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Throwbacks: Dr. Z On Roger Staubach’s Retirement

I love reading old articles, and reading old articles about football history is a particular passion of mine. As much time as I spend working on era-based adjustments, you can’t beat reading about a player in (his) real time. So I’m introducing a new feature at Football Perspective: reviews of historical articles. Today’s content comes from the great Dr. Z in April 1980, and it covers the retirement of Roger Staubach. I recommend you read the whole article first.

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So long, Roger, we gave you a bum deal, kid. For openers, we never picked you All-Pro. That’s we, the writers, the pickers, the guys who vote on the AP and Pro Football Writers ballots. Now that’s a bad call right away, because all you did was end up as the NFL’s top-rated passer—in history, the whole 59 years. Higher than Unitas, than Tarkenton or Jurgensen, than Tittle or Baugh. And you quarterbacked the Cowboys in four of their five Super Bowls, winning twice. And brought the team from behind to victory 14 times in the last two minutes or in overtime, 23 times in the fourth quarter. Hey, what does a guy have to do?

All of those facts are true, of course. Let’s go in order.

I love photos of the ’76 Cowboys, wearing a red, white, and blue helmet stripe in honor of the Bicentennial.

1) Yep, Staubach was never a first-team All-Pro. Brad Oremland talked about this earlier this year, when he mentioned that Staubach actually ranked 1st in four different seasons by his preferred metric. And I talked about this quirky piece of trivia in July: Staubach is the only one of the 29 modern era HOF QBs who was never named a 1st-team All-Pro by a major organization at one point in their career.

2) Staubach did retire as the career leader in passer rating, at least if you exclude Otto Graham’s AAFC production. He still ranks 7th in era-adjusted passer rating (which includes Graham’s AAFC days).

3) The 23 times refers to his game-winning drives total, which is tied for just 39th today. But when he retired, that total ranked 3rd among all players since 1960, behind just Fran Tarkenton (34) and Johnny Unitas (27).

But last week Staubach put an end to it, joining a very small fraternity of NFL stars who quit when they could still command a big salary—Jimmy Brown, Fran Tarkenton, Whizzer White if you want to go way back. His announcement overshadowed two other major Cowboy retirements, each of which could have commanded a major press conference of its own. Offensive Tackle Rayfield Wright, 34, and Free Safety Cliff Harris, 31, with nine years of combined All-Pro behind them, each called it a career. With Wright it was a forced decision. Tom Landry decided that 13 seasons was enough. But Harris, the definitive safetyman of the ’70s and an almost certain Hall of Famer, caught the Cowboys by surprise when he told them he had a good opportunity with a young and energetic oil company, and there comes a time in every man’s life…

Staubach has a heckuva case for having the best final season of a quarterback’s career, at least based on passing statistics. And he had one of the greatest final seasons among players at all positions. Staubach, who was an obvious first ballot Hall of Famer, still had the 4th best era-adjusted passer rating of his career in his final season, and had just finished leading the NFL in ANY/A for the third year in a row.

But what about Cliff Harris? These are the sorts of gems I love about reading old articles. Here, Dr. Z — arguably the foremost authority of his time — called Harris an almost certain Hall of Famer. The PFRA inducted him into their Hall of Very Good in 2011, and was a finalist in ’04 but has not yet been inducted. Harris was a Hall of Fame caliber safety and the best player at his position from ’76 to ’78. And for trivia buffs out there: Harris and Charlie Waters remain the last pair of safety teammates1 to be named first-team All-Pros in the same season by a major organization.

He was tired and his head hurt and his team had just been eliminated from the playoffs. December talk, his wife figured. She’d heard it before. But Lord knows, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Five concussions, two of them serious. He’d experienced some numbness after the Pittsburgh game.

Twenty concussions, total, including high school. A few weeks after the Rams game, a New York neurologist told Staubach that, yes, there was some cumulative damage, a slight slowing of some of the reflexes.

He had paid his dues. His left shoulder was dislocated 17 times before he underwent surgery to have the ligaments tightened. When Staubach tries to move his left arm backward, the motion is markedly limited. The little finger on his throwing hand doesn’t look like a finger at all. It’s a perfect Z, discounting a big round knot in the middle. The index finger is swollen and off-line.

Football is one brutal game.  It’s remarkable that he has (at least on the surface) appeared to have aged so well.  That’s pretty good for a guy with 20 concussions — and who, you know, served in Vietnam.

When it came time for Staubach to thank his teammates for the 11 years, things got a little heavy. You don’t just snappy-patter out of a career. But the toughest time came in the press conference when Staubach had to speak of Landry. “Of course the nuts and bolts of the Dallas Cowboys.” he said, and there was a pause of 10 seconds or so while he got himself together, “was the man who wears the funny hat on the sidelines.”

“I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t say his name,” Staubach said later. “I didn’t want to get too emotional, but when I came to his name—well, I knew if I said it I’d probably lose control.”

You can view video of that moment of Staubach’s retirement speech here (starting at the 7:00 mark).  Landry was an incredible coach: Don Meredith was his quarterback in the Ice Bowl and the loss to the Packers in the NFL Championship Game the prior year. He made the Super Bowl with Craig Morton. He won two Super Bowls with Roger. And immediately after Staubach retired, he made three straight NFC Championship Games with Danny White.

Oh, and because I got down the path of reading articles about Staubach on Sports Illustrated, here’s another article with a helluva finish from Robert F. Jones.

[Staubach speaking] I’m very concerned about public morality and leadership, but I’m sure not going to set myself up as an authority. Entertainers and athletes should certainly have their own opinions of how society ought to be run, about right and wrong, but how can they in good conscience prescribe behavior the way they do on the talk shows? Being in the public eye is no license to suggest how people should live or govern themselves. Renown alone is hardly a credential.

“When you’ve achieved a certain measure of popular fame, you also have the power to exert enormous leverage on impressionable minds. A lot of well-known people don’t realize that in its fullest implication. I feel very comfortable with my religion, and I know I couldn’t be happy without it, but I’m not about to go around telling everyone to believe as I do, to pray as I do. I’ve been able to absorb the changes that grew out of Pope John’s Vatican Councils, and I think they are good changes. The Church should have a social conscience, should take care of people’s spiritual needs regardless of race or politics. I hate the hypocrisy of, say, the pious churchgoer who observes the Sabbath to the letter and then later in the week harangues against ‘n******’ and fosters bigotry. It’s simplistic, maybe, and Phyllis George might not like it, maybe, but I believe in being good. It makes other people feel good, and I feel good when they feel that way.

“But,” and now he grinned wide open, “when I’m on the football field, I like to win.”

If that sounds out of place today,2 well, let’s just say that Staubach was out of place in his own time, too. Okay, that’s two historical articles for the price of one.

And you can read Dr. Z’s full article here. Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and also feel free to email or tweet me any old articles you’d like republished here.

  1. Even the Legion of Boom Seahawks haven’t matched this yet. []
  2. This is an early version of ‘stick to sports.’ []
  • sacramento gold miners

    It’s amazing to consider how Staubach was able to overcome four years of military service, with no real game action, and still have a great pro career after winning the Heisman Trophy at Navy. I’ve seen recent interviews of Staubach, and despite the concussion history, appears to be doing well at 75 years of age. And when former teammate Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson had his litany of off field issues, Staubach reached out to help, when many others had distanced themselves from the troubled ex-player.

    Speaking of the Bicentennial year of 1976, aside from the Cowboys adding that red helmet stripe, and the Eagles having a sleeve patch of the Liberty Bell, almost no other team did anything to commemorate this important event. Odd to see both the Cowboys and Steelers wearing the sharp Bicentennial patch in January of 1976 for SB10, yet no follow-through for the 1976 regular season.

    Getting back to Roger Staubach, one of the oddities of his career was the game at Chicago in 1971(I think), when Tom Landry alternated both him and Craig Morton every offensive play. As expected, it was a disaster, and Dallas was upset by the Bears.

    • Good stuff, sgm.

    • TN

      I was just a wee tot when it happened, but as I recall, the Bicentennial celebration built up strongly until the Fourth of July, then it was pretty much over with. By September, when the NFL season started, nobody was talking about the Bicentennial any more.

      • Tom

        I was around 8 and that’s my recollection as well…kind of petered out by September.

  • On the Dave Dameshek Football Program a few months ago, Dave and his guests were debating Staubach vs. Bradshaw, and they all came down in favor of the latter (Dave is a huge Pittsburgh homer). I was (figuratively) screaming into my phone “No!
    Staubach!”

    Their rationale was that Bradshaw won the two Super Bowls when the two QBs went “head to head” (ignoring the fact they were up against totally different opponents). If only Jackie Smith would have held onto that TD pass, there is a decent chance they would have split 1-1 and both had three rings. In that case, I suspect Staubach would be almost universally remembered as the better of the two.

    • Great point. With 3 rings each, I agree that Staubach would be universally remembered as the better player. He obviously should be, anyway.

      And while Staubach only started for 8 years, Bradshaw was so bad early in his career that it doesn’t help his case. You can compare Bradshaw from ’74 to ’82 to Staubach from ’71 to ’79 (he missed nearly all of ’72), and the two had nearly identical games played/starts/pass attempts numbers. And you’re not leaving out any material part of Bradshaw’s career by ignoring ’70 to ’73 or ’83.

      https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/B/BradTe00.htm#1974-1982-sum:passing

      https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/S/StauRo00.htm#1971-1979-sum:passing

      Staubach went 82-28, with 22K yards, 150 TDs, and 99 INTs, while Bradshaw was 79-34 with 21K yards, 169 TDs, and 137 INTs. Bradshaw did have a better NY/A average thanks to a better sack rate, but Staubach also had the better ANY/A. And this analysis favors Bradshaw because by playing 3 years later, he gets more post-’78 seasons. Bradshaw’s numbers are better than you might think once you exclude the early part of his career (which is why I’m generally pro-Bradshaw) but Staubach was clearly better.

      • Tom

        I’m split on the Staubach/Bradshaw debate. I agree with you and other readers here that Staubach was “better” – I generally go along with anything that you, Brian Frye or Brad Orelemand suggest regarding quarterbacks –
        but I’ve got Bradshaw as being a very, very close second, if I were to rank these guys, due to his playoff performances, especially the Super Bowls. It’s NOT the number of rings (and certainly not the lame head-to-head thing), it’s the actual performances…Staubach just wasn’t “great” in any of his four Super Bowls (for whatever reason, this isn’t an indictment of his ability, etc.), and possibly “bad” in one of them (SB 10). Bradshaw was great in two (SB 13 & 14) and average in the other two. I’m OK with folks disagreeing with this way of thinking, after all, we’re talking about 4 games each, but that’s my take.

        All that being said, obviously there’s no question Staubach is one of the greatest to ever play (your “GOAT V” has him at #15), and a stand up guy on top of that (as the above excerpt points towards).

    • Tom

      I think Smith making that catch would have been big, but not the game-changer that I think is in most people’s minds (not suggesting you’re saying this). We remember it because of how dramatic it was, but heck, if he makes the catch, the game is tied, and there’s *still* 17 and a half minutes left to play! So it’s a big play, but Staubach’s legend would have also been greatly helped by the Steelers not getting one of the most crucial and controversial PI calls in SB history, and Randy White not fumbling the kickoff when Dallas was down by 11! He can take some of the blame for the failed 3rd-and-5 on Dallas’ next drive after the Smith drop, but it’s hard to be “Captain Comeback” when the other teams score 14 points in a few minutes while you’re on the sidelines…

      • Richie

        Why was Randy White handling a kickoff? I had never heard that bit before.

        • David Willis

          It was a squib kick, and White was one of the up-men…you can find the video of the whole game on YouTube if you want to see it. White had a cast on his hand, should have probably just taken a knee, but tried to run and just gave up the ball without even being hit.

          • Richie

            So weird that I don’t remember ever hearing about that play.

            Here it is: https://youtu.be/-EtyIE-LhtQ?t=38m17s

            • Tom

              That’s kind of what I’m getting at…Jackie Smith takes all this heat – OK, should have caught it (although I’ve read where some guys say it wasn’t as easy as it seems, he was running the other way and slipped or whatever) – but that game was far from over, and there were these two other big plays that had about as much impact. Not some big “find” here, but worth noting.

              And with all of the 4th-down go-for-it talk these days, interesting to think what might have happened if Landry just went for it on 4th-and-3 after the drop…FG was probably better call.

          • Tom

            And while that play may not have been as “big” as the drop – at that point, Dallas was down by 11 and that’s a lot of points to make up in 1978 against the Steelers, even with almost 8 minutes left (which seems like an eternity now) – it basically ended the game. And yeah, we don’t hear about it much.

    • Richie

      I love Dameshek, but hate how championship-centric he is in his historical ratings.

  • Andrew Healy

    I loved reading this. So grateful you still get to write as much as you do!

  • Richie

    Interesting to read about the concussions. I don’t remember hearing much about concussions 20+ years ago. I suppose my memory is faulty.

    • sacramento gold miners

      During Staubach’s career, the word “concussion” was rarely used. The phrase, “getting his bell rung” was often used, as this was the era in which players frequently returned to the action during games.

  • TN

    It’s great to read Paul Zimmerman again. The question about Dr. Z isn’t whether he’s the greatest NFL writer ever – he obviously is – but whether he’s the greatest sportswriter ever.

  • Tim Truemper

    Roger Staubach was genuine in his goodness and not pompous. A great leader and incredible fortitude. I hated it when he retired but junderstood his injury situation. Thanks for the great historical post by the incomparable Dr. Z.

  • Dr__P

    More trivia

    Roger was on the cover of Life magazine, but that issue was scrapped after JFK was assassinated and replaced with a new cover. About 200 copies still remain.

  • Howard1952

    I always think Landry made a mistake not starting Staubach in the Super Bowl against Baltimore. Craig Morton was completely banged up and he played horribly. All Staubach had to do was hand off to Duane Thomas and Calvin Hill and they could have won 10-3. Morton choked and allowed the Colts to win.