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. Both the Cowboys and Viking shared a common recent history of eliminating the LA Rams from the playoffs throughout the 1970s. Consigning the Rams to being labeled, "next years champions" for nearly a decade. So, when the undefeated (2-0) Dallas Cowboys traveled to Anaheim, California to play the undefeated (2-0) Rams during week-3 of the 1978 regular season, the Rams not only wanted to win the game for a measure of revenge over the Dallas Cowboys. But, the Rams also wanted to use a victory over last years super bowl champions to make a statement to the rest of the league, "That the '78 season was the year the Rams finally win a championship".
The week-3 contest between the Rams and Cowboys was a hard fought early season match-up between two hated rivals. Twice the Rams lead by a touch down during 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 touchdown reception giving the Rams a 6-point lead. But, after the Rams FG-kicker (Frank Corral) missed the easy extra point the score remained 20-14, leaving the Rams desperately holding on to that 6-point lead against a Cowboys team well known for pulling-out close games late in the 4th-quarter.
However, the Rams defense put an abrupt end to the Cowboys dreams of engineering another miraculous last minute come back victory after Rams DB-Rod Perry intercepted a pass by Cowboys QB-Roger Staubach and returned it for a 43-yard TD to seal the Rams 27-14 week-3 victory over the Cowboys. In response to the game winning interception return by Rod Perry, over 65,000 fans that filled the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that day simultaneously erupted into a bedlam of deafening cheers. Then, what started off as very loud overly exuberant celebration over the game clinching interception return, eventually, developed into openly taunting the Cowboys over the loss during the last few minutes of the game, by both the fans and a few of the Rams players. Which provoked a very rare display of anger and frustration by Roger Staubach, who was seen pointing his finger at the celebrating Rams players on the sideline, and telling them that the Cowboys "Will get them" the next time they meet each other.
Later that same season, both teams did eventually meet each other again 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 emotionally charged week-3 loss to the Rams, the Cowboys were forced to play for the NFC Championship on the road in Anaheim, California - in order to give themselves the chance to defend their Super Bowl title in Miami against the Pittsburgh 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".
The stage was now set for an epic NFC Championship contest between the Cowboys and Rams, and fueling the already hot emotional flames was non-other than the mouth of the south himself, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. Earlier in the week, the national (and international) media had descended on Thomas Henderson like a flock of buzzards auditioning for a Hitchcock movie the day after the Cowboys 27-20 Divisional playoff victory over the Falcons. And, Thomas was more than eager to feed them some controversial meat to chew on. 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 their upcoming game against the Cowboys. Henderson's comments about the Rams choking in the playoffs would be repeated by Henderson just prior to him scoring the final touchdown of the game that left millions of Cowboy fans, and critics alike, shaking their heads in both amusement and amazement by the end.
The much anticipated NFC Championship game between the Rams and Cowboys 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, Dallas eventually broke the scoreless match wide open late in the 3rd-quarter after forcing five 2nd-half turnovers that would eventually lead to a 28-point victory for the Cowboys. Earning them the opportunity to defend their NFL championship in Super Bowl XIII.
As usual, the Rams defense proved to be a hard nut to crack for the Cowboys offense, but, it all began to go horribly wrong for the Rams after Dallas safety Charlie Waters intercepted a pass and returned it to the Rams 10-yard line with 1:52 left in the 3rd-quarter. Five plays later, RB-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. On the Rams next possession, Charlie Waters snatched his 2nd interception of the game, which quickly set-up Roger Staubach's 4-yard touchdown pass to FB-Scott Laidlaw, making it a 14-0 contest early in the 4th quarter. On the same play that resulted in Rams QB-Pat Haden throwing his 2nd interception of the game to Cowboys DB-Charlie Waters, Haden's throwing hand smashed into Cowboys DT-Randy White's helmet as he was releasing the ball. Resulting in Haden breaking his right thumb, and sidelining him for the rest of the game.
On the Rams next possession and down 14-0, backup Rams QB-Vince Ferragamo hit Willie Miller on a 65-yard pass, giving the Rams a 1st-down on the Cowboys 10-yard line. However, on 1st-and-goal, the Rams RB-Cullen Bryant fumbled and Cowboys DE-Harvey Martin recovered the ball at their own 11-yard line. From the 11-yard line, the Cowboys offense marched 89-yards to score their 3rd touchdown of the game, which featured a 53-yard run on 1st-down by Tony Dorsett, that eventually set-up an 11-yard touchdown reception from Staubach to TE-Billy Joe Dupree.
With the Cowboys sitting comfortably on top a 21-0 lead late in the 4th quarter, and the Rams going nowhere with their backup QB Ferragamo, the CBS cameras panned over to Thomas Henderson standing on the sideline with their TV 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 Cowboy fans and the people who were Cowboy haters.
In the end, Thomas Henderson's pregame "controversial" comments and goal post finger roll TD celebration only served to accelerate his 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".