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Offseason | 2021

Patriots Stumble Keeps Cowboys Record Intact


The date, Nov. 20, 1966, has been forgotten by history like just about every other autumn Sunday. The legendary Broadway musical Cabaret opened, and the Dallas Cowboys registered a still-standing league record 12 sacks in a 20-7 defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of course, sacks wouldn't become an official NFL statistic for another 16 years despite every team keeping track of them.

The victory was the Cowboys' seventh of the season, which along with an earlier tie, secured the first winning campaign in franchise history. Dallas went on to finish the year at 10-3-1 before losing to Green Bay in the conference championship game.

Earlier this season, when the New England Patriots lost their eighth game of 2020, that date 54 years ago secured its place in league history as the beginning of arguably the most impressive team mark in professional football – twenty consecutive winning seasons, all but two of which secured a postseason appearance. In many ways, it's more impressive than the dynasty of three Super Bowl wins in four seasons from the 1990s.

What is considered a dynasty in the NFL, or really sports in general, is more times than not a singular nucleus of athlete and head coach: Otto Graham and Paul Brown, Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi, Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll, Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, Bill Russell and Red Auerbach, Mickey Mantle and Casey Stengel.

Cowboys head coach Tom Landry collected two decades worth of winning records despite using numerous starting quarterbacks and standout stars. Behind center there was Don Meredith, Craig Morton, Roger Staubach, Danny White and even Gary Hogeboom for 10 starts in 1984. Linebacker Chuck Howley was a Pro Bowl selection on that 1966 team and was in his 50s when the Cowboys finished 7-9 in 1986 to end the run.

The long-standing goal of the NFL, even before the salary cap and free agency, has been parity, thus making it highly unlikely the Cowboys' record will ever be broken. The Patriots were the one chance, the Cal Ripken Jr. to Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" consecutive games played streak. However, New England's run concluded minus Tom Brady, the starter for 18 of their 19 winning campaigns. He was knocked out of the season opener in 2008 with a knee injury and replaced by Matt Cassel, who would later play for the Cowboys. The Pats finished that season at 11-5.

To further illustrate how impressive both the Cowboys and Patriots runs were, consider the current longest streak is nine by the Seattle Seahawks. Worth noting, like dynasties of the past, Seattle has had the same quarterback, Russell Wilson, and head coach, Peter Carroll, during this stretch.

Landry's teams were really never close to breaking the run, an 8-6 finish in 1974 and a 9-7 mark in 1984 the lone exceptions. The former was the most miserable of Staubach's career, and if not for rookie Clint Longley's miraculous efforts on Thanksgiving, Dallas would have finished 7-7. "The Mad Bomber" relieved an injured Staubach and tossed two touchdown passes to defeat Washington, 24-23.

In 1984, a quarterback controversy between Hogeboom and White dominated the headlines, and frankly, neither proved the answer. For just the second time during the streak, Dallas failed to make the playoffs, the other being that 1974 effort. However, the team lost its final two games in 1984, so the winning record stretch was never in much doubt after a 4-3 start.

How the two-decade run ended was somewhat stunning considering the 1986 Cowboys started the year at 6-2 and then were 7-4 with just one loss being by more than four points. Heck, this was a Super Bowl contender. Until, that is, White broke his wrist against the Giants on Nov. 2. The dream backfield of Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett quickly became a nightmare, both miserable with their roles under first-year play-caller Paul Hackett. Landry himself admitted late in the season, "both of them are usually unhappy."

In an effort to keep the two rushers on the field, Walker often lined up in the slot, and while he easily led the team with 76 receptions, seeing less than 10 carries a game wasn't why he signed with Dallas following the folding of the USFL.

"I don't understand my role with the team," Walker said at the time. "I must not be the type of runner the Cowboys are looking for. If that's true, I'd rather they let me play somewhere else where I am that type of runner. I'm not a wide receiver. I like to do the things I do best. They've taken that away from me."

Dorsett simply said, "They ought to pick one mail carrier and stay with him."

The locker room split, Steve Pelluer throwing too many interceptions and taking too many sacks at quarterback, the Cowboys dropped their last five games by a combined 79 points and finished 7-9. The incredible run was finished. The previous NFL mark was 16 straight winning seasons by the Oakland Raiders from 1965-80.

For whatever reason, the five longest streaks in North American professional sports belong to NHL and MLB franchises. It's not a surprise the NFL isn't higher on the list with larger rosters and a salary cap, but one would assume the NBA would be. Coincidentally, like the Patriots, that league's longest streak just ended this past year with the San Antonio Spurs finishing under .500. Their 22-season run all came under head coach Greg Popovich with Tim Duncan the longest mainstay at 19 campaigns.

The longest overall, of course, is the New York Yankees with an absurd 39 straight winning seasons from 1926-64, anchored by Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Obviously, a 39-year run is brilliant under any circumstances in any sport, but it's worth noting that the first Major League Baseball draft was 1965. Before that, any team, especially those with large bank accounts, could sign any amateur player. There were no restrictions on minor leagues, either, with the St. Louis Cardinals often having more than 20 teams.

The Cowboys built 20 years of success through the draft, led by personnel director Gil Brandt and an IBM computer bigger than a room. Once the team started winning, the philosophy was quite simple: Rookies were seen and not heard, expected to learn the playbook and rarely saw the field. Second-year players were usually first off the bench, rotation guys, and then the following year, it was time to swim or drown. If you weren't ready to start, Landry was ready to move on.

Football is unique to other sports in that history is determined by a game not a series. Lose a seven-game series and it's hard to complain about a bounce of the ball or puck costing a team the title. But the Cowboys played in 12 conference championship games from 1966-82, which is when they became America's Team, and should have actually won more titles during this historic stretch. The Yankees won 19 World Series during their 39-year run, the Montreal Canadians won 16 during a 32-year winning streak from 1951-83.

Dallas could have easily captured the first two Super Bowls, losing to the Green Bay Packers in the conference title game on the last play in each of those seasons. The NFL-AFL Championship, as it was called at the time, was merely a necessary appearance en route to the crown. No reason to think the Cowboys wouldn't have won both just as easily.

Then there was Super Bowl V, a train wreck of a game Dallas would have easily won with instant replay, but lost to Baltimore, 16-13. Never mind instant replay, which wasn't in use at the time, a Cowboys player walked off the field with the football following a fumble before the officials awarded the ball to the Colts.

There were also the two Super Bowl defeats to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1975 and 1978, both of which could have been altered with a single play. And we're not going to even mention "The Catch" (oops, sorry).

Point is, the 20-year run doesn't receive the credit it warrants because, for whatever reason, titles determine historic success in the NFL. For two decades, the Cowboys were the class of the NFL, posting a record of 208-79-2, winners of nearly 73 percent of their games.

The Patriots gave chase, gave themselves a chance to tie with just one more winning season. Alas, the task proved too much. Chances are that will be the last time any team even sniffs Dallas' prolonged success.

In the other 41 seasons of the Cowboys franchise, the longest run of consecutive winning seasons is six, from 1991-96. Yet another illustration of just how astounding of an accomplishment Landry and company pulled off.

Yes, the 2020 campaign didn't turn out exactly like many were hoping for Dallas, but if nothing else, its historic run of 20 straight winning seasons remained intact ... and remained a mark that is likely to never be broken.

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