Memory Lane: Cowboys-Browns 1968-69 Playoffs

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The season did not start out too well when quarterback Don Meredith, the last remaining Cowboy from the 1960 inaugural team and undisputed leader who was revered by his teammates, announced his premature and abrupt retirement in early July after only nine years in the league. Sadly, the last meaningful game the great QB would play was that calamity in Municipal Stadium where he was relegated to the pines due to an inept showing.  Meredith was severely chastised by the media and fans for failing to bring home the gold three years running, with the past season’s failure the most excruciatingly disappointing.

Meredith was the undisputed leader and revered by his teammates.  Interestingly his personality was about as far opposed to that of his coach as possible, yet the style of how he played his position fit perfectly with Landry’s idea of the classic NFL QB.  But hidden beneath his good natured and fun loving exterior, resided an icy cool, fiercely competitive and domineering leader who held every member of that team accountable with none being more so than him.  There was not a tougher man or more respected man on that football team and perhaps in franchise history.  He was the last of the original 1960 Cowboys; a star in waiting on a team that had few. Sadly, he had enough of the physical and mental pounding one was required to endure in the demanding position of leading the most visible franchise in all of sports.   He sacrificed his body and laid his heart out on the field every time he suited up.   In one instance he checked out of the hospital and played with broken ribs which punctured his lung and caused pneumonia but he never complained and refused to hide behind any injury.  He has been acknowledged by NFL Films as one of the 40 toughest men to ever play the game.

Meredith, whose name never appeared on his jersey, would appear regularly in ABC Sports’ graphics starting in 1970.

Ultimately the physical beatings he took on the field became secondary to the brutal assault he was forced to endure off the field from the media and the fans.  Every disappointment the Cowboys team endured was the fault of Don Meredith in the eyes of the media.  But it was the wrath of the fans, who booed him mercilessly in his own stadium and a coach who would not defend him which hurt him far more than the violent pounding he endured on the football field.

He walked away in his prime, never to enjoy the exhilaration of standing on the summit of all NFL dreams.  He never won the “big one”.   But he departed like he did everything…on his terms.  I loved Don Meredith.

A few weeks later Don Perkins, the great Fullback/Halfback also suddenly retired after a stellar eight year career. Perkins exemplified the meaning of “team player” and his unexpected retirement at only age 30 (same as Meredith) created further questions to a team whose future looked limitless only seven months ago.

Perkins started his career as a halfback and led the team in rushing as a rookie.  He was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1961 and in 1962 he was an All Pro.  Because of his excellent blocking skills, Landry moved him from halfback to fullback at the start of the 1963 season.  He then became an All Pro fullback and although he relatively small for the position at 5-9 and 194 pounds, he was widely recognized as the best blocking back in the league.  While some may have protested moving from the more glamorous position of halfback to the less glorified position of fullback one year removed from an All Pro season at the glamour position; Perkins, the consummate teammate took on the job with a passion. He retired as the leading rusher in franchise history and currently stands third on the all time Cowboys rushing list later surpassed by Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith.

Understandably, the achievements of these two great Cowboys often get diluted by the great players who followed, but these two oft overlooked stars from our neophyte era were integral pieces of this franchise’s sturdy foundation upon which this skyscraper is built and there is so much more to be said about what each meant to this franchise.  But this is more a story about teams rather than individuals; teams which became indelible fixtures in the life of this fan’s imbedded memories. Yes, this is the history of a franchise as seen through distant eyes, but I will say Don Meredith and Don Perkins stand near the top of that history in this fan’s view.  Deservedly they are both enshrined in the Ring of Honor.

Like the previous year the Cowboys marched out of the gate on a mission. Intent on proving that this still was very much a team to be reckoned with, they again opened with six straight wins. They were bushwhacked 42-10 in the seventh game by those same Cleveland Browns who so cruelly wiped away their Super Bowl dreams a year ago. It was clear the Browns were in the Cowboys head and later that would be proven again emphatically.

The undaunted Cowboys regrouped after that thrashing and went on to post an 11-2-1 record. They would end the regular season ranked number one in offense and third in defense. All looked good entering the Eastern Conference Championship Game, with one exception: it was that team again: The Cleveland Browns.

This year would be different though. The Cowboys were at home, wearing their white jerseys and they were due. Oh were they due. This had to be the year. After three years of playoff disappointment they could not possibly be denied. The great Tom Landry would figure out this Cleveland Browns team. This time they would be prepared and focused. Plus the Cowboys did not lose a game at home all year. But remember it was last year when they were undefeated on the road only to be thoroughly beaten in Cleveland in the playoffs. 

Sadly, the Dallas Cowboys were not remotely prepared or focused. From beginning to end Tom Landry’s team was again out coached, out hustled and out of the playoffs; this time by an even more lopsided score, 38-14. There was never a time when the Cowboys were in the game as the Browns put up the first 24 points. Craig Morton was a dreadful 9-24 passing with two interceptions, his last of which was returned 88 yards for a TD which thoroughly lay to rest any miracle comeback plans the staggered Cowboys may have had. Landry yanked him after that interception in favor of rookie Roger Staubach but by that time the score was 38-7. Showing a bit of the future, Roger went 4-5 and led the Cowboys to their final, albeit meaningless, score.

Tom “It’s a Process” Landry is the last coach the Cleveland Browns have beaten in a road playoff game.

With each failed playoff bid, the pressure on this team mounted. There were cries for a complete overhaul and the great Tom Landry was being called out again as he was in 1964. Then it was said he couldn’t take this team to playoff caliber and the fans and press were clamoring for a coaching change.  This time the outcry had a different tone.  The team was now certainly playoff caliber as evidenced by the past four years, but now the uproar was a direct of result of Landry’s lack of playoff success.  And the chorus of disapproval was more vocal than ever (and this was long before the internet). It was said this team had no heart or character. They likened the Dallas Cowboys to the new invention of the era – the computer; cold calculating, efficient, yet void of human emotion which is the vital transparent element embedded into the psyche of all winning teams. Murchison owned a computer company (among many other businesses) and Schramm and the Dallas Cowboys were the first team in the NFL to use a computer to chart opponents’ trends and tendencies as well as to compile scouting reports on prospective draft choices. That fact coupled with Tom Landry’s steely personality and continued playoff failures, gave the press all the fodder they needed to have a field day at our expense. It was a difficult time to be a Dallas Cowboy fan. But I would realize much later, those were the times that solidified my love for this team more than any other. Adversity can do that. 

But questions remained. Would Murchison have the same amount of patience and commitment after four straight years of playoff futility as he did in 1964? Was a full overhaul necessary? Could it be that Tom Landry was not the man who would take this franchise to the next level? Did we really have a bunch of mindless drones for players who possessed the same passionless character as a machine? Would the Dallas Cowboys hold the disdained moniker of “Next Year’s Champions” forever? 

To the chagrin of Dallas Cowboy fans everywhere, there was no other recourse than to wait until “Next Year” to find out the answers to those questions.

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Tags: Cleveland Browns Dallas Cowboys Don Meredith The Landry Hat Tom Landry

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