This week’s edition of the top regular season games in Cowboys history takes us to week 12 in 2003, with the Cowboys hosting the Carolina Panthers. Both teams were enjoying an unexpected level of success that year. The previous season, Panthers coach John Fox had inherited a 1-15 team and led them to a 7-9 season. On the other sideline was Bill Parcells, who engineered a similarly impressive turnaround for a Dallas squad that had endured three consecutive 5-11 seasons.
Consequently, this matchup of recent patsies somehow ended up being the NFC’s game of the week. Coming into the game, the Panthers boasted the conference’s best record, at 8-2. The 7-3 Cowboys were in a first-place tie in the NFC East, thanks largely to their undefeated division record. Parcells and Fox were hard-nosed, defensive-minded coaches whose teams were gritty, old-school units that ran the ball and played stifling defense.
In the offseason, Carolina had acquired running back Stephen Davis, who finished the season with more than 1,400 yards (in 14 games!); in the first year A.E. (after Emmitt), the Cowboys went with the bruising Troy Hambrick, who softened defenses for the likes of Richie Anderson and Aveion Cason. On the other side of the ball, Dallas’ had the league’s top defense; the Panthers were among the leaders all season, finishing eighth.
Catch the details of this thrilling contest after the jump...The story of the game was that the league’s two most run-oriented teams were forced by solid defenses to take to the air. Carter ended up with the most attempts (44) and completions (29) of his career, for 254 yards and two scores. His counterpart, Carolina's Jake Delhomme was not so scintillating; he went 9-for-24 for only 175 yards, but made some clutch throws and goaded the Dallas secondary into two long pass interference penalties.
The Cowboys scored early in the first quarter. Dallas recovered a fumbled opening kickoff and, after a short drive, made it 3-0 with a 24-yard Billy Cundiff field goal. After a handful of punt exchanges set the Panthers up near midfield, Carolina knotted the score at 3 after a 20-yard drive consisting almost exclusively of Stephen Davis runs. Dallas responded immediately and, surprisingly, it was through the air. Quincy Carter completed four passes on the subsequent drive, the final one a beautiful 24-yard arc to Joey Galloway in the end zone for a 10-3 Dallas lead.
The game then settled into a defensive battle; the next six drives ended in punts, and Carolina appeared unable to move the ball against the Cowboys’ top-ranked unit, facing a third and eleven in their own territory. Then, suddenly, they struck quickly: Delhomme hit Ricky Proehl on a 37-yard pass to convert the first down and then some. On the next play, the Cowboys were flagged for pass interference in the end zone, setting up a first-and-goal. Two plays later, Davis converted, tying the score at 10-10.
The third quarter began in the same defensive fashion. After an exchange of punts, a Delhomme pass was tipped by Dexter Coakley and intercepted by Roy Williams (a terror in those days, consistently making big plays), who returned it 32 yards to the Carolina 11. After a 6-yard Troy Hambrick run, Carter found backup tight end—and, in reality, the team’s deep snapper—Jeff Robinson in the end zone to recapture the lead.
Again, Carolina and Delhomme answered quickly, with a 4-play, 65-yard drive. The most severe damage was inflicted by a 35-yard pass to Muhsin Mohammed, which was followed by an 11-yard Steve Smith end-around and another end zone pass interference penalty.
Dallas roared back. Carter hit Terry Glenn a couple of times, one of them a 25-yarder from midfield. After a completion to rookie TE Jason Witten and another Hambrick run gave Dallas a third-and-one at the Carolina 16, Parcells dug into his bag of tricks, calling for a fullback option play. A handoff to Richie Anderson turned into a pitch to Aveion Cason, who scampered past a collapsing Panther defense for a 16-yard score and a lead the Cowboys wouldn’t relinquish.
Although both offenses continued to have much greater success than they had in the first half, the scoring fest abated, thanks largely to inept kickers. After Carolina drove to the Dallas 37, but was stopped on downs, a Cowboys drive resulted in a missed Cundiff field goal. Carolina responded with a missed FG of their own and, not to be outdone, Cundiff missed another, this time from 44 yards out.
With just over 6 minutes remaining in the game, Carolina was poised to work the magic that had sustained them all season. Coming in to the game, the Panthers had won six times in the final two minutes or overtime. Indeed, as they drove deep into Dallas territory, Delhomme & Co. seemed poised to tie the game and seize momentum. Carolina had second-and-goal from the 6 when offensive tackle Todd Steussie was called for a false start; a subsequent delay of game penalty moved the ball back to the Dallas 16.
With 3:47 left, Panthers coach John Fox decided to kick a field goal, relying on his defense to get the ball back. John Kasay hit a 34-yarder to make the score 24-20, and then boomed the kickoff for a touchback, making the Cowboys task all the more daunting.
Carolina never saw the ball again. Dallas ran off nine plays to finish off the clock, with the key snaps coming on two nailbiting third downs. On the first of these, a third-and-9 from the 21, Carter ran up the middle for only three yards, but two Panthers were flagged for personal fouls. On the next, Dallas got another first down with a 13-yard pass to Jason Witten on third-and-8 with 1:39 left. After Carolina called their final timeout, Dallas ran out the clock and sealed the victory.
With the win, the Cowboys remained in a tie with Philadelphia for the NFC East lead and moves into a four-way tie with the Eagles, Panthers and St. Louis Rams for the best record in the conference. During the post-game presser, the normally taciturn Parcells was very emotional. He tearfully proclaimed that the Cowboys couldn’t be called losers anymore and admitted, "we've got a real shot to do something here."
Sadly, Parcells’ enthusiasm was short-lived. The next week, the Cowboys were blown out by the Dolphins on Thanksgiving, 40-21; in week 14, they traveled to Philadelphia with first place on the line and were crushed 36-10. Although the young ‘Boys managed to rally and secure a wild card berth, their post-season was nasty, brutish and short: they were one-and-done after a 29-10 loss to the revenge-minded Panthers, who went on to stun the Rams and Eagles before succumbing to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXVIII.
As they say, hindsight is 20-20. At the time, all we, as Cowboys fans, knew was that this ragtag collection of veteran castoffs and ill-conceived draft choices had somehow managed, in one season under Parcells, to climb out of the hellhole of the Campo years and, if only for a brief moment, take their rightful position as NFL royalty. And how sweet it was.