Around this time of year two decades ago, in the Summer of ’92, I was anxiously readying myself for the upcoming NFL season. The Cowboys were just three years from a 1-15 debacle, yet were coming off a tremendous 1991 season and trending upward. But it was still a very young team and I didn’t really know how 1992 would unfold. Like many Cowboy fans, I tend to keep my expectations low and prepare for the worst, and back then it was no different.
It didn’t help that the past two defending Super Bowl Champions were in the NFC East, or that the Eagles had a healthy Randall Cunningham (although the great Jerome Brown - RIP- had just passed in June), and the Cardinals, well…never mind. But there were still three competitive teams Dallas would have to play twice a season, all of whom had given the Cowboys trouble in recent years, still led by nemesis like Joe Gibbs, Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor.
Besides the inherent divisional challenges, I thought there were plenty of reasonable questions about the team itself going into the season. For example, could Troy Aikman ever make it through a year injury-free? Would the offensive line improve? Could Michael Irvin repeat his monstrous 1991 performance or would he revert back to his first three injury-plagued seasons? And most importantly, could the defense take the next step from a group that would keep the team in some games to one that could be a difference-maker?
About the only position that I had complete confidence in was running back, and by “running back” I mean, of course, Emmitt Smith. He’d won all our confidence when he burst onto the scene in his rookie season, and when he became the first Cowboy to ever win an NFL rushing title in 1991, well, that was when I pledged to #22 my undying love. Did I see three more rushing titles and 17,162 yards as a Cowboy? Not quite, but it’s safe to say that I saw the running back spot as a position of strength heading into the 1992 season.
Let’s take a look at my frame of mind during that fateful summer, and how the Cowboys would soothe all of my concerns, shall we?
Irvin – The former first round pick’s initial three seasons were just as limited by injuries as Aikman’s were, as Irvin missed a season’s worth of games. Then he exploded onto the scene in 1991 with one of the best seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history (93-1523-8). So while it was great to see Irvin become “The Playmaker,” as a natural Cowboy skeptic I was concerned that Irvin might have trouble staying healthy enough to duplicate those numbers. In addition, Irvin actually performed much better in 1991 with Steve Beuerlein as his quarterback, which added further doubt in my mind.
However, the worst uncertainty pertaining to Irvin in the Summer of 1992 was his holdout for a new contract. Any pro football aficionado dreads contract holdouts for several reasons – it provides a distraction during the off-season and training camp; it often engenders bad feelings between players, management and fans; it means the player isn’t getting in football shape and is falling behind as the team moves forward; the holdout could actually last into the regular season and the player could miss games, and even if the player does eventually get the financial remuneration they were looking for, the newly rich(or richer) player can lose the Eye of the Tiger and isn’t the same determined, hungry star that they used to be. How would Irvin and the team be affected by his acrimonious holdout? If he ever signed, would he be the same player? And to make matters worse the Cowboys’ second best receiver, tight end Jay Novacek, was also holding out deep into the summer for a new deal.
Irvin ended up signing a new deal the Friday before the Monday Night season opener. It was obvious that The Playmaker missed the game and just wanted to play. And he proved that he didn’t need training camp or five exhibition games to excel, as he caught 5-89 against the Redskins, and ended up with a solid season total of 78-1396-7. He never missed another game due to injury until his career was ended due to, well, a severe injury.
Aikman – You have to recall that in the summer of 1992, Troy Aikman was not yet TROY AIKMAN, NFL HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2010. He was a former first overall draft pick who struggled on a team that was rebuilding. He’d shown flashes of brilliance and was improving year-by-year, but he’d also have games where he just didn’t show up. Even Jimmy Johnson had his doubts about Aikman’s ability to be an effective leader, albeit earlier in his tenure.
The biggest question mark surrounding Aikman was his health. But after missing five, two and five games each of his first three seasons, Aikman finally shook the injury bug and started every game of the season. He finished with what was his best professional season, setting career highs in completions, yards and touchdown passes. Aikman continued his excellence into the postseason, with three more healthy games, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
(By the way, Aikman would also miss three and two games due to injuries in 1993 and 1994, respectively, in addition to parts of several others. We often forget that Aikman wasn’t exactly Ironman and that backups named Beuerlein, Garrett, Kosar and Peete all stepped behind center at various times and won as starters during the Cowboys glory years.)
The Offensive Line - The line played pretty well in 1991; it would have had to considering that Emmitt ran for 1563 yards. But as a team the Cowboys could only muster 1711 total rushing yards for an adequate average of 4.0 yards per carry. More alarming was that Cowboy quarterbacks were sacked 38 times in 1991, including 10 times against the Eagles in a 24-0 early season loss.
During training camp, the Cowboys moved veteran Nate Newton from right tackle back to left guard, where he proceeded he earn five Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro spots. Former starting left guard Kevin Gogan became a versatile back-up, and they signed former San Diego Charger Frank Cornish to spell center Mark Stepnoski. The team also inserted little-used 1991 3rd round pick Erik Williams into the starting lineup at right tackle, where he quickly established himself as more than a match for anything smaller than Mercedes 600SL, including Reggie White. With these two seemingly innocuous moves, the Cowboys offensive line was on its way to becoming the best of the decade. In 1992, Emmitt ran his way to another rushing title (1713 yards and a then-team record 18 touchdowns) and the team rushed for a strong total of 2121 yards at a healthy 4.2 yards a clip. Just as critical, Aikman was sacked just 23 times, tied for second-fewest in the NFL.
Defense - The last taste of 1991 was the 38-6 Motown beat-down in the NFC Divisional playoffs. It definitely didn’t erase the sweetness of the 11-5 regular season or the first playoff victory since 1982, but it we were all bitter after watching former replacement player Erik Kramer pick apart the Cowboy secondary for 341 yards and 3 touchdowns. Kramer’s passing pyrotechnics weren’t the first time that an opposing quarterback had torched the Cowboys defense. Warren Moon, Jeff Hostettler and Chris Miller had surpassed 300+ yards against the slow and undersized Dallas defense that season. In all, the defense was rather tepid – just 12 interceptions, 23 sacks and an 81 allowed passer rating. Not exactly the 2010 Cowboys defense, but nothing special. And with slow and ageing players like Jack Del Rio, Jim Jeffcoat, Danny Noonan, Ray Horton and Isaac Holt seeing a significant amount of playing time as starters, it was apparent that a new influx of defensive talent was needed.
The Cowboys front office also noticed the defensive shortcomings. Their two first round picks that April were spent on defensive back Kevin Smith and linebacker Robert Jones, and with one of their second rounders the team chose a linebacker who would turn into one of the best safeties the Cowboys ever had, Darren Woodson. Already on the roster and ready to play was young Leon Lett, a 7th round choice in 1991 draft who played in just 5 games and made only 2 tackles his rookie season (I had no idea who he was), and 2nd year starters Russell Maryland and Larry Brown, so there was some hope. At least the defense was getting younger and faster. But it wasn’t until late August, not even two weeks before the season opener, that the team added the final piece to the defensive puzzle – Charles Haley. (The Cowboys also added hard-hitting safety Thomas Everett in late-September. Everett almost immediately became a starter. )
Maybe in retrospect I should have seen that, thanks to the new additions, established veterans and another off-season for the newbie professional coaching staff of Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis and Dave Campo to gel, the defense would suddenly become the best in the league. Perhaps it was easy to predict in summer 1992 that the Dallas defense would allow 67 fewer points (its lowest total since 1978), add 21 more sacks, and force seven more turnovers than it did the year before, culminating in a Super Bowl orgy of turnovers (9) and defensive scores (2 but should have been 3). But I didn’t! So excuuuuuuu-uuuse ME.
If you put on your hindsight goggles, it’s easy to see that the Cowboys were destined to keep improving and win the Super Bowl, maybe even to become a Dynasty. But I sure didn’t see it coming. I wouldn’t have bet that the Cowboys were going to win the NFC East and a team –record 13 regular season games. I definitely never would have guessed that my concerns about Aikman, Irvin, the offensive line and the defense were going to be answered beyond my wildest dreams. And I could not have imagined that on January 17th, 1993, the Cowboys would finally redeem “The Catch” game by defeating the 49ers in Candlestick Park in the NFC Championship Game, only to exceed all expectations a couple weeks later by scoring 52 points and winning it all in Pasadena.
So it’s a milestone year for us Cowboy fans, at least those of us who are old enough to enjoy that unexpected and wonderful season. And I’m not saying that 2012 will be like 1992, although at the same time, I’m pretty confident that it won’t be like 2002. All I’m saying is, “HOW ABOUT US OLD GUYS!” Er, I mean, “HOW ABOUT THEM COWBOYS!”