The Dirty Dozen Diary: What If Cornell Green Did Not Retire?
It is generally acknowledged among training camp participants that football summers are all one and the same, blended together in an unsavory mixture of blood, sweat, and fatigue. But, history certifies the fact that the summer of 1975 was anything but commonplace for the Dallas Cowboys.
Not only did the team welcome a new, innovative formation into the offensive playbook, but they also said goodbye to three longtime standouts. The trade of Bob Hayes to San Francisco and the subsequent retirement of Bob Lilly in July were bittersweet, yet also somewhat expected. Cornell Green’s farewell announcement a month later was anything but.
Only a few weeks before, Green was considered to be the lynch-pin that held the Dallas defense together. Even at age 35, Green’s skill and knowledge of the game was being relied upon to fill a need during a time of apparent transition.
After eight years at cornerback to begin his career, Green had spent the previous 5 seasons as the Cowboys’ strong safety. Going into the 1975 campaign, Green was prepared to make yet another position change.
Since D.D. Lewis’ contract status with the World Football League had yet to be decided by the courts, Green spent the spring and summer months listed as the Cowboys’ starting weak-side linebacker, alongside Lee Roy Jordan and Dave Edwards. This uncertainty at the weak-side linebacker position was one reason why head coach Tom Landry moved Charlie Waters from cornerback to strong safety shortly after the 1974 season had concluded.
(Had circumstances forced Green to stay at that position, the threesome of Green, Jordan, and Edwards might very well have qualified as the oldest trio of linebackers to start a game in the history of the NFL. That would be an interesting statistic to look up some time.)
But when, just prior to training camp, a judge ruled that Lewis was free to join the Cowboys, Green was shifted back to his normal post in the secondary alongside Cliff Harris. And it’s where he presumably would have stayed for another season – or maybe even two – were it not for a group of rookies that were nothing short of impressive throughout the team’s six-week stay in Thousand Oaks.
Green’s reasoning for retiring near the end of preseason was simply that he didn’t want to be the one to cost some other worthy young player a roster-spot. It was assumed at the time that Green was bowing out specifically to make room for Randy Hughes, the Cowboys’ fourth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma. But it didn’t necessarily have to be just because of Hughes. Remember, the NFL had reduced the roster size for every team from 47 to 43 players for the 1975 season, with no taxi-squad allowed. Hence, roster spaces were even more precious than they had been. Cornell Green could have been bowing out for any number of players.
But what if Green’s gentlemanly gesture never happened? How would the Dallas Cowboys’ roster have looked different for the 1975 season? Who would have been the odd man out?
The absence of Green was felt most pointedly at the strong safety position, where Charlie Waters moved up to assume the starting role. Immediately behind Waters on the depth chart was none other than Randy Hughes, who had overcome an early-training camp bout with homesickness to impress Cowboy coaches with a rare display of youthful versatility. Despite being listed as a strong safety, Hughes had proven to Landry and defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner that he was equally adept at free safety. By the middle of August, it was apparent that Landry planned on using Hughes as the backup to both Waters and Cliff Harris.
Even had Green refrained from retirement, it was unlikely that Hughes would have been released. He most certainly was a keeper.
If not Hughes, who then?
A look at the position of tight end seems warranted. Billy Joe Dupree’s status was a non-issue. He was the starter. Behind him was Jean Fugett, an athletic 225-pound big man who was also battling Golden Richards for the No. 2 wide receiver position. Fugett possessed size, above-average speed, confidence, and soft hands. Like Dupree, he also had a firm grip on a roster spot.
Standing in the shadow of Dupree and Fugett was second-year player Ron Howard. A 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pounder, Howard had signed with the Cowboys prior to the 1974 season after spending 2 years as a starter on Seattle University’s basketball squad.
The Cowboys liked him as a prospect at the position, and thought he could make a niche for himself on special teams while he sharpened his skills as a tight end. But unimpressive blocking abilities, which coaches thought could be remedied over time by due diligence in the weight room, made him somewhat of an odd fit as a third tight end, a position that would get called upon occasionally to fill a blocking need when the Cowboys used their power running formations.
It is certainly a possibility that Howard gets released in this situation, but I find it unlikely for the Cowboys to enter a season without three tight ends on the roster.
The real debate centers around a pair of the Cowboys’ Dirty Dozen rookie class. Scott Laidlaw, a fourteenth-round selection out of Stanford, sat fourth on the running back depth chart, behind Robert Newhouse, Charles Young, and Doug Dennison. Were it not for a toe injury that put Young’s status for the season-opening game versus Los Angeles in doubt, it was very possible – seemingly likely – that the Cowboys replace Laidlaw on the roster with Preston Pearson, whom Landry and the coaching staff knew would be available on the free-agent market after the Steelers opted not to play the ninth-year veteran in the preseason finale at Texas Stadium.
But with Young limping around the training room, would Landry choose to keep Laidlaw around to contribute on special teams, while also serving as the emergency fourth running back, and release Percy Howard instead? Once upon a time Howard had been the talk of Cowboys camp, before the rookie free agent out of Austin Peay suffered a facial injury during the first preseason game that promised to keep him sidelined for a couple of months. With a 6-4 frame, rare leaping ability, and good speed, Cowboy coaches found a lot to like about Howard, and were all convinced that he had the potential to develop into a top-tier wideout.
Were the Cowboys in a position to give Howard a chance to heal up and progress? Or did they simply feel the necessity to keep Laidlaw around as another healthy body? Those are the million-dollar questions.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that Laidlaw would have been cut. But it’s also fair to point out that the Cowboys may not have necessarily been desperate for a young play-making wide receiver, considering the fact that they had unearthed a pair (Drew Pearson and Golden Richards) in each of the last two years. So maybe Howard would have been let go.
But one thing is almost for certain. Had Cornell Green not retired when he did, then the 12 rookies would have been short one man. Instead of the “Dirty Dozen,” maybe the Cowboys’ 1975 draft class would have instead been dubbed “The Eleven from Heaven.”
Or something like that.
That’s a topic for another day.
Next time we’ll talk about Tom Landry’s installation of the Shotgun, and the inherent complexities of one of football’s most innovative formations.
Thanks for reading along.