Dallas Cowboys

By: Mickey Spagnola and Kirk Bohls

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: February 19, 2016

The Dallas Cowboys, a professional football team, began on January 28, 1960, when the National Football League awarded the league's thirteenth franchise to Clinton W. Murchison, Jr., and Bedford Wynne for the sum of $600,000. In 1952 another NFL franchise played in Dallas, but it later moved to Baltimore. Because the NFL’s first expansion franchise was approved after the NFL Draft of college players for the 1960 season, Murchison, Wynne, and general manager Tex Schramm were forced to select their initial roster from a pool composed of unprotected players from the existing twelve NFL teams. The owners selected native Texan Tom Landry to be the team's first coach. Landry had played for the University of Texas and for the New York Giants. He also had been a defensive coach with the Giants between 1955 and 1959. Despite Landry's experience and expertise, the Cowboys had difficulty overcoming the disadvantages of missing the college draft that first year. The team, an unusual mixture of veterans and free agents, did not win a single game that inaugural year and finished with a record of 0–11–1. The Cowboys, playing at the Cotton Bowl from 1960 through the early portion of the 1971 season, were beset by poor attendance and little success. None of the first six seasons produced a winning record; the team finally broke even in 1965 and went 7–7. Then in 1966 the Cowboys went 10–3–1 to win the Eastern Conference title, though barely losing to the Green Bay Packers, 34–27, in the NFL Championship game at the Cotton Bowl and just missing out on appearing in Super Bowl I against the American Football League champion Kansas City Chiefs, who also had played in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl from 1960 to 1962. The Cowboys returned to the NFL Championship game the following season but once again fell to the Packers in the final seconds—this time 21–17 on Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr’s one-yard sneak on what became known as Lambeau Field’s “Frozen Tundra.” The game forever more became known as the Ice Bowl because of the minus-13 degree temperatures.

While the Cowboys had winning seasons in each of the next two years, they did not capture their first of what turned out to be eight National Football Conference championships until 1970, the year of the NFL-AFL merger. But they still could not get over the hump in Super Bowl V and lost 16–13 to the Baltimore Colts on a last-second field goal. Thus, the local media pegged the Cowboys as “Next Year’s Champions,” seemingly always having to wait until next year. The wait, though, was not long. The Cowboys won the NFC once again in 1971 and went on to win Super Bowl VI for their first world championship, decisively beating the Miami Dolphins, 24–3, behind the play of quarterback Roger Staubach, the game’s Most Valuable Player.

The Cowboys also changed homes in 1971 and moved from the Cotton Bowl near downtown Dallas to plush Texas Stadium in suburban Irving. Under the direction of the innovative Landry, who coached the Cowboys for their first twenty-nine years of existence, the Cowboys reached the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, from 1966 through 1973. That string was broken in 1974 when the team finished 8–6 yet continued what turned out to be an NFL record-streak of twenty consecutive winning seasons (1966–85). The Cowboys reached the Super Bowl again in 1975, thanks in part to that famed “Dirty Dozen” draft. The team started the playoffs by beating Minnesota on Staubach's historic fifty-yard, final seconds "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson and followed that victory by destroying the original Los Angeles Rams 37–7 in the NFC title game. However, they lost Super Bowl X to Pittsburgh, 21–17. Dallas captured its second world championship by defeating the Denver Broncos 27–10 on January 15, 1978, in Super Bowl XII, with defensive linemen Harvey Martin and Randy White sharing the MVP honors. Their second Super Bowl victory matched the NFL high at that time and tied Green Bay, Miami, and Pittsburgh, and also equaled Minnesota’s then NFL record of four Super Bowl appearances. The Cowboys once again made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances during that 1978 season when Bob Ryan, the editor-in-chief of NFL Films, tagged the Cowboys "America's Team" because of their enormous appeal and popularity nationwide. The Cowboys record fifth Super Bowl appearance did not produce back-to-back victories though; the team lost a 35–31 thriller in Super Bowl XIII to Pittsburgh once again, and those two four-point losses to the Steelers prevented the Cowboys from earning Team of the ‘70s distinction.

Staubach played one more season before retiring and turning over the helm of the Dallas offense to Danny White, who led the Cowboys to three consecutive NFC title games, losing all three. In 1984 the Murchison family sold the Cowboys to an eleven-member limited partnership headed by Dallas banker H. R. "Bum" Bright. The following year Dallas running back Tony Dorsett became only the sixth player in NFL history to record 10,000 career rushing yards as the Cowboys transitioned into their new, ultra-modern practice facility and left the old, corrugated metal building on Forest and Abrams for what became known as Valley Ranch in Irving. That season the Cowboys extended their NFL-record streak of consecutive winning seasons to twenty, the third longest in professional sports history, behind only the baseball New York Yankees (thirty-nine) and hockey Montreal Canadians (thirty-two). But times grew tough for the Cowboys following that season, and their consecutive streak of winning seasons came to an inglorious end in 1986. The 6–2 Cowboys only were able to win one more game that season after White broke his wrist in the ninth game against the 6–2 New York Giants, who went on to win their final eight games and Super Bowl XXI.

The Cowboys followed that 7–9 season with records of 7–8 during the 1987 strike-interrupted season and then 3–13 in what turned out to be Landry’s final season in 1988, despite his 250–162–6 record. Arkansas oil-and-gas investor Jerry Jones purchased the club from Bright on February 25, 1989, and promptly fired Landry and hired his former Arkansas Razorback teammate Jimmy Johnson as head coach. Jones paid $140 million for the team and the rights to Texas Stadium. Thanks to having the NFL’s worst record in 1988, Jones and Johnson inherited the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and turned the choice into UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, signing him at the time to a rookie-record, six-year $11.2 million contract.

The changes did not bring an immediate change to the Cowboys fortunes. Once again the team had the worst record in the NFL and went 1–15 in 1989 with Johnson basically gutting the club of all those aging veterans from the Landry era. Thanks to the 1989 and 1990 drafts, along with the 1989 trade of Herschel Walker to Minnesota for a number of draft choices, and Jones spending money on sixteen Plan B free agents, the Cowboys made one of the largest turnarounds in NFL history. The team finished 7–9 in 1990 and missed the playoffs by one game. The Jones-Johnson tandem was on its way after inheriting the likes of Michael Irvin, Ken Norton, Jr., Nate Newton, Mark Tuinei, Kevin Gogan, and Jim Jeffcoat, along with drafting Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski, Tony Tolbert, Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper, Erik Williams, and Larry Brown from 1989 to 1991. They broke through in 1991, turning a 6–5 start into an 11–5 finish, and claimed a wild-card playoff berth, the franchise’s first playoff victory since 1982, and a measure of legitimacy in the NFL once again.

The next two seasons the Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowl titles over the Buffalo Bills during the 1992 (13–3) and 1993 (12–4) seasons and beat the AFC champs 52–17 and 30–13 to become at the time one of just three NFL teams to claim four Super Bowl titles. Aikman, the MVP of Super Bowl XXVII, renegotiated his contract in 1993 for an NFL record $50 million over eight years. Emmitt Smith, after holding out over the first two games of that season, also signed a new contract and went on to win the second of his four NFL rushing titles, along with MVP honors in Super Bowl XXVIII.

Following Super Bowl XXVIII the Jones-Johnson relationship became contentious, and on March 29, 1994, the dynamic duo agreed to part ways after five seasons and winning consecutive Super Bowls and NFC East titles. The following day Jones replaced Johnson with their former University of Arkansas assistant coach and longtime Oklahoma University head coach Barry Switzer, who had won four national championships and eight Big Eight titles during his sixteen-year tenure in Norman, Oklahoma. While the Cowboys finished the 1994 season 12–4 again and won the third of what turned out to be five consecutive NFC East titles, they unfortunately opened their third consecutive NFC title game against San Francisco with three consecutive turnovers that turned into a 21–0 Niners’ lead halfway through the first quarter at Candlestick Park to essentially prevent the Cowboys from a chance to become the first and only team to win three consecutive Super Bowl titles. In a valiant effort, the Cowboys lost that day to San Francisco, 38–28, but not before they had moved to the Niners 43-yard line with just more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter and were arguably a non-interference call (on Niners corner Deion Sanders) away inside the five-yard line from drawing to 38–35. That game essentially was for the Super Bowl title; San Francisco easily defeated San Diego, 49–26, for the Lombardi Trophy.

That loss then put the pressure on the Cowboys, especially Switzer and Jones, the following season to get back to the Super Bowl at all costs without Johnson as head coach. So Jones made his first real entry into free agency and signed Sanders away from San Francisco. The season was not an easy season for the Cowboys—not as easy as their 12–4 regular-season record and fourth straight NFC East title might have indicated. They went just 4–3 in the final seven games of the season, including a tough 38–20 home loss in a regular season game to San Francisco and backup quarterback Elvis Grbac. Some internal turmoil began seeping into the locker room and coaching staff. The team was buoyed the final week of the season when San Francisco was beaten to give the Cowboys home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they could win the season finale Christmas night against the Cardinals. They did and mostly breezed through the playoffs until the second half of Super Bowl XXX in Tempe, Arizona, on January 28, 1996, when the Cowboys needed two interceptions from MVP cornerback Larry Brown to stave off the Pittsburgh Steelers’ furious rally for a 27–17 victory. The celebration was somewhat muted, as if the Cowboys had simply survived their season and that title game. Nevertheless, the franchise won its fifth Super Bowl and became the first team to win three titles in four years. Defensive end Charles Haley became the only player in Super Bowl history to earn five rings, three with the Cowboys and two with the 49ers.

“There wasn’t a celebration in the locker room,” remembered Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, a second-round draft choice in 1992. “The normal celebration that we had in ’92 and ’93 being the Super Bowl champs, you know those were good times. That celebration in ’95 was … I remember sitting there with seven or eight of the defensive backs and we’re all in a circle and we’re just sitting there on the bench thanking God the season was over with and I wasn’t even thinking about a Super Bowl ring at the time. I was just thinking about what am I going to do in this off season? How far away from this team am I going to be? Because I needed to get away as far as I possibly could for a short period of time.”

For the next two decades, the Cowboys went without another Super Bowl title and failed even to reach the NFC title game. Thus also began a carousel of head coaches. The Cowboys had employed only three head coaches over their first thirty-eight seasons—Landry (twenty-nine), Johnson (five), and Switzer (four). But Switzer lost the team during the 6–10 season of 1997; the Cowboys lost their final five games, and Switzer lost his job. Beginning with the 1998 season, the Cowboys went through five head coaches over the next eighteen seasons: Chan Gailey went 10–6 and 8–8 during his two seasons, but 0–2 in the playoffs; longtime defensive assistant Dave Campo went 5–11 in three consecutive seasons as head coach during turbulent salary cap times; and Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, winner of two Lombardi Trophies with the New York Giants, returned the franchise to respectability and went 10–6, 6–10, 9–7 and 9–7 in his four years but also 0–2 in the playoffs and lost a heartbreaker in the final minute at Seattle, 21–20, in 2006.

During that span of constant change, the Cowboys lost Michael Irvin to a career-ending neck injury in 1999. Then Troy Aikman was released and subsequently retired following the 2000 season. Emmitt Smith broke Walter Payton’s NFL all-time rushing record (16,726 yards) during the 2002 season but was released a few months later; he stretched the current NFL rushing record to 18,355 yards and played his final two seasons with Arizona. The Triplets were no more for the Cowboys, the end of a fifteen-year run that began with Irvin’s first-round selection in 1988. By 2006 the Cowboys had found and developed their next franchise quarterback—Tony Romo took over seven games into Parcell’s final season. Romo guided the Cowboys into the playoffs three of the next four seasons (2006, 2007, and 2009) but emerged with just one playoff victory.

That playoff victory occurred during the watch of Coach Wade Phillips, who took over after Parcells walked away following the 2006 season. Phillips went 13–3 and then 9–7 in 2008, the final of thirty-eight seasons played in Texas Stadium. The Cowboys moved into state-of-the-art Cowboys Stadium (renamed AT&T Stadium in 2013) for the 2009 season. The club went 11–5 that year and won its first playoff game since the 1996 season. The NFC East champs beat Philadelphia 34–14. But the momentum was short-lived under Phillips, who went just 1–2 during the playoffs his first three seasons. When the Cowboys began the first half of the 2010 season 1–7, Phillips was fired, and Jones appointed offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the franchise’s former backup quarterback, as interim head coach. On the strength of leading the reeling team to a 6–10 finish that season, Jones named Garrett the franchise’s eighth head coach in 2011. The Cowboys, proceeding to turn over an aging roster, went 8–8 in each of the next three seasons. Each time a loss in the final game of the season cost the club the NFC East title and a playoff appearance.

In 2014 Garrett and the Cowboys broke through behind the play of Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant (a 2010 first-round draft choice out of Lufkin, Texas), and running back DeMarco Murray (who, with 1,845 yards, secured the NFL rushing title and the team’s single season rushing record). The team finished the regular season with a record of 12–4 and won the NFC East for the twenty-second time. This was just their fourth division title since the final of five straight in 1996, and they won just their third playoff game since winning Super Bowl XXX. The Cowboys quite possibly were a video-replay reversal (of a Bryant reception at the Green Bay two-yard line) away from moving on to their first NFC title game in twenty years. That long-ago Cowboys dynasty that seemed to be rising again, was derailed in 2015 when Romo twice suffered fractures to his left collarbone. He only was able to play in four games and finished just two. The club fell to 4–12, the franchise’s third worst sixteen-game season record.

A new era in Cowboys history was to begin in late summer 2016 when the doors at the venerable Valley Ranch practice facility were expected to close after thirty-one seasons (1985–2015). The Cowboys were on the move again, heading to The Star in Frisco, their new home in the northern suburb of Dallas that would house the Cowboys franchise headquarters, along with two outdoor practice fields, a 12,000-seat indoor arena to be shared with the Frisco ISD, and plenty of parking to possibly stage parts of training camp at home. Facilities would also include an entertainment complex complete with a high-rise hotel, fitness club, retail space, and several dining establishments.

Over those first fifty-six NFL seasons the Cowboys earned five Super Bowl titles and placed fifteen members of the organization into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: defensive lineman Bob Lilly (1980), quarterback Roger Staubach (1985), head coach Tom Landry (1990), general manager and president Tex Schramm (1991), running back Tony Dorsett (1994), defensive tackle Randy White (1994), defensive back Mel Renfro (1996), quarterback Troy Aikman (2006), offensive tackle Rayfield Wright (2006), wide receiver Michael Irvin (2007), wide receiver Bob Hayes (2009), running back Emmitt Smith (2010), cornerback Deion Sanders (2011), guard Larry Allen (2013) and defensive end Charles Haley (2015).

The Cowboys over the years also have established their very own hall of fame, widely-known as the Ring of Honor. The names of those selected initially were inscribed along the inner-façade ringing Texas Stadium’s upper deck and then transferred over to an upper-façade inside AT&T Stadium. The Ring has twenty-one members, including the most recent inductee, safety Darren Woodson, who received the honor during the 2015 season. Included in the Ring are fourteen of the hall of fame members (excluding Sanders), along with Woodson, safety Cliff Harris (2004), linebacker Chuck Howley (1977), linebacker Lee Roy Jordan (1989), quarterback Don Meredith (1976), wide receiver Drew Pearson (2011) and fullback Don Perkins (1976).

As of the beginning of the 2016 season, the Cowboys had an overall record of 480–364–6. Their .568 winning percentage was the second highest in the NFL to the Chicago Bears (.570), and they were one of twelve NFL teams with at least 475 all-time victories. Their record of 34–26 all-time in playoff games included 5–3 in Super Bowls and 8–8 in NFL/NFC championship games. They have had only three owners—Clint Murchison, Jr., Bum Bright, and Jerry Jones. Head Coach Jason Garrett was the eighth over the fifty-six-season history and in his 6½ seasons had racked up a 45–43 record. His forty-five victories ranked second in franchise history to Landry’s 250 and one more than third place Johnson.

Skip Bayless, God's Coach: The Hymns, Hype and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry's Cowboys (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990). Sam Blair, Dallas Cowboys, Pro or Con? (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970). Donald E. Chipman, Randolph Campbell, and Robert Calvert, The Dallas Cowboys and the NFL (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970). Dallas Cowboys (http://www.dallascowboys.com/), accessed February 18, 2016. Dallas Cowboys Silver Season: 1960–1984 [Dallas Cowboys 1984 media guide] (Dallas, 1984). Tom Landry, Tom Landry, An Autobiography (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Books, 1990). Carlton Stowers, Dallas Cowboys: The First Twenty-Five Years (Dallas: Taylor, 1984). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mickey Spagnola and Kirk Bohls, “Dallas Cowboys,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dallas-cowboys.

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February 19, 2016

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