OK, so the Dallas Cowboys aren't in first place. Nevertheless it's been a good year for Coach Tom Landry's well-balanced, constantly improving team. Anytime a club loses a quarterback like Roger Staubach to retirement and has a replacement in the wings the quality of Danny White, the organization can't feel too bad.
Under White the Cowboys, have averaged nearly 30 points a game, kept constant offensive pressure on the opposition, and won 8 of their first 11 games.
White, Dalla's No. 1 punter for the past four years, is a young man with considerable poise and football savvy. He had been carefully preparing for Staubach's job for some time, including spending hundreds of hours with Roger and Landry breaking down game films of opposing teams.
Although Danny never played a lot of minutes for the Cowboys, except in games when Staubach got hurt and had to leave, he showed a real feel for moving the team those times a real feel for moving the team those times when the offense was his responsibility.
For example, in 1978 with their division championship already clinched and only one game left on the schedule. Landry decided to rest Staubach for the National Football League playoffs and start White against the New York Jets.
For most of the afternoon, it was as though Staubach had never left. Danny, in what amounted to a veteran performance, completed 15 of 24 passes en route to a 30-to-7 Dallas victory. And most of his throws were so accurate they could probably have been so accurate they could probably have been caught one-handed.
That experience came in handy two weeks later when Staubach was driven out of the Cowboys' individual playoff against the Atlanta Falcon's with an injury that did not permit him to return.
In fact, Dallas trailed 13-20 at the time, didn't seem to have its usual crispness in the first half, and didn't have a whole lot done offensively or defensively.
fortunately the final two periods belonged to White, who spearheaded two touchdown drives and generally helped the Cowboys control the football for long stretches as Dallas came back to win, 27-20.
"Once I'd learned the Cowboys syste, of course it was frustrating to sit and watch Staubach play almost every offensive down week after week," Danny told reporters. "The confidence was there and I wanted to use it, and it didn't help when I kept reading in the newspapers that I could start on most other NFL teams.
"The only thing that helped was that we were winning most of the time and that twice we went to the Super bowl," he continued. "But it's hard to feel like a part of something when you spend most of your time standing on the sidelines, although I did feel good about my kicking role."
Three things that have helped white make the smooth transition this year from backup to starter are his size, his arm, and his intelligence.
At 6 ft., 2 in. and 195 pounds he is able to stand up to the pounding that all NFL quarterbacks endure on certain weeks. He throws strikes most of the time and he has learned to read opposing defenses with the ease that most people read traffic signs.
"Basically our offense under White has been the same as it was under Staubach ," Landry said. "We're running the same stuff, maybe not in the same sequence, but with the same objectives in mind, and Danny has the option of changing any play at the line of scrimmage that he thinks won't go."
"White deosn't try to be Staubach, because I would never ask any man to change his individuality," Tom continued."He has to do what's best for him, and I think he probably goes to his receivers a little more than Roger did. But the important thing is that the results have been about the same."
Although Landry had hoped to free Danny of his punting responsibility, locating someone better has been a problem the Cowboys have yet to resolve and may be glad they haven't.
For example, at least three times this year when the opposition didn't put much of a rush on, White has elected to run with the football on fourth down. Once he scrambled for a spectacular 49-yard gain and two other times picked up first downs.
Although first place in the National Conference's Eastern Division may be beyond Dallas because of a super year by the Philadelphia Eagles, a wild-card playoff berth is not. And as Landry and White well know, anything can happen in the playoffs!