Halfheartedly, the Dallas Cowboys have moved into the playoffs again, their invitation engraved on a wild card. This means that they have qualified for postseason play for each of the last seven years, or ever since there has been a Super Bowl. In addition, they have made the Super Bowl the last two, and finally, last January, they demolished the Miami Dolphins to win their first world championship. But unless the Cowboys can cure an extreme case of split personality, it does not seem at all likely that they will be in Los Angeles on Jan. 14 when the NFL title is settled this season.
The best tip-off on how this very good football team has played all year came early in the second quarter of the game against Washington last Saturday. Moving with the crisp urgency that marked their drive to the championship in 1971, the Cowboys had just scored to go ahead of the Redskins 21-0. They had dominated the game easily, displaying almost flawless football both on offense and defense. You had the feeling, watching them inscribe their plays on the green artificial turf of Texas Stadium as meticulously as their coaches had drawn them on blackboards during the week, that they would dismantle the Redskins.
But Tex Schramm, the president of the club, sat in the press box staring glumly at the field, his mouth drawn down, the picture of a man watching his team take a horrible beating.
"Hey," a friend said. "Cheer up. You've got the game won."
"No, we haven't," Schramm said forlornly. "We don't have a big enough cushion yet."
The Cowboys built the cushion to 28-3 before the half, but then their personality split. All season long the Cowboys have played excellent football during the first two quarters of a game, then imitated somnambulists during the final two. Last week offered a classic example. In their scintillating first half the Cowboys out-gained the Redskins 210 yards to 84. They scored four touchdowns and shut off everything the Redskins tried to do, on the ground and in the air. But when they kicked off to Washington to start the second half, the picture changed completely. Washington, without Larry Brown, who was resting an injured knee, promptly marched 66 yards in 13 plays to score its first touchdown against a Dallas defense operating with what might best be described as languid determination.
Before it was over, the Redskins had two more touchdowns—and a 21-6 rout in the second half, which meant that Dallas just held on to win both halves by 34-24. "We were so far ahead, the defense began to try to contain them, instead of forcing the play," Coach Tom Landry said after the game. "We were cutting off the long gainers, but they were taking the short stuff, and the first thing we knew, there they were crossing the goal line."
It was all painfully reminiscent of the three games the Cowboys have lost this year, as well as of the 10 they have won. Overall, in the 13 first halves, they have outscored the opposition by 181 points to 91, but in the second halves their margin has been only 135-126. At least Saturday's turnabout was less complete than their first game with the Redskins, when the Cowboys led 20-7 at halftime but managed to lose 24-20. That particular second-half swoon kept Dallas from winning a divisional championship for the first time since 1965, which means that the Cowboys will be on the road for any and all playoff games.
Chuck Howley, the six-time All-Pro outside linebacker who tore ligaments in his left knee in the third quarter last Saturday and is now lost for the season, spoke before the game about the weekly Cowboy second-half collapse. "Our problem could be overcaution," he said. "In the first half we're fresh and we are not afraid to take chances. Then we lay back, trying to avoid looking bad in the game films. You know, the Cowboys have always been real big on statistics, so we're always conscious out there of how we'll grade out in the films on Tuesday morning. The irony is that when I look back on the big plays I've made in my career, I realize I've always been out of position when I made them."
The Cowboys did manage to show flashes of their old precision—particularly in their running—throughout the Redskin game. Both Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison rushed for more than 100 yards, Hill also topping the 1,000-yard season mark, the first time any Dallas player has. Both of the running backs credited their success to the exceptional blocking of the Cowboy line. It swept aside the Redskin front four almost contemptuously in the first half, and in the second it still managed to create enough passable holes to keep Hill and Garrison moving and to preserve the victory.