The Dallas Cowboys once believed that they could win the East on the strength of their stunning defense. They were wrong. Balance is a requisite for success in the NFL, and this year the Cowboys have it. The defense is as stout as ever, and Dallas will win the Eastern championship with a suddenly potent offense—the running of Don Perkins and Mel Renfro, the passing of Don Meredith and the receiving of Bob Hayes, Pete Gent, Buddy Dial, Norman Pettis and Frank Clarke. The blocking of an offensive line that has been together long enough to become first-rate will afford the spindly-legged Meredith time to pass and enough weeks of good health to lead the team to the divisional title.
Coach Tom Landry, who in the past devoted most of his energies to fashioning the complicated but crushing defense, has now turned his considerable talents to souping up the Dallas offense. His first move was to shift one of his best defensive players from safety to running back. Mel Renfro, a sprinter and broad jumper in college, was an All-League safety in 1965. With luck and good blocking he could be an All-Pro halfback in 1966. Whether he is depends on the speed with which he adjusts to the subtleties of his new role.
"He is still uncertain on his moves when he comes out wide," Landry says. "His timing with the guards when they pull out to lead him is not good yet. He has to learn to wait for them. But I'm sure he will."
Given the wide threat of Renfro and the in-and-out slashing of Perkins, the Cowboys could have the best deep threat from a running attack in football. As of now the Packers are the best running team, but their specialty is short-haul banging. Perkins and Renfro have the speed to score from anywhere on the field.
Landry has installed a roll-out pass offense for Meredith, hoping to force opposing defenses into man-to-man coverage on either Renfro or Hayes, who is, as they say, the world's fastest human.
"The roll-out gives the other defense something to work on during the week," Landry says. "And we think that Don is one of the better scramblers. He is very good at picking out a receiver while he is moving around back there."
Meredith is, indeed, one of the league's better scramblers. He is not quite in Fran Tarkenton's class, but he has a better offensive line protecting him, which means that he does not have to be as agile as the Minnesota quarterback. Given time to unload the ball, he is a devastating passer, and he is throwing to the fastest set of receivers in the game.
"I think our offense will be better than it has ever been," Meredith says. "I really don't see how they can stop us. If I get in trouble I've always got Renfro for a safety valve. I can throw him a three-yard pass and he turns it into a 60-yard touch, and the record book reads 'Meredith to Renfro for 60 and a touchdown.' "
And often enough the record book will also read "Meredith to Hayes for 60 and a touch," since Hayes, the Olympic sprint champion, is on his way to becoming the finest deep receiver ever to play the game. Besides his 9.1 sprinter's speed, Flanker Hayes has exceptionally sure hands and a real football sense, differing in this respect from most track men who have switched sports. He has good moves already, and these will get more sophisticated as he plays.
At split end the Cowboys have a former basketball star who did not play college football. He is Pete Gent, 6 feet 4 and 214 pounds, from Michigan State. In his third year with the Cowboys, he is finally acclimated to the pro game and is an excellent receiver. Because the Cowboys frequently flood one side of the field with Hayes and Renfro, Gent will be overlooked by some defenses, and this will be costly. He has the good hands and quick fakes of a basketball player and any overconcentration on his more famous teammates may catapult Gent himself to stardom.
There is little more that Landry can do to polish his defense, one of the best in either division. The front line, built around Bob Lilly and George Andrie, is second only to the Ram front four. Tough Lee Roy Jordan has matured into a knowledgeable, quick middle linebacker. He is flanked by Chuck Howley, a corner linebacker who has not received the credit he deserves, and Dave Edwards or Harold Hays.
The Dallas secondary is a capable unit, even though Landry has taken Renfro from his safety spot to spice the offense. Mike Gaechter, who replaces him, is just as fast and more experienced. Warren Livingston, Obert Logan and Cornell Green all have exceptional speed. Livingston and Green have 11 years of experience between them; Logan, in his second year, was one of the good surprises of the Cowboy camp a year ago and is even better now.
With a decline in the quality of the opposition in the East and an increase in their own striking and defending capabilities, the Cowboys are title-bound.