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It is in the nature of pro football that its teams do not consume us—baseball is the consuming American sport. The hold of the NFL in most cities is firm but not grasping, like the grip of the league's offensive linemen most of the time. But the Dallas Cowboys are something different—a kind of majestic nation-state. Just as there are Kremlinologists, there are Cowboyologists, who watch the team closely. And the Cowboys have never been more watchable than they will be this season unless, of course, you are one of their Brazilian fans, in which case you will have to keep your distance.
Dallas is coming off the third straight year in which it ended the season losing the NFC championship game, and questions have been raised about some of the players' sense of discipline and purpose. After five trips to the Super Bowl in the '70s, the Cowboys have not been back in the past four years. Getting close and failing three times concerns them mightily. "It seems like by accident you'd get in one of the three times," says Coach Tom Landry. "We feel our personnel is good enough; we just need to be more of a team. The thing we discovered the past two years is that teams can go to the Super Bowl without great experience, as the 49ers proved, and without exceptional talent, as Washington demonstrated."
That's another nice thing about the Cowboys—they never lose games, but occasionally the other team does get lucky, as Pittsburgh did in its 24-7 exhibition victory last Saturday night. This season there is swirling about the team a drug controversy, a quarterback controversy—hereinafter known as the Quarterback Controversy—and a "team concept" controversy, which pretty much incorporates the other two. One thing that people haven't hitched their wagons to yet (there is also a "circle the wagons" controversy, but never mind) is that while Landry might be thinking about naming Gary Hogeboom the starting quarterback of America's Team, he pronounces the name hogen-boom, not hoag-ih-boom, which seems worth a controversy of its own.
The Cowboys have achieved a record of stability under Landry that is un-equaled in the NFL—16 playoff appearances in the past 17 seasons, including 14 trips to the conference championship game and a remarkable 17 consecutive winning seasons. The Cowboys have not had a losing season since 1964, the same year the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The team currently closest to Dallas in consecutive winning seasons is the San Diego Chargers, who for the past five years have had winning records. Landry says with obvious pride, "We don't live from year to year around here."
Landry is a flinty conservative who has a way of making anyone who would change lineups "from year to year" sound like an impetuous rakehell. So it naturally came as something of a shock to the Cowboys when Landry announced this spring that he would be making shifts on a week-to-week basis. "Our approach will be one in which we'll be much quicker to change people...more," Landry said. "There won't be a situation as in the past where if a guy is just a nose ahead of the other, he'll play all the time. This year it's going to be very competitive."
And Landry didn't stop there. He made a reference to the "emergence" of Hogeboom, who had been the Cowboys' only bright light in that 31-17 loss to Washington in the NFC championship game in January. Implicit was a message to the other Cowboys: If Danny White's job was in jeopardy, nobody's was safe.
White arrived at the Cowboys' training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. with no reason to believe he was in trouble, and he was confident enough to joke with the Dallas writers about what they were already calling the Quarterback Controversy. But White threw two interceptions in his first preseason appearance against Miami and was booed by the Dallas fans, while Hogeboom rallied the team to a 20-17 victory with two touchdowns in the final 1:53. Landry stirred matters up further by saying that White was still his starting quarterback, then adding, "but that could change." When Hogeboom was chosen to start the next game against the Rams at Anaheim, White became peevish with reporters and refused to discuss the situation. Clearly, for White, the fun had suddenly gone out of the contest.
Dallas pummeled Los Angeles 30-7, the Rams' only score coming when LeRoy Irvin intercepted one of White's passes and ran it back 80 yards for a touchdown. Hogeboom had won the first two rounds of what had now become an intriguing battle for one of the game's preeminent glamour jobs, and it was increasingly evident that the incumbent's self-confidence was slipping away. When someone brought up the Quarterback Controversy again after the Rams game, White said despairingly, "This thing has been milked and milked and milked. The cow is dry."
White's support among the Cowboys began to dry up last season when he seemed to adopt a pro-management stance during the players' strike, and he has had difficulty regaining the respect of many teammates. "I think it hurt him," says Wide Receiver Drew Pearson. "There were some things done on Danny's part that the majority of players felt were unnecessary. In the middle of negotiations, all of a sudden we see that Danny's going to [President and General Manager] Tex Schramm and trying to settle the strike himself. And when we said things among ourselves in meetings, well, I'm not saying Danny went back and told management, but things we said got back. A lot of players resented it."
Hogeboom, meanwhile, began to enjoy the admiration of his teammates, and occasionally even found himself being compared with the most hallowed of Cowboy idols—Roger Staubach. "The players have a lot of respect for Gary," says Pearson, "because they know he can play. He exudes confidence. He gets in the huddle and he gives you this feeling, even when he's having a bad day, that he'll still be able to pull the game out at the end with a big play. There's only one other quarterback I've seen the same thing in, that mystique, and that's Roger Staubach."