Dallas Cowboys fans have bittersweet memories when it comes to the lanky "Dandy" Don Meredith. Bitter because he could never get them the NFL Championship Dallas came so close to getting. Sweet because he helped put them on track for a winning spirit unmatched in NFL circles.
Meredith came to the Cowboys in 1960 out of local Southern Methodist University. Cowboys fans expected the hometown hero to lead the year old franchise to the promised land. Early in his career he was tiny Eddie LeBaron's understudy. Head coach Tom Landry believed that quarterbacks needed up to five years of seasoning before being ready to bark out signals in the NFL as a starter. Meredith began starting, albeit sharing the spot with LeBaron, in 1961. Dandy Don won Tom Landry's vote of confidence in 1965 and the quarterback job remained his until he retired in 1969.
Meredith led the Cowboys to the long defunct Playoff Bowl in 1965 against the Baltimore Colts, after finishing second in the NFL Eastern Division behind the Cleveland Browns. The game was not a pretty sight, losing 35-3, yet it was the beginning of what would turn out to be a common occurence -- the Cowboys in the NFL playoffs.
The following year Dallas began the season thoroughly whipping their first four opponents, averaging 45 points a game, and the league knew they were to be reckoned with. By the end of the year Dallas had upended Cleveland as Eastern Division Champions, and won the right to face the Green Bay Packers in the Cotton Bowl. 1966 was also the first year of the Super Bowl. The game was called the AFL/NFL World Championship. The Dallas-Green Bay winner would earn the right to play the AFL representative.
Dallas put up a tough fight, getting back into the game after falling behind 14-0. There was no intimidating the Cowboys this day. Vince Lombardi's Packers were in for the fight of their lives.
The Cowboys were driving for the tying score when Dallas called the play that would haunt them for years. Dallas had the ball deep in Green Bay territory, down 34-27. Landry called a short out pass to tight end Pettis Norman, used primarily as a blocker and not receiver. Meredith did not have confidence in Landry's choice of plays. What transpired was frustrating. Norman was wide open on the play, but because Meredith did not expect Norman in that position, Meredith threw the ball short. Norman, instead of catching the ball and jogging into the end zone, ran back for the ball and Green Bay tackled him at the two yard line. On the subsequent play, a pass into the end zone, rookie linebacker Dave Robinson hit Meredith, and the pass flew out of control from Dandy Don and into the arms of Packer safety Tom Brown.
Unfortunately, for Meredith, that play labeled him for the rest of his career. Despite Dallas playing the game of their lives, truly their first playoff game, all people recalled were those two final plays. Though blame could have gone to many people -- Landry included for those last pair of plays -- Meredith bore the brunt of the criticism.
Meredith played three more years, taking the Cowboys to their second NFL Championship game, also against the Packers, and two Divisional Championship games against the Browns. His only playoff win was against Cleveland in the 1967 Divisional Championship prior to the Ice Bowl against Green Bay. Dallas thrashed the Browns, 52-14. Meredith eventually lost his next, and last, three playoff games before retiring unexpectedly in 1969.
In retrospect, Meredith provided the leadership Dallas needed to begin their winning tradition. Meredith played with a broken nose, when he could barely breathe. He was sacked and pounded often, yet rarely missed a game, except when they would not let him play. In an era where cornerbacks were allowed to bump and run with receivers throughout the field, Meredith was as effective as anyone, especially in 1966 when he won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award.
"Dandy" Don Meredith remains an all time favorite quarterback, despite never winning an NFL Championship. Cowboy fans still love remembering Don Meredith leading the Cowboys. Time has illuminated the achievements his career, and "Dandy" Don is most often remembered as the courageous leader Dallas had when the tradition of Cowboys victory started.