The 1978 Dallas Cowboys season was their 19th in the NFL. For the third consecutive season, the Cowboys finished in first place in the NFC East. The Cowboys scored 384 points, which ranked first in the NFC, while the defense only gave up 208 points. Twice, the Cowboys appeared on Monday Night Football.
The defending Super Bowl champions were again led by quarterback Roger Staubach. Staubach finished the season as the top rated passer in the NFL (84.9) by throwing 231 out of 413 completions for 3,190 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 16 interceptions. He also rushed for 182 yards and another touchdown. Wide receivers Drew Pearson and Tony Hill provided the deep passing threats, combining for 90 receptions, 537 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Tight end Billy Joe Dupree contributed 34 receptions for 509 yards and 9 touchdowns. Running back Tony Dorsett had another fine season, recording a total of 1703 combined rushing and receiving yards, and scoring a total of 9 touchdowns. Fullback Robert Newhouse and halfback Preston Pearson also contributed from the offensive backfield, combining for 1,326 rushing and receiving yards, while Newhouse also scored 10 touchdowns. The Cowboys also had a superb offensive line, led by Herbert Scott and 12-time Pro BowlerRayfield Wright
The Cowboys started the regular season slowly, winning only six of their first ten games. Both the offense and the defense played ineffectively, including giving up interceptions and fumbles. Dallas finished strong, winning their last six regular season games to post a 12–4 record.
In the aftermath of the season, NFL Films produced its annual highlight reel as it does for every NFL team. Notable of the highlight reel was the title, "America's Team". It would come to be a label that would define the Dallas Cowboys for the rest of their history. However, the label is most remembered for the Cowboys of this era, appearing in three Super Bowls in four years and claiming a unique spotlight in the American consciousness.
ATL – Francis 17 pass from Bartkowski (Mazzetti kick) ATL 17–13
ATL – field goal Mazzetti 22 ATL 20–13
DAL – Smith 2 pass from D. White (Septien kick) 20–20
DAL – Laidlaw 1 run (Septien kick) DAL 27–20
Dallas' "Doomsday Defense" limited Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartkowski to only 8 completions in 23 attempts and intercepted him 3 times en route to victory. After the Falcons led 20–13 at halftime, the Cowboys scored 14 unanswered points in the second half.
There was a lot of bad blood between the Dallas Cowboys and the LA Rams prior to their 78' NFC Championship contest. Along with the Vikings in the 70's, the Cowboys also had a recent history of eliminating the seemingly Super Bowl bound LA Rams from the playoffs, which only further consigned the Rams to always being just, "next years champions". So when the undefeated Super Bowl champs Dallas Cowboys came to play the undefeated (2-0) LA Rams in Anaheim, CA. during week 3 of the regular season, the Rams wanted their victory to make a statement not only to the Dallas Cowboys, but to the rest of the league as well, "That the 1978 season was definitely, the year of the Rams!".
The week 3 contest was a hard fought, early season match-up between the two hated rivals, with the Rams jumping ahead by a touch down twice in the game, only to have the Cowboys come back to even up the score. With the score tied at 14-14 in the 4th quarter, Pat Haden connected with Willie Miller for a 43 yard TD reception, making the score 20-14, with an easy extra point kick to follow. However, after Rams kicker (Frank Corral) missed the extra point, the score remained 20-14, leaving the Rams and their fans, desperately holding on to a 6 point lead in the fourth quarter, against a Cowboy team well known for winning close games in the final minutes.
Unfortunately, for the Cowboys and their fans, Rams (DB) Rod Perry would prevent the Cowboys from celebrating another miraculous come back victory by intercepting a Staubach pass and returning it for a 43 yard TD. The tens of thousands of cheering fans were deafening, during and after, Rod Perry's interception touchdown return that cemented a 27-14 Rams victory over the most hated and successful of their playoff rivals. But, it was LA's immediate reaction to Rod Perry's 4th quarter play that had grown into a celebration so intensely loud, wild and unyielding, it boarded on taunting and flaunting their victory in the face of the Cowboys by both the Rams fans and the players. In a rare display of anger and frustration, Staubach was seen pointing his finger at a few Rams players while telling them that the Cowboys will "get them" the next time they meet each other, in reaction to the over exuberant celebrating Rams players.
Well, as expected, both teams did eventually meet each other again, and as luck would have it, they met later that same season in the NFC Championship match. Both teams entered the game with a 12-4 regular season record. Both teams dominated their first round playoff opponents, which included a Rams 34-10 blowout victory at home over their other long time playoff nemesis, the Minnesota Vikings. And now, because of that much celebrated LA victory over Dallas in week three, the Cowboys had to play the Rams for the NFC Championship in Anaheim, CA, to even get the chance to defend their Super Bowl title in Miami against the Steelers, who had already won the AFC Championship against the Houston Oilers earlier that same day. But, as far as the Rams and their fans were concerned, the Cowboys would never get that chance because this was definitely going to be the year the Rams finally got over the hump, and became "this years champions".
Now, the stage was set for an emotionally charged, thrilling, epic NFC Championship contest, and fueling the already intensely high emotional flames was non-other than the mouth of the south himself, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. The national, and international, sports media had descended on Thomas Henderson like a flock of buzzards auditioning for a Hitchcock movie the day after the Cowboys 27-20 playoff victory over the Falcons. And, Thomas was more than eager to feed them some controversial meat to chew on for the week. Thomas began the week by suggesting that the reason the Rams never went to a Super Bowl, despite their many playoff appearances over the past two decades, was because they had very little to no class as a team and organization. And, that the Rams are a team of chokers, and, that the Rams were going to choke again in the upcoming game. Henderson's comments about the Rams choking in the playoffs would be repeated by Henderson just before scoring the final touch down that left millions of Cowboy fans, and critics alike, shaking their heads in both amusement and amazement by the end of the game.
The much anticipated NFC Championship game began as a scoreless defensive struggle for nearly three quarters of play, which included Rams kicker Frank Corral missing two field goal attempts in the first half. However, the Cowboys would eventually break the 0-0 tie by forcing 5 second half turnovers that would lead to a 28 point victory, and a return to the Super Bowl. With 1:52 left in the third quarter, it all began to go horribly wrong for the Rams when Dallas safety Charlie Waters intercepted a pass and returned it to the Los Angeles 10-yard line. Five plays later, running back Tony Dorsett, who finished the game with 101 rushing yards, scored on a 5-yard touchdown run to give the Cowboys a 7–0 lead. Waters then recorded another interception on the Rams next drive, setting up quarterback Roger Staubach's 4-yard touchdown pass to Scott Laidlaw with 58 seconds into the final period. On Waters' second interception, Pat Haden's throwing hand hit Randy White's helmet, breaking his thumb and knocking him out of the game. On the Rams' next drive, Vince Ferragamo, Haden's replacement, hit Willie Miller on a 65-yard pass to the 10-yard line, but on first and goal Cullen Bryant fumbled, and Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin recovered at the 11-yard line. Dallas then marched 89 yards, featuring a 53 yard run on first down by Tony Dorsett to score on Billy Joe Dupree's 11-yard touchdown catch.
With a comfortable 21-0 lead by the Cowboys late in the 4th quarter, and the Rams now going nowhere with their backup quarterback, the CBS cameras panned over to Thomas Henderson standing on the sideline with the microphone on. Seizing the opportunity, Thomas told the several million viewers, "It's 21-0, the Rams are choking, and I ain't through yet." On the next Rams possession, Thomas Henderson intercepted a Ferragamo pass with 1:19 left in the game and returned it 68-yards for the final touchdown. While the touchdown interception return, and prior comments may have impressed millions of viewers, it was Henderson's celebratory football finger roll over the goal post that angered many others. Henderson's TD celebration was later deemed by the media as, "Adding Insult to Injury", which amused Henderson, the Cowboys, and their millions of fans but, also increased the huge division between the people who were Cowboys fans and the people who were Cowboys haters. In the end, all of this 'controversy' only served to accelerate Thomas Henderson's already skyrocketing "Hollywood" persona into that of a pop-cultural phenomenon. Thomas Henderson was later featured on the cover of Time Magazine just prior to the Super Bowl, and NBC described Henderson as the "Muhammad Ali of the NFL" during the pre-game player introductions for Super Bowl XIII. While ABC-TV decided to jump on the "Hollywood" Henderson band wagon by inviting him to compete on their very popular annual Superstars competition immediately following the 28-0 victory over the Rams. Now that's what you might call adding insult to injury.
PIT – TD: Lynn Swann 18-yard pass from Terry Bradshaw (Roy Gerela kick) 35–17 PIT
DAL – TD: Billy Joe DuPree 7-yard pass from Roger Staubach (Rafael Septien kick) 35–24 PIT
DAL – TD: Butch Johnson 4-yard pass from Roger Staubach (Rafael Septien kick) 35–31 PIT
Super Bowl XIII can arguably be called the greatest collection of NFL talent ever to gather for a game. In additions to Coaches Noll and Landry, 14 players would go on to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame: 9 from Pittsburgh (Bradshaw, Harris, Swann, Stallworth, Webster, Greene, Lambert, Ham, and Blount), and 5 from Dallas (Staubach, Dorsett, White, Wright, and Jackie Smith).
Much of the pregame hype surrounding Super Bowl XIII centered around Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. Henderson caused quite a stir before the NFC Championship Game by claiming that the Rams had "no class" and the Cowboys would shut them out. His prediction turned out to be very accurate; the Cowboys did shut them out, aided by Henderson's 68-yard interception return for a touchdown.
In the days leading up the Super Bowl, Henderson began talking about the Steelers in the same manner. He predicted another shutout and then made unfriendly comments about several Pittsburgh players. He put down the talent and the intelligence of Bradshaw, proclaiming "Bradshaw couldn't spell 'cat' if you spotted him the 'c' and the 'a'". But the Steelers refused to get into a war of words with Henderson. Greene responded by saying the Steelers didn't need to say they were the best, they would just go out on the field and "get the job done".