Remembering the first victory in Dallas Cowboys history
After a winless first season, a last-second field goal powered the Dallas Cowboys to the first victory in franchise history 59 years ago today.
This season is all about celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Dallas Cowboys. In that spirit, there is no better time to look back on some of the biggest moments in franchise history than now. Today brings about the 59th anniversary of the most important days in team history. On September 17, 1961, America’s Team won their first professional football game.
Following a winless campaign in their inaugural season (they finished 0-11-1), the Cowboys came into 1961 determined to finally earn the first “W” in team history. Despite only playing in the NFL for a single season there were already a few big changes for the franchise coming into the season.
To start, Dallas was now playing in the NFL’s eastern conference. The Minnesota Vikings were added as the league’s newest expansion team in 1961 and were placed in the western conference. To even out the number of teams in each conference, the league placed the Cowboys in the east.
Arguably, the biggest change for the Cowboys coming into this season was that team was able to make their first official NFL draft choice prior to the 1961 NFL season. They had the number one overall pick and used it on defensive tackle Bob Lilly.
Lilly would go on to become synonymous with the Dallas Cowboys, even earning the nickname, “Mr. Cowboy” as he became one of the greatest players in team history. The team’s roster had a bit of turnover heading into 1961 with some aging veterans released in favor of younger, future stars like Lilly and running back Don Perkins.
Just like in 1960, the Cowboys opened 1961 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The prior season saw the Cowboys drop that game 35-28 after keeping it much closer than anyone could have expected. This year though the result would be much different and more dramatic.
Quarterback Eddie LeBaron got the start for Dallas to open the season. He was solid going 9-13 for 166 yards and two touchdowns. However, backup quarterback Don Meredith also saw time in relief of LeBaron with less than stellar results. While Meredith flashed the potential that would one day help him become “Dandy Don”, the first great quarterback in the franchise’s history, he also made a couple of backbreaking mistakes.
Meredith finished the game 10-26 for 161 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. After backing him up in 1960 and 1961, Meredith would split time with LeBaron in 1962 before taking over as the starter in 1963 and never looking back.
As for the Steelers, they were quarterbacked that Sunday by none other than a 35-year-old Bobby Lane. Yes, THAT Bobby Lane, the Hall of Famer who led the Detroit Lions to three NFL Championships and was one of the greatest signal callers of the 1950s. Lane started two games with the Lions in 1958 before he was traded to Pittsburgh where he played another five seasons and finished his career.
Lane didn’t have his sharpest stuff that afternoon. He finished the game 16-25 for 252 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions (he also kicked three extra points). The Cowboys were able to win the game largely thanks to Lane’s third interception of the day which came with under a minute left in the game’s final quarter.
The Cowboys led 17-14 entering the final quarter of play but saw their lead slip away as Pittsburgh inched ahead 24-17 off the back of a 39-yard field goal and a Meredith pick-six. Dandy Don managed to shake it off though as the Cowboys showed signs of life and were able to tie the game 24-24 with a 17-yard pass from Meredith to tight end Dick Bielski.
LeBaron came back to relieve Meredith, and after Lane’s third interception of the day was able to drive the Cowboys into field goal range. Then as time expired, rookie kicker Allen Green, who had already missed two field goals earlier that afternoon, lined up for a 27-yard field goal and drilled it.
Oddly enough that kick would prove to be the biggest of Green’s career. He handled both kicking and punting duties for the Cowboys in 1961, but was dreadful. He made just 5 of his 15 field goal attempts (“good” for just 33%) and was out of football following the season.
It’s a good thing that the NFL has never given out points for style as this was far from the cleanest game the Cowboys would play. While the team saw glimpses of potential from their roster, it was still very much a work in progress. Even though it was a sloppy affair, the Cowboys stuck with it and were rewarded with the first victory in team history as a result.
The 1961 season as a whole was far kinder to the Cowboys than their inaugural season. The Cowboys started the season with back to back wins that led to winning three of their first four. After seven weeks they were 4-3, but they’d drop their next two before tying with Washington. After that, they wouldn’t win again and finished the season 4-9-1.