How the Dallas Cowboys Landed in the NFC East

John Fennelly
Dec 30, 2018; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) walks off after an incomplete pass on fourth down as the Dallas Cowboys celebrate at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

51 years ago today that the NFL-AFL merger took form when the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers of the 16-team NFL agreed to join the AFL to form the 13-team American Football Conference. It was also the same day in which the new NFL agreed on a playoff format that introduced some crazy concept of a wild-card entrant from each conference.

The following 1970 season, the two leagues would operate under the NFL shield and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle. The league would be divided into two 13-team conferences with three divisions isn each conference.

How the league would allocate the teams into which divisions was a crapshoot. In the new NFC, There was an abundance of east coast teams and not enough in the western time zones. Five proposed breakdowns were devised, and legend has it, written on a pieces of paper and put into a flower vase. Rozelle’s secretary reached into the vase and randomly chose the breakdown that would be the framework of the modern NFC as we know it.

Going in, there were several constants. The New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins were in the NFC East in each of the five proposals as were the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers in the Central and the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers in the West. The other six teams were all over the map in the other four proposals.

Four of the five proposals had the Minnesota Vikings in the East and the Dallas Cowboys in either the Central or the West.

So, when you question how the NFL stuck the Dallas Cowboys in the East, it was a random thing – a one in five shot. The proposal that was picked ended them up in the East along with the St. Louis Cardinals.

In the first decade after the merger, the Cowboys won the division seven times and Cardinals won it twice. The Redskins broke up the party in 1972 with George Allen’s Over-the-Hill gang made their Super Bowl run, losing to Don Shula’s perfect Miami Dolphins.

Between 1970 and 1980, the Cowboys beat the Giants 18 of 22 games.

Dallas has won the NFC East 23 times since Rozelle’s secretary made that fateful draw. Hence the hatred from the other four teams. What would have happened if she picked one of the other four pieces of paper?

One had the NFC as a four team set (NYG, WAS, PHI, MIN). The other three had combinations of Minnesota with Atlanta, St. Louis and Detroit – three teams that were nowhere near the juggernaut that Tom Landry’s Cowboys were in the 70s or Jimmy Johnson’s teams of the 90s would become.

For the record, the Eagles won their first NFC East title in 1980 under head coach Dick Vermeil. They have gone on to win the division 10 more times.

The Giants were the only team in the East without a division title until they finally broke through in 1986. They have eight total division titles as do the Redskins.

The Cardinals stayed in the division even after they moved from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988. They were finally moved to the NFC West in 2002 when the NFL expanded to 32 teams with four divisions of four teams in each conference. They only won the East those two years (1974-75) in the 70s.