The League

Michael Oriard

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

America's team


I'll leave it to panelists more expert than I to weigh the prospects for the NFC East in 2010. But the question whether the Dallas Cowboys are overrated -- have been consistently overrated and may be the most overrated team in NFL history -- is too juicy to pass up.

The answer is yes -- of course. Even the New York Yankees in George Steinbrenner's heyday didn't call themselves "America's Team." To be fair, the name was not self-selected but was bestowed upon the Cowboys by NFL Films in 1978, after the Cowboys won their second Super Bowl in seven years -- the same number won by Pittsburgh over the previous three seasons (with two more coming in 1979 and 1980). But the name fit the Cowboys in ways it didn't fit the Steelers (or even Lombardi's Packers in the 1960s). The NFL had placed a team in Dallas in 1960 simply to thwart Lamar Hunt's upstart American Football League, and the Cowboys were predictably lousy for several years. By the late 1960s they were winning games, and they probably won many hearts outside Dallas by losing the Ice Bowl to the Packers in 1967, but the on-field performances were already less important than the Cowboys' image, crafted by Tex Schramm in ways that Jerry Jones has simply continued rather than invented. Schramm knew that he was in the entertainment business long before the owners of other clubs gave up believing that pro football was primarily a sport. The shimmering light-blue uniforms that Schramm introduced in 1964 were perfect for an era of cars with enormous tailfins. Dallas plays the "traditional" Thanksgiving Day game because in 1966 Schramm told Pete Rozelle that the Cowboys would take on the game that no one else wanted -- it messed up the holiday for coaches' and players' families -- for the TV exposure. When Schramm created the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in 1972, other clubs were still recruiting high-school girls in bulky sweaters and pleated skirts.

The Cowboys have always been a mass of contradictions. The Cowboy Cheerleaders were selling sex on the sidelines at the same time coach Tom Landry was selling Christianity and running a cold-hearted corporate operation in a league still emerging from its barbarian age. Landry dressed like a 1950s accountant and used computers to assess players and devise game plans when they were the size of mid-sized houses and barely known outside the Pentagon. But his teams played a wide-open style while other coaches were hunkering down with the running game and the dump-off pass. Schramm had the perfect quarterback in Roger Staubach, an exemplary Navy man and citizen, but also a gunslinger. On the field the Cowboys seemed both robotic and glamorous.

Before Deion Sanders and Terrell Owens, the Cowboys attracted more than their share of outsized personalities, from Don Meredith to Duane Thomas to Hollywood Henderson, yet the organization was notoriously ruthless in handling personnel. Peter Gent's Cowboys-based 1974 novel, North Dallas Forty, concluded in a bloodbath. The movie version five years later toned down the ending but still captured its sense of mayhem efficiently managed by corporate smarminess. In a larger-than-life sport, everything about the Cowboys has always seemed more over-sized, whether it was drug use in the 1990s, Nate Newton's girth, or a $1.6 billion stadium in 2009 (with a Jumbotron as big as one of those 1960s computers). To fans, a Cowboy win or loss feels like confirmation of a meaningful universe or the triumph of the Dark Force; the Cowboys never play a mere football game.

So, yes, the Cowboys have always been overrated. "America's Team" is a brand, not a reality, and overrating is essential to the brand.

By Michael Oriard  |  September 13, 2010; 11:34 PM ET  | Category:  Dallas Cowboys , Washington Redskins Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Re: them getting the name and not bestowing it on themselves.

I have people tell me I am brilliant at what I do, and women have frequently told me how good I am in bed.

You don't see me putting it on a T-Shirt and selling it. They may not have said it first, but they sure as heck say it a lot.

Posted by: alex35332 | September 14, 2010 8:35 AM

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