1975 Dallas Cowboys Player Rankings: #18 Mark Washington
When the Cowboys convened in Thousand Oaks in early July of 1975, Tom Landry was still cognizant of a gaping hole in the starting defensive lineup. After selecting the best available talent in the college draft, and after months of workouts and practices back in Dallas, the 50-year old head coach still had no idea which player – if any – would emerge as a viable candidate for the Cowboys’ starting left cornerback job.
The position had been of concern to Landry for more than a full calendar year, dating back to the spring of 1974 when the Cowboys nearly pulled off a trade that would have sent Craig Morton to Green Bay for All-Pro cornerback Ken Ellis. When the Packers backed out at the last moment, Landry was forced to stick with Charlie Waters, a player more suited to play safety. In middle of the 1974 season, Waters was replaced in the starting lineup by fifth year player Mark Washington, a thirteenth-round draft choice out of tiny Morgan State whose career had thus far been defined by sporadic play and untimely ailments. A late-season injury to Washington further enhanced the tag of unreliability that was attached to his name.
Thus it was a shock to everyone the following summer when Washington reported to camp in excellent physical condition and beat out Benny Barnes and rookie Rolly Woolsey for the starting job across the field from Mel Renfro. “Mark Washington is a pleasant surprise,” Landry said during training camp. “He’s playing super out there. I hope he continues. If he does, he’s going to play excellent corner for us this year.”
Though prone to yielding an intermittent big pass play, Washington still enjoyed a fine season in 1975, tallying a career-high four interceptions while starting every game. His most noticeable individual effort came in Week 4 at Shea Stadium versus the New York Giants. With Dallas trailing 7-6 in the third quarter, Washington stepped in front of wide receiver Walker Gillette for an interception. His 21-yard return gave Dallas possession at the New York 17-yard line, preceding Roger Staubach’s game-winning touchdown pass to Jean Fugett a few moments later.
One week later Washington’s season appeared to have taken a turn for the worse, when a daring tackle attempt against the visiting Packers at Texas Stadium left him with a cracked rib. Washington insisted upon playing with discomfort, though he struggled at times over the next six weeks and even had to be removed from Dallas’ Week 9 game in New England when the pain became unbearable.
It is to his credit that Washington saved his best for the season’s stretch run. Having fully mended, Washington teamed with Barnes to limit the Redskins’ top two receiving targets to 85 total yards in a 31-10 Dallas victory in Week 13 that sent the Cowboys to the playoffs, earning him a share of the team’s weekly MVP award. Two weeks later, Washington was locked in man-to-man coverage with Vikings standout wide receiver John Gilliam in an NFC Divisional playoff game at cold, damp Metropolitan Stadium. Lost in the resulting hoopla of the Staubach-to-Pearson Hail Mary game-winner was Washington’s exemplary effort which limited Gilliam to just one catch for 15 yards.
“Yes, it was added pressure having Gilliam alone so much but it worked and we won,” said Washington in the postgame locker room. “I was just lucky I guess.”
And against Los Angeles in the NFC Championship Game, it was Washington and Renfro chasing Harold Jackson all over the lush Memorial Coliseum field, covering him like a soppy towel in the bright California sun, preventing the Rams receiver from making even a single catch, as the Cowboys advanced into Super Bowl X where Washington walked unknowingly into the shadow of Lynn Swann, never again to emerge as anything but a helpless victim of Super Bowl circumstance.
Had Mark Washington’s 1975 season ended with that momentous victory in Los Angeles, it is more than possible that he would be remembered in Cowboy lore as something of a folk-hero and would be ranked much higher on this list. But in tangling with Swann and the Steelers on that historic afternoon at the Orange Bowl, the luster of an otherwise fine season was dimmed forever, leaving only the memory of an unfortunate mortal whose luck inexplicably, mercilessly, ran out.