January 28, 2012

Are the Cowboys still America's Team?

The answer is yes. Other teams may try to claim the title, but there is only one America's Team.

It's inevitable: Somebody this week will argue that the New England Patriots have become America's Team.

Meanwhile, about 200 miles down Interstate 95, somebody else will argue that the New York Giants have become America's Team. In addition to indignant cynicism and feigned passion, the arguments will have this in common: They'll insist that the Dallas Cowboys, who have borne the nickname for more than 30 years, are no longer America's Team.

But, of course, such arguments, which seem to come around every other football season or so and to be pullulating this year because of a recent poll, are 24-karat flapdoodle, sterling nonsense, pure piffle. The Cowboys are America's Team forever.

As Bob Ryan, vice president and editor-in-chief of NFL Films, pointed out, a nickname is non-transferable. It's like an airline ticket. It can be momentarily misplaced, even stuffed into a drawer beneath a pile of socks, but it can't be used by anybody else.

"There's never going to be another Galloping Ghost, or another defensive line that's the Purple People Eaters," Ryan said, without having to add that there will never be another America's Team. "You can't transfer a nickname. It can't happen."

And Ryan should know. He coined the Cowboys' famous nickname while editing the team's highlight film for the 1978 season, which concluded in Miami with a Super Bowl loss to the Steelers. Ryan said he was searching for something positive to say that wouldn't get mired in the disappointment of the loss, for a telling and original observation about a Cowboys team that already had won two Super Bowls.

"They appear on television so often their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars," said the narrator, John Facenda, in the introduction to the film. "They are the Dallas Cowboys, 'America's Team.'"

The team's popularity inspired the nickname. Just as football exploded in the popular awareness and into the cultural mainstream, the Cowboys became, with their relentless success, the most popular team in the NFL. In 1978, with a 12-4 record, they enjoyed their 13th consecutive winning season. (They would have seven more, an unprecedented streak, before going 7-9 in 1986.)

Those Cowboys, Ryan said, appeared more frequently than any other team on national television, had the most visible players and sold the most merchandise. Their popularity crossed regional borders, it veritably soared, and their fan base became national. Wherever they played, from New York to California, the Cowboys attracted large gatherings. At hotels and stadiums, fans proudly donned the silver and blue to make a chromatic statement of their loyalty.

And so when the Cowboys were introduced as "America's Team" in a nationally televised game the next season, the nickname was all theirs, appropriately and inseparably. But it wasn't just the team's popularity that made the nickname stick.

Bigger in Texas

Sport thrives on competition, but its significance derives from cultural metaphor. In April 1978, the wildly successful series Dallas first appeared on television. In every sense, it was big. It celebrated the city as a place of big possibilities, big successes, big risks and big conflicts, a centrally located conurbation where everything came together in a distillation of America. Only here could there be America's Team.

And this Cowboys team, which was both daring and innovative, this team with the pristine logo, a blue star suggestive of independence and individuality, had become a symbol not just for winning but for progress. The Cowboys had a history of drafting from small colleges obscure players who went on to NFL success and for taking chances on athletes with little experience. Only a few years earlier (1965-1974), an Olympic champion, Bob Hayes, had returned punts and caught passes for the Cowboys. It probably helped, too, that the cowboy was an iconic figure in American history. And then there was the quarterback.

A Heisman Trophy winner from Annapolis whose Navy service included a tour of duty in Vietnam, Roger Staubach was an American hero long before he joined the Cowboys. With a famous "Hail Mary Pass" to beat the Vikings in 1975 and two Super Bowl victories, of course he played for America's Team, as if he could have played for any other.

Staubach said he recalls finding "hotels packed with Cowboys fans" whenever the team traveled. And for some road games, the Cowboys would have nearly as many supporters in the stadium as the home team. But the moniker wasn't something the team conferred on itself or at the time even liked, Staubach said, and Coach Tom Landry, who didn't condone boasting or "mouthing off," didn't talk about the Cowboys' being America's Team. But Tex Schramm, the team's president and general manager who was famous for his innovative ideas and promotional talents, was probably more receptive.

"Knowing coach Landry, I don't think he would have chosen that," Staubach said about the nickname. "I think Tex liked the idea, but as for the players, it didn't help us."

The nickname had a polarizing effect. Fans who didn't embrace America's Team could only resent the nickname and what it suggested. Opposing players resented it, too. When the Cowboys went to Philadelphia in December 1979, linebacker Bill Bergey broke through the line on a blitz, Staubach recalled, and sent him crashing to the ground.

"Take that, America's quarterback," Bergey said, as Staubach remembered the play and its aftermath. The Cowboys, by the way, won 24-17.

Poll is pro Packers

The nickname still polarizes apparently, which might explain the poll released Dec. 21 by Public Policy Polling. Of the 700 people asked to identify their favorite football team, 22 percent said the Green Bay Packers; 11 percent the Dallas Cowboys, followed by the Giants, Bears and Steelers, all at 8 percent; the Saints at 7 percent; and the Patriots at 6 percent. The poll, in other words, found the Packers to be, by far, the most popular professional football team in the country.

On the other hand, the poll found the Cowboys to be the team liked least. When asked to identify their least favorite team, 22 percent said the Cowboys, followed by the Bears at 11 percent and the Packers at 8 percent.

When the poll was taken (Dec. 16-18), the Cowboys had just lost, in a spectacularly inglorious fourth-quarter meltdown, to the Giants, and the Packers were 13-0, but about to lose for the first time this year, on Dec. 18, to the Chiefs. Could the recent games have affected the results? Probably, but that didn't stop anybody from leaping to a favorite conclusion.

The Patriots have a claim to America's Team, having "dominated" the NFL for the first decade of the new millennium; the Packers are America's Team because of their poll-proven popularity and because they're owned by more than 112,000 shareholders; the Steelers are America's Team because, after all, they've won six Super Bowls -- and so go the arguments, all of them insisting that the Cowboys have lost the nickname as well as their mojo.

Roland Martin, a CNN commentator who usually confines his partisan effusions to politics, went so far as to call the "bumbling Cowboys" a "has-been team." Far from being America's Team, the Cowboys aren't even Texas' team, according to Martin at "Football power in Texas," he said, "has shifted to Houston," which must be a happy coincidence for him because he lives there.

And in the New York Daily News, under a headline oozing adolescent pique ("Calling Cowboys 'America's Team' a joke"), while pointing to only two playoff victories in 16 years, Gary Myers wrote, "There needs to be an expiration date on the Cowboys being known as America's Team. And it needs to be soon."


This sort of protest has surfaced with regularity over the years, proving perhaps that flapdoodle's nothing if not buoyant. In the early 1980s, Sports Illustrated, in a tribute to the power of cable television, called the Atlanta Braves "America's Team," in the 1990s coach Marv Levy, showing the conspicuous symptoms of nickname-envy, gave his Buffalo Bills the moniker, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers have sometimes jumped into the discussion, and a few years ago, when they seemed to have pulled an entire city back from the brink of the apocalypse, the Saints became, at the very least, a special team.

"Every few years, I get a call from somebody who wants to question whether the Cowboys are America's Team," said Rich Dalrymple, the Cowboys' vice president of public relations. "But it's not for us to say. It's not a title the team asked for or ever actively promoted."

But, Dalrymple conceded, it's a title, or nickname, that seems to stay here, with the Cowboys. And even if nicknames were transferable (but they're not), the Cowboys would be America's Team and the nickname would endure because it's still relevant, still descriptive, still true. America has an emotional investment in the Cowboys, and that as much as anything makes them America's Team.

Tops in Harris Poll

Last September, the Harris Poll surveyed 2,462 adults -- as opposed to 700 in December, near the end of the season -- and asked them to rank their favorite NFL teams. For the fifth consecutive year and the 13th time in 20 years, the Cowboys were No. 1. They've never been worse than fourth in the Harris Poll, according to Sports Business Journal.

In 2010, the Nielsen Co. devised what it called the Sports Media Exposure Index to measure popularity. The company based its index on local and national television ratings, mentions on the Internet and visits to the teams' official websites. Nielsen found the Cowboys to be the clear leader, or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, the research confirmed that America's Team is "America's Team." And not only were the Cowboys No. 1 on the Sports Media Exposure Index, but they were 23 percent more popular than the No. 2 team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Despite frustrations on the field in recent years, the Cowboys' popularity hasn't waned noticeably. Ryan pointed out that even this year, "when the team was just a little better than mediocre," the Cowboys remained the most popular team on television.

The Thanksgiving Day victory over the Dolphins was the most-watched game of the regular season; in fact, with 31 million viewers, it was the most-watched program. Three of the 10 most popular programs were indeed Cowboys' games. With 27.6 million viewers according to Nielsen, the finale against the Giants was the most-watched regular-season primetime game in 15 years and the most-watched primetime game ever on NBC. And with 17.1 million viewers, the Cowboys' Monday night game against the Redskins was the most-watched program on cable television.

As for embracing bold innovation, these Cowboys could be the most American of America's Teams. They play, after all, in the largest air-conditioned space in the world, beneath the largest television in the world, in a $1.2 billion monument to boldness.

And so don't accept impostors or substitutes. Don't consign the nickname to the trash, or put it in the freezer or hide it in a drawer beneath the old socks. The Cowboys, Staubach said, are still America's Team. And America's quarterback is right. Yes, amid dubious poll results and pullulating flapdoodle and perennial piffle, America's Team still stands out.

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