In the weekly What-If Wednesday posts, we review some event (draft, game, or whatever) and consider what might have happened if history had been different. This week’s post focuses on the 1976 divisional playoff game between the Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams.
In real life…
The Dallas Cowboys made the Super Bowl in 1975 and returned with a solid season in 1976. The team finished with an 11-3 record.
Few probably remember that the Cowboys and Rams had quite a playoff rivalry. Between 1973 and 1985, the teams faced each other eight times in the playoffs, with each team winning four games.
The bad part for the Cowboys was that three of the wins for the Rams took place at Texas Stadium. The first of those losses was a 14-12 defeat at home during the 1976 playoffs.
Dallas had a 10-7 halftime lead thanks to a Scott Laidlaw touchdown, but the Cowboys fell behind in the fourth quarter after a Lawrence McCutcheon score. The Cowboys drove into Ram territory more than once but could not punch the ball in to regain the lead.
Charlie Waters had one of the great games in team history. He blocked two punts and had a key interception, but his efforts were not enough.
The clip below shows Waters’ second block, which could have set up the game-winner. However, on a 4th-and-10 play, Roger Staubach’s pass to Billy Joe DuPree came up inches short, and the Rams held on for the 14-12 win.
The Cowboys had almost no rushing attack, and many blamed the loss on the running game. This team featured the likes of Preston Pearson, Robert Newhouse, Doug Dennison, and Laidlaw.
The loss played a part in the Cowboys trading four draft picks to the Seattle Seahawks for the rights to the second overall pick. With that pick, Dallas took Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh.
What if the Cowboys had defeated the Rams?
If the Cowboys had beaten the Rams, Dallas would have traveled to Minnesota to face the Vikings on December 26, 1976. One year earlier, the Cowboys had beaten the Vikings on the road thanks to the famous Hail Mary game.
1. The Cowboys would have beaten the Vikings again.
This is a bold statement, given that the Vikings were the best team in the NFC in 1976. How could I possibly say that that Cowboys would win another game at Minnesota?
WhatIfSports said so. I ran ten simulations of the game on that site, and the Cowboys won seven of them by an average score of 17-15.
This is a Cowboys site. Let’s just accept our win.
2. The Cowboys would have lost another Super Bowl.
I ran another ten simulations of a Cowboys-Raiders matchup in Super Bowl XI. The Cowboys lost eight of them. That would mean back-to-back Super Bowl losses.
3. The Cowboys would still make the trade with Seattle to obtain Dorsett.
This is probably the most important prediction. The Cowboys had three second-round picks, and that would not change even if the Cowboys had made it to Super Bowl XI. It’s hard to imagine the Seahawks front office would change its mind just because the Cowboys made it to yet another Super Bowl.
4. The Cowboys win Super Bowl XII but fail to make Super Bowl XIII.
The Cowboys would have become the second team (after Miami) to make three consecutive Super Bowls. After losing the previous two, Dallas would have won Super Bowl XII (just as the Cowboys did in real life).
However, the Cowboys would not make the big game four times, losing in the 1978 playoffs.
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What about the other playoff losses to the Rams?
The Cowboys lost to the Rams in 1979, 1983, and 1985. The 1979 game was especially tough because it was Roger Staubach’s final game.
Had the Cowboys won that game, they would have hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Given that the Rams handled Tampa Bay in real life, it would stand to reason that the Cowboys would fare well. That means that the Cowboys would have faced the Steelers in the Super Bowl for the third time in five seasons.
(Again…Cowboys blog…Dallas wins.)
The Cowboys were not going to make the Super Bowl in 1983 or 1985 even if the Cowboys had beaten Los Angeles. The only difference a win over the Rams would have made in 1983 is that perhaps Tom Landry would not have started Gary Hogeboom during the first half of the 1984 season if White had led Dallas to a playoff win the year before.