Tom Landry used to tell his players: “If you can’t rush the quarterback, you can’t play in the NFL.”
Bob Lilly listened. Harvey Martin took it to heart. Jethro Pugh never forgot.
It was considered a basic Landry recipe for Doomsday Defense, both I and II.
However, Cowboys’ sack history (and I’m not sure what this even means) suggests that bringing down the opposing QB doesn’t automatically translate into postseason success.
Quite the contrary.
Some of the Cowboys’ deepest runs in the playoffs have followed seasons with modest sack totals by the defense. And vice-versa.
The Cowboys’ five Super Bowl-winning teams averaged 42 sacks during the season. Not bad. Not great. This franchise has had 21 seasons of 42-plus sacks, including last year (46).
Of the Cowboys’ 10 seasons of 50-plus sacks, they won one Super Bowl (XII), lost one Super Bowl (XIII) and were eliminated in the playoffs five times without winning a game, including the 1966 NFL championship against Green Bay. They also missed the playoffs three times.
Total quirk? Probably.
If you believe Landry, and most of us still do.
Lilly sets single-game sack record
Date: Nov. 20, 1966
Site: University of Pittsburgh
Score: Cowboys 20, Steelers 7
Beat writer Frank Luksa wrote in the next day’s Star-Telegram: “A savage pass rush, headed by Bob Lilly, ground Pittsburgh’s attack into dust before a Pitt Stadium crowd of 42,185.”
Luksa used the phrase “sledge-hammer tactics” to describe the action.
Considering Lilly ... that’s about right.
“Mr. Cowboy” missed getting a sixth sack when young Pittsburgh QB Ron Smith intentionally grounded the ball rather than go down again. Seldom-used Steelers backup Ron Meyer endured some of Lilly’s abuse as well.
There were a total of 17 sacks in this game — 12 by the winners, five by the losers.
The 12 sacks by Dallas (later matched by the ’85 Cowboys vs. Oilers) and 17 sacks by both teams remain team records.
The ’66 Cowboys finished with a 60-sack season, which is still second-best in team history.
Jeffcoat ties Lilly sack mark
Date: Nov. 10, 1985
Site: RFK Stadium
Score: Cowboys 13, Redskins 7
What do you think happens when a Pro Bowl LT (Joe Jacoby) is replaced by an untested rookie (Dan McQuaid)?
“Jeffcoat had feeling it was his day,” read the headline in the Nov 11, 1985, Star-Telegram.
Prophetic player. Proficient headhunter. Jeffcoat sacked Joe Theismann five times to tie Lilly’s 19-year-old team record.
Jeffcoat told reporters after the game: “I watched a lot of film this week. I figured [McQuaid] would try to sit right up on me and block me, but that I was just a little faster. In their scheme, I didn’t think there was any way they could double-team me.
“They were paying too much attention to Randy White and John Dutton and Don Smerek and Too Tall Jones.”
The ’85 team owns the Cowboys’ single-season sack record (62) ... but all it managed in the playoffs was a first-round exit (LA Rams).
The next season, Jeffcoat would get a career-high 14 sacks but never have a single sack-game quite like this one ... and with so many of his New Jersey family and friends in the RFK stands.
Now the flipside
Pass protection does seem to translate into ultimate success or failure for Cowboys teams.
The club record for fewest sacks allowed (16-game season) is 23 by the ’91 Cowboys. This group of offensive linemen was on the verge of becoming a three-time Super Bowl OL over the next four years.
Conversely, the four highest sack totals surrendered by the Cowboys — including a club-record 68 sacks allowed in ’64 — led to empty postseason records, with only the ‘66 Cowboys (55 sacks allowed) even making the playoffs.
Pelluer sacked 11 times, team record
Date: Nov. 16, 1986
Site: Jack Murphy Stadium
Score: Cowboys 24, Chargers 21
For 21 years, Craig Morton held the dubious honor of being the Cowboys QB most sacked in a game — nine times in a 13-3 loss at Lambeau Field in October ’65.
Then, Steve Pelluer got caught in an onslaught led by Lee Williams, Leslie O’Neal and Joe Phillips of San Diego. Pelluer was sacked 11 times. O’Neal had five himself.
Perhaps most memorable about this game were: 1) Pelluer had to go to the locker room during the fourth quarter to get a Novocain injection for a hip pointer to continue to play, and 2) the Cowboys roared back from a 21-10 deficit to win.
A blocked Chargers’ punt deep in San Diego territory (Michael Downs) turned the game with 8:22 left. Three plays later, Herschel Walker scored from the 1.
Getting the ball back at their own 39 with 2:09 left, the Cowboys struck quickly. Pelluer hooked up with fullback Timmy Newsome for 11 yards, then hit rookie Mike Sherrard on a deep corner route to the SD 27.
The next day’s Star-Telegram wrote: “Dallas called an ‘85 left’ screen to [Tony] Dorsett ... [who] took the pass, broke two or three tackles and carried the ball down to the 2-yard line.”
Said Landry: “Tony was remarkable on that play.”
And from there, Pelluer paid back the Chargers for all 11 sacks that day. He sneaked in for the winning TD.
Aikman sacked to be tied
Date: Sept. 15, 1991
Site: Texas Stadium
Score: Eagles 24, Cowboys 0
Troy Aikman will remember this game for its abject futility. It also was a watershed moment for a young Cowboys team because, when they were good enough to fight back, they would fight back with a vengeance.
Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Mike Golic and Clyde Simmons gladly demonstrated — sacking Aikman 11 times and knocking him down five more. Simmons had 4 1/2 sacks himself.
“You have to worry about Troy back there on a day like today because he’s our franchise player,” said left tackle Mark Tuinei in the Sept. 16, 1991, Star-Telegram.
Also reported that day: “Mild-mannered Aikman said he even tried yelling at his line early in the game.”
The Cowboys overcame a 1-2 start to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. But on this autumn afternoon, Aikman felt the light at the end of the tunnel.
It was a train wreck.