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Dallas Cowboys Ultimate Highlight: Aikman To Harper, 1992 NFC Championship Game

Michael Irvin watched Alvin Harper steal his thunder to clinch the 1992 NFC Championship
Michael Irvin watched Alvin Harper steal his thunder to clinch the 1992 NFC Championship

In the Dallas Cowboys storied history, the players to wear the star have made literally hundreds of highlight-worthy plays. Of these, the ones that we remember tend to be those that happened in a high-magnitude game (playoffs or Super Bowl) or late in the game, usually in the fourth quarter. Those that are forever indelibly etched in our memories satisfy both criteria, clinching a playoff of Super Bowl victory. Thankfully, the Cowboys have seen the playoffs frequently enough to amass a long list of highlights for the ages.

Consider, if you will: 1971: Bob Lilly's serpentine run-down of Miami quarterback Bob Griese, for an NFL-record 29-yard loss in SB VI; 1972: Roger Staubach's fourth quarter pass to Ron Sellers to lead a rousing comeback against the 49ers; 1975: Roger Staubach's "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson, to win a hard-fought playoff game at Minnesota; 1980: Danny White's fourth quarter pass, again to Pearson (why is this guy not in the Hall of Fame?) to secure another stirring playoff comeback, this time at Atlanta; 1996: Larry Brown picks off Neil O'Donnell, ensuring Dallas' "team of the 90s" status.

If you're wondering why so many of these highlights are from the great 70s teams, I have simple answer for you: the great 90s teams were so superior that they created far fewer plays that meet the above criteria; from 1992-96, they they never won a playoff game by fewer than ten points, and their average margin of victory was a whopping 18.5 points. In short, they were frequently in cruise control by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. Today's story comes from a contest, the 1992 Championship game, that threatened to follow this pattern but then got very tight with less than five minutes left in the final frame, setting up a huge highlight in franchise history.

What is the greatest highlight in Cowboys' history? Find out and read the story behind the play after the jump...

After going into the locker room at halftime with a 10-10 tie, the Cowboys came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. After receiving the second half kickoff, they marched 78 yards for a score, with the biggest chunk a spectacular 38-yard leaping catch by Alvin Harper over 'Niners defensive back Eric Davis. After holding San Francisco to a field goal, Dallas put together a superb nine minute, 79-yard drive, capped by Aikman's 16-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Emmitt Smith, giving the Cowboys a 24-13 advantage early in the fourth quarter.

As the 49ers tried to mount a comeback, Ken Norton Jr intercepted a Steve Young pass and the Cowboys subsequent drive stalled at the San Francisco 7. The Cowboys' ever-aggressive head coach, Jimmy Johnson, eschewed the field goal, opting to go for what would almost certainly have been the game-winning touchdown. However, Smith was stuffed and the suddenly revitalized 'Niners drove 93 yards to score on Rice's 5-yard touchdown reception, cutting the lead to 24-20 with 4:22 left in the game.

A queasy feeling settled over the metroplex as the Cowboys offense took the muddy field. If the Cowboys tried to run out the clock and failed, Steve Young and Co. were eminently capable of a quick score. Knowing this, Johnson again decided to be aggressive. When Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner asked him what he wanted to do (i.e., run or pass), Johnson replied, "I want to score." So, on the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Turner called a play the Cowboys had run twice before in the game: 896 F flat, a play with standard personnel that calls for the flanker to run a 10-yard curl and the split end to run a post. Aikman chose to go to the post, where Harper, thanks to the 49er cornerback slipping on his cut, ended up running for a 70-yard gain to the San Francisco 9-yard line.

Watch the play here (and then watch it again; I promise, it never gets old):

There is a further fascinating story behind this play. The first two times the Cowboys had run the play, Aikman had gone to Harper on the curl route. So, this time around, as soon as the play is out of Aikman's mouth, Irvin lined up at flanker (Harper's spot), thinking that he wanted to be the primary receiver on the route. However, as soon as Aikman went to the line, he saw that the 49ers were showing blitz, which dictated that he throw the post route that Irvin had just vacated. Recalling the play several years later, Irvin reports running his curl, turning for a ball that never came, and then realizing, much to his consternation (and delight) that "Alvin Harper's sprinting up the football field with my football!" Here's a terrific NFL films video detailing the play behind the play.

In retrospect, had Irvin not engineered his switcheroo, its unlikely that it would have been as big a play. Not only did Irvin lack Harper's raw speed, but San Francisco, as Aikman is quick to note in the above link, would likely have switched out of that defensive call had Irvin been in Harper's spot. As they say: sometimes its better to be lucky than good. On a rainy day in January 1993, the Cowboys were both.

What do you think, BTBers? What is your ultimate Cowboys highlight?

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