America’s Teem: The Nation’s Strange Love Affair With The Cowboys

In the midst of the NFL’s TV ratings crisis, “the shield” has at least had the salve of some bit of good news: the Dallas Cowboys are still pulling in the eyeballs.

This bit of news is pertinent, since we learned recently that NBC’s Sunday Night Football is about to be renamed “The Dallas Cowboys Sunday Smile-Time Super Fun Football Hours” for at least a few consecutive weeks.

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Cowboys Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott: inheritors of a long-lived tradition

Apparently, there is indeed a continuing fascination with the Cowboys that lives throughout the land, thus keeping alive the “America’s Team” moniker. Perusing these facts does lead one to ask what seems to be an important question: Why?

The DFR: FootballMeaning, why are people so fascinated with the Dallas Cowboys? Especially all these years after the “America’s Team” nickname would seem to have long since reached its expiration date. And, looking a little further afield, what does it say about the NFL and its fans that the Cowboys remain such a gold-plated–or at least sliver-plated–thing for the league?

It may seem odd to ask these questions, given that the Cowboys are currently riding high with an 11-1 record, tops in the NFL, and feature the twin compelling storylines of rookies Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott. But the fact is, the Cowboys leading the national ratings is not a new thing; people aren’t jumping onto the bandwagon so much as they’re just remaining seated where they’ve been for a long time.

“The persistence of the Cowboys as “America’s Team,” as represented in the TV ratings … implies that a great many of the NFL’s fans are old.”

Dallas getting flexed into multiple consecutive appearances on Sunday Night Football is a bit unusual, but it’s not like they haven’t been there before. The Cowboys have been regular players in the league’s showcase time slot ever since the program was awarded to NBC as part of the shift away from Monday Night Football. (Which also included Al Michaels getting traded for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit…but that’s another story.)

Those regular appearances have happened, at least in part, because of Dallas’s preposterous placement in the NFC East. There are by my count eight NFC teams that live further east than the Cowboys that are not in the East division. But that placement–and a hidebound desire to keep it that way–was designed to maintain certain rivalries between Dallas and the population-heavy “Acela corridor” cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Indeed, it may be that the Cowboys’ perpetual popularity owes at least as much to the teams they regularly play and their heavy fan bases, as it does to the shiny-helmeted stars themselves.

Indeed, it’s tough to argue that the Cowboys deserved as much spotlight as they got before this season. While Dallas does have a lot of pedigree in its history, it’s also true that ‘history’ was the operative term for their erstwhile success. The Cowboys’ performance the last decade and a half was, much like young Simba’s roar, a rather uninspiring thing.

After winning that last Super Bowl, after the 1995 season, the Cowboys followed a perfectly ordinary trajectory for an NFL team: eight playoff berths in those twenty years, including no conference championship game appearances. That record is not all that much better than the Kansas City Chiefs (six playoffs, all early round losses), and is strongly exceeded by the Green Bay Packers (fifteen playoffs, with two Super Bowl wins in three appearances) and the Indianapolis Colts (also fifteen postseasons, with a 1-1 record in the big game). For sure, the Colts and Packers have had their share of primetime appearances these last two decades; but nobody hyperventilates over their performances the same way they do about the Cowboys. Why isn’t either those teams “America’s Team”?

They could be, one supposes, though not by that name; the Cowboys coined their famous/infamous nickname first. That bit of branding first arrived in Dallas in the late ’70s, courtesy the team’s 1978 highlight film–produced by NFL Films, so perhaps it’s not entirely a self-appointed thing. However the term came to them, the Cowboys took “America’s Team” and ran with it, and used it to help cement their lofty status in the football public’s mind.

It did make a certain amount of sense back then. The Cowboys in the ’60s and ’70s, under Tom Landry, were a model of consistent success. They set a record for 20 consecutive winning seasons (1966–85), won a couple of Super Bowls (lost a few, too), and did all of it with a certain flair and flash. However many people were put off by the “America’s Team” thing–there were plenty of us back then; trust me–there were at least as many who were drawn to all that bragging and boasting and, let’s face it, excellence. Such an image meant something back when the U.S.A. viewed itself as an unquestioned home of winners.

And those times–late ’60s, the ’70s, and just a bit into the ’80s–were a time when Dallas, and Texas in general, were still seen as in many ways quintessential and representative of the nation as a whole. Given this country’s mania for Western movies and TV shows in the middle of the twentieth century, one can easily understand a team named “Cowboys” being seen as expressing something fundamentally American. The primetime soap opera Dallas held the attention of a great chunk of the nation back around that same time frame. And the party-hearty antics depicted in North Dallas Forty helped make the team attractive to fans, too. Add to all that Roger Staubach–a truly admirable Naval Academy graduate–leading the team from the quarterback position, and the Cowboys sported twin auras of debauched, imperial glory and shiny, all-american halo at the same time.

But that was a long time ago. The mid-’90s team–they of the three Super Bowl wins–were great on the field, but they never had quite the same aura. Neither Jimmy Johnson nor (God forbid) Barry Switzer had anything like the presence of Tom Landry.

(An aside: think about some of the ridiculous outfits the NFL, through contractual obligations, forces today’s coaches to wear. Then try to imagine the corporate flack who would have had to tell Tom Landry–he of the impeccable suit and classic fedora–that he needed to wear one of those clown suits. You can almost see such an unfortunate crumbling to dust at Landry’s feet.)

Those Nineties Cowboys certainly had great players: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Charles Haley, Deion Sanders, and more. But they never quite had the same impact of “Bullet” Bob Hayes or Tony Dorsett or Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Jerry Jones’s team won–three championships in four years is damn good–that helped sustain some of the love affair,  but it felt a bit like a faded copy of the old team.

And then…Tony Romo comes along, fumbles a field goal snap in Seattle, and it wasn’t all that much to look at ever since. Until now.

And yet, the Cowboys kept showing up in primetime, kept being one of those gaudy baubles that the game’s fans clung to, even as other franchises passed them by, at least in terms of on-field success. Why? How is it that the Cowboys were never just left behind for something shinier and newer?

It’s true that sports fans, once they establish a loyalty, tend to keep it. And loyalties do tend to get passed down, one generation to the next. And the Packers, Steelers, and Patriots, to be sure, have their partisans. Perhaps the gap between the Cowboys and those other high-profile franchises is not as big as the TV ratings would have us believe.

Then again, perhaps, those ratings tell us something else about the NFL’s fans, something that will not exactly come as music to the league’s ears. The persistence of the Cowboys as “America’s Team,” as represented in the TV ratings, may very well indicate that that large subset of the league’s fans are those who remember that original Dallas heyday, when it was Landry and Staubach and the “flex defense”–ironic, that, given their shifts into NBC’s lineup–and all the glamour and glory of that original success.

In other words, those high ratings may imply that a great many of the NFL’s fans are old.

Along with all the other challenges the NFL faces–concussions and their impacts, a diminishing number of young players, a peak threshold for growth (which may already be happening)–that idea presents another headache for the league. Everyone shrieks at any indication that other sports–particularly baseball–are only popular with old people; it’s invariably cited as a sign of future doom. If there’s a chance that Dallas’s popularity is based on the tastes of the nostalgia set, then it’s yet another sign that America’s sports colossus is on the way to crumbling, and perhaps heading towards decay and collapse.

If Elliot and Prescott take the Cowboys all the way to a Super Bowl title this season, it will be great for the team’s ardent fans. And perhaps by winning Dallas will pick up a new generation of fans–which, one suspects, they’ll need, once the traditional “America’s Team” devotees are no longer around to tune in and give the team their blessing.


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