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Star: Cowboys, Steelers Share Unique, But Rivaled History
This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
The week before the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers played Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, a columnist wrote how the local fans wouldn’t really have a rooting interest in the outcome of the game. That opinion was quickly squashed by the overwhelming majority.
And yes, that columnist would be yours truly.
Call me naïve. Always thought the No. 1 rival for players and fans were the Washington Redskins. Possibly, more recently, the Philadelphia Eagles. Or maybe the Giants. And for some, this is accurate.
But never would have imagined the disdain by Cowboys fans for the Steelers. Keep in mind this works on both ends. For many Pittsburgh fans, their second-favorite team each week is whoever is playing the Cowboys.
So what’s the deal? Why the sports hatred between the Cowboys and Steelers? Seriously, how much animosity could two franchises have for one another when they’ve only played nine times since 1979? Heck, they’ve played twice since Aug. 31, 1997, at least before today’s kickoff. Twice in 15 years, three months, two weeks and a day.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh played twice in 15 days earlier this season. The Cowboys and Eagles played twice in seven days in January 2010.
The easy answer are the two Super Bowls the teams played in the 1970s, both close games ultimately lost by the Cowboys. Those outcomes have had long-term effects for both fan bases, even the teams themselves. For Pittsburgh, yes, those triumphs secured immorality, Team of the Decade status, a bevy of Pro Football Hall of Famers, but the fact the Cowboys were dubbed “America’s Team” right around the same time infuriates Steeler fans. To this day.
As for Dallas, for fans old enough to remember those games, no two losses in franchise history have been more painful. Roger Staubach himself has said on multiple occasions that those were far and away the two most disappointing defeats of his career.
This was about ego and pride on both sides, not to mention, both home bases, Western Pennsylvania and Texas are arguably the country’s most passionate football fans, be it high school, college or NFL.
The teams have met 30 times, with each winning 15. Of the eight franchises the Cowboys have played at least 30 games against, they only have a losing record against the Cleveland Browns, at 13-17.
Let’s take a look back at 10 of the most memorable games of the rivalry:
Sept. 24, 1960 – Steelers 35, Cowboys 28
Coincidentally, the first opponent in franchise history was the Steelers. This was long before anyone cared about professional football in North Texas, never mind having built up any dislike of opposing teams. The announced attendance for the opener at the Cotton Bowl was 30,000, but that was the most generous of estimates.
Dallas almost pulled off a stunner, taking early leads of 14-0 and 21-7 behind veteran quarterback Eddie LeBaron, the “Little General” himself. Alas, four turnovers proved too much to overcome and Bobby Layne, who played at nearby Highland Park in high school, tossed four touchdowns to lead Pittsburgh to a 35-28 win.
Sept. 17, 1961 – Cowboys 27, Steelers 24
After the inaugural Cowboys finished winless, at 0-11-1, once again the season’s opening opponent was the Steelers. This time around, however, Dallas emerged victorious, the first win in franchise history.
This game was a back-and-forth affair, again before a sparse crowd of 23,500 (another generous estimate), with Dallas scoring first on a 44-yard touchdown catch by Frank Clarke. Trailing 17-14 entering the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh scored 10 quick points before a late Cowboys comeback, culminated by a 27-yard Allen Green field goal in the final seconds.
Sept. 23, 1962 – Steelers 30, Cowboys 28
First off, guess the NFL schedule maker liked the idea of Pittsburgh visiting Dallas early in the season. While not the opener, it was Week 2.
This was undoubtedly one of the more bizarre games in the rivalry, with a would-be league record 99-yard touchdown pass from LeBaron to Clarke called back for a holding penalty on guard Andy Cvercko. Worse, a holding penalty in the end zone results in a safety, so thus, a nine-point swing.
Despite a furious comeback and two touchdowns by Don Perkins, the Cowboys fell short in the end.
Oct. 31, 1965 – Steelers 22, Cowboys 13
In many ways, one could make the case that this was the most instrumental game in franchise history. Yes, a nine-point loss, which dropped the Cowboys to 2-5. The game itself, at least in terms of what occurred on the field, isn’t significant or memorable in the least. The teams combined for just 10 points in the second half.
However, the events that took place after the game, in the bowels of Pitt Stadium on Halloween, would forever change a franchise. In addressing his team, Landry broke down and cried, telling the players how proud he was of them and that maybe he was the problem. He even told them he probably wouldn’t be returning in 1966. To date, the Cowboys were 20-51-4 under Landry.
The team rallied around its coach, winning five-of-seven to finish the year before embarking on 20 consecutive winning seasons.
Oct. 30, 1966 – Cowboys 52, Steelers 21
By this point, Landry’s team was the talk of the league, having started the year 4-0-1 before a disappointing, but competitive loss at Cleveland the week previous.
Stunningly, at least when compared with the final score, the Cowboys didn’t score in the first quarter, and trailed 7-0 in front of nearly 60,000 at the Cotton Bowl. Yes, how the times and attendance quickly changed after Dallas starting winning.
An offensive explosion quickly followed, some 45 points in two quarters. By the end, despite nine penalties and three turnovers, the Cowboys gained 425 yards to Pittsburgh’s 119.
Super Bowl X – Steelers 21, Cowboys 17
This is when the rivalry really started, despite the teams having played 17 times previous. Entering Super Bowl X at the Orange Bowl, Dallas had won the last seven of those games, although the majority were competitive.
The Steelers were the defending Super Bowl champs and without question the league’s best team, 12-2 in the regular season. This game is most-remembered for Lynn Swann’s then-Super Bowl record 161 receiving yards, a few of those catches endlessly replayed by NFL Films. Dallas led entering the fourth quarter, but Pittsburgh scored 14 unanswered points before a late touchdown catch by Percy Howard closed the gap. That would prove the lone reception of Howard’s career.
Super Bowl XIII – Steelers 35, Cowboys 31
In terms of the most painful losses in franchise history, this ranks first, although some old-school fans may throw the back-to-back defeats to the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Games in 1966 and 1967 into the debate.
Many of the players, coaches and fans felt this could have been the best of Landry’s teams, winners of eight straight entering Super Bowl XIII, including a 28-0 dismantling of the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC title game.
This was one of those ultimate games, the kind which define an era, in this case, the Team of the Decade was clearly up for grabs. The pregame buildup included Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson famously saying Terry Bradshaw couldn’t spell cat if someone spotted him the “c” and the “a.”
The most recalled play, alas, is the Jackie Smith dropped touchdown in the third quarter with the iconic call of Verne Lundquist: “Third down and three, Dallas at the Pittsburgh 10. Roger back to throw, has a man open in the end zone … caught, touchdown … dropped. Dropped in the end zone. Jackie Smith, bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.”
Sept. 13, 1982 – Steelers 36, Cowboys 28
While it wasn’t the last time Chuck aNoll and Landry faced each other – they even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated together in 1988 – this was the last matchup with the football world watching. The season opener, with one of the highest-rated Monday Night Football audiences of the decade tuned in. This was the height of popularity for the television show Dallas, so what better place than Texas Stadium to kick off the year for Howard Cosell and ABC.
This game was much like Super Bowl XIII, with both teams scoring a ton of points, and the Cowboys playing from behind after leading at halftime 14-13. Two fourth-quarter scoring passes from Danny White closed the gap, but Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were too much.
Super Bowl XXX – Cowboys 27, Steelers 17
For a young Sean Lee, who grew up right outside of Pittsburgh, this wasn’t the most enjoyable of experiences, with the Cowboys and Steelers becoming the first – and to date only – two teams to play each other in three Super Bowls. This time around, though, Dallas prevailed and in the process, became the first team to win three Lombardi Trophies in four years with Larry Brown earning MVP honors behind two interceptions.
“I grew up a pretty big Steelers fan, there’s really not much of an option growing up in Pittsburgh,” said Lee. “They played the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX when I was in third grade. I was devastated when they lost. It was a crazy game with those two Larry Brown interceptions. I was almost in tears when the game ended.”
Aug. 31, 1997 – Cowboys 37, Steelers 7
The final season of Barry Switzer’s tenure started out in impressive fashion, the Cowboys dismantling Pittsburgh in every which way. After a scoreless first quarter, Troy Aikman tossed four touchdowns, two to Michael Irvin, in the middle two quarters en route to a lopsided decision.
After a 3-1 start, the Cowboys fell apart and finished the season at 6-10. This also marks the last time Dallas defeated Pittsburgh.