The key word for the Green Bay Packers this week has been respect.
The Packers respect the Dallas Cowboys. They respect Coach Tom Landry. They respect their marvelous defensive line and their effective offensive line. They respect the speed of Tony Dorsett. And they respect the Cowboys' talented wide receivers.
"Yes, we respect them," said Packers Coach Bart Starr. "But we're not fearful or awed by anyone. We recognize that they are an awesome team, but when we play up to our capabilities we can play with and beat any team in football."
That's rather a brave statement from a coach who in eight seasons has a 44-68-3 record (compared to Landry's 221-128-6 in 23 seasons) but one that his players say they share, as the Packers prepare to play the Cowboys today in Irving, Tex. The second-round game of the National Football League playoffs will be televised in the Washington area on WDVM-TV-9 starting at 4 p.m.; the Cowboys are favored by seven points.
"It's not like we are the troops landing in Beirut," said Packer center Larry McCarren, who made the Pro Bowl in this, his 10th season. "They are a good football team, but so are we. Everybody asks how in the heck are we going to cope with the Cowboys and their great defensive line, but we are a pretty darn good team, too, and we just believe that we can beat them."
The last time the Packers and the Cowboys met in the playoffs was in 1967. The place was Lambeau Field in Green Bay, and the temperature was 13 degrees below zero. Starr, then the Packers' all-pro quarterback, followed the blocks of Jerry Kramer and Ken Bowman into the end zone in the final seconds to give the Packers a 21-17 victory and their third consecutive NFL championship.
Since that famed Ice Bowl game, the Packers have been in the playoffs only once (losing to Washington in 1972). The Cowboys, on the other hand, have missed the playoffs only once in the last 17 seasons.
Starr's team cleared its first hurdle rather impressively last week with a 41-16 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. But against the Cowboys, the Packers' challenge will be even bigger, and they can least afford to display the inconsistency that they showed during the second half of the regular season, when they could not put together back-to-back victories. The Packers finished with a 5-3-1 record, only the second winning season in Starr's eight years as coach.
To avoid that inconsistency, the Packers will need quarterback Lynn Dickey to play like he did in the first half of the season and last Saturday against the Cardinals.
In the Packers' first five games Dickey completed 63.9 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. His passing rating was 101.2, second best in the NFL.
In the last four games of the regular season, Dickey completed only 47.9 percent of his passes and threw 10 interceptions and four touchdowns. His passing rating dropped to 75.4, 16th best in the league.
"For the most part we have ridden Lynn's coattails this season," Starr said. "It's essential that he have a hot hand for us, and if he gets good protection, I think that will be the case."
But that has not always been the case. The Packers' offensive line gave up 32 sacks this season, and is severely hindered by the fact that Dickey is perhaps the league's most immobile quarterback.
When Dickey gets time to throw, he has two of the best wide receivers available--James Lofton and John Jefferson. Lofton is averaging nearly 20 yards a reception, but the Packers have had problems getting the ball to Jefferson. He caught 27 passes this season but very few down the stretch, which frustrated him.
After the Packers lost to Detroit in their regular-season finale, Jefferson said, "We have to spread the ball around more. We've fallen into the trend of just using one receiver. We have to get the ball more to our backs and tight ends and to the other receivers."
The Packers did that last week against the Cardinals. Jefferson caught touchdown passes of 60 and seven yards as the Packers' big-play offense worked to perfection. Dickey tied Starr's club playoff record of four touchdown passes, set in the 1966 NFL championship game against Dallas. Perhaps more signficant, Dickey did not throw an interception and he was never sacked.
The Packers also were able to run the ball with some degree of effectiveness against the Cardinals. The running game has been part of the problem behind their ineffective passing game this season.
"When we can establish some kind of running game," Dickey said, "we find it much easier to get our passing game working."
Defensively, the Packers rank fifth in the NFC. The Packers do play soft at times, but have had the knack to come up with the big play when they have needed it.
Speaking in Dallas about the threat of Jefferson and Lofton, Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls said, "We can't be dumb about it; those guys can burn you. I'm sure they will go deep at any time." Walls intercepted seven passes this season, the most in the league for the second straight year.
Part of the reason behind the Packers' rise this season is Starr, himself. After struggling for eight seasons most observers believe he finally has become at least a decent coach.
"I think I'm a far better coach today than I was eight years ago," Starr said. "I have far more experience and I have an excellent staff working with me."
"I think the record shows that we have been playing as well as any team in the league in the last year and a half," said offensive tackle Greg Koch. "The Cowboys try to pawn themselves off as America's team, but I think if we can be successful this season in the playoffs we can regain our spot as America's team.
"The Packers of the 1960s were America's team. I think the whole country is waiting on Green Bay. I think the whole country can relate to a team from a small city winning it all.
"We're Middle America. We're blue-collar, the work ethic.
"And I think there will be a lot of people excited when we beat Dallas Sunday."
Dallas will probably be without defensive tackle John Dutton, who has a thigh bruise. Quarterback Danny White, who completed 27 of 45 passes for 312 yards in the first-round 30-17 victory over Tampa Bay, is recovered from a sore right thumb and his wisdom tooth problems have been eased by antibiotics.