1975 Dallas Cowboys Player Rankings #9 Rayfield Wright
The spring of 1975 witnessed dark clouds of uncertainty hovering over the camp of the Dallas Cowboys. Just months after missing out on the postseason for the first time in nine seasons, a string of events had many locals speculating upon the possibility that the days of cheering on an elite Cowboys squad was a thing of the past.
All-Pro running back Calvin Hill was jumping ship to join the World Football League. Bob Lilly was pondering retirement, and Bob Hayes was soon to be traded, as was defensive end Pat Toomay.
Adding to an already strong sense of skepticism for the upcoming season was the status of menacing offensive tackle Rayfield Wright. Having been named All-Pro for four consecutive years, “Big Cat” was an established fixture along a Dallas offensive line that was perennially considered to be one of the NFL’s better blocking units.
But at 30 years of age the buzzards of doubt were circling Wright, who was laid up at home during spring workouts, recovering from off-season knee surgery. In an era when knee operations claimed more careers than they saved, it was simply natural that rumors started to swirl about an inevitable retirement for the eight-year pro.
It is safe to assume that Tom Landry offered up more than one prayer for his fallen right tackle during that long off-season, not only due to the fact that Landry was a man of Christian principle but also because Landry needed Wright on the field in the worst way.
In an effort to give quarterback Roger Staubach more time and space in the pocket, Landry was installing the fabled Shotgun formation into the Cowboys’ offensive playbook for the 1975 season. But in order to prevent the Shotgun from backfiring on Staubach and the Cowboys, Landry would need his best blockers to suit up on gameday.
The names behind Wright on the depth chart offered little in the way of comfort for the head coach. Bruce Walton was more adept at driving off the ball and pounding big defensive linemen on running downs, often struggling with the finesse required on passing plays. Rodney Wallace had a tendency to allow pass-rushers a free lane around the edge, as Harvey Martin discovered early and often during training camp. And Pat Donovan was an unproven rookie out of Stanford, where he had made his mark as a defensive lineman.
There was no doubt about it. Without Wright in the lineup, the vaunted Dallas offense stood a fair chance of going belly-up in 1975.
Of course, there was always the possibility that Wright could be seen playing on Sundays while still injured, a situation which seemed to make perfect sense to the Cowboys’ left tackle, Ralph Neely. “Rayfield’s better on one leg than most everybody else,” Neely pointed out in August.
At the outset of training camp Wright was still not practicing with the team, a fact which provoked a new wave of alarm among the press. But rather than struggling to recover like so many reports were indicating, Wright was simply bringing himself along slowly in a concerted attempt to prevent an unwanted relapse.
After much hand-wringing among fans and more than one sigh of frustration from the Dallas coaching staff, Wright finally hit the practice fields at Thousand Oaks decked out in full gear, but it wasn’t until the third preseason contest versus Minnesota at Texas Stadium that Wright finally dressed for a game. His outing on that sweltering Saturday evening in Irving against Vikings standout defensive end Carl Eller went better than Wright could have hoped, holding Eller without a sack and providing Wright with confidence that he would be able to overcome his surgery and return to top form.
“Yes, I took some time to come around,” Wright said after Minnesota’s 23-16 exhibition victory. “But I need some time at this stage of my career. My body needs the time. Everybody needs a different amount of time and I need a lot.
“I can understand the coaches and the players wanting me to be out there making progress. And it hurt me not to be out there, too, during training camp. But the last time I had a knee operation it took me two years to get back to normal.”
Wright wasn’t back to normal yet, but he was in the starting lineup for the Cowboys’ regular season opener versus Los Angeles, a fact which Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood was well aware of.
“Oh, yes, I know all about big No. 70,” said Youngblood in the days leading up the matchup. “He’s a nightmare to me, to say the least. Along with our Charlie Cowan, he’s one of the best blocking tackles in the league.
“He is very difficult to get around and he stays in front of you like a good tackle should. You always play to your competition and Rayfield brings out the best in me.”
Though Wright certainly didn’t have his best game against Youngblood to start the season (Staubach was sacked four times and spent much of the game scrambling out of the pocket), Wright did enough to keep Dallas in firm control and to coast home for an 18-7 victory. Two weeks later, Wright was one of six Dallas captains for the Cowboys’ Monday Night Football battle with the Lions, a 36-10 Dallas triumph.
In late October the Cowboys were on top of the NFC East standings, but Wright had yet to achieve peak performance. “I hated to miss camp because that’s where you prepare yourself mentally for the season and that’s very important because this is a mental game,” said Wright. “But as the weeks have gone by, I feel myself getting stronger and should be at full speed real soon.”
To his credit and the team’s benefit, Wright was as good as his word. Starting in early November Wright’s outings were noticeably better, as he began earning “A’s” from coaches in film breakdowns.
By December, though, the bumps and bruises of a long football season were fast catching up to him. In a must-win game with Washington at Texas Stadium in Week 13, Wright was seen constantly coming in and out of the lineup with a gimpy knee. He finally gave way to Donovan for good and watched from the bench as the Cowboys pulled away late to secure a playoff berth with a 31-10 victory.
With nothing at stake for the Cowboys in the way of playoff seeding, Landry afforded Wright a rare off day for the regular season finale against the New York Jets. That week off was critical to Wright’s performance in the postseason.
Feeling rested and as revived as any football player can be so late during a season, Wright enjoyed another solid outing against the Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium, keeping Eller at arms-length just long enough for Staubach to unleash the fabled “Hail Mary” touchdown pass to Drew Pearson that advanced the Wild-Card Cowboys onto Los Angeles for the next round.
Despite a swollen knee that left him somewhat gimpy, Wright had his finest day of the season in the NFC Championship Game, completely stonewalling Youngblood as Dallas rolled past the Rams 37-7 and into Super Bowl X.
And though Wright was rendered mortal two weeks later at the Orange Bowl by Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense, his impact upon the Dallas Cowboys’ miraculous run in 1975 was certainly profound. Nor did this fact go unnoticed outside of Dallas, as Wright was one of two Cowboys voted to the NFC Pro Bowl squad that season.