Legends of The Fall: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson

When I came up with  The Legends of The Fall, my thoughts were to remember Hall of Fame players of yesteryear, and those whose “what if” legacies due to injuries or circumstances that kept them from becoming all time greats. Yet we still talk about them because they were supernovas that burned bright in our collective mind when we think of their transcendent play. One of those players was Thomas Henderson.

Artwork by Clarence Pointer signed by Hollywood Henderson available.

Now everyone remembers Henderson as one of the most flamboyant players of the 1970’s and he was. However lost in why he was so acclaimed were the distinctions he brought to pro football many observers obscure. Not this historian…and we’re going to take you through a few today.

One of those was his becoming one of the social icons of his times as a man of the 1970’s. A black cultural icon of transcendent play, outspoken black identity, and a reach that went beyond the football field.

In 1974 the NFL instituted several rule changes, the most visible had been the goal post moved to the back of the endzone. A more subtle change was the narrowing of the hashmarks which eliminated the short side of the field as you still see in college football. This called for Outside Linebackers with greater lateral speed and range play after play to either side.

Another subtle NFL rule change in 1974 made it illegal for all but the outside players on the punt team to leave before the ball was kicked. Enter Thomas Henderson. The Cowboys second #1 draft pick in 1975 who had been discovered out of Langston by Red Hickey. It was his speed and athleticism that led to his being used to help revolutionize the game from a tactical standpoint. This gave birth to the modern gunner where Henderson was also used. His size allowed him to bull through the two DBs as he came off the ball in pursuit of the punt returner

He was a special teams standout on a veteran laden ball club that had to get him on the field. He flashed downfield to make tackles and was used on reverses. A Linebacker on reverses?? Do you remember his reverse on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl X??

 

 

It was one of the first glimpses into what he was doing down in Texas. By 1977 Henderson had become the starting OLB where his speed was on display to match with some of the NFL’s best athletes covering backs out of the backfield and covering TEs out in space. The NFL was speeding up as a sport on astroturf and Henderson was among the new breed of athletes being moved to defense.

 

 

What most pundits don’t realize is how 1 penalty altered the perception of Hollywood Henderson.

Over the next four years Henderson’s Cowboys were the best team in the NFC as they became Super Bowl champions in 1977 and repeated as NFC Champions in 1978. In those two seasons the Flex defense was ranked #1 and #2 in the NFL and going into Super Bowl XIII were ranked higher than the #3 ranked Steel Curtain. If they win they become a dynasty as back to back champions and Henderson, who had made his 1st Pro Bowl, would have been lionized instead of the team being scrutinized because of the loss.

We all remember Super Bowl media day when Henderson claimed Terry Bradshaw was so dumb he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “c” and the “a”. Well think back to the game. Henderson made a huge play when he sacked Bradshaw and Mike Hegman stole the ball to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead. Their only lead of the game.

In what became known as a seesaw game it really was one the Cowboys defense had taken over. They dominated the 2nd half as Pittsburgh couldn’t move the ball. It was the bogus pass interference penalty on Benny Barnes that changed the field position and put the Steelers in scoring position at the 22 late in the 4th quarter. Then a fumbled kickoff, two quick scores and they were up 35-17 en route to a 35-31 win.

That pass interference, which is now called incidental contact and no penalty, caused Henderson and the Cowboys to be scrutinized because of the loss. He had played a tremendous game but now pundits pointed to the press conference and even an on field altercation with Franco before his 4th quarter touchdown as turning points. Great story telling but very…very inaccurate accounting of the facts.

The history books don’t tell you Dallas had set a record holding the winning team to just 75 second half yards. Nor the fact Henderson is the only person in the 51 year history of the Super Bowl to be involved in scoring plays in both the conference championship and subsequent Super Bowl on defense. In the video above when he scored against the Rams, it was the finishing touch on a 28-0 win out in Los Angeles.

That Benny Barnes pass interference penalty made the Steelers the Team of the Decade and sent 10 Steelers to the Hall of Fame and only 4 of the Cowboys from that era.

Henderson smashes into Denver QB Norris Weese in Super Bowl XII.

We know of the pressures and build up to his release in Dallas but where would he have been had they become back to back champion?? Greatest defense in history?? No one has been #1 on offense and #1 on defense and champion since his ’77 Cowboys. How much did the fallout from Super Bowl XIII lead to his dismissal in Dallas??

Keep in mind Tom Landry in his A Football Life episode said on stage had he handled the situation with Henderson differently we could have won 6 or 7 Super Bowls. Dallas went on to lose the ’80, ’81, & ’82 NFC Championships without him. When you look back at those losses Dallas didn’t have a defensive playmaker on the field. Not like they had in 1977 and 1978. In fact he would have been in his prime going into his 6th, 7th, and 8th seasons. Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith, Alan Page all recorded defensive player of the year honors in that 6th season.

Would Joe Montana have all that time to scramble to the sideline and find Dwight Clark with The Catch in the 81 NFC Championship had Hollywood been chasing him??

henderson.crush

I’m still mad at him for this…he ruined 2nd grade for a kid in Denver.

Henderson was still in the NFL…just not in Dallas where they would have featured him. What could have been?

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SUPER BOWL XIII RUNNER UP 1978 DALLAS COWBOYS

In the “Battle of Champions”,  XIII on January 21, 1979 the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys took on the Steelers in deciding who was to be the team of the decade. There have only been a few occasions where a Super Bowl champion came back better the following season. The 1978 Dallas Cowboys were one of those teams.

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Of all the teams coached by Tom Landry built by Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt, this was the apex of their work. In 1977 they finished #1 on both offense and defense. Rookies Tony Dorsett (1007 yds) and Tony Hill were just learning the offense and fighting for playing time. 1978 saw them each explode onto the scene as Pro Bowl performers with Dorsett flashing for 1,325 yards and 7 TDs. Hill supplanted Golden Richards, teaming with ’77 Pro Bowler Drew Pearson, gathering in 46 balls for 823 yards and 6 TDs. So they were much more explosive.

Finishing #2 in defense in 1978, nothing really changed from the season before. Pro Bowlers Randy White, Harvey Martin, Charlie Waters, and Cliff Harris were joined by 1st timer “Hollywood” Henderson. Whose athleticism had lethal impact on the Cowboys’ nickle packages. Although the NFL extended the regular season to 16 games in ’78, the Cowboys gave up fewer points (208) than they had as league champion the season before (212).

sbxiiinewDid you know the ’78 Cowboys were .5 yards per game from being #1 on offense and 8 yards per game from being#1 on defense for a second straight year?? So when they vanquished the Los Angeles Rams and their #1 ranked defense, on the road 28-0 for the NFC Championship, their trip to Super Bowl XIII was for more than winning a title. They had a chance to finish as a dynasty and arguably the best in history.

The best Super Bowl of the first 25 had the Steelers scoring 1st then the Cowboys answering on the last play of the 1st quarter.

The Doomsday Defense II forced a fumble by league MVP and Super Bowl MVP Terry Bradshaw as the first quarter wore on. Just when the Steeler offense seemed to get it together, Doomsday struck again near midfield to take a 14-7 lead. Courtesy of Hollywood Henderson who taunted Bradshaw in the week preceding Super Bowl XIII.

The Steelers struck back with 2 scores to take a 21-14 halftime lead. Bradshaw had answered with several scoring drives and finished with 253 yards passing. A Super Bowl record… Dallas wasn’t living up to their defensive billing. After the first initial offensive drives, the Steelers had held Staubach and company in check.

Although the game had gone back and forth, the Steelers had outgained Dallas 271 to 102 yards. The teams had combined for 5 turnovers. However 1 aspect of the game had gone in Dallas’ favor, the Steelers trapping running game had been smothered. That trend continued in the second half as the Cowboy offense found it’s bearings. Down 21-14 late in the 3rd, Staubach drove the Cowboys to the Steelers 11 yard line. Poised to tie the game, the fickle hands of fate  interceded…

Having to settle for a 21-17 deficit, the momentum lost affected the Cowboys until late in the 4th quarter. In actuality neither team could move the ball for the balance of the second half. Only a pass interference that had impact beyond this Super Bowl gave the Steelers momentum.

The Steelers scored a few plays later to make it 28-17 on Franco Harris’ 22 yard trap up the middle. Another fickle bounce of the ball happened when kicker Roy Gerela slipped kicking off. It went right to DT Randy White. With a casted hand tried to handle the ball on a return when he fumbled it. The Steelers scored on the next play and viola…they were up 35-17 with 6:41 to go. The Cowboys were undone on a bad pass interference and two strange bounces of the football.

The Cowboys didn’t go quietly into the night.

Staubach led the Cowboys to back to back touchdown drives to cut the score to 35-31. They couldn’t get a second onside kick and the Steelers ran out the clock. The Steel Curtain finished the game on fumes. Dallas couldn’t be stopped on those last 2 drives. Comparing both defenses:

  • Steelers allowed 330 yards, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 int.
  • Cowboys allowed 357 yards, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumble, 1 int and 1 fumble recovery for a TD

sbxiiinew2Not bad when you compare two great defenses. However writers have gunned down hyperbole in the history books as Steeler strength vs Dallas finesse. When in fact the Cowboys were ranked 2nd and the Steelers 3rd on defense. The 86 yards gained by Pittsburgh in the 2nd half was the fewest by a Super Bowl winner. Well at least until XXX when the Steelers held the Cowboys to 61 in their loss.

super-bowl-logo-1978Even though the Steelers had bested Dallas in SuperBowl X, this  could have made things even at 3 wins a piece.  Anyway…to the victor went too many spoils when it comes to Hall of Fame inductions off these teams.  No Harvey Martin, no Drew Pearson?  really…Pittsburgh was better…but not 10 inductions to 3 better!  No chance.

Who knew this would be Tom Landry 's last Super Bowl team.

Who knew this would be Tom Landry ‘s last Super Bowl team.

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