Tom Landry, the scholarly, muscular coach of the Dallas Cowboys, began his construction of this team in reverse. Landry is a great believer in defense, but when he went to Dallas to launch the Cowboys he put in a flamboyant offense on the theory that, since he was going to lose anyway, he might as well lose spectacularly.
So the Cowboys lost spectacularly for a while. Last year they lost, but not spectacularly. The Cowboys had the second best defense in pro football and maybe the worst offense. The rise of the defense was understandable; once the players mastered Landry's defensive philosophy they only needed a few years to learn execution, and it was almost assured that they would excel. Unfortunately for Landry, just as his defenders arrived at the stage of intuitive reaction, his offense fell apart, mostly because he had to play with half a quarterback. Don Meredith suffered a series of injuries and hobbled about courageously but ineffectively most of the time. Behind him was John Roach, who was healthy but lamentably rusty. Behind Roach was no one.
Now the Cowboys have quarterbacks from here to the Pedernales. Meredith has recuperated from a knee operation and is healthy for a change. Draftees Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome are two of the most promising quarterbacks to come into the league for a long time. Meredith will doubtless be Landry's top quarterback, but this year, for a change, he will be able to rest if he is hurt.
The Cowboy offensive line is older and still intact. The receivers are fleet and young. Buddy Dial's torn thigh muscle has mended. Frank Clarke, Lee Folkins and Pettis Norman are seasoned and apt.
On offense, the Cowboys' big lack has been a running back to complement Fullback Don Perkins, the twisting, tough and explosive ball carrier who ran for 768 yards in 1964. Amos Marsh began well, then deteriorated. If Marsh can return to his 1962 form the Dallas attack, one of the best in that season, will complement the defense so well that Dallas may win the Eastern Division title.
Although the Cowboy offensive line leaked ends and tackles last season, it was not really that bad. It should be much better, especially when Tony Liscio, a big, agile offensive tackle, recovers from a June knee operation and a subsequent staph infection.
"We are ready to contend," Landry says. He is a conservative man, and when he says the club will be in contention it is the equivalent of another coach saying he will win.
The defense should improve and become the best of all. The offense, given a reasonable performance from the offensive line and good running from another back besides Perkins, could be just about good enough. In the exhibition season Landry experimented to find the right offensive combination. The team is deeper in all the crucial positions. For instance, last year the Cowboys suffered from the lack of a punter and a place-kicker. So from the Rams they got Danny Villanueva, who is good at both.
In two vital spots—quarterback and linebacker—the Cowboys have impressive depth and strength. This could be the year the Cowboys make a run at Cleveland and St. Louis for the Eastern championship. Throw out the early exhibition losses; in them Landry was experimenting.
Healthy after a grim season among the working wounded, Don Meredith could make the improved Cowboys a contender in the Eastern race.