Danny White, who is destined to be the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys now that Roger Staubach has retired after 11 remarkable seasons, feels a bit like a tap dancer asked to follow Fred Astaire on stage.
Staubach is the leading passer in National Football League history. A wholesome, immensely popular ex-Navy man, he was in every way a skipper, at the helm of the NFL's winningest team in the '70s.
His replacement knows that he will have to be better-than-legend to satisfy the demanding fans of Big D, but he isn't flinching, either. Listen to White on White:
"People are going to compare me to Roger, I realize that. There are going to be a lot of criticisms: 'Roger would do that differently,' and 'Things would be better if Roger were here,' stuff like that," he said last week, after running, lifting weights and playing a brisk game of racquetball at the Cowboys' training center in North Dallas.
"I'm prepared for that, I expect it. It's part of the job, I guess -- part of the challenge of following a guy like Roger. But the pressure is not going to come from the fans as much as from my own desire to do the job and help keep the team successful.
"I'm not going to try to be Roger or do things the way he did them. I'm going to do what I do best, and any personal goals are secondary in importance to how the team does. Mostly, I'm looking forward to it."
The Cowboy front office and coaching staff have faith in White, who is poised and mature at 27. He sat seven NCAA passing records at Arizona State. He came to Dallas as a punter and reserve quarterback in 1976 after two years with Memphis in the World Football League.
"He had experience in the WFL," said Coach Tom Landry, who has decided to look for another punter, to lessen the pressure on White. "Although that wasn't against the same level of competition, it was invaluable to him because he led a team, a good team. Every time we've put him in, he hasn't acted like an inexperienced, backup guy. He's played very well."
White has won games in relief of an injured Staubach the past three years. The most notable was in a 1978 playoff game against Atlanta which Dallas was losing 20-13, when Staubach was knocked out at the end of the first half. White completed 10 to 20 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown in the second half, spurring a 27-20 victory that kept the Cowboys on the road to their fifth Super Bowl appearance.
"Those are the things that are remembered by your team, because they know you can do it under stress," said Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' vice president for personnel. "He's produced when he has been put into a big game, and that's really the only thing that builds confidence."
The Cowboys are not plotting any major overhaul of their offense with the shift from Staubach to White, since both are strong and mobile.
"It's not like when Joe Theismann took over from Billy Kilmer in Washington, and it was a different concept," Brandt said. "Right now, unless and until something doesn't work, we're using the same concept."
"The offense will unfold basically the same as before," said Landry, "but the passing game gradually will take on the characteristics of Danny White. Specifically, it will be less free-wheeling and will make greater use of short passes and receivers coming out of the backfield.
In other words, don't look for Staubach's trademark "Hail Mary" as often.
"Roger had a great arm," Landry said, "which he relied on tremendously. He would throw balls into places where people wouldn't normally throw them, because he believed in the strength of his arm and in the receivers who performed for him for so long. He'd wait, and if Drew Pearson broke, Roger would go to a less experienced receiver who's a little more open.
"Danny is a very smart quarterback who knows what he's doing and uses all the weapons he has as they present themselves. He throws more to the point, more on anticipation, where Roger threw to the man. He could run the same play that Roger ran, but it will look different."
"Roger had tremendous optimism every time he dropped back," White said, "simply because of his success rate. If he had second-and-20, he had confidence in a route deep over the middle to Drew, even though he was throwing through linebackers and risking an interception. It wasn't a high-percentage throw, but he completed it so often it became routine.
"I think in the same situation I might throw to a shorter receiver, try to pick up half the distance, and go for the first down on the next play. Or if I had third-and-10 and my deep men were covered, I might hit a back five yards downfield and hope he can get the rest. Things like that. You do what you're most comfortable doing, given the personnel you have."
White acknowledges that he is "constantly checking the attendance charts" at the Cowboys' practice site these days, seeing who is participating regularly in the "voluntary but recommended" offseason training program that most Cowboys choose to attend.
"I didn't ever worry about the other guys in the past, I only worried about myself, but now I'm looking for all the help I can get," he said. "I figure the stronger my teammates are, the more successful we'll all be."
White knows that the fans and the media will keep him on trial throughout the 1980 season, examining and cross-examining the change at quarterback, although other positions could be more important in determining whether the Cowboys live up to past accomplishments.
Offensive tackle Rayfield Wright has joined Staubach in retirement, but Landry is more concerned about the defense. All-Pro safety Cliff Harris' retirement came as a shock, and could have far-reaching effects.
"Cliff was a tremendous source of energy, an example of what it means to be a fierce competitor," said the Cowboys' other veteran safety, Charles Waters, who is coming back from major knee surgery. "I think all of us rallied around him because of his personality. He was our nucleus. It's going to be different without Cliff Harris."
The Cowboys have two strong, proven linebackers with Bob Breunig in the middle and D.D. Lewis on the strong side, but they will miss Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson at the weak side. Landry has made it clear that the flamboyant Henderson will never play for him again after slacking off in practice last year, then hamming for a sideline TV camera while the Cowboys were losing a game to the archrival Washington Redskins.
Mike Hegman, Henderson's replacement, is facing possible prosecution for forging more than $10,000 in checks.
Restitution has been made, thanks to $2,000 contributions from several of Hegman's teammates, but the Dallas district attorney, sensitive to charges of preferential treatment, has not dropped charges.
"The one thing we're lacking at linebacker is a big-play producer. We don't have that now," said Waters, another leader of the defense. "Lewis touches on it occasionally. Breunig is very steady and consistent, but he has no flair for the big play. We're missing Thomas Henderson that way, and I don't see us developing a first-year man as a big-play guy.
"But I look forward to this as a very exciting year," Waters said. "It reminds me a lot of 1975. The Cowboys didn't make the playoffs in 1974, Lee Roy Jordan had retired as middle linebacker, and everybody had written us off. We had our most fun year surprising people. That's what I'm looking for this year."
Said White: "The focal point is always going to be the change at quarterback, but the pressure is not all on me. I realize that, and the other players realize it.
"I think it will be a refreshing year for us, because people have real doubts about us. We won't necessarily be favorites to win the East, and to win every game, as we have been in the past. It's been a long time since we were underdogs, but that alleviates some of the pressure.
"Personally, I will be very disappointed if we don't win our division and go to the playoffs. Those are my expectations, and anything less will be a disappointment as far as I'm concerned."
Danny White's Cowboys are sure that there is life after Staubach.