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Spagnola: How The Cowboys Won The East


FROM HOME, Texas – Never too old to learn something new.

Was reminded of that this week, with more time on my hands to read since working from home through the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of mobility to go anywhere much.

See, thought I knew how the Dallas Cowboys wound up in the NFC East 50 years ago this year, back in 1970 when the NFL and AFL completed their merger, becoming one league, realigning for the first time into a 13-team, three-division NFC and a 13-team, three-division AFC, all under the NFL umbrella.

Always thought the reason the Cowboys, a franchise west of the Mississippi and embedded deep in the Southwestern city of Dallas, ended up in the NFC East with Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis and the New York Giants, was at the insistence of Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm, good buddies with then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the wielder of a big stick in the league.

Tex understood the rivalries the Cowboys had created over the franchise's first 10 years in the league, with the likes of the Giants, Redskins and Eagles for sure. He also understood, with the explosion of NFL games being broadcast by the TV networks, the value of playing twice a year, every year against those teams in huge TV and newspaper markets. He understood the marketing value of exposure.

He also understood the league's revenue sharing of away game stadium gates. Bigger stadiums mean bigger pieces of the pie.

Look, Tex had a way of getting his way back then, and since he began his NFL career working in PR for Rozelle with the Los Angeles Rams, most thought he had an undeniable influence on the commissioner. Because from a geographical sense, why else would a team based in Dallas end up in a division labeled East? There wasn't anything East about Dallas.

Well, I couldn't have been more wrong.

Stumbled upon that earlier in the week while reading former executive vice president of NFL communications Joe Browne's guest column in Peter King's Football Morning in America space. Browne spent 50 years in the NFL office. He was there for the NFL-AFL merger negotiations and was there 50 years ago for the realignment into the National Football Conference.

And look, for you old-time – er, longtime – Cowboys fans, this may not be news to you. But for me, and maybe the generation of fans spawned first by the Cowboys playing in those five Super Bowls in the 1970s and the burgeoning group with the three Super Bowl victories in the 1990s, this backstory is fascinating.

See, this part I knew, how Schramm and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who moved the AFL franchise after three years in Dallas to K.C., began the merger talks in Tex's Oldsmobile called "Old Smokey" in a Love Field parking lot next to the statue of Texas Ranger Jay Banks in April of 1966.

By June the merger was completed out of financial necessity since both leagues were waging bidding wars for players. The AFL agreed to pay an $18 million entrance fee to the old guard over 10 years, and the two sides would then meet for what initially was called the World Championship between the two league's winners, first in 1966, the advent of the Super Bowl. At that time they agreed to operate under their original names through the 1960s.

But in 1970, the leagues would complete the merger, with 13 teams in the National Football Conference and 13 teams in the American Football Conference. And to facilitate a 13-team AFC, three of the NFL clubs, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the then Baltimore Colts, agreed to move to the AFC, financial considerations given for their cooperation.

So now the NFC needed to realign from four divisions into three with a Feb. 1 deadline. Rozelle realized he had a huge problem on his hands when calling a meeting of team representatives the day prior to Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, Kansas City vs. Minnesota. As Browne recalled, the owners were more interested in dinner reservations that day than discussing realignment. Nothing accomplished, Rozelle scheduled a meeting for the next week in New York, Jan. 14. No agreement that first day. The team representatives gathered again the next day, a Thursday, met early and way into the night. No consensus. Not even close.

Rozelle, now frustrated, said come back on Friday and we'll meet until we get this thing figured out. Teams were dead set on retaining rivalries, but couldn't seem to find a common ground to make everyone happy.

Within 20 minutes of getting nowhere, Rozelle revealed his plan. He wheeled into the room a chalkboard with five different, three-division alignments. Rozelle was adamant it was time to come to a consensus. If they couldn't agree on one of those plans, and they didn't, Rozelle said here's the deal: I'm going to pick one of these options out of a hat, and that will be that, and of all things, the reps agreed to his quite elementary procedure to map out the league's future.

But who was going to pick the number, Plan 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5? Who did everyone in the room trust the process wouldn't be rigged?

Well, please enter Thelma Elkjer, Rozelle's long-trusted secretary (uh, administrative assistant to be politically correct). She brings in an empty glass flower vase. The five plan numbers went in on pieces of paper.

And here were the five division options for the Cowboys:

No. 1: West – Cowboys, Rams, 49ers, Cardinals.

No. 2: Central – Cowboys, Saints, Falcons, Cardinals.

No. 3: East – Cowboys, Redskins, Giants, Eagles, Cardinals.

No. 4: West – Cowboys, Rams, 49ers, Saints.

No. 5: Central – Cowboys, Packers, Bears, Cardinals.

Why, that was two chances to land in the West, two in the Central and one in the East.

Obviously Plan 3 was most desirable to the Cowboys, allowing them to remain in the East division against the rivals they had built over their first 10 seasons.

Even more obvious, the plan they would most vehemently despise was Plan 5, the Cowboys getting stuck in the Central with the Bears, Packers and Cardinals, all northern cities, and face it, the Cowboys had enough of the Packers and that weather after the 1967 Ice Bowl NFL Championship Game.

Tex was quoted as saying afterward, "Let's just say I was muttering to myself, 'Please don't pick No. 5.'"

Now, if you were a betting man, the Cowboys odds of getting what they wanted – Plan 3 – were not good. Just a 20 percent chance, since there was only one option to remain in the East.

Well, at exactly 10:26 a.m., after 64 hours, 41 minutes of actually meeting unsuccessfully while trying to figure out this whole realignment thing, ol' Thelma blindly reaches into the vase with no drumroll, and picks …

Door No. 3 – Cowboys, Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Cardinals in the East division.

Yep, the four opponents the Cowboys had spent six seasons with in the Eastern Conference of the NFL, and then one in the Capital Division with the Eagles, Redskins and Giants as well as one with the Redskins, Eagles and Saints. Quite familiar foes.

And welcome to the very unscientific berth of the NFC East, right where the Cowboys landed by accident for these next 50 seasons.

That next day in The Dallas Morning News, Walter Robertson's lead was this: The top brass of pro football's 13 National Conference teams couldn't solve their thorny realignment problems in more than eight months of bitter bantering. It took Thelma Elkjer something like five seconds to solve things for them.

Tex was unquestionably elated, quoted as saying, "We are very, very pleased. From the very beginning we would have favored remaining in a division in which we could maintain the rivalries we have built up since we came into the league in 1960."

Yet, that rascal Steve Perkins in the Dallas Times Herald, who would go on to become editor of Cowboys Weekly, found this thread of pessimism:

The luck of the draw has settled Dallas Cowboys future on a dead reckoning course with Vince Lombardi.

Remember, former Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, who had defeated Tom Landry's Cowboys all five times they had met since the Cowboys came into the league in 1960, including in those back-to-back NFL Championship Games in 1966-67, had unretired from coaching after one year to become head coach/general manager of the Washington Redskins in 1969. Perkins did go on to point out the Cowboys soundly beat Lombardi's 'Skins that year, 41-28, and 20-10, though Washington did finish 7-5-2 that season, its first winning effort since 1955, keeping Lombardi's record in tact of never having a losing season during his 10 years as an NFL head coach.

But as it turns out, the Cowboys would never face Lombardi again, the five-time NFL champion head coach and two-time Super Bowl winner with the Packers passing away on Sept. 3, 1970, another NFL 50-year anniversary coming up this season.

The Cowboys that 1970 season would go on to win the very first NFC East title with a 10-4 record and then beat Detroit (5-0) and San Francisco (17-10) in the playoffs, winning the first NFC championship and finally advancing to their first Super Bowl, though losing to Baltimore, 16-13, in Super Bowl V. But in doing so, laying the foundation for the next season, winning their first Super Bowl by beating Miami, 24-3.

For the record, the Cowboys have now won 20 NFC East titles out of a possible 49 (no division title awarded in the strike-shortened 1982 season). That's nearly twice as many as any other division member, with Philly winning 11 on the strength of those four straight from 2001-04, the Giants eight, Washington seven and the Cardinals two (1974-75) before moving into the NFC West in 2002.

In fact, the Cowboys won seven of the first 10 NFC East titles and 14 of the first 29, from 1970-99 (no title in 1982). And now three of the past six, with two second-place finishes.

And there you have it, the rest of the story that I've recently learned.

You know, maybe Thelma should be next in line for induction into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

They couldn't have won the East without her.