By Zane Miller
After being drafted with the 53rd overall pick of the 1974 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, punter and quarterback Danny White would eventually become one of the more underrated passers in NFL history despite a successful 13 year-long career in the league. However, I listed the ‘punter’ part first because, although White was officially introduced as a quarterback on the draft board, the Cowboys saw him only playing as a punter with the team due to starting quarterback Roger Staubach already having established himself as the team’s signal caller for the foreseeable future.
Wanting a chance to show his quarterbacking skills, White instead signed with the World Football League’s Memphis Southmen for the 1974 season. White proceeded to have a solid WFL career in the Bluff City, helping lead the team to a league-best 17-3 record that season, before ironically leading the league in punting yardage in 1975. However, the WFL went bust before the end of the 1975 season, prompting him to sign with Dallas anyway for 1976. Fortunately for White, the late 1970’s turned out to be a good time to be on the Cowboys.
From 1976 through 1979, White would be used sparingly at quarterback, usually only entering late in blowout victories, although he would get his first career win late in the 1978 season, leading the Cowboys 30-7 over the New York Jets. As far as the punting side of his game, however, he would eventually become one of the league’s best. While it definitely helped that White played alongside arguably the most prolific offense in the league at the time as he only had to punt between 70-80 times a year, compared to most other punters who did so 90-100 times a year, White recovered from an underwhelming 1976 season to finish eighth in yards per punt in 1978 at 40.5, before doing one better in 1979 at 41.7 yards per punt, finishing fourth in the league. Also during this time, White earned his first and only Super Bowl ring in 1977. However, with Staubach announcing his retirement prior to the 1980 campaign, it would be White’s time to shine on the offensive side of the ball as well as on special teams.
White had his best game of the regular season on October 12th against the San Francisco 49ers, as White threw for four touchdowns, three of which to future Hall of Famer Drew Pearson, and 239 yards as the Cowboys dismantled the 49ers 59-14. After this win, White and Dallas went 7-3 the rest of the way to end up with a 12-4 record, although this wouldn’t be good enough to claim the NFC East title as the Philadelphia Eagles also went 12-4 and held the tiebreaker over the Cowboys. White ended 1980 with 28 passing touchdowns, ending up fifth overall in that category and just two behind the three-way tie for second place of the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers’ Dan Fouts, Cleveland Browns’ Brian Sipe, and Los Angeles Rams’ Vince Ferragamo, while his 3,287 passing yards placed him in 12th, 42 behind Richard Todd of the Jets.
In the first round, the Cowboys would have their lone home playoff game against the defending NFC champion Rams on December 28th, with the teams tied up at 13-13 early on in the second quarter thanks to a pair of Rafael Septien field goals and a touchdown run by veteran running back Tony Dorsett. However, the second half would be a completely different story, as the Cowboys ran away with White throwing three touchdown passes to make it 24 unanswered points with the defense piecing together a second half shutout for a 34-13 triumph. White finished the contest with three touchdown passes for 190 yards, albeit with three interceptions, while Ferragamo also threw three picks but just had one touchdown for 175 yards.
After the New Year’s celebration, the Cowboys traveled to Atlanta to face the #1-seeded Falcons in the divisional round on January 4th, 1981. In a back-and-forth matchup which saw the Falcons lead 17-10 at halftime, it seemed as though Atlanta had pulled away in the third after quarterback Steve Bartkowski passed for his second touchdown of the game while the defense held Dallas scoreless, making it a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter. Early on in the fourth, the Cowboys cut the deficit in half as longtime fullback Robert Newhouse capped off a lengthy drive with a short touchdown, before the Falcons were able to restore their two-possession advantage with a field goal, going up 27-17.
With less than four minutes remaining in regulation time, White connected with Pearson in double coverage to keep Dallas’ title hopes alive, although the defense would need to make a critical stop to keep Atlanta from simply running down the clock. They would do just that as the ensuing Falcons drive went nowhere, forcing a punt to get White and company back on the field with under two minutes to go. However, the Cowboys wouldn’t even need that much time, as White hit Pearson from 23 yards out for his second touchdown of the game, giving the team their first lead of the afternoon with 47 seconds left. Despite a botched extra point attempt holding a glimmer of hope for Atlanta to kick a game-tying field goal, the Dallas defense iced the game with a turnover on downs to move on with a 30-27 win. White had a impressive performance, passing for three touchdowns and 322 yards with just one interception, with Bartkowski getting two touchdown passes and 320 yards with an interception as well.
On January 11th, the Cowboys looked to reach their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons in Philadelphia against the NFC East-winning Eagles. Despite both teams being inside the top-10 in offense during the regular season, defense would be the name of the game in the early going as the score held at a 7-7 tie at halftime, with Dorsett’s three-yard touchdown run being the only score for the Cowboys. However, this would also be the only Dallas scoring play for the entire game, as an Eagles short field goal and subsequent touchdown drive following a crucial turnover made it a 17-7 game going into the final frame. The Philadelphia defense carried on with the second half shutout with the offense playing safe, eventually culminating in a 20-7 win to give the Eagles their first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. Both quarterbacks struggled throughout the cold and windy game, as White only passed for 127 yards and no touchdowns with an interception, while Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski’s performance was even more atrocious with 91 passing yards and no touchdowns and two interceptions. However, while this loss would be the beginning of the end for the Cowboys’ playoff dynasty, White would continue to lead the Cowboys to impressive regular season campaigns throughout the early 1980’s.