State Your Case: Lee Roy Jordan
The heartbeat of the Dallas Doomsday Defense
(Published February 2017)
The Dallas Cowboys of 1966-78 were one of the most successful teams ever assembled.
Those Cowboys of Tom Landry advanced to the playoffs 12 times in 13 seasons, won 10 NFC East titles and played in nine NFC championship games. They won five NFC titles but only two Super Bowls.
There were two heart-breaking losses to Green Bay in NFL title games in 1966 and 1967. The Packers escaped with a 34-27 victory at the Cotton Bowl when Don Meredith threw an interception from the Green Bay 2 in the final moments. The Packers escaped the Ice Bowl with a 21-17 victory at Lambeau Field the following season on a quarterback sneak by Hall-of-Famer Bart Starr for a touchdown in the closing seconds.
Then there was the 16-13 Super Bowl loss to the Colts in 1971 when Jim O’Brien kicked the game-winning a 32-yard field goal, again in the closing seconds. There also were two Super Bowl losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, one in 1976 and the other in 1978. The 1976 loss came by a 21-17 score with the Cowboys in the Pittsburgh end of the field throwing into the end zone on the final play looking to steal a victory. The 1978 loss was again competitive with the Cowboys again coming out on the short end, 35-31. Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith dropped a touchdown pass in the Pittsburgh end zone in that game.
“We lost a couple to Green Bay that could have been our Super Bowls and our championships,” Cowboys middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan said. “We lost a couple to Pittsburgh that could have been our Super Bowls and our championships. We made them (Steelers) the team of the century.”
And to the victor go the spoils. The Steelers have nine players enshrined in the Hall of Fame from a team that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. The Cowboys have seven players enshrined from that era – and two of them collected their busts as senior candidate after-thoughts (Bob Hayes and Rayfield Wright).
Had the Cowboys won one of those two evenly-played Green Bay games and/or one of those two evenly-played Pittsburgh games, they’d undoubtedly would have a more sizable contingent in Canton.
Wide receiver Drew Pearson and safety Cliff Harris are the only two members of the 1970s NFL all-decade first team not enshrined in Canton. Second-team all-decade performers OT Ralph Neely and DE Harvey Martin have never been discussed as finalists, and linebackers Chuck Howley and Jordan also deserved better fates.
Jordan was a great college player who became a great pro player. He was a first-team All-America at Alabama in 1962 who was named the MVP of the Orange Bowl in his final college game when he made 31 tackles against Oklahoma. He became the sixth overall pick of the 1963 draft by the Cowboys and that summer played on the College All-Star team that upset the world-champion Green Bay Packers.
Jordan stepped in at weakside linebacker for the Cowboys as a rookie and then moved to the middle in 1966 after Jerry Tubbs retired. Jordan went to five Pro Bowls and retired as the franchise’s all-time leading tackler with 1,236 in his 14-year career. He also came up with a whopping 50 takeaways on 32 interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries. Ray Lewis is the only middle linebacker in NFL history with more career takeaways (51).
Jordan once intercepted three Ken Anderson passes in one quarter.
“I was always hustling to be around the ball, being there when things happened, being close enough to make a reaction – to jump on a fumble or clean up on a tackle,” Jordan said. “Being in the vicinity to help my teammates make plays was always the most important thing to me.”
What’s most impressive about Jordan’s productivity is his size – or lack of it. He stood in the middle of the Dallas “Doomsday” defense at just 6-1, 220 pounds — hardly the prototype in an era when Hall-of-Famers Dick Butkus was playing at 245 and Ray Nitschke at 235. Yet Jordan was the leading tackler on units that led the NFL in run defense five times in seven seasons (1966-72) and led the NFC an additional time (1971). And that was during an era when football was played on the ground, not in the air.
“Our run defense was the catalyst to our success,” Jordan said. “That was our primary goal every week, every season – stop the run — because it was a much more of a running league back then than it has been the last 25-30 years. We took great pride in shutting down and controlling some of the great runners in the league.”
And the Cowboys were successful, winning 66.1 percent of their games during the Jordan era. But he had the misfortune of having a career that ran almost concurrently with that of Butkus. It’s difficult to make Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams when Butkus was penciled in as the NFL/NFC middle linebacker every year from 1965-72.
Twice Butkus was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, and he was voted to the NFL all-decade teams of both the 1960s and 1970s. Twice Jordan intercepted six passes in a single season, the final time in 1975 on a Super Bowl team. And he didn’t even make the Pro Bowl that season.
The presence of Butkus and Nitschke didn’t leave much acclaim for the other talented middle linebackers of that era. Tommy Nobis, Bill Bergey, Mike Curtis and Jordan all were multiple Pro Bowl selections who remain on the outside looking in at Canton. Jordan has been enshrined in the College Hall of Fame, however.
“I’ve tied myself to college football more strongly and identified with it more than I do with the pros,” Jordan said. “The NFL seems to be driven a lot more on individual accomplishments. The colleges are the old `team’ concept. When the team wins, everybody wins. Sometimes it’s not quite that way in the pros any more.”