2� games on the Washington Redskins and moved into first place in the NFC's Eastern Division.
Their 1971 problems started in training camp when Thomas, the club's best running back as a rookie last season after replacing the injured Calvin Hill, demanded that the Cowboys renegotiate his contract. When Schramm refused, Thomas called him "sick, demented and completely dishonest" and, as an afterthought, said Landry was a "plastic man." Schramm laughed off the allegations directed at him, saying, "That's not bad—he got two out of three." A few days later he traded Thomas to the New England Patriots.
Thomas reported to the Patriot camp in Amherst, Mass., but when Coach John Mazur told him to get down in a three-point stance, Thomas demonstrated the two-point stance he preferred and told Mazur, "This was how we did it in Dallas, and this is how I'm going to do it' here." Mazur showed Thomas how he would not do it here, ordering him from the field, and before long Thomas once more belonged to the Cowboys. But he refused to rejoin the team unless the Cowboys gave him a new contract.
The week after Dallas' opening game Thomas relented and became a Cowboy in good standing. In a sense he won his point or, more precisely, resorted to his favored two points. Thomas has since replaced the reinjured Hill in the regular backfield, but all season long he has been a loner and, according to Schramm, "exceedingly quiet." When the Cowboys travel, Thomas takes the middle seat in a three-seat row so no one will sit beside him and pulls a yellow stocking cap over his ears.
After one game Jethro Pugh, the defensive tackle, asked Thomas, "How's your knee?" Thomas, who had injured the knee that day, glared at Pugh and shot back, "Why do you want to know? Are you a doctor?" Although Thomas' behavior puzzles his teammates, they accept it and will continue to do so as long as he performs well on the field. Said Dan Reeves, who spends hours each week helping Thomas memorize the game plan, "Whether you like Duane or not, there's one thing you must admire about him. Most people in the world, and I'm not excluding myself, are wishy-washy. They go with the flow. Not Duane. You know where he stands on everything."