For this week's edition of the Top Ten games in Cowboys history, I'm cheating. When I determined which games would make the cut, I narrowed the list down to about twenty games, and then called in The Turk. The final cuts were agonizing, so I bent the rules a little. And you are the beneficiaries, 'cause you get a delicious Friday two-fer: two prime-time Thursday tilts against Green Bay, both on or near Thanksgiving. One is Jason Garrett’s finest hour as a player, the other a late-season showdown for NFC supremacy. Both featured backup quarterbacks who didn't shy away from the big lights and rose to the challenge.
Another common thread? Although the games came 13 years apart, Brett Favre was the Packers' starting quarterback each time. In his career, Favre was 0-9 Against the Cowboys at Texas Stadium, a statistic made notorious by virtue of the fact that many of those games came in the playoffs; these represent the two most exciting regular-season contests.
The first game: November, 1994. Thanksgiving. Green Bay in town. Although they were only 6-5 at the time, the Packers were a potent and ascending team. And the defending champs were wounded; both Troy Aikman and backup signal caller Rodney Peete were out with injuries, so the Cowboys turned to the little known third-stringer, the smart guy with a popgun arm. Although it wasn't pretty, especially at first (all of his sideline throws were rainbows), our beloved redhead engineered a big comeback, keeping Dallas in the hunt for NFC home-field advantage.
The second game: Brett Favre brings the 10-1 Packers to town to face the 10-1 Cowboys in a much-anticipated Thursday night game with major playoff implications--the winner would almost certainly get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Cowboys took an early lead, knocked Favre out of the game, and held on for dear life as Aaron Rodgers (perhaps you've heard of him?) came in and almost pulled off a Garrett.
Okay, put on your walking shoes. After the break, we're gonna take a stroll down Memory Lane.
After a half, this one didn't look good for the Dallas faithful. The Pack dominated early, and Garrett didn't--his first pass attempt was intercepted, and he finished the first half a paltry 8-17. To make matters worse, Erik Williams was out for the year after a car accident, so his replacement, a lightly-heralded rookie (dude named Larry Allen) was going to be matched up against Reggie White, Michael Irvin was limping around on a badly-injured quad, and Daryl Johnston was being administered smelling salts. Two Favre to Sterling Sharpe passes had helped Green Bay forge a 17-3 lead just before halftime, and the Cowboys offense was inept. Frankly, it appeared that Dallas' turkey was cooked.
Then the Cowboys made a couple of big plays. With less than 20 seconds left in the half, Garrett chucked one of his rainbows up along the right sideline, and it was caught by Alvin Harper at the Packers 20. A quick timeout was followed by a Chris Boniol field goal to make the halftime score 17-6. After being dominated, the Cowboys were "only" down 11. Kevin Williams subsequently opened the second half with an 87-yard kick return, setting up a 5-yard Emmitt Smith touchdown on a sweet cutback run off of left tackle. Dallas was back in it at 17-13.
Green Bay roared right back, however, with a big return of their own followed quickly by another Sharpe TD pass, this one a 30 yard catch-and-run on a crossing pattern. 24-13, Packers.
Then, suddenly, inexplicably, the Dallas offense exploded. The Cowboys scored 26 unanswered points (twice, they went for two, failing both times), making many of their yards thanks to Garrett, who was much crisper in the second act. A roughing penalty and a pretty 45-yard bomb to a wide-open Alvin Harper seemed to open things up. Then, after the Packers went 3-and-out, a couple more penalties and after a nifty seam pass to Jay Novacek set up a short Johnston run, Smith took a simple swing pass 68 yards to set himself up for a beautiful TD from the 18 and a 32-24 Dallas lead. Another deep bomb, this one to Irvin, extended the lead to 15 points midway through the fourth quarter.
An exchange of scores, with Sharpe getting his fourth touchdown and Boniol his third field goal, brought the final tally to 42-31. For the game, Garrett completed only 15 passes, but for a whopping 311 yards—over 20 yards a completion! Big plays abounded: the long passes to Irvin and Harper, Smith's gorgeous catch and run; Novacek had several up-the-field catches, and for good measure, Johnston grabbed one for 24.
"Probably more than anything else, it was a great reminder of the importance of team," Garrett said recently when asked about that game. If there’s any doubt, check out the reaction on the sideline when Larry Brown breaks up a 4th-and-4 Favre pass with under 4 minutes left to seal the victory. After the game, a reporter asked Nate Newton if he had thought the Cowboys could win with Jason Garrett at quarterback. Newton looked him dead in the eye and said, "man, we could win with you at quarterback." That was a tightly-knit and confident bunch.
This game almost ended up a reversal of the earlier contest, as Green Bay came back from a big deficit, and had the ball with a chance to take a fourth-quarter lead. Thankfully, the potent Dallas offense awoke and the Cowboys held on to win. But I get ahead of myself...
The Packers and Cowboys started like two fighters measuring each other, exchanging field goals on their early drives, with Dallas taking a 6-3 lead. Then they started swinging roundhouses to the head. On Green Bay’s first play from scrimmage, Farve, who had seemingly given up his gunslinging ways in leading the Pack to their 10-1 mark, began to chuck it around. He faded back and tossed up a deep ball that was intercepted by Ken Hamlin (later, he would inexplicably throw two consecutive deep balls into double coverage). Three plays later, the Cowboys were in the end zone, thanks in part to a beautiful 34-yard play action pass to a wide-open Owens.
On the next Packer drive, Ryan Grant took a handoff into the line, looking to convert a short third down…and ran 62 yards to the end zone to make the score 13-10. Dallas got the ball back and moved it in huge chunks. The three-play drive featured a 48-yard pass to T.O.--who dusted Packers MLB A. J. Hawk, who was matched up against Owens in the Packers' Tampa-2 coverage scheme--and a sweet toss to Anthony Fasano in the right corner of the end zone.
Green Bay’s next possession featured the play of the game. Wade Phillips dialed up a blitz from slot corner Nate Jones, who hit Favre just as he threw the ball, which popped high in the air and came down in the outstretched hands of a diving Terrence Newman. Favre hurt his elbow and was done for the night. Soon thereafter, speedy backup Miles Austin (perhaps you remember him?) drew a pass interference penalty on a deep ball and the Cowboys were again in business near the end zone. Two plays later, Romo again hit Owens, and 20 minutes into the game, the Cowboys had a commanding 27-10 lead against an inexperienced backup QB. Dream scenario, right?
It almost became a nightmare. Aaron Rodgers looked pretty ragged in his first series, and Green Bay had to punt. But after the next Cowboys possession ended in similar fashion, Rodgers led his squad on an eight-play, 74-yard drive to make the halftime score a more respectable 27-17. Hmm...a score right before the half to make things respectable. Sound familiar?
The momentum shift Rodgers provided continued in the second half. After Julius Jones was stopped short on a fourth down run, the Pack roared back downfield, scoring on an inexorable 12-play drive culminated by Grant’s second touchdown of the night, a 1-yarder. Suddenly, a seeming blowout had tightened considerably. Romo didn’t seem to be feeling the pressure, however. He led the ‘Boys on a long drive of their own, consuming the reminder of the quarter. On the second play of the fourth frame, Romo hit an open Owens in the end zone…and T.O. strangely mishandled the ball, alley-ooping it straight to a very fortunate Al Harris.
With a chance to take the lead, Green Bay tallied a couple of first downs before facing a third and five at their own 40. In a huge play, DeMarcus Ware shot around Packers left tackle Chad Clifton to take down Rodgers and force a punt. Again, the Cowboys moved the ball with ease. Unlike the previous drive, this time they found the end zone, helped by some clutch catches by Witten and another long pass interference on Austin.
With just under eight minutes left in the game, Rodgers engineered another drive, taking his team to the Dallas 35. On 3rd and 1, however, Ryan Grant was stuffed, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy decided to go for the field goal, hoping that his defense could hold Dallas and get the ball back with an opportunity to tie the game. It was not to be. Dallas gave the ball to Marion Barber, who was in his beasting prime. The Barbarian toted the rock on seven of the eight Dallas snaps, setting up Nick Folk for a game-clinching field goal with a minute remaining.
Dallas did indeed secure home field advantage, but this was the last game in 2007 in which the Cowboys looked sharp, and the most promising season in years went out with a whimper--a first-round loss to the eventual champion Giants. The 1994 squad ended their season with a bitter taste in their mouths as well: a terrible 38-28 NFC Championship game loss to San Francisco.
For me, the takeaway from these games is this: those teams were GOOD. The 2007 Dallas offense was electric, biting off huge chunks of yardage, out-scheming rivals and imposing their will late. The combination of Romo to Owens was literally unstoppable; T.O's second-quarter touchdown was his 14th of the year from Romo. Looking at the game, I was convinced that, with a good offensive line, Garrett's offense can be elite. Watching tape of the 1994 game, I was reminded of the speed of Jimmy Johnson' defense; those cats swarmed to the ball on every play. Receivers who caught short passes were immediately smothered; running backs couldn't get to the edge; Favre was under constant pressure.
It was good to see, and I look forward to seeing the 'Boys play like this again, as Garrett engineers a return to "The Cowboy Way."