Very likely the nearest thing to an absolute in professional football is experience. This was demonstrated rather conclusively in Dallas last week when the Cowboys, with one full year's experience as a team, soundly defeated the better equipped but brand-new Minnesota Vikings 21-7.
The Vikings, with their starting back-field of Mel Triplett at fullback, Hugh McElhenney and Tom Mason at half and either George Shaw or Fran Tarkenton at quarterback, are surely the equal of at least half the backfields in the National Football League. Their offensive and defensive lines are, for the most part, sound. But they are not a deep club and neither are the Cowboys. The difference in the teams—which amounted to two touchdowns' worth Sunday—lay in the fact that the Cowboys have spent over a year becoming accustomed to one another.
The Vikings are an extraordinarily well-schooled team for the time they have spent together. Norman Van Brocklin, in his first year as a head coach, has done a deft job of welding players from disparate systems into a cohesive whole; on this long, hot afternoon in the Cotton Bowl, he also proved that his temper is still under reasonable control. When his secondary defense leaked grievously at times, he kicked the grass; when his linebackers misread their keys, he thrust his hands strongly into his pockets and stared at his feet. But he controlled himself. And his team, even in losing, was sound and occasionally explosive, bothered only by the faults of youth.
The Cowboys suffered the same inconsistencies a year ago but suffered them much more severely than the Vikings. Now they are a poised, alert team, and they have made three important additions: Amos Marsh, Don Perkins and Frank Clarke.
Marsh was overlooked by both the NFL and the AFL in the draft but he has quickly developed into a fine fullback. He played his college football at Oregon State, where he was a back for a couple of years, but as a senior he was shifted to end and, apparently, forgotten. He caught only 10 passes in his last year, and no one expected much of him when he reported to the Cowboy training camp at St. Olaf, Minn.
Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas club, moved Marsh to fullback. Marsh did not explode into brilliance immediately, but he is a studious, careful man and he worked hard at his job. "Hardest thing I had to learn was how to run in an open field," he said last week after gaining 64 yards in 11 carries. "My coaches helped some, but I learned most from movies. I studied Jim Taylor, the Green Bay fullback. He's got great balance. I looked at his moves over and over, and then I tried to use them. I watched Jim Brown in the Cleveland movies. He's a slider, gets hit, bounces sideways, keeps running. L. G. Dupre, on our club, he's got real good moves. And I looked at lots of pictures on Hugh McElhenney. He's real good at picking his way and finding routes."
Perkins, a halfback from New Mexico, came to the Cowboys last year only to be injured and miss the season. He gives the team good outside speed, something that was completely lacking in 1960.
"He's just beginning to come back," one of the Cowboy coaches said. "He was great when he came to us last year. He'd find his hole quick, go through it and cut one way or the other to the sideline. But this year he was hesitating at the hole, then he'd get through and he'd run head on into someone. He couldn't make up his mind. Now he's got the feel back and he's doing things right." Perkins gained 108 yards in 17 carries.
A plus in Clarke
The Cowboys felt keenly the lack of a good deep receiver last year; they acquired Clarke from the Cleveland Browns and discovered they had an extra dividend in him. Believed to be poor as a short-haul pass catcher because he heard, too clearly, the footsteps of the approaching halfback or linebacker on the short, dangerous catches, Clarke proved himself under extreme pressure against the Vikings when he made two superb catches of short passes. He did the same thing a week ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So the quick maturing of three players plus the gradual solidification of a group of strangers into a team has made the Cowboys a good professional club. Add to that the development of Don Meredith as a quarterback and the emergence of the Dallas secondary defense into the kind of close-knit, almost telepathic group that once marked the Giant defenders when Landry coached them, and it becomes apparent why the Cowboys are going to win some more games this year.