During their 16 straight winning seasons, other teams have replaced the Dallas Cowboys temporarily as the dominant force in the NFL.
Pittsburgh has won more Super Bowls (four to Dallas' two). Miami had an unprecedented 17-game winning streak in 1972. Oakland moved from a wild-card entry to Super Bowl champion last year.
But no team, not even Oakland, has stayed so good for so long as the Cowboys since 1966, the season leading up to Super Bowl I.
In those 16 years, Green Bay has gone from two straight championships to a league also-ran. Minnesota, four times a Super Bowl runner-up, didn't make the playoffs this season and hasn't been in a conference championship game since 1977. Pittsburgh, the dynasty of the late 1970s, fell to .500 after missing the playoffs the last two years. The New York Jets faded out of the playoff picture soon after their Super Bowl III victory. Baltimore, the Super Bowl V champ, was the league's second-worst team this season.
But only once in those same 16 years has the Cowboys' season not included at least one playoff game. And now they need only beat the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in the NFC title game to advance to their sixth Super Bowl.
Organizational stability and Tom Landry often are cited as the major reasons for Dallas' consistency. But the major thinkers behind the success of Pittsburgh, Oakland, Minnesota and Miami all are still in place with the same teams. And only the Raiders have changed coaches.
What Dallas has managed to do better than anyone else is to combine the draft, key trades and player durability.
The Cowboys have had some miserable drafts in those 16 years. Yet, of the 45 players currently on their active roster, 34 are draft choices, including 18 of the 22 starters. Dallas has shown that, to remain successful, every pick doesn't have to be a gem. Instead, it is just as important to have a a constant flow of new talent, even if it's just one or two newcomers each season.
Trades also have contributed heavily to the Cowboys' draft success. Dallas was in the 1973 NFC championship game, but because of a deal with Houston, obtained the No. 1 player selected in the 1974 draft, Ed (Too Tall) Jones. The Cowboys were 8-6 in 1974, yet through a deal with Giants obtained the No. 2 player selected in the 1975 draft, Randy White. The Cowboys were 11-3 in 1976, yet through a deal with Seattle still obtained the No. 2 player selected in the 1977 draft, Tony Dorsett.
Two of those players, Dorsett on offense and White on defense, are among the league's elite athletes. And Jones is a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Through trades, the Cowboys were able to reverse the object of the NFL draft, which is to give the most help to the worst teams. They managed to stay in playoff contention, but still select players who normally would go to the have-nots.
In contrast, once teams such as Pittsburgh, Miami and even Oakland began winning, they had to settle for players available much later in the first round.
The best Cowboys also seem to have lengthy, injury-free careers. Twenty-six players on the 45-man roster have been with Dallas for at least four years and five more are in their third season. Of the 22 starters, the only rookies are defensive backs Everson Walls, an all-pro, and Mike Downs, who had seven interceptions. Every other starter has been with Dallas at least two seasons, and 18 have been around at least four.
"Their nucleus, the players who make the difference between their winning and losing, never get hurt," said Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard. "Look at this season. They lost a couple of linemen (Robert Shaw and John Fitzgerald), but they were both centers. Otherwise, they line up the same people every week. And when one guy gets too old, they have had time to groom someone else to take his place."
The Cowboys were among the first NFL teams to heavily emphasize weight-lifting and to hire a fulltime physical conditioning coach. Their offseason program long has been considered the league's best, primarily because the majority of players live in the Dallas area during the offseason, allowing the team to monitor their work habits.
"I'm convinced that their program has a lot to do with their lack of injuries," Beathard said. "If you are physically strong enough to stand up and battle an opponent, you reduce the chance of being injured."