"I think this year probably presents the greatest challenge since the mid-60s for us. . . It is a year of transition on both offense and defense. But I am confident that we have the personnel, the coaching and the wherewithal to get the job done." -- Dallas Cowboys Vice President Gil Brandt

Down here, where the football Cowboys are a civic treasure as cherished as oil money, prime aged beef, comely coeds, Texas Instruments and the thoroughly despicable J. R. Ewing, the theme these days is that 1980 is not really a year of problems, but of "challenges that will be met."

The economy and the beloved Cowboys, both of which once seemed recession-proof, are having pangs of anxiety. After years of almost uninterrupted prosperity, when every well seemed to gush black crude and every college draft pumped fresh talent into the Cowboys' impressive depth chart, Dallas has inevitably drilled a few dry holes.

But shucks, since when did a short run of bad luck ever daunt the Big D?

The Hunt Brothers appear to have survived the collapse of the silver market with the loss of only a few hundred million. They have billions in reserve. Likewise, for the Cowboys, there will surely be life after Roger Staubach.

Just as their fellow tycoons have watched with keen interest the tribulations of the wheeling-dealing Hunts, the local populace is concerned about the local team -- which is Dallas' team by blood, and America's only by adoption.

On third down and long yardage, will new starting quarterback Danny White be able to drop into the shotgun formation and complete a "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson, the way Staubach did with such astounding regularity?

Has the soul gone out of the Cowpokes' defense with the departure of Cliff Harris, the fiery safety who unexpectedly announced his retirement March 26, five days before Staubach's?

How much will the offensive line miss the leadership of an unwilling retiree, 14-year veteran tackle Rayfield Wright?

Will safety Charlie Waters (knee), and cornerbacks Benny Barnes (ankle) and Aaron Kyle (knee) come back fully from offseason surgery, or will there be a shortage of veterans in a suddenly suspect defensive secondary?

What will become of the most notable Cowboys in limbo: defensive end Ed (Too Tall) Jones, who wants to return to football after a brief boxing career that was less historical than hysterical, and linebacker Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, the exiled "mouth that soared"?

These are the questions that Cowboy fans are asking and debating daily on radio talk shows, through write-in newspaper columns and at local saloons, where America's Team is an autumn obsession and a year-round preoccupation.

The prevailing attitude -- among the Cowboys' brass and players, as well as the Texas Stadium faithful -- is that there is no need to worry. By Sept. 8, when the defending NFC East champions will open a new regular season with a Monday night game against the arch-rival Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium, the holes will be plugged.

Staubach, the all-time National Football League passing leader, must be missed, but White -- perhaps as capable an understudy as there was in football last season -- is ready for a leading role.

Sure, the assorted retirements and injuries have caused problems, but Ol' Tom Landry -- who has made the Cowboys a personification of his philosophy that emotion only interferes with optimum performance -- will fix things up just fine.

After all, the Cowboys -- who revolutionized pro football by computerizing the draft and instituting the sophisticated year-round training regimen that makes their North Dallas practice headquarters look, even in springtime, like a cross between a gymnasium and a biomechanics laboratory, still have "the System."

The front office, traditionally a General Motors in an industry overpopulated by Chrysler Corporations, procures the necessary parts. Landry -- the only head coach the team has had, beginning his 21st season -- puts the machine together and fine-tunes it, unsmilingly harboring the solutions to all football problems underneath his distinctive trilby hat.

The result: a unique football assembly line that has at once been embraced as "America's Team" and bitterly criticized as the prototype of the impersonal "North Dallas Forty," the thinly fictionalized team that epitomized pro football in print and on the screen as a curious hybrid of big business and religion, ultimately devoid of human feeling.

Landry scoffs at this notion of "dehumanization." He will tell you that "every football team is built around people," and that the major questions in his mind about the upcoming season center around "how our new people will fit together and complement each other."

Offenses and defenses have "personalities," he says, and they must develop a common belief in the individuals that comprise them.

"To a large extent, it's a matter of confidence. When the make-up of the team is such that your confidence level is strong, then you have a good football team. When you lose a few players, it becomes shaky in the confidence area. You're never sure how somebody else is going to perform, even through you think that they will be capable. You're never sure until it's a proven factor, and only then do you have the same confidence you did in the guys who left.

"I don't think there's any question that this year will be a great challenge for us. You just don't take a key, dominant figure like Roger Staubach out of your system and expect not to have any ripples. We're going to have some ripples. Of course, I think we'll overcome them in time.

"I think our defense is the thing we need to work on pretty hard, at least as much as offense," adds Landry, who will personally oversee much of the defensive coaching this season, leaving the offense primarily to assistant Dan Reeves.

"Probably our offense is more solid overall, in terms of depth. On defense, in the last year, we've lost Jethro Pugh (tackle, retired after the 1978 season), Ed Jones, Thomas Henderson and now Cliff Harris. Even if all the injured guys come back 100 percent -- and you never know for sure until they put on the uniform and start hitting -- we've got a lot more changes on defense than offense, and more adjustments to make to return to the position we've held so long."

Still, Landry -- a man of bedrock belief in old-fashioned values and innovative strategies -- believes totally in "the System" which made the Cowboys the winningest pro-football team of the '70s.

So do the players. Most of them swear by Landry, a few swear at him (but only behind his back, and never publicly), and they all respect his record, including five Super Bowl appearances.

"It's going to take adjustments, but they will be made," says Harris, who startled the Cowboys by retiring in his prime, at age 31, coming off a Pro Bowl season, in order to pursue opportunities in the oil business. He denies persistent rumors that he will change his mind and return, saying this is "a very remote" possibility. "The Cowboys would have to be in dire trouble for me to come back," he says, and he doesn't expect that to happen.

"The quarterback is really the main catalyst of a team," Harris said, "and with Danny White playing quarterback instead of Roger, it will be a little different for the team psychology.

"It might be a little more conservative -- going for short gains instead of the big strike, at least at first, until Danny shows what he can do," Harris said last week from his office at U.S. Companies, where he is an oil exploration "troubleshooter."

"The thing about the Dallas system, though, is that people work in as component parts. The Cowboys work players in. And out," he said, briefly revealing mixed feelings about the "impersonality" of the system which, after a few moment's reflection, he chose not to elaborate on. "They make the necessary adjustments to make sure those component parts work."

Staubach -- such a popular figure that the Dallas Times-Herald ran a special section honoring him on his retirement -- made the same point at his tearful farewell press conference March 31. "The system was successful before me, it's been successful with me in the '70s, and it will be successful without me," said the 38-year-old Navy grad who led the Cowboys for 11 seasons.

Landry, the front-office executives, the players -- most of whom live in greater Dallas and participate in the "voluntary" offseason workouts at the practice headquarters as a matter of course -- all agree that the Cowboys are embarking on the '80s with perplexing troubles.

The focal point, naturally, is the change at quarterback, where Staubach so often performed like a magician 23 times bringing the Cowboys from behind to win the fourth quarter, 14 times in the last two minutes or in overtimes. (Ask the Redskins, who led the Cowboys on the last game of the 1979 regular season, 17-0 and 37-17, only to wind up out of the playoffs by virtue of a 35-34 loss, victimized by Staubach's most incredible comeback effort.)

"Roger relied so much on his great ability as a competitor," Landry says. "He was never defeated on the football field. He had a great arm, which he relied on tremendously and a unique ability to make the big play under all kind of circumstances. Danny White is a very good, very intelligent quarterback who won a couple of big games for us when Roger was out. But we'll have to see how he does over the course of a season."

Beyond White, the offense looks solid, even though Wright's leadership will be missed up front. It is the defense, which started to spring unaccustomed leaks last year, which is more suspect.

The deterioration began with the retirement of Pugh on Jan. 29, 1979. He was the last link with the celebrated "Doomsday Defense" of tackle Bob Lilly, middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, backs Mel Renfro and Cornell Green, and their spirited Cowboy colleagues of the mid-'60s and early '70s.

Pugh's retirement was expected, but when Jones announced last June 19 that he was leaving football because of a salary dispute and pursuing the world heavyweight boxing championship, the Cowboys were uncharacteristically surprised. They had to scramble for a replacement and traded their first- and second-round choices in the 1980 college draft to Baltimore for disenchanted John Dutton. That left Dallas without a selection until the 78th player was chosen in last week's draft.

Then came what Landry called "the toughest year we've had for injuries to key players." Running back Tony Dorsett dropped a mirror on his toe and was never at full strength until late last season. Waters ripped ligaments in his knee without being touched; his foot stuck in the turf during a preseason game as he turned to chase a receiver, and major surgery was needed to repair the damage. Barnes was troubled by bone spurs, Kyle by a gimpy knee, both of which necessitated offseason operations. There were other nagging aches and bruises.

Finally Henderson, the media celebrity who deluded himself into thinking his grandiose predictions would keep coming to pass even though he slacked off in practice, hammed for a sideline television camera while the Cowboys were trailing the Redskins, and was dismissed by Landry, who has made it clear the flamboyant linebacker will never play for him again.

Jones' business manager claims he is a free agent, but the Cowboys insist he is still their property and must play for them or be traded if he is to play football this season.

Henderson still has three years to go on a three-year contract, and probably will be traded for high choices in the 1981 draft.

Since they are both five-year veterans in the prime of their football lives, chances are that Jones and Henderson will play in the NFL again and benefit the Cowboys eventually by whatever they can fetch on the trade market. (Jones will probably be more valuable as trade bait since Dutton is now ready to play defensive end.)

The immediate question for the Cowboys remains how the component parts of "the System" will fit together in 1980.

From the practice field to the Cowboys' high-rise executive offices on North Central Expressway, there is optimism.

"We lost a great player in Roger Staubach, and a very good player in Cliff Harris," says Gil Brandt, the team's respected vice president for personnel. "But when you have eight players that participated in the Pro Bowl, as we did, and you have players such as Tony Dorsett and (tight end) Billy Joe DuPree and (wide receiver) Drew Pearson, who didn't even go to the Pro Bowl last year, it's not like coming into a season with the cupboard bare.That is usually a reflection of the quality of players you have on your overall squad."

Brandt adds that "the other thing is that our situation is not quite like what they had at Green Bay when Bart Starr retired and they didn't really have another quarterback to take his place. I think we have a quarterback with a lot of talent, and the only difference between Roger and Danny White is that Roger produced in so many clutch situations, he gained the total respect of his teammates and the fear of other teams. When Danny wins some big games, he'll gain that too."

The System, the Cowboys are sure, will succeed.