The Cowboys During Previous NFL Labor Disputes

The prevailing thought is that a long-term lockout of NFL players will hurt the Cowboys more than some other teams, given that head coach Jason Garrett and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan need time to make meaningful changes leading to the 2011 season.

Not that work stoppages typically help many teams (except perhaps the Redskins, who won Super Bowl titles during the strike seasons of 1982 and 1987), but the Cowboys have had mixed results when it comes to how past labor disputes have affected the team. Here is a brief look:

1974 Strike

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Tex Schramm infamously paid Dallas players about half of what players on other squads made. At that time, both Roger Staubach and Tom Landry were able to earn substantial money from sources other than the Cowboys, and Schramm took advantage of this by setting low salaries for both Staubach and Landry. Schramm would then tell other players that they couldn’t make more than a certain percentage of those salaries.

The introduction of the World Football League in 1974 resulted in significant changes to the organization. WFL teams targeted the likes of Calvin Hill, Craig Morton, and Mike Montgomery, offering many times what the Cowboys were willing to offer. Dallas chose to trade Morton and Montgomery, and Hill played his final season in Dallas in 1974 before playing in the WFL in 1975. The Cowboys also lost third-round pick Danny White, who chose to sign with the Toronto Northman of the WFL.

The players eventually formed a strike in August before the 1974 season began. However, Schramm made veiled threats to veterans, suggesting that the team would replace the vets with rookies. The likes of Staubach, Bob Lilly, and Lee Roy Jordan crossed the picket line, and for the entire players’ union, the strike was a failure.

The result of the WFL emerging and the strike (especially the former) was that the Cowboys had to pay their players market value. Perhaps it is just irony, but Dallas had only one more truly great draft under Schramm, Landry, and Gil Brandt, and that occurred in 1975.

Of course, Dallas struggled in 1974, starting 1-4 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1965.

1982 Strike

The 1982 Cowboys still had enough talent to contend in the NFC, but the clock was running out. Dallas lost to Pittsburgh on opening day, marking the first opening-day loss since 1964. The Cowboys’ record stood at 1-1 for two months thanks to the player strike that wiped out seven games that year. The Cowboys then won five straight before finishing with a 6-3 record.

It is tough to tell how the Cowboys would have done had the strike not wiped out those seven games. The strike canceled games against each of the division opponents, along with matchups against defending NFL champion San Francisco and defending AFC champion Cincinnati. An 11-5 finish would have been likely, but the schedule was indeed tough.

1987 Strike

Like the 1982 Cowboys, the 1987 team was off to a 1-1 start when the players struck again. The owners in 1987 decided to hire replacement players and let the games continue. Dallas fielded a solid replacement team that was later helped with several key regular players who crossed the picket line. The team went 2-1 during the replacement games but suffered an embarrassing loss to Washington in the third of these games during which the Redskins played none of their regular players. When all of the regular players returned, Dallas struggled and could not manage a winning record, finishing at 7-8.

Plan B Free Agency (1989)

The NFL introduced Plan B free agency in 1989. From this system, Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones acquired a number of players, the most significant of which was tight end Jay Novacek.

Free Agency (1992)

Eight players sued the NFL regarding Plan B free agency, and in 1992, a Minnesota judge struck down the system. The result was a new collective bargaining agreement that provided for fewer restrictions on free agency, along with a salary cap. The new system prevented the Cowboys from keeping many of their talented players over the next several years, and the team’s dynasty crumbled.

  • Timothytrump


    Interesting note about the Cowboys low play scale under Scramm. What are good resources that provide more info on this?

  • Anonymous

    Landry’s Boys by Peter Golenbock covers it. I’ve seen numerous references to this, but nothing I would consider definitive.

  • Timothytrump

    Thanks I had seen references to this here and there.

  • fgoodwin

    Texas is a “right-to-work” state so unions have never been really strong here (some exceptions of course).

    In the NFL, the difference in salary & incentives between superstars and run-of-the-mill players is pretty great, so the “names” have the incentive to cross and Tex Schramm took every advantage of those differences in 1987. He knew if the stars crossed (Dorsett, and both Whites did), that would reduce the leverage of the others to continue their hold-out.

    But that caused a rift on the team which may have contributed to their abysmal performance in ’88.