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 X RUNNER UP 1975 DALLAS COWBOYS

Heading into Super Bowl VI, Cowboy coach Tom Landry referred to the Miami Dolphins defense as “a bunch of no named guys.” The Dolphins and the sporting press spun Landry’s comment into the nickname “The No Name Defense”, that they would forever be known for. Yet little did he know he would return with an equally set of anonymous guys to the title game four years later.

1975.Dallas-Cowboys-Roger-Staubach-Super-Bowl-Ring-0002Don’t get us wrong there were known players on the Cowboy’s roster, they were aging and past their prime. Quarterback Roger Staubach had come of age in the 1975 playoffs and was in his prime. He took the Cowboys to Super Bowl X after engineering a miracle in Minnesota. A play that came to be known as The Hail Mary. However it was holdovers from the 1960’s defenses which included Middle Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan #55, Outside Linebacker Dave Edwards #52, DT Jethro Pugh #75, and future Hall of Fame CB Mel Renfro, that lent familiarity to long time fans.

1975.Dallas-Cowboys-Roger-Staubach-Super-Bowl-Ring-0003The 1974 season saw the Cowboys say goodbye to Hall of Fame Defensive Tackle Bob Lilly, Hall of Fame receiver Bob Hayes, and longtime CB Cornell Green. To replenish the cupboard, Gil Brandt, Tex Shramm and Tom Landry loaded the roster with new players. An amazing 12 rookies made the team and became known as “The Dirty Dozen”. Yet none were stars or household names. Well at least not at the time.

The plain truth is the basis for a team that made the Super Bowl 3 times in 4 years, and 3 more NFC Championships games in the ensuing 4 years after that came from this draft. Long time MLB Bob Breunig, Hall of Fame DT Randy White, OLB Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, S Randy Hughes, OLineman Herbert Scott, Pat Donovan, and Burton Lawless were mainstays on this team. Had the bounce of the ball gone differently in Super Bowl X and/or Super Bowl XIII this group would have been remembered in many ways close to the Steelers 1974 draft class.

1975.Dallas-Cowboys-Roger-Staubach-Super-Bowl-Ring-0001Just think about it… had the Cowboys won Super Bowl X or XIII the tally would have been 3 wins by both Dallas and Pittsburgh. Dallas sends more players to the Hall of Fame and fewer Steelers would have been enshrined.

Speaking of Tom Landry’s no-name bunch: Roger Staubach, Tackle Rayfield Wright and Safety Cliff Harris were the only Pro Bowl selections. In fact, the ’75 Cowboys are one of 3 of the first 42 Super Bowl participants to have the fewest pro bowl players with 3. When you think of the ’75 Cowboys who were the runners?? Calvin Hill, Dwayne Thomas, Walt Garrison?? All were gone from the team and Tony Dorsett was 2 years away.

super-bowl-logo-1975Staubach’s taking the Cowboys to Super Bowl X was similar to John Elway taking the Broncos to the title game with “The Drive”. He capitalized on the momentum from the Viking playoff win and drove his team to the title game. He was the lone marquee name and took Super Bowl X down to the final play before falling 21-17.

The greatest of the first ten of these games stamped the Cowboys as a team to watch as the late 70’s beckoned.

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Top Ten Single Season Defenses in NFL History : #7 1977 Dallas Cowboys

For all the talk of the Gritz Blitz and the Orange Crush Defense in 1977, it was the year of The Doomsday Defense II. They faced off with the Denver Broncos down in New Orleans in Super Bowl XII and the better defense won. They carried their season statistical domination into that game and forced a then Super Bowl record 8 turnovers. This was the last NFL champion to finish #1 on defense and #1 on offense. In giving up just 229.5 yards per game, most don’t realize that was better than the 1978 champion Pittsburgh Steelers (260.5) or even the great ’76 version (237.5).

After Craig Morton was benched, Hollywood Henderson and Doomsday treated Norris Weese to a rough outing. Super Bowl XII

After Craig Morton was benched, Hollywood Henderson and Doomsday treated Norris Weese to a rough outing. In Super Bowl XII

Unofficially that year was the little known fact that DE Harvey Martin recorded 26 sacks. The league didn’t start keeping that statistic until 1981 or that would still be a record. It was arguably his best season as he was named All Pro and made the Pro Bowl. Surprisingly he was only joined by SS Charlie Waters, FS Cliff Harris, and DT Randy White.

Yet this group does have some knocks against it. They only faced 3 top ten offenses that year and gave up  212 points  for the season. The highest of our top ten. However they were 2-1 in those games and were the first Super Bowl champion to face their eventual Super Bowl opponent during the season. Winning the finale 14-6.

Supe Bowl XII Co-MVPs Randy White and the late Harvey Martin.

Supe Bowl XII Co-MVPs Randy White and the late Harvey Martin.

So why are they in the top ten??

The number one reason this group is here is this was the height of The Flex Defense. Their dominance was felt in a season long display. They held 7 of their 14 opponents to 10 points or less then became the first team since the merger to hold their 3 postseason opponents to 10 points or less. One of those was the #3 ranked offense of the  Chicago Bears and NFL rushing champion Walter Payton. He was held to 60 yards on 19 carries in a 37-7 win in the divisional round.

The havoc they raised in Super Bowl XII with 4 sacks, countless hurries that led to 4 interceptions on the biggest stage didn’t hurt. When half your line, DT Randy White and DE the late Harvey Martin, become the first defensive linemen to win Super Bowl MVP, that puts on an exclamation point on the season.

Other talents such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson made names for themselves as well. They would defend their championship in the following Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers where they ranked #2 in defense. That’s another story for a different time.

landry.2Epilogue: This was the crowning jewel in the late Tom Landry’s coaching career. Where he engineered a majority of the tactics to bring the 4-3 to be the modern staple of defense in the NFL. It was his ability to innovate that defense and come up with the Flex Defense to read and react as well as keep the Middle Linebacker (Bob Breunig) free of potential blockers.

Dedicated in the memory of both Tom Landry and Harvey Martin.

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My man Hollywood’s parting shot:

Hollywood Strikes Back!

Hollywood Strikes Back!