Dallas Cowboys

Which Cowboys team was the best to never win a Super Bowl?

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and head coach Tom Landry talk on the sidelines during a 1967 NFL game.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and head coach Tom Landry talk on the sidelines during a 1967 NFL game.

There are plenty of incredibly talented teams in the history of the NFL that did not win the Super Bowl.

But which one was the best?

Last week, ESPN ranked the best non-championship teams for all 32 NFL franchises, and their process wasn’t a subjective one.

Here is the basis for the methodology:

“Ratings are based on the actual scores from all games the regular-season games for each team and represent the degree to which each team is better or worse than the league average of that season. What matters is who you beat/lost to and by how much, and how good that opponent was based on who they beat/lost to and by how much, and so on.”

Using that ranking system, the best team to not win a championship was the 1968 Baltimore Colts. Despite a 13-1 record and a roster stacked with Hall-of-Fame players – including future Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula – the Colts were upset by the American Football League’s New York Jets and quarterback Joe Namath in the 1969 Super Bowl.

Using a similar formula, here are the five best Dallas Cowboys teams that never got to hoist the Lombardi Trophy:

5. 1994 Cowboys: For most Cowboys fans, this is the one that really got away. The two-time Super Bowl champions were on a quest to become the first team to win three straight championships. In what was a down year for the AFC, the clear-cut best teams were the Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.

The two squads had far and away the best point differential and margin of victory across the NFL during the regular season. And they inevitably collided for the third postseason in a row.

Dallas had won the previous two contests in relatively convincing fashion. But the departure of head coach Jimmy Johnson from the Cowboys and the 49ers’ acquisition of All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders tilted the scales just enough, as San Francisco captured a 38-28 win in the muck of Candlestick Park in the conference title game. The Niners would go on to steamroll the San Diego Chargers, 49-26, in the 1995 Super Bowl in Miami.

4. 1978 Dallas Cowboys: This particular team was clearly the best team in the NFC that year. The Cowboys and the Rams both finished 12-4, but Dallas shut out Los Angeles 28-0 when the two teams met in the NFC championship game. Statistically, this team was as elite as it was balanced. The Cowboys had scored the most points, surrendered the fewest points and owned the highest margin of victory by almost a full point.

In his second season, running back Tony Dorsett took over as the team’s top back, rushing for more than 1,300 yards and recording nine total touchdowns. As a team, Dallas rushed for nearly 2,800 yards, which was the third-highest total in the NFL.

In the 1979 Super Bowl, a slightly better Pittsburgh Steelers team prevented the Cowboys’ title defense. By the end of the 1970s, the black and yellow had captured an unprecedented four Super Bowl rings.

3. 1973 Dallas Cowboys: By 1973, the league had expanded to 26 teams, and the two conferences (AFC and NFC) really began taking shape. At 10-4, this team had the worst record of the five teams on this list, but they still had the third-highest margin of victory and point differential in the NFL.

The key to success on offense was balance. This marked the first year of Roger Staubach as the full-time starter and he shared the NFL lead, with Roman Gabriel, in touchdown passes (23). On the ground, Dallas finished with the fifth-most most yards in the league, thanks to a sensational season from running back Calvin Hill (1,142 yards) and three others – Walt Garrison, Robert Newhouse and Staubach – who combined for 1,086 yards.

In the playoffs, the Cowboys managed to upset the Los Angeles Rams, a team which had compiled the league’s best regular season record. In the NFC title game, though, another turnover-filled performance cost the Cowboys a trip to the Super Bowl. At home against the Vikings, Staubach passed for 89 yards, no touchdowns and threw four interceptions as Dallas fell 27-10.

2. 1966 Dallas Cowboys: This was the last season before the NFL-AFL merger, and also the one that really put the Cowboys on the map as it was their first winning season in franchise history. The 10-3-1 Cowboys and 12-4 Green Bay Packers were far and away the class of the league. Thanks to quarterback Don Meredith, Dallas led the league in point differential (+206) and margin of victory (14.7).

Meredith was third in the league in touchdown passes with 24, more than half going to standout wide receiver Bob Hayes. Hayes had a career year with 64 receptions, 1,232 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.

Only two teams, one from each division, met for the NFL league championship. And when the Packers and Cowboys fought for the title, it was the first time the pair had met all season. Dallas and Green Bay were tied at 14 at the end of the first quarter, but Vince Lombardi’s team ultimately pulled away for a 34-27 victory, giving the Packers their 11th NFL championship since 1928.

1. 1968 Dallas Cowboys: Statistically, this team was ranked as the best team in the history of the franchise to never win a title and the fifth-best team in NFL history not to capture a title, according to ESPN’s methodology. Led by Hall of Fame head coach Tom Landry, this team was incredibly deep on both sides of the ball, finishing the regular season with a 12-2 record.

Anchored by Hall of Famers Bob Lilly and Mel Renfro, this team would finish fourth in the league in overall defense. Although the team’s offense was its true strength, the trio of Meredith, running back Don Perkins and Hayes powered the NFL’s highest scoring offense to 431 points. In the regular season, this team’s average margin of victory was 17.5 points.

In the end, like many teams on this list, the ’68 group was done in by turnovers. Many anticipated a clash between Dallas and the Baltimore Colts (the No. 1 team on ESPN’s list) in the conference championship game. Unfortunately, a four-interception game in Cleveland was a major factor in the Cowboys’ 31-20 road loss to the Browns in the opening round of the playoffs. Don Meredith threw three picks in his nine pass attempts before being lifted for Craig Morton. Meredith never played again.

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