The Dallas Cowboys Once Waited 5 Years to Sign a Future Hall of Fame Quarterback

Before winning two Super Bowl titles as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, Roger Staubach was just the fourth junior in history to win the Heisman Trophy. But despite that impressive resume, Staubach was still on the NFL draft board until the 10th round. The Cowboys took Staubach with the 129th overall pick.

He lasted until the 122nd overall selection in the AFL draft. Staubach was a 16th-round choice of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys held Staubach’s rights for five years, however, before signing him. Why the long wait?

Dallas Cowboys had wait out a military obligations

Despite his success on the football field, Roger Staubach wasn’t in college only to play football. A midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, Staubach graduated in 1965. He was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy and spent four years on active duty. That included a year in Vietnam, according to the USNA website.

Navy had two Heisman winners in four years, with Joe Bellino winning the award in 1960. Staubach was the winner in 1963. By the time he came to Dallas as a rookie in 1969, he was already 27 years old. Staubach was a backup during his first two seasons. He played behind Craig Morton, who was the Cowboys’ first-round pick in 1965. Morton had caddied behind Don Meredith for four seasons before moving up the depth chart in 1969.

Staubach made four starts in his first two seasons, with Dallas going 3–1 in those games. But he struggled with efficiency. Staubach was more runner than passer early in his career, picking up 281 yards on 42 carries with a touchdown in 1969 and 1970. Throwing the ball, he completed 51.9% percent of his 129 passes for 963 yards and three touchdowns but also had 10 interceptions. His passer rating was 51.9, dismal even for that era.

Early-season struggles lead to an opportunity in 1971

Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Roger Staubach
Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys scrambles with the ball against the Miami Dolphins during Super Bowl VI. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys played in their first Super Bowl after the 1970 season, losing to the Baltimore Colts on a field goal at the final gun. They were slow out of the chute the following season, losing three of their first four games. Seeking a spark, coach Tom Landry turned to Roger Staubach to see if the older, less experienced quarterback could turn things around.

Turnaround is putting it mildly; Staubach recorded the fifth-best passer rating in NFL history to that point (104.8). In 10 starts, Dallas was a perfect 10–0, with Staubach completing 59.7% of his 211 passes, racking up 1,882 yards and 15 touchdowns against only four interceptions. In an era when defensive backs could get away with felony assault in pass coverage, those are outstanding numbers.

The Cowboys swept through the playoffs, winning at Minnesota in the divisional playoffs before stopping the 49ers at home in the NFC Championship. Miami proved no match in the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Staubach was the game’s MVP in Dallas’s 24–3 victory, throwing two touchdown passes.

Roger Staubach filled out a Hall of Fame resume despite a late start

In 1972, Roger Staubach missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. But in the divisional playoffs at San Francisco, Staubach relieved Morton and pulled off some of his late-game heroics. Staubach had two touchdown passes in the final 1:30, and the Dallas Cowboys beat the 49ers, 30–28.

His most famous play came in the 1975 divisional playoffs. On a typically cold December day in Minnesota, Staubach threw a 50-yard bomb to Drew Pearson with 32 seconds left to give Dallas a 17-14 win. Staubach later dubbed the play a “Hail Mary,” a name that has lasted in football parlance to this day.

The 1975 Cowboys were the first wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl but lost to the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Staubach led Dallas to a second Super Bowl title in 1977, beating the Denver Broncos. That Craig Morton quarterbacked that Denver team. After the 1978 season, the Cowboys lost the highest-scoring Super Bowl to that date, 35–31, again falling to the Steelers.

Staubach retired after the 1979 season. He led the NFL in passer rating four times, including each of his final two seasons, and threw a league-high 23 touchdowns in 1973 (again, it was a different era for offensive football). He was also an effective scrambler to the end. Staubach gained 2,264 yards on the ground with 20 touchdowns.

In 1985, Roger Staubach was a first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an accomplishment made more impressive by the late start he had to his career.

Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

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