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Memory Lane: 50 years ago, Cowboys make Roger Staubach the starting QB

Coach Tom Landry had two starting caliber quarterbacks in Craig Morton, who led Dallas to Super Bowl V the year prior, and Roger Staubach, a Heisman Trophy winner.

DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys had an identity crisis in 1971.

Coach Tom Landry had two starting caliber quarterbacks in Craig Morton, who led Dallas to Super Bowl V the year prior, and Roger Staubach, a former Heisman Trophy winner who was forging ahead with his football career after a tour of duty in the Navy in Vietnam.

Each quarterback represented a different style — kind of like how the Cowboys started 1971 in the Cotton Bowl before moving into Texas Stadium after two games. The Cotton Bowl fans were more rowdy while the Texas Stadium fans clapped, as though observing the Byron Nelson.

"Craig was very confident in his ability to throw because he had a beautiful throwing motion," said Charlie Waters, a defensive back from 1970-81. But the game was a little bit complicated in those days in that if you got nobody open to throw the ball to, you got to be able to run the ball, and Roger would do that. Roger would gamble, scramble around in the backfield, running around, run circles around the defensive guys, and find the open guy."

Landry's decision through the first seven games was to play both. Morton and Staubach not only alternated starts, but they alternated series, too.

"We thought it was funky we had two different quarterbacks going on, going out there every other play," Waters said. "So, we were all going, 'This is not the best way to do it, I don't think.'"

Each quarterback had his own set of supporters on the roster. The offensive linemen preferred Morton because he was a traditional pocket passer and easier to block for, as opposed to Staubach, who was notorious for scrambling around in the backfield. However, Staubach's unwavering resolve to keep plays alive was the quality that endeared him to the defense, where he found most of his support.

The quarterback carousel was a distraction from the ultimate goal. Dallas sought redemption for the loss to the Baltimore Colts in the previous year's Super Bowl. The roster was replete with aging veterans who didn't want any nonsense to gum up the works. 

All-Pro defensive tackle Bob Lilly told rookie safety Cliff Harris that they were going to the Super Bowl in 1970, and he didn't want him "to mess it up." Dallas did go to the Big Game, but lost 16-13, which compelled Lilly to launch his helmet skyward in frustration.

Gil Brandt, who was the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel from 1960-89, helped construct the roster, and even he could see the split.

"If we had 40 players, each one of them had 20 as to who should be the starter prior to that game," Brandt said.

The quarterback controversy was preventing an indissoluble bond from forming.

"I think it divided the team between Craig Morton and Roger Staubach," Harris said. "There was just not a unity that you need when you're going to the Super Bowl. There's just these fine lines that you have to meet to make it to the Super Bowl."

The Cowboys were 4-2 heading into an Oct. 31 matchup with the equally 4-2 Chicago Bears at renovated Soldier Field on the shores of Lake Michigan.

"That was like playing in New York City," said Brandt. "It was like playing in the biggest city in the world, the biggest place in the world."

Morton was the starter, but he still alternated every play with Staubach. The Cowboys managed and took an early lead on their opening possession. Running back Duane Thomas rushed for a 3-yard touchdown.

The Bears responded with quarterback Bobby Douglass rushing for a 9-yard touchdown, and Mac Percival added field goals of 44 and 38 yards to give Chicago a 13-7 lead in the second quarter. Dallas chipped away at the lead with special teams tackling Bears punter Bobby Joe Green for a safety. Chicago led 13-9 at halftime.

The Cowboys were using the I-formation extensively with Walt Garrison, who was a fullback, playing as a tailback. Garrison would go in motion and provide Dallas with five catches for 29 yards along with his 12 carries for 50 yards.

In the second half, Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus told Garrison that if he ran that play again, he would bite his head off.

"'Well, you'll have more brains in your stomach than you got in your brain,'" Garrison replied. 

Percival added a 35-yard field goal, and Dallas kicker Mike Clark hit a 10-yarder to set the score at 16-12 Chicago in the fourth quarter. It seemed as though the game was out of reach when Douglass hit Dick Gordon for a 28-yard touchdown. Douglass got cornerback Mel Renfro to bite on a pump fake, and the All-Pro receiver Gordon burned him for the score.

In another example of how fluky the Cowboys' games were at this point, Percival had his extra point blocked, but Douglass recovered and crossed the goal line just inside the left pylon for an extra point. Chicago led 23-12.

Dallas would rally with a little over three minutes to go as Morton connected with Gloster Richardson on a 45-yard touchdown pass. The Cowboys would turn the Bears three-and-out with a little over two minutes to play down 23-19.

Another oddity took place just before the Bears punt.

"Coach Landry didn't do this often, but he came to me, knowing that I was a young guy and returning punts, and he said, 'Cliff, fair catch the ball,'" said Harris.

Harris acknowledged, but the punt was low and he fielded it at the Cowboys' 36-yard line.

Said Harris: "It was a low kick and I thought I would just catch it and move to the sideline. And a guy came from behind me and knocked the ball out. They recovered it and got the ball back and we didn't have as much time. And I was laying on the field looking up at Coach Landry's face and he just turned his head to one side. I always felt guilty in that being a factor in not winning the game."

The fumble was one of seven Dallas turnovers on the afternoon. The majority of them were the passing game's four interceptions, three of which were tossed by Morton. The starter went 20-of-36 for 257 yards and a touchdown. Staubach produced seven connections on 11 attempts for 87 yards and an interception.

Dallas also had seven penalties for 80 yards, far more than the Bears' two for 10 yards. Most of the Cowboys' penalties were from delay of game as there was confusion when Staubach and Morton would alternate plays.

Washington, who had already beaten Dallas, was 6-1 and on the verge of running away with the division. The team, especially the defense, wanted Landry to pick a quarterback for the locker room to rally behind.

"Just play somebody because we were going to get behind either quarterback," Renfro said. "There were guys that favored Morton, guys that favored Staubach. I was a Staubach guy all the way."

Brandt says Renfro, who he considered one of the smartest people he had ever been around, rallied behind Staubach because of how he elevated the team.

"He quickly realized that he was going to get some extra money with Roger," said Brandt. "He wasn't sure he was going to win with Craig. Craig was a good player. He was a good player on a good team. Roger was a great player on a great team. Roger made our team a lot better."

Another reason the defense supported Staubach was because they could intuit the intangible qualities he brought to the position.

Said Waters: "We know the little things quarterbacks do to inspire the team to improve and work harder, make blocks, and make plays. Roger could make a big play out of every play that he had a chance to perform on. He knew where to throw the ball when certain pass routes were called. He knew how to read defenses. He knew it all, and he was very passionate."

If Landry had chosen Morton over Staubach, Waters says the players wouldn't have bickered, and Renfro agreed.

“It was [Landry] just making the choice and not wobbling back and forth and just make a choice and go with it, and we did and it turned out to be the best choice," Renfro said.

Harris lockered across from Staubach at their practice facility on Forest Lane, and he got to take in the type of person he was. Staubach's military background helped him relate with Landry, who served in World War II on over 30 bombing missions in the European Theater.

Staubach also related to Landry the way a defensive player would, which Landry was with the New York Giants after the war.

"Coach Landry believed in, from a defensive standpoint and an offensive standpoint, that preparation beats reaction," said Harris. "Preparation and knowing and anticipation beats reaction. So, that anticipation beats reaction comes from study, and that's what I did, and I know that Roger had that same mentality that he really worked at anticipation beating reaction."

Staubach's scrambles weren't reaction; they were anticipation of a bigger play opening up downfield.

"He was real good at not throwing the ball away, trying to force passes in there," said Waters. "He scrambled and did a lot of intangible things that leaders do. He was real good that way."

The Cowboys would not lose another regular season game in ‘71, finishing the season on a seven-game winning streak and an 11-3 record. Staubach was a perfect 10-0 as a starter, which still stands as the best single-season record for a Dallas quarterback with at least 10 starts.

"Each win just created more confidence that we were a good football team and could do it," Renfro said. "Once you generate those wins and the momentum starts, and we had a good football team, good players. So, it's just a matter of getting that ball rolling. Once we did, it was no stopping us."

Dallas beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-12 on the road in the divisional playoffs. In the NFC Championship Game at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys rolled the San Francisco 49ers 14-3. In Super Bowl VI at Tulane Stadium, the Cowboys crushed the Miami Dolphins 24-3 with Staubach earning the game's MVP. The Doomsday Defense's three points allowed still stands as a Super Bowl record for fewest points.

"All of those guys were close and at the end of their careers and wanting to win a Super Bowl," Harris said. "Knowing that we had the capability of the potential because we had gotten there the year before, I think it inspires guys.”

"When Coach Landry made the decision to start Roger, I think it solidified the team and let us all unify and pull and put all our faith in one guy that could win it for us, and that was Roger Staubach."

On Oct. 31, 2021, the Cowboys may go with another quarterback as Dak Prescott recovers from a calf injury, but they know he is their guy. 50 years later, after Dallas made the decision to make Staubach their guy, altering the fortunes and identity of the franchise forever, Cowboys fans are hopeful the current incarnation catches a similar winning streak.

What are your favorite memories from the Super Bowl Champion 1971 Dallas Cowboys? Share ‘em with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.

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