(Editor’s Note: To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the NFL, each team has one week throughout the season to focus on not only the league’s history but its own tradition as well. This week, the Cowboys and Packers will square off at AT&T Stadium, sparking memories of their historic rivalry. Today, we look at the two coaches who guided the teams into these early battles.)
Ask the majority of media and fans who the fiercest rival of the Dallas Cowboys was over the first five decades of the franchise’s history and the answers will likely vary. Some will say the Washington Redskins, and they may have a point, others the New York Giants, perhaps a sprinkling of Philadelphia Eagles, which has only really been more recently, and even the San Francisco 49ers would have a presence despite not being a divisional foe.
However, take a poll of those who wore the uniform back in the 1960s, and make no mistake, the answer would be almost universal:
The Green Bay Packers.
“That was who we measured ourselves against, that’s who we wanted to beat more than any other team, and it wasn’t even close,” Cowboys Hall of Famer Bob Lilly says. “To accomplish our goals, which was to win championships, we needed to go through the Packers. We knew that.”
There was an added dimension to the rivalry, too, that being the head coaches, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. The two served as coordinators under Jim Lee Howell with the Giants from 1954-58, with Landry staying on another season before landing his gig with the Cowboys. Landry ran the defense, his innovative 4-3 Flex, and Lombardi the offense, anchored by the vaunted Power Sweep. The two were close friends for those five years and remained friendly despite their eventual rivalry.
Actually, in retrospect, perhaps there never was a rivalry, as Lombardi defeated Landry each of the five times the two met as head coaches, including in back-to-back NFL Championship Games, both of which the Cowboys could’ve won if not for a single play in each.
“All of us who were privileged to work for Coach Lombardi, or play for Coach Lombardi, had an immense respect for Coach Landry, because we saw early how much respect Coach Lombardi had for Coach Landry,” Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr was quoted. “We knew going in what a great team we were facing, and they were.”
There were several players who suited up for both Lombardi’s Packers and Landry’s Cowboys, among them Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Herb Adderley, who spent nine seasons with Green Bay (1961-69), winning five NFL titles and two Super Bowls, before concluding his career with Dallas (1970-72), where he won another Super Bowl.
“So the Cowboys were only two plays away from it being the Landry Trophy instead of the Lombardi Trophy,” Adderley said.
“Right on the bulletin board in the (Cowboys) locker room it said, ‘The Packers owe us blood, sweat, tears and money. It was a genuine hatred for the Packers. … I used to wear my Green Bay championship rings and that upset people in Dallas, so I stopped. They never wanted to hear about the Packers or Lombardi. Never.”
Adderley wasn’t alone in viewing both of the legends up close. After racking up nine Pro Bowl nods en route to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, offensive lineman Forrest Gregg finished up his career with the Cowboys in 1971, while Billy Howton, whose bust should be alongside Adderley’s and Gregg’s, caught 303 passes for the Packers and another 161 for Dallas. However, his last season in Cheeseland was 1958, a year before Lombardi’s arrival. Halfback Don McIlhenny, like Gregg a product of SMU, played for Lombardi in 1959 before landing in Dallas via the expansion draft.
Speaking of SMU, that’s where the Packers held training camp during the first few seasons of the Lombardi Era.
The two legendary figures were similar in many ways, but certainly not as football coaches. While Landry was stoic, almost never raising his voice in the slightest, calculated, the consummate strategic thinker, Lombardi was loud, seemingly always yelling and as an offensive game planner, the most simplistic of play callers. Of course, both were driven, if not obsessed with winning, although Landry somewhat to a lesser degree. For Landry, it was God, Family and Football whereas Lombardi was, admittedly, Football, God and Family.
“I loved Vince Lombardi. He was a guy, like Landry, that was highly organized, very domineering,” former Cowboys quarterback Eddie LeBaron once said. “He felt he had to do the job, that his teams must win football games, or that he’d let everyone down. He really put pressure on himself, again much like Landry. It’s amazing they were coordinators together with the Giants.
“The difference, of course, between them is that Lombardi ran the same basic plays hundreds of times in practice and basically said to opposing teams, here it is, stop us. Landry, though, was so interested in his offense, he studied the films until he felt he had mastered them to the fullest extent. Then he would create his game plan on the basis of, “If they do this, we’ll do this; if they line up like this, here’s the play we’ll run.” Landry basically made football into a game of chess and no one was ever better.”
There is no question that the most frustrating loss of Landry’s career was at Green Bay in the famed Ice Bowl on New Year’s Eve 1967. After the game, Landry said Bart Starr’s 1-yard quarterback sneak on fourth down with 16 seconds remaining was “a dumb call, but now it’s a great call.” The Packers had no time outs remaining and if Starr were stopped, the Cowboys would’ve prevailed. Instead, Starr scored and Green Bay won, 21-17. As to why Lombardi didn’t kick a field goal, it was later reported that he simply wanted the game to end, win or lose, rather than play overtime with the conditions/weather worsening.
A year earlier, the Cowboys had a chance to force overtime and possibly win their first NFL title, but failed in four attempts from Green Bay’s 1-yard line in the final minute at the Cotton Bowl and lost, 34-27.
After winning Super Bowl II, a week removed from the “Ice Bowl,” Lombardi shocked the football world by retiring as head coach of the Packers. While Landry would coach 18 more seasons after Lombardi passed away in 1970, the pair would always be linked.
“These two people were completely different,” former New York Giants and Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff said in I Remember Tom Landry. “Lombardi was basic, fundamental football: hard, tough, military style and he made you believe no one could defeat you if you had the desire, the determination and will to win.
“Tom, on the other hand … football was something that technique-wise you could do, he could teach you to do. He’d always say, ‘Play my defense the way it’s designed, take your keys off what the other team has done in the past, and react.’ Tom made you believe that no one can defeat you if you have that teamwork and tackle hard.
“As (everyone) knows, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi were very religious people and true believers in the almighty God. This is a vision that I will always have about those two – Vince Lombardi sitting at one hand of God’s and Tom Landry the other, saying ‘Let the game begin.’”
Dallas eventually extracted some fashion of revenge on the Packers in the postseason, beating them twice in three seasons during its dynasty of the 1990s, including a 38-27 triumph in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 14, 1996. Still, when one thinks of the Packers and Cowboys, the image is that of Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi staring across the field at each other with nothing less than league supremacy at stake.
In 1986, for the 40th anniversary issue of Sport, Landry wrote a fascinating tribute to Lombardi, which included the following passages:
He worked hard and was very demanding. Very demanding. He believed fatigue would make you a coward. That was the basic thing he taught. In grass drills, he’d take those guys farther than they ever thought they could go before they collapsed. Because he believed that if you weren’t in the greatest shape in the world, then you became a coward. If in the fourth quarter you’re worn out, and that guy across from you isn’t, then you don’t have much going for you. There was no such thing as being better conditioned than a Green Bay Packers team.
When we were with the Giants, I used to call him Mr. High-Low, because if that offense didn’t play well, he wouldn’t talk to anybody for two days. He was just that type of person. He wanted perfection so much.
The same could be said of Landry himself, not that he wouldn’t talk to anyone for two days, but that in the end, he wanted perfection so much. Perhaps that’s why the two men seemed to understand each other so well. Sure, their methods toward the pursuit of perfection, winning, were contrary, but their inner drive, their will, shared the most common of bonds.
And thus, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, just as their teams of the 1960s, shall forever be intertwined.