Old hands in Dallas knew something was up when the boss cowpoke, Tom Landry, actually smiled after the Cowboys lost at Minneapolis in the last game on the regular-season schedule. All year Landry had been in a curious mood, according to fellows who'd ridden the NFL range with him. During the strike, Landry called this "the season with an asterisk," as if winning it wouldn't mean much.

Then, after the Vikings beat the Cowboys, Landry came out of the locker room smiling off and on. "Landry's a hard, hard loser," a Dallas reporter said. "But this time--maybe he was happy for Dorsett, with the 99-yard run, or who knows what?--he smiled."

Strange year, this 1982-83 season for the National Football League.

Tom Landry smiles in defeat.

Dick Vermeil retires in tears.

Bill Walsh looks in vain for a way out.

The Oakland Raiders become the Los Angeles Raiders, only to be ordered back to Oakland, and Al Davis says hell, no, he won't go home again, and he spends more time in court with Pete Rozelle than watching football. On May 7, Davis' side wins a lawsuit against the NFL, and on May 12 Rozelle shows up on Capitol Hill asking Congress for antitrust exemption that would overrule the court's decision. This goes on all summer and into the fall.

An ill-conceived players strike begins on Sept. 20 after two games and lasts 57 days until the players accept a management proposal basically 57 days old. This shortens the normal 16-game schedule to nine games and produces the first Super Bowl tournament with 16 of 28 teams qualifying, including two with losing records.

The Rams, Falcons, Chiefs and Seahawks fire their coaches, but the Oilers keep theirs even after he goes public with accusations of alcohol and drug abuse on his team.

Mercury Morris goes to jail for 20 years. TV shows him weeping on the witness stand, sobbing as he whispers of suicide's attraction. The same TV once showed him flying a thousand yards for the Dolphins.

Don Reese goes to jail for three years.

Cocaine? What cocaine? The NFL says its cocaine problem is no larger than society's. Mike Strachan is convicted in New Orleans, George Rogers says he's done with the stuff, Chuck Muncie checks in for help, and Walsh, so lately the genius, says his Super Bowl champion 49ers came apart so quickly because of greed, jealousy and drugs. The NFL may be rethinking its problem with coke.

In Washington and Miami, this will be a season to remember, but the NFL would like the rest of America to forget it. However carefully, even expertly, the NFL had created and marketed its product for 20 years, this bizarre season did terrible damage. Teams lost nearly $300 million in revenues the nine weeks of the strike. Just as important, the league's credibility suffered. TV ratings were far down, and no-shows were nearly double the average.

Texas Stadium, after 44 straight sellouts, came up with almost 14,000 empty seats the first week back.

No one can put a finger on how the strike affected on-the-field performance. Passing teams, given an edge by rules, seemed even more potent right after the strike, perhaps because quarterbacks and receivers could stay sharp in informal workouts while offensive linemen lost their edge with seven weeks away from contact. Maybe the most telling measure of performance is that a field goal kicker, Mark Moseley, was named the league's outstanding player in several votings.

And in the background, smiling at this chaos, there arose the United States Football League, which said it would not start a bidding war for players but immediately did by signing SMU running back Craig James (the Washington Federals) and Detroit Lion linebacker Stan White (George Allen's Chicago Blitz). If Craig James is worth a reported $1.5 million deal, what will the USFL do for Herschel Walker?

Small wonder, then, that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle appeared the preoccupied bumbler on a Public Broadcasting System documentary this month detailing alleged relationships of NFL team owners and underworld figures.

For so long the suave lord of all he surveyed, Rozelle now is a grimy general whose troops are under fire from all directions.

Nothing will save this season for the league, though the NFL might have hoped for a glamorous Super Bowl of, say, Dallas-Pittsburgh caliber. Instead, here come the Hogs against the Killer Bees in what TV announcer Dick Enberg calls "a National Geographic special" of a Super Bowl.

Some glamor. Yet Landry, for one, says the Super Bowl tournament is a legitimate exercise that will produce a true champion.

"The tournament is the most important thing they did this year," he said. "There were some teams in with losing records. But only the best can win the three games in a row to get into the Super Bowl. And whoever wins four in a row is as legitimate a champion as ever."

As the boss cowpoke spoke, and this was before his team lost to the Redskins in the NFC championship, it was clear the old hands in Dallas had a good fix on Landry's mood. Here he was one victory from the Super Bowl, and yet he said his team wasn't all that good. He seemed bemused, almost as if he were a collector of rare butterflies studying the wings of an exotic species.

"This was a very unusual year for everybody," Landry said. "As we came out of the strike and went into the season, it happened that teams we played weren't playing well. So we won five in a row without much trouble. But we still haven't won a big game because we haven't had to play a big game . . . We didn't have the testing of our team we need to be tough. You need the test in big games to tell you where you are and we haven't had any of those."

Because seven games were cut from the schedule, the normal test was condensed. Landry again: "This was a year in which everybody had a chance to go to the Super Bowl. That's what makes this year unique . . . We've never had a season like this, and Washington and Miami are about the only ones to stay at a certain level all season. The rest of us have been hitting and missing. That's the nature of this season."

Toward season's end, TV ratings were rising, in some instances to record levels. The Redskins twice drew absolute full houses, zero no-shows, to RFK Stadium. Texas Stadium sold out for the Cowboys' tournament games, and in fact the tournament drew well at all sites. All this meant little redemption for this season with an asterisk; it did give the NFL hope that the sun would come up again next season.