In the beginning, meaning the first 27 years of the Eagles’ franchise, there was no rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys because the Dallas Cowboys did not exist. It is difficult now to imagine an NFL without them. The disdain for America’s Team is so deep rooted in this region — and a lot of other regions for that matter — that you wonder if newborns come out of their mother’s womb spewing obscenities about the Cowboys.
Eagles fans, certainly by the age of 10, know that Dallas does something that rhymes with trucks. And every Eagles fan knows someone who grew up around here but still dared to become a Dallas fan. The Eagles themselves are partly to blame for that because they were so bad for so long that younger NFL fans from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s adopted teams outside Philadelphia. In many cases, that team was the Cowboys, who got really good at the same time the Eagles got really bad. The allure of the silver helmets with the blue star, Roger Staubach’s great escapes and those cleavage-revealing cheerleaders was too intoxicating at a time when men named Joe Kuharich, Jerry Williams and Ed Khayat were steering the Eagles into the gutter.
Eventually, however, it did become a rivalry, thanks to the arrival of Dick Vermeil from UCLA as the Eagles’ head coach. Once Buddy Ryan took control, it became a rivalry on steroids, with the Eagles head coach shooting from the lip and infuriating Cowboys coach Tom Landry and his successor Jimmy Johnson. Andy Reid’s Eagles ushered in a new century by sprinkling pickle juice on an overheated matchup down in Dallas.
The best could be yet to come with both teams employing young quarterbacks that could keep the Eagles and Cowboys fighting for NFC East supremacy for years to come.
The star is born
Before we go there, however, let’s return to the beginning because it’s a rather fascinating time in its own right. The Cowboys were born in 1960, which just happens to be the same year the Eagles last won the NFL championship.
The first meeting between the teams took place on Sept. 30, 1960, and it is unlikely many people in Philadelphia even saw it. It was a rare Friday night game played in the Cotton Bowl that started at 10 p.m. Philadelphia time. The premier episode of the Flintstones aired earlier that same evening on ABC. The Cowboys could not play on Sunday because the Dallas Texans of the newly formed AFL had already booked the Cotton Bowl on that date for their home game against the New York Titans.
“… If we could have gotten a hold of Don Meredith, we’d have choked him.”
Coach Buck Shaw’s team went into the season confident that they could contend for an NFL title, but the Eagles suffered a lopsided home loss to the Cleveland Browns on opening day. The Cowboys, coached by a 36-year-old Landry, would be the Eagles’ first victory en route to an 11-2 season that culminated with a championship win over Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers at Franklin Field.
It was not a particularly pleasing game for Shaw, who described the 27-25 victory over the Cowboys as “the longest sixty minutes I’ve ever spent in professional football.” The difference in the game was two blocked extra points by safety Bobby Freeman. The Eagles intercepted quarterback Eddie LeBaron five times, including three by Charlie Weber. Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin was picked off four times.
The Cowboys went 0-11-1 in their inaugural season and would not have a winning season until 1966, the year they lost the NFL championship game to Lombardi and the Packers, who would go on to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, the team formerly known as the Dallas Texans, in the first Super Bowl.
The first hint that the Cowboys could become an Eagles rival surfaced in 1966. Up until that point, the Eagles held an 8-3 advantage in the all-time series, and the teams had never played a particularly important or intriguing game. But in the first meeting of the 1966 season, the Cowboys crushed the Eagles, 56-7, with quarterback Don Meredith throwing five touchdowns. The 652 yards the Cowboys accumulated that day remains a franchise record and is still the eighth-highest total ever in an NFL game.
“It was really a shocker when we looked at the film again,” Eagles defensive end Don Hultz said ahead of the Nov. 6 rematch at Franklin Field. “We all squirmed in our seats and right then and there if we could have gotten a hold of Don Meredith, we’d have choked him.”
The Eagles shocked the Cowboys in the second meeting, winning by a point on an afternoon when their three touchdowns came on a couple of kick returns by Timmy Brown and a punt return by Aaron Martin. The Eagles had 24 points at halftime despite putting up just six yards of total offense. Defensive back Joe Scarpati sealed the victory by stripping the ball away from Dan Reeves at the Eagles’ 13-yard line in the final minutes.
It was a major upset, but a rivalry did not immediately ensue. The 1966 season started an NFL record 20 consecutive winning seasons for the Cowboys, who played in five Super Bowls along the way. The Eagles, on the other hand, endured 11 straight losing seasons from 1967 through 1977. Toward the end of the Cowboys’ run, after a 1979 Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh, they were anointed America’s Team by Bob Ryan, an NFL Films writer and director who graduated from Lower Merion High School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications.
A source of motivation
Vermeil arrived in 1976 and immediately started using the Cowboys as a motivational tool for his team.
“No question about it,” the 81-year-old former coach said in a recent telephone interview. “In the offseason and all through training camp we’d talk about becoming good enough to beat Dallas. There were a number of times in training camp when I’d stop practice and tell my players that I was going to call Tom Landry and ask him to please have a lousy practice because there was no way we were ever going to beat Dallas by practicing the way we were.”
Left tackle Stan Walters joined the Eagles one year ahead of Vermeil after being traded from the Cincinnati Bengals for quarterback John Reaves, and he had taken to heart what Vermeil said about the Cowboys. The Eagles were winless in his first eight games against Dallas, and he always had the unenviable assignment of going against defensive end Harvey Martin.
“I don’t know if I had a hatred for the Cowboys because that’s a tough word,” Walters said from his home in Atlanta. “But you had to be ready to play or you’d get embarrassed. You’d get smoked. I had a lot of respect for Harvey.”
And Martin had a lot of respect for Walters, but the Cowboys, it seemed, always came out on the winning end. By the end of the 1978 season, Dallas had won nine in a row and 21 of the previous 23 games against the Eagles, and the America’s Team moniker caught fire around the country.
“I used to tell my team that Dallas is self-ordained,” Vermeil said. “I used it. I used it big. But I did have great, great respect for Tom Landry. I used to get nervous standing near him.”
Vermeil and the Eagles finally broke through with a 31-21 victory over the Cowboys on Monday Night Football down at Texas Stadium in November 1979. Ron Jaworski threw a couple of TD passes to Harold Carmichael, and barefooted Tony Franklin connected on a then franchise record 59-yard field goal just before halftime.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Vermeil said. “As you go back and evaluate your career and the greatest moments of satisfaction, that game ranks very, very high for me. It validated that if you worked your butts off and properly handled adversity you could eventually experience success.”
An even more satisfying victory would come 14 months later when the Eagles beat the Cowboys, 20-7, in the NFC championship game on a frigid Sunday afternoon at Veterans Stadium.
The rivalry was on, but then it was almost immediately off again, although Vermeil still remains proud that his last victory as the Eagles coach was over Landry and the Cowboys during the strike-shortened 1982 season.
When Buddy Ryan arrived in 1986, he promised the one thing he’d do often was beat the Cowboys. He delivered on that promise by winning eight of 10 games and leaving us with unforgettable memories of the rivalry.
There was the revenge game during the 1987 strike season when Ryan blatantly ran up the score and left Landry and the Cowboys seething. There was the Bounty Bowl in 1989 when Johnson accused Ryan of offering financial reward for hits on Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and kicker Luis Zendejas. There was Bounty Bowl II when Johnson was bombarded by snowballs as he left the field at Veterans Stadium.
It was great theater. The only problem was the Washington Redskins and New York Giants were the teams to beat during the Buddy Era, and Ryan went a combined 8-13 against those teams while watching each of them win a Super Bowl. Johnson and the Cowboys got the last laugh as they built a 1990s dynasty that won three Super Bowls in four years while twice crushing the Eagles at Texas Stadium in playoff games.
Better beat the ‘Boys
Reid, with far less bluster than Ryan, turned the rivalry back in the Eagles’ favor.
“Beating them was always important to him,” former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese said. “That’s the team he got his first win against, and I can remember him the night before that game telling us the McDonald’s story.”
Ah, yes, the McDonald’s story. After being hired as head coach, Reid ventured into a local McDonald’s for a breakfast sandwich and encountered an elderly woman. She wanted to give the new coach a lesson in culture.
“I don’t care how many games you win … as long as you beat the Cowboys.”
For the record, current Eagles coach Doug Pederson was the quarterback in that ugly 13-10 win over the Cowboys on Oct. 10, 1999, and he understood that his equity with the local fans would “last right up until the next game.”
Reid’s first win also was the infamous game in which Eagles fans at the Vet applauded, and not in a polite way, when a motionless Michael Irvin was carted off the field.
“It disgusted me to death,” Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith said. “This is just a game. Life … and death are realities. This is a sport. You want to cheer for your team but not when you see an individual who is motionless.”
Irvin was OK, but the dynasty the Cowboys built in the 1990s was over. The following year Reid ordered an onside kick to open the game. The Eagles’ Dameane Douglas recovered, and it triggered a rout of the Cowboys on a day when Texas Stadium was a boiling 109 degrees. The Eagles handled the heat by drinking pickle juice, a recommendation that had come from a guest trainer during training camp.
For most of that decade and for much of Reid’s tenure, the Eagles owned the Cowboys, going 17-12 and winning six NFC East titles compared to just two for Dallas.
Chip Kelly, who always downplayed the rivalry, had some shining moments against the Cowboys, claiming a division title on the final day of the 2013 season and registering a lopsided victory on Thanksgiving Day the following year. But Dallas rebounded with a victory at the Linc a couple weeks later and has won two of the last three NFC East title.
This season, of course, the Eagles have controlled the division, and they could do severe damage to the Cowboys’ playoff hopes with a win Sunday night in Arlington, Texas.
“The next decade should be fun with these two teams,” Ike Reese said. “They’ve got Dak [Prescott]. We’ve got Carson [Wentz]. As long as the teams keep surrounding those guys with good players this should be a great rivalry for a while.”
Isn’t it difficult to imagine a world without the Cowboys?