Machota: NFL 100 - No. 78, Why Roger Staubach was the ‘greatest sports hero of his time’

Iamtdg

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Jon Machota 3h ago

Welcome to the NFL 100, The Athletic’s endeavor to identify the 100 best players in football history. Every day until the season begins, we’ll unveil new members of the list, with the No. 1 player to be crowned on Wednesday, Sept. 8.

Dating back to the first Super Bowl, there has been a tradition in which just about every Super Bowl MVP has been awarded a brand new car. It was usually sports cars in the early days.

Bart Starr was given a pair of Chevrolet Corvettes after winning MVP honors during the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and ’68. Joe Namath received a Dodge Charger in 1969. Len Dawson went home with a Dodge Challenger in 1970. Chuck Howley got a Charger in 1971.

But Roger Staubach had no use for a sports car after winning MVP of Super Bowl VI in 1972.

Having a wife and three children at the time, the legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback needed something with more seats. So he declined the Charger and instead asked for a station wagon. It was a decision that led to some labeling Staubach a square, something that bothered him at the time.

Despite being one of the most famous athletes in the world and having nicknames like “Roger the Dodger,” “Captain America” and “Captain Comeback,” Staubach didn’t crave the spotlight. He preferred spending time with his family over enjoying the nightlife with friends and teammates.

Staubach’s all-American, straight guy image was the focus of a question that led to the most famous response of his career. While sitting down at his Dallas home for an interview with CBS reporter Phyllis George in 1975, Staubach was asked if he enjoys having such a clean image or if it’s a burden.

“Everyone in the world compares me to Joe Namath, as far as the idea of off the field, he’s single, bachelor swinging,” a smiling Staubach responded. “I’m married with a family. He’s having all the fun. I enjoy sex as much as Joe Namath, only I do it with one girl. It’s still fun. It’s the same thing.

“Everybody acts like you’re married and you have a family, so it’s not fun. To me, it’s unbelievable. That’s my life and I enjoy it.”

The only reason that quote is still occasionally mentioned is because it seemed somewhat out of character for Staubach. The former Heisman Trophy winner at Navy, who served in Vietnam before returning to have a Hall of Fame NFL career, is exactly who parents wanted their children to emulate.

“He’s everything that people think that he is,” former Cowboys quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer Troy Aikman said during the NFL Network’s “A Football Life” documentary on Staubach in 2014. “And that’s rare. Roger is held to such a lofty standard that it would be hard for anyone to be able to live up to that. But he does.”

Staubach played 11 seasons in Dallas, leading the team to four Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl wins as their starting quarterback. At the time of his retirement in 1979, Staubach had the NFL’s all-time highest passer rating at 83.4. He made six Pro Bowls, was named to the 1970s All-Decade team and never played on a team with a losing record.

His excellence on and off the field combined with his ability to orchestrate heroic comebacks helped turn the Cowboys quarterback position into what is still one of the most visible in all of sports.

“You know in any profession, there are two ways to make a winner,” legendary former Cowboys coach Tom Landry said at Staubach’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 1985. “How he performs his job and, more importantly, how he performs as a human being. Roger Staubach is an all-pro in both categories. We are here today to honor Roger for his achievements as a professional football player and rightfully so, but if there is a Hall of Fame for people, they better save a spot for him there, too.”

When watching highlights from Staubach’s career, it’s difficult not to wonder how his game would translate to today’s style and rules.

The biggest issue he encountered during his time with Landry is that Staubach wanted to call his own plays. He’d likely have a little more freedom to make adjustments today, especially if he was coming off leading his team to a Super Bowl victory in his first full season as a starter, like he did in 1971.

Staubach had the ability to scramble and create something out of nothing at an elite level. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has known Staubach since the early 1960s. Belichick’s father was a coach at Navy during Staubach’s college career. Before facing the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick compared Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson to Staubach.

“I remember a lot of Staubach’s spectacular running plays where it looked like he was about to get tackled by three or four guys, and he would Houdini it out of there somehow,” Belichick said. “You see Wilson doing some of the same things.”

When Walter Cronkite announced the breaking news on March 30, 1980, that Staubach was retiring, the longtime CBS TV news anchor quipped: “The 38-year-old Staubach broke into the National Football League when conventional wisdom held that the only reason for a quarterback to run was sheer terror.”

Staubach was still at the top of his game into his 11th and final season, throwing for a career-high 3,586 yards and 27 touchdowns, but a total of 20 concussions during his pro career ultimately forced him into retirement. There’s better equipment and rules designed to protect quarterbacks today that would have likely helped him extend his career. Staubach has also noted in previous interviews that receivers are able to run more freely now compared to the beating they would take to get open against the physical defensive play that used to be allowed.

And then there was his late-game heroics that would certainly fit nicely into today’s league of parity where most games come down to the final few possessions.
One of the most famous plays in NFL history was Staubach’s “Hail Mary” pass to Drew Pearson to win a 1975 divisional playoff game over the Minnesota Vikings. Staubach brought the Cowboys from behind to win in the last two minutes or overtime 14 times in his career.

When he retired, Staubach’s 23 fourth-quarter comebacks were third-most behind only Fran Tarkenton (34) and Johnny Unitas (27).

At the Cowboys’ current headquarters, The Star in Frisco, every member of the Cowboys Ring of Honor is recognized outside the facility along what is known as the Ring of Honor Walk. Each member recognized has a list of their accomplishments and a quote about the person at a monument that includes the players’ jersey number.

The quote next to Staubach’s No. 12 is from Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White.

“There was always a chance in any game with Roger out there,” White said. “We always believed that if any game was tight, Roger would get the points we needed to win. And he always did.”

Staubach would’ve been paid much more playing today. Not only his NFL salary, but the numerous lucrative endorsement deals he could have as the clean-cut Captain America figure that any company would want to be associated with.

Forbes recently published a story that ranked current Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott as the fourth-highest paid athlete in the world, which included his multiple high-level endorsement deals and the four-year, $160 million contract extension he signed with the Cowboys in March.

That’s not to say Staubach has struggled financially. He started his own commercial real estate company during his playing career. The company became so successful that it was sold in 2007 for more than $600 million to Jones Lang LaSalle. Staubach then became executive chairman at JLL until his retirement in 2018.

“He was the greatest sports hero of his time,” former Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm said when Staubach retired, as referenced in the book, “The Dallas Cowboys: The outrageous history of the biggest, loudest, most hated, best loved football team in America.”

“The very unique popularity of the Cowboys is based a heck of a lot on Roger Staubach. He was the hero of a nation, not just of the Cowboys, or even the league.

“I’m still very convinced that the people want their heroes to be the all-American-boy types. He was a family man, had upstanding ideals and morals like Tom Landry, and yet had that great, gambling flair. He epitomized the adage that the game is never over.”
 

Simpleton

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Brady should be #1 but Staubach should be top 50 at the absolute least, probably top 30ish.

The explosion of passing stats has skewed people's perceptions of the past, Staubach was probably the best QB of his generation, whereas some 25 year old today would likely rank Drew Brees ahead of him.
 

Iamtdg

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Brady should be #1 but Staubach should be top 50 at the absolute least, probably top 30ish.

The explosion of passing stats has skewed people's perceptions of the past, Staubach was probably the best QB of his generation, whereas some 25 year old today would likely rank Drew Brees ahead of him.
I would put Peyton Manning #1. The rest I agree with for sure.
 

data

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Only Cowboys possibly ahead of Staubach are Larry Allen and Bob Lilly.

I’m predicting the QBs ahead of Staubach are Montana, Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Unitas

...and I’d put Jerry Rice #1
 
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boozeman

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I can see that... I can't see Roger at 78.

Watch, there will be a bunch of relative spares ahead of him.
I can see it.

Staubach had panache, but I don't think you could say he was this like razor sharp guy as a passer.

I don't have an issue with the ranking at all.

At the end of the day, Staubach was an intangible-type guy, not a stats guy.

You know damn good and well this will be statistically-skewed.
 

NoDak

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If I'm looking for a #1 greatest player of all time, I'd have to pick a player that was ahead of all his peers in his position, for starters. And somebody that changed the game. Somebody that truly was a game changer each and every time they stepped on the field.

Not saying this would be my final choice (I haven't really thought about it) but Lawrence Taylor is the first name that comes to mind.
 

boozeman

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If I'm looking for a #1 greatest player of all time, I'd have to pick a player that was ahead of all his peers in his position, for starters. And somebody that changed the game. Somebody that truly was a game changer each and every time they stepped on the field.

Not saying this would be my final choice (I haven't really thought about it) but Lawrence Taylor is the first name that comes to mind.
I agree.

People forget, Taylor stepped on the field as a rookie and was the best guy at what he did. Almost instantly. No faggy Jerry Rice hiccups.
 

Chocolate Lab

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My top two were always LT and Montana. Hard to compare QBs to everyone else, but that's what I always thought (pre Brady) . LT is the best defensive player I've ever seen.
 

Simpleton

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He did lead the the league in passer rating 4 times. That's a pretty good stat. Obviously with the rules changes the raw yards and TDs won't be comparable.
The best QB's of each decade will all be in the top 30 I'm sure (Unitas, Montana, Favre, Elway, Manning, Brady and probably even Brees), Staubach was pretty clearly the best of the 70's so putting him at 78 with all the rest almost certainly being top 30ish is preposterous.
 

boozeman

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The best QB's of each decade will all be in the top 30 I'm sure (Unitas, Montana, Favre, Elway, Manning, Brady and probably even Brees), Staubach was pretty clearly the best of the 70's so putting him at 78 with all the rest almost certainly being top 30ish is preposterous.
The 70s are a bad era for QB recognition.

But Jesus, you have Staubach, Bradshaw, Griese, Stabler. I just think they all are slept on.
 

boozeman

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I wonder if they put Red Grange on there. Or better yet, Jim Thorpe.
 
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