Year in and year out, the Dallas Cowboys are somehow able to maintain a standard of excellence that is the envy of the National Football League. Dallas is the kind of organization that fills holes immediately; that always seems to draft well; and that continues to win even during a rebuilding year.
When Coach Tom Landry had to go with a new first-string quarterback last year , after Roger Staubach retired, there were those who thought that the Cowboys would find themselves in at least a minor slide.
Instead, new QB Danny White threw for 28 touchdowns; Landry became only the third coach in NFL history to get 200 wins; and Dallas made the playoffs (as a wild card) for the 14th time since 1966.
Landry's only major disappointment, aside from losing the National Conference championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles, was the Cowboys' defense, which gave up more yards than any Dallas team since 1975. Mostly it didn't react with speed that Landry hoped it would.
"We really didn't solve our defensive secondary problems completely last year and this hurt us," Tom said. "The way pro football has changed its rules to help the offense, downfield receivers now have more room and more freedom to catch the football. While this is great for the spectator, it puts an extra burden on the defense.
"The only way you can stop receivers now is to bump them early, within the 5 -yard limit, to prevent them from freewheeling so much downfield," he continued. "By the end of last season, defensive backs all over the league were playing up on receivers more than ever before and that trend is probably going to continue."
Landry, whose military-school personality loses a lot of its stiffness within the confines of his office, believes winning has a carryover effect from week to week and season to season. And Tom has obviously found a way to make his personnel play regularly at a high emotional level.
Part of this is because the Cowboys prepare so well, including overloading their defenses against an opponent's strength, yet in a manner that isn't immediately recognizable. The way Landry stacks things in his mind, he is always moving one or two steps ahead of the play itself.
When training camp opened, there was speculation that running back Tony Dorsett was at a crossroads -- that he was due for a clash with Landry over the number of times he would carry the ball per game. Tony thinks the figure should be at least 25; his coach more like 17.
The problem came up because of Dorsett's size -- 5 ft. 10 in. and maybe 185 pounds. Those are the stats of a racehorse in pro football, and the trend in recent seasons has been to more warlike backs such as Houston's Earl Campbell.
the theory is that a man with speed who weighs somewhere around 225 lbs. is going to be more durable than one who only goes about 185. In most cases that's probably true, but Dorsett is something extra special or he wouldn't be the only player in NFL history to rack up 1,000 or more yards in his first four pro seasons.
"There is no point in me continuing to make a big issue of how often I want to carry the ball, because the Cowboys already know how I fell," Dorsett told reporters. "But I know I can handle a bigger workload and still retain my effectiveness.
"Although my basic style isn't to run over guys when I can sidestep them, I'm not afraid of traffic if there is no other way," Tony added. "I still haven't had the kind of season in the NFL that I'm capable of having. I'm talking about leading the league in rushing, making All-Pro, and maybe having a shot at the MVP award."
Although opposing teams often talk about Landry's computer printout defensive plans as though they were carved in stone, it's the Cowboy's flexibility that has actually made them so tough. They react well to almost everything the offense does; they pursue with great intensity; and Tom always seems to know when to pull a linebacker and put in an extra defensive back.
Dallas's 12-5 regular-season record last year in the NFC East was exactly the same as Philadelphia's. The main difference was that the Eagles' defense allowed the opposition 89 fewer points and also beat the Cowboys 20-7 in the playoff game that put them into the Super Bowl.
Landry isn't saying that won't happen again, but those who think they know how to read his poker face are sure his present plans do not allow for that possibility.