The Dallas Cowboys had gone a winless 0-11-1 as a NFL expansion team in 1960 but stunned the Steelers in their opening game in ’61 and were hosting the latest expansion franchise, the Minnesota Vikings, on September 24, 1961.
Head Coach Tom Landry’s team had hope for improvement coming into the second season. The Cowboys drafted DE Bob Lilly out of Texas Christian (later a DT) and also would have HB Don Perkins (pictured above), a 1960 draft choice out of New Mexico who missed the entire season due to a foot injury, available to bolster the running game. QB Don Meredith had spent his rookie year behind diminutive veteran Eddie LeBaron and was ready to put in more time behind center.
The Vikings, coached by former star quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, were a typical first-year amalgam of old, unwanted, and upcoming players. Nevertheless, they stunned the Chicago Bears in their first game and had uncovered an exciting rookie quarterback in Fran Tarkenton out of Georgia, who had quickly displaced veteran George Shaw.
There were 20,500 in attendance at the Cotton Bowl and they saw the home team score in the first quarter. Don Perkins took off on a 47-yard run to set up a six-yard touchdown carry by FB Amos Marsh.
The Cowboys drove 80 yards to their next score in the second quarter. Don Meredith passed for 39 yards and ran for 29, including a 20-yard touchdown carry with Marsh throwing a key block along the way. Allen Green added his second extra point and it was 14-0 in favor of Dallas.
The Vikings finally got into the end zone in the second quarter when Tarkenton completed a pass to end A.D. Williams for 49 yards to the Dallas 27 and two carries by ex-Giants FB Mel Triplett (pictured at left) advanced the ball another 21 yards. HB Tommy Mason finished the series with a four-yard touchdown run, losing the ball at one point but recovering in the air to score. Mike Mercer’s extra point made the score 14-7 at the half.
The Vikings threatened several times but key defensive plays stopped them from scoring and Mercer failed on three field goal attempts, one of which was blocked by LB Gene Babb. Safeties Dick Moegle and Bob Bercich made big plays for the Cowboys, with Bercich intercepting a pass.
In the third quarter, the Vikings drove 76 yards to the Dallas one in a drive largely propelled by Triplett’s running, but came up empty at a point where a TD and extra point would have tied the score. This was soon followed by the interception of a Tarkenton pass by CB Don Bishop. Meredith tossed a screen pass to Marsh for a 19-yard touchdown and that was more than enough to put the game away. The Cowboys won by a decisive 21-7 score.
Dallas dominated the Vikings in total yards (437 to 251) with 208 of that total coming on the ground. The Cowboys also had the edge in first downs (22 to 16). Each team turned the ball over three times. The Dallas defense recorded three sacks while the Vikings had one.
Don Perkins was the key performer on offense for the Cowboys, rushing for 108 yards on 17 carries and catching 5 passes for 61 more yards. Amos Marsh (pictured at right) ran for 64 yards and a TD on 11 attempts and contributed another 37 yards and a score on three pass receptions. Don Meredith completed 12 of 22 passes for 163 yards with a touchdown and an interception and ran the ball 6 times for 36 yards and a TD. Eddie LeBaron saw action and was 5 of 8 for 75 yards with one pass intercepted.
For the Vikings, Fran Tarkenton came down to earth after an outstanding opening game performance as he was successful on only 8 of 24 throws for 117 yards and had two intercepted. George Shaw came into the contest and was five of eight for 33 yards with one picked off. Mel Triplett ran for 57 yards on 9 carries while another old pro, 32-year-old HB Hugh McElhenny, contributed 42 yards on 9 attempts. A.D. Williams led the receivers with four catches for 78 yards.
The promising start did not herald a winning season for the young Cowboys – they lost the next week, improved to 3-1 in a rematch with the Vikings in Minnesota, and then won only one more game the rest of the way to finish at 4-9-1 and sixth in the seven-team Eastern Conference. Minnesota didn’t win again until Week 9 and ended up at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 3-11 record.
Don Perkins continued to play well and rushed for 815 yards on 200 carries (4.1 avg.) while catching 32 passes for 298 yards. He was selected to the Pro Bowl. Eddie LeBaron still saw most of the action at quarterback for the Cowboys but Don Meredith showed progress as he passed for 1161 yards and 9 TDs as well as 11 interceptions.
Fran Tarkenton recovered to pass for 1997 yards and 18 touchdowns while showing off his flashy scrambling skills in what was the first of 18 seasons in his Hall of Fame career. Mel Triplett rushed for 407 yards on 80 carries (5.1 avg.) in his seventh year.