So, as we all know the Dallas Cowboys have a long and storied history. The team ranks:
- 2nd in Super Bowl wins
- 2nd (tie) in Super Bowl appearances
- 1st in playoff victories (despite many teams having played for decades longer)
- 1st in playoff games played
- 2nd in playoff appearances (again, despite many teams having played many more seasons)
- 2nd in total wins since NFL-AFL merger
- Most profitable sports franchise in North America
In short, the Dallas Cowboys have been a great NFL franchise and their history is worth celebrating. Today we'll look at the team's most successful period. I will add subsequent chapters, hopefully every week or so and be finished by the time training camp kicks into gear. In the process, I hope to learn things I didn't know, remind myself of interesting things forgotten and relive things I'll never forget. Perhaps those who read these posts will learn a thing or two as well.
NOTE: much of the information I use in these posts comes from Pro Football Reference, which is an invaluable resource...so a shout out to those who run that site. Your work is much appreciated.
Catch up on earlier posts in this series:
1991 – 1995
The Dallas Cowboys are one of the most successful franchises in NFL history and the early 90’s was the most successful era in Dallas Cowboys history. Simply, it was glorious to be a fan of the team during that time. No matter your age, where you lived or how long you had rooted for the team, during those years the Cowboys were the hottest, sexiest, most exciting, most successful sports franchise in the world.
I lived in Washington, DC during that time. I was in my mid-20’s and worked, lived and hung out with rabid NFL fans. I could think of no better environment to experience the Cowboy’s finest era. I’ve been a big NFL fan all my life, but at no point was I more invested in my team and the league overall than the early 90’s. (To give you an idea, I played Fantasy Football during a time when you had to call your moves in to a 1-800 number and received bi-weekly results through the mail.)
The Cowboys began this period as a promising but unproven young team. Boy, were they talented though. Consider the following offensive players were already on the roster before the 1991 draft.
- Emmitt Smith
- Michael Irvin
- Troy Aikman
- Jay Novacek
- Daryl Johnston
- Kelvin Martin
- Mark Stepnoski
- Mark Tuinei
- Nate Newton
- John Gesek
- Kevin Gogan
Somehow, despite having all those players the 1990 Cowboy’s offense finished last in the NFL in yards and 26th (out of 28 teams) in points. (Note to self: never let David Shula be your offensive coordinator). All those players were under the age of 30; most were under 25 and they all played extensive roles on the 1991 team that finished in the NFL’s top 4 in points and yards. Norv Turner took over the Offensive Coordinator role in 1991, and with largely the same cast of players, the Cowboys would finish in the NFL’s top 3 in points scored the next four years.
The 1990 Cowboy’s defense had been significantly better than the 1990 offense. However, the defense was made up of cast-offs and aging holdovers from the Landry regime. The only defensive starters from the 1990 team to play a significant role in the Super Bowl years to come were Ken Norton, Jim Jeffcoat and James Washington. This would be addressed through the team’s bounty of draft choices in the upcoming drafts, largely a result of the Hershel Walker and Steve Walsh deals completed in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Thus, the 1992 Dallas Cowboys featured an unparalleled mix of youth and talent that would take the entire league by storm. The season began against the defending champion Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. The series went:
- Run stuffed for 3-yard loss
- Sack for -7 yards
- Sack for -6 yards
- Punt blocked for safety
The youth-fueled defense would keep the pressure up through the entire 1992 season. Despite no Pro Bowl honors the team would finish the season first in yards allowed and force a record 9 turnovers in a 52 – 17 Super Bowl XXVII thumping of a very good Buffalo Bills team. They walked off the Rose Bowl stadium the best, youngest and most talented team in the league.
The accomplishments during this time are enormous:
- 60 – 20 regular season record (75% win percentage)
- 11 – 2 playoff record (85% win percentage)
- 71 – 22 overall record (76% win percentage)
- 3 Super Bowl titles
- 3 NFC Championships
- Four NFC East championships
The Dallas Cowboys were the unquestioned biggest, most popular team in the biggest, most popular sports league. Players were household names and the biggest stars needed only first names (Emmitt, Michael, Troy). Players and coaches were treated like rock stars in Dallas. Even a bottom-of-the-roster special team’s player became a star with his own radio show (Kenny Gant). The head of the beast was brash, charismatic head coach Jimmy Johnson. Johnson had built a dynasty in the college ranks at the University of Miami, and looked set to build a new dynasty in the NFL.
Unfortunately, fate was to conspire against the overwhelming collection of talent. Specifically, two events served to systemically wear away at the Cowboys advantage. When the team walked off the Super Bowl turf after a third title in January, 1996, they were an exhausted, depleted crew that would never again reach such heights. The two events:
- The advent of NFL free agency – unlike past dynasties the Cowboys would not enjoy the luxury of keeping a top-shelf roster intact for 8, 10 or 12 years.
- Jealousy between owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson led to the two mutually agreeing Johnson would no longer coach the Cowboys.
This happened in the Spring of 1994. The Cowboys then sat atop the sports landscape. They were back-to-back Super Bowl champions and still possessed the league’s most talented roster. Jones and Johnson were attending the league’s owner’s meeting in Orlando when their relationship fell apart. There’s lots of stories and the details are embarrassingly petty and fueled by alcohol. The bottom line was the two simply couldn’t work together despite the unparalleled success they had enjoyed in the NFL.
The Cowboys were still a formidable team. They reached the NFC Championship in 1994 and again won a Super Bowl in 1995. Those teams were not as good as previous incarnations however, and the team would win only a single playoff game in the second half of the 1990’s. Thus, despite building the single best Cowboys team ever there is a sense of unfulfilled potential, a nagging question of what might have been.
These charts represent a return to the late-60’s / 70’s dominance the Cowboys once enjoyed:
Double-digit wins every season; an average of 12 wins per season; five consecutive seasons of outstanding on-field performance. My memories of these seasons are basically expecting a win every time the team played. This Cowboys team won more games over a 5-year period than any Cowboys team before or since. It also won more playoff games than any previous Cowboys team. Simply, it was the winningest, most accomplished era in Dallas Cowboys history.
Here we see, with the exception of 1991, the true dominance of this squad. Four consecutive seasons with huge double-digit point spreads. I was surprised to see the 1991 team enjoyed only a 2-point margin. Otherwise, the team excelled on both sides of the ball. Each averaged more than 24 points per game and outscored opponents by 9+ points. We also see the 1995 team defense was significantly worse than the 1993 team; but the 1995 team also had the highest scoring offense of this period.
(Note: chart is inversed; 28 indicates the team was #1 in entire league). The Triplets (Michel Irvin, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith) are each enshrined in the Hall of Fame for a reason. They were the foundation for an offense that ranked at or near the top of the NFL for four consecutive seasons, winning Super Bowls in three of them. The team ranked first in points scored in 1995 and three other times ranked 2nd. They also ranked very high in yards each season. The 1991 team didn’t rank quite as high but was still a top 8 unit in both points and yards.
The defense, however, was almost as good. Twice they ranked 1st in yards allowed; four times they ranked in the top five in points allowed. We also see why the 1991 team wasn’t a complete team; the defense ranked in the bottom third of the league. This became evident in the divisional round of the playoffs when a Detroit offense led by Erik Kramer (he was actually pretty good that season) diced the Cowboys up to the tune of 38 points and 422 yards. (That game is noteworthy for two things: it is the worst playoff defeat in Cowboys history and it was the Lions first – and only - post-season win since 1957.)
The following summarizes each season and is one of my favorite tables. The absence of any red for an entire 5-year period is a staggering accomplishment.
Every section of the above table speaks of complete and thorough domination.
- The same QB, RB and WR leader each year; usually a sign of strength
- The AAV leader each year topped 17 AV; three times reaching 20 AV
- Four division championship
- Only three division losses between ’92 and ’94.
- Four straight seasons ranking #2 in point differential
- Four straight seasons ranking in the top 4 in yards differential
- Four straight seasons with a Simple Rating System of 10 points or higher (the SRS was developed by Pro Football Reference and is a hypothetical point spread against an average team). This means for four straight seasons the Cowboys would have been double-digit favorites against an average opponent.
I noted in Chapter VI the NFC East was an unparalleled division from 1986 through 1995. Summarizing the division’s exploits over those years:
- Three teams combined to win 7 of 10 Super Bowls
- Compiled a 30 – 11 playoff record (73% win percentage)
- Compiled a 26 – 7 playoff record against non-NFC East opponents (four times NFC East teams faced each other in the playoffs; twice in the NFC Championship game)
- 7 times placed multiple teams in the playoffs, including three teams twice
The Cowboys won only 5 of their 24 division games over the 1988 – 1990 seasons. They had lost six consecutive games against both the Eagles and Giants. Jimmy Johnson, the media and the fan base rightly focused on beating the team’s long-time division rivals as the simplest, most direct route to success. The 1991 team would be the first Cowboys team with a winning division record since 1985. Dallas won games against each of their three fiercest rivals. Among the wins was a road victory over a then-undefeated Redskins team and a late-season win at Philadelphia. The Philly win was notable for several reasons:
- Was the first defeat of the team that had not only beaten the Cowboys 7 straight times, but had often done so in dominant, humiliating fashion.
- Propelled the Cowboys to their first post-season since 1985.
- Eliminated the Eagles from the post-season.
Dallas would dominate the division from that point forward. The Cowboys lost only three division games over the next three seasons and six in four years. They added two post-season defeats of the Eagles to their 31 regular season division victories. It was a complete and absolute turnaround of the team’s NFC East fortunes from the late 80’s.
The Cowboys have had a remarkable number of great teams from the mid-60’s to the mid 90’s. Sixteen times the team finished first in the division; they advanced to the playoffs as a wild card team another 7 times. Regular season success was practically a birthright for Dallas fans.
Post-season, success, however, had proved more elusive. Yes, the team had won two Super Bowls and advanced to three more. And yes, the team had won 20 playoff games. Truthfully, though, the team had not enjoyed a level of post-season success commensurate with the team’s capabilities.
Sometimes the team had simply played poorly
- 1968 – Cleveland
- 1969- Cleveland
- 1973 – Minnesota
Other times Dallas simply wasn’t good enough:
- 1972 – Washington
- 1980 – Philadelphia
- 1983 – Los Angeles
- 1985 – Los Angeles
But a number of legitimately good Dallas teams had been the victim of cruel fate or simple bad luck:
- 1966 – Green Bay
- 1968 – Green Bay
- 1970 – Baltimore
- 1975 – Pittsburgh
- 1976 – Los Angeles
- 1978 – Pittsburgh
- 1979 – Los Angeles
- 1981 – San Francisco
- 1982 - Washington
Each of those seasons ended with Cowboys on the wrong end of a 1-score playoff game; many turned on a crazy or lucky play that seems unbelievable in retrospect. Yes, the Cowboys also won a handful of highly contested playoff games when fate smiled upon the team:
- 1972 – San Francisco
- 1975 – Minnesota
- 1980 - Atlanta
But there’s no question that in 1-score playoff games (statistically teams are generally .500 in 1-score games) Dallas had been unlucky. Cowboys fans have indeed been spoiled by the team’s success for two decades; but those same fans have also suffered a remarkable number of numbing, last-second, gut-punch playoff defeats.
The early 1990’s team would have none of that. They didn’t bother with close games; they simply dominated teams. The overall 11 – 2 record doesn’t accurately reflect just how good these teams were in the playoffs. Ten of the teams 11 victories were by 10 points or more. Most were over by the end of the 3rd quarter; only four of the 11 wins were at all in doubt in the 4th quarter. The average margin of victory was 17 points. In short, the Cowboys won these playoff games in convincing fashion, leaving no doubt who was the best team on the field and in the entire league.
The two 1991 games are aberrations. The first was a close road victory over the Chicago Bears in the wild card round. The second was a thorough beating by the Detroit Lions. The results of both games accurately reflected the team’s performance. After, as you see above, the Cowboys just dominated. Many of these games were not as close as the final margin of victory indicates.
It’s noteworthy the Cowboys were playing high-quality opponents led by Hall of Fame coaches and quarterbacks. Seven times Dallas defeated Buffalo, Green Bay or San Francisco. These were highly accomplished teams that would win Super Bowls in 1994 and 1996 (San Francisco, Green Bay) and attend four straight Super Bowls (Buffalo). The coaches were Levy, Holmgren and Seifert; the quarterbacks were Young, Favre and Kelly. Dallas won those 7 games by significant margins and suffered only one infamous (and controversial) defeat. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the biggest difference between the Landry-era Cowboys and the Jimmy Johnson-era Cowboys is the Landry-era Cowboys did not always play up to their abilities in the playoffs whereas the Johnson-era teams seemed to play at their highest level possible.
The list of great players from this era is an absolute embarrassment of riches. Seventeen different players won post-season awards. Every single offensive position was honored at one point or another. Seven different 1st-team All Pro honorees. The 1993 – 1995 teams averaged more than 10 honorees each season. Note the number of awards won in the post-1995 years (7 All Pro awards and 21 Pro Bowl honors); these weren’t aging players in the twilight of their careers, these were young players in their early prime.
One big difference between this table and similar tables from previous chapters is many of these players didn’t play their entire career with the Cowboys. Free agency prevented the franchise from holding onto this core group of players, having to say goodbye to players such as Ken Norton and Mark Stepnoski.
Still, the team managed to keep much of the roster intact. Here we again see the Triplets formed the core of the team. They combined for five 1st team All Pro selections and all three reached the Pro Bowl all five seasons. When you’re perennially fielding Pro Bowlers at QB, RB and WR you have a strong foundation from which to build the rest of your team. Combine that skill position excellence with an OL that had six different players, representing all five positions, also honored and you have a dominant offense.
We noted above how the defense was virtually as good as the offense during these years (sometimes maybe better). And yet the defense won very few post-season accolades compared to the offense. Only six players won any type of award. Those six combined for three 1st-Team All Pro awards and 8 Pro Bowls. That’s 11 post-season awards for the defense compared to 42 for the offense. I’m not sure if the offense won more awards than warranted but the defense certainly didn’t get the recognition it deserved during this time.
The draft had been reduced to 12 rounds by this point…and yet in 1991 and 1992 the Cowboys drafted 33 players. A breakdown of the number of picks by round:
That’s 5 picks in the 1st round, 9 in the first two rounds, 14 in the first three rounds and 19 in the first four rounds. Add the fact the Cowboys already had franchise foundations at QB, RB, WR and LT and the Cowboys had enormous flexibility to pursue whoever they wanted.
The bounty of draft picks also meant the Cowboys could afford to miss on a few players. Yet the team’s success rate was very high. Three of the top four picks in 1991 and four of the top 8 all made significant, long-term contributions. As did three of the top four picks in 1992. The Cowboys drafted in total those two years 9 players who would play key roles on 3 Super Bowl winning teams. In addition, three additional draftees went on to extensive NFL success with other teams (Kelvin Pritchett, Jimmy Smith and Ron Stone). Seven of the nine Cowboys players drafted played defense and provided the foundation of the team’s outstanding defense for the next five years.
We also see that as soon as Jimmy Johnson left the drafts suffered enormously. Outside of Larry Allen, the 1994 and 1995 drafts were barren of any impact players. Yes, you can’t dismiss the acquisition of a Hall of Fame player like Allen. But we see in 1994 and 1995 the seeds of the team’s decline over the final half of the decade.
Still, the Cowboy’s 1991 – 1993 drafts were excellent, bringing in both high quality players and depth. This combined with strong drafts in 1988 – 1990 to give the team six consecutive outstanding drafts:
Those six drafts acquired 21 players that started nearly 1,900 games, captured 37 Pro Bowl seasons and 10 All pro seasons. Those 21 players combined to earn 57 Super Bowl rings and generate over, 1,160 AV in 161 seasons with the Cowboys. If you want to build a dominant team, drafting 3+ perennial starters every year for six consecutive years is a good way to do so.
Here’s the individual player numbers:
Nowhere on that list, however, is a dominant, pass-rushing defensive end. This was a clear weakness on the 1991 team which at times was helpless against the pass (the team surrendered a team-record 583 yards to the Oilers and 421 yards to the Lions in the division round of the playoffs). The Cowboys addressed this weakness by acquiring Charles Haley from the San Francisco 49ers prior to the 1992 season. The trade had conditions attached but in the end the 49ers received the 56th pick (2nd round) in the 1993 draft and the 99th pick (3rd round) in the 1994 draft.
This was outright robbery by Dallas. Haley was coming off three consecutive All Pro seasons. He had averaged 10+ sacks per season over his 6 years in the NFL. He was only a season removed from being named NFC Defensive player of the year. He was the missing piece on the Cowboy’s defense that would evolve from mediocre into elite in a single season.
Another much underrated trade came late in training camp in 1991. Remember, the Cowboys 1990 playoff aspirations wilted when Troy Aikman was injured in week 15 and a wholly inept Babe Laufenberg doomed the Cowboy’s fortunes. Recognizing a need to upgrade the backup position Dallas traded a 4th round pick to the Raiders for Steve Beuerlein. This would prove very prescient when Aikman would get hurt again in 1991 and Beuerlein proved a very capable backup. (Not often mentioned about Aikman was his frailness early in his career. He missed all or part of 13 games his first 3 seasons.)
A third noteworthy trade was the acquisition of defensive tackle Tony Casillas from the Atlanta Falcons for 2nd and 8th round picks. Casillas had been the 2nd pick of the 1986 draft and had earned All Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 1988. Like Haley, however, he feuded with his team, holding out in 1990, getting suspended and announcing his retirement in 1991. Like Haley, Casillas had no such issues with the Cowboys. The addition of Haley and Casillas via trades to a defensive line that already featured a core group of young draftees (Tony Tolbert, Russell Maryland, Leon Lett, Jimmy Jones) along with veteran Jim Jeffcoat transformed an ineffective, inexperienced unit into a highly effective squad with unmatched depth.
If it seems like Jimmy Johnson did a lot of trading during that time it’s because he did. In fact, he made more trades than the entire rest of the NFL combined. That’s what the record books say though it seems impossible to me (after all, Jimmy had to be trading with someone). I believe there were over 50 trades during his 5-year tenure. The Walker and Walsh trades gave him draft chips which he used wisely (either drafting high caliber players or flipping the picks for more picks and / or high quality players).
Add the drafts, the trades, the acquisitions via Plan-B and by 1992 the Cowboys had the deepest, youngest, most talented roster in the NFL. That talent would win 3 Super Bowls and 11 playoff games over 5 years…and still many of us consider the team to have failed to meet its potential.
1991 Regular Season – Division Matchups (Games 30, 31, 32, 33 & 34)
The story of the 1991 Dallas Cowboys is the tale of a young, unproven team learning how to win and can largely be told by division matchups against Washington, New York and Philadelphia. The NFC East was akin to a steel cage death-match; whoever emerged the winner was usually a dominant team that would also conquer the rest of the NFL.
Week 2: Washington 33 – Dallas 31
The first big game came in week 2 on the Cowboys first Monday Night Football appearance since the 1988 season. That’s right, the Cowboys had been so bad for so long the NFL didn’t feature the team on the league’s flagship broadcast for nearly three years. The Triplets had been introduced to a national audience the prior Thanksgiving when the Cowboys upset the favored Redskins; this Monday night rematch would exceed viewer’s wildest expectations.
The game was a see-saw affair that saw both teams hitting big plays and struggling at times to stop the opponent. Redskins kicker Chip Lohmiller kicked four field goals from an average length of 49 yards. Emmitt Smith had the longest run of his career (75 yards), ran for 112 yards and a touchdown and added 8 catches for 40 yards and another touchdown. And that was just the first half!
The Cowboys had a 21 – 10 lead midway through the 2nd quarter when Smith scored his second touchdown. He would not play in the 2nd half, however, suffering from some kind of energy concoction he drank prior to the game. I’ve often wondered what his final numbers would have been had he played the entire game; I’m fairly certain the 152 combined yards in a single half was a career high.
With Smith out the Cowboys offense struggled and the Redskins outscored the Cowboys 23 – 3 until a late Irvin touchdown catch provided the final score. It was a disappointing loss but the Cowboys flashed the youth, skill and excitement that would capture national attention and result in an unprecedented era of winning.
Week 3: Philadelphia 23 – Dallas 0
The Redskins loss came with many positives; the 23 – 0 loss to the Eagles the following week came with nothing positive. It was an ugly, ugly performance that looked similar to the 1989 team. Consider:
- 90 yards of total offense
- Troy Aikman sacked 11 times
- Less than 23 minutes of possession
- 4 turnovers
- An 18-passer rating for Troy Aikman
The Eagles defense beat and battered the Cowboys every way imaginable. It was thorough, unmitigated domination. It was also the Cowboys 8th consecutive loss to the Eagles (after going 25 -7 over the team’s 32 previous contests). This would be the last time a team convincingly beat the Cowboys in such a fashion for many, many years. And Philly would win only one of the team’s next 9 matchups.
Week 5: Dallas 21 – New York Giants 16
The Cowboy’s third division matchup of the season pitted them against the defending champion Giants. The Cowboys used a 3rd quarter defensive touchdown and a bend-but-don’t break defense to take a 14 – 9 lead into the 4th quarter. The defense, which surrendered 487 yards, finally broke with about 5:41 remaining when a Stephen Baker touchdown gave the Giants a 16 – 14 lead. Trailing by 2 the Cowboys needed only a field goal to take the lead but instead marched 80 yards for a touchdown. Michael Irvin had a big 32-yard reception and then a 23-yard score. Jay Novacek added two catches, including a clutch 3rd down catch. It was a terrific drive when the team absolutely needed one.
The game, however, wasn’t over. The Giants quickly moved downfield and had the ball at the Cowboys 34 with 1:15 remaining. A shot to the end zone, however, was intercepted by Isaac Holt (the lone Viking kept from the Hershel Walker trade) to seal the victory. Holt had been picked on throughout the game but came up with the key play in the victory.
The win was the 2nd of 4 consecutive wins that would put the Cowboys at 5-2 and in good position for a playoff birth.
Week 12: Dallas 24 – Washington 21
Dallas, however, lost three of their next four games. A bitter overtime loss to the Houston Oilers had been followed by an equally bitter loss on the road to the Giants in a game that featured two controversial calls that both went against the Cowboys. Thus, Dallas entered RFK Stadium with a 6-5 record to take on the undefeated Redskins. A loss would almost certainly end the team’s playoff aspirations.
Things looked bleak early when Martin Mayhew picked off a Troy Aikman pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown and a 7 – 0 lead. Other than that play, however, the Cowboys dominated the game’s first 52 minutes. First the Cowboys tied the game on a 35-yard Emmitt Smith touchdown run on 3rd-and-15. They followed the score by attempting – and recovering – an onside kick.
The gamble didn’t pay off in points but it kept the ball away from the Redskins offense, which would set an NFL record for points scored in 1991. The play was part of Jimmy Johnson’s hyper-aggressive game plan. In addition to the onside kick the Cowboys also attempted two 4th down plays (both successful). Rather than avoiding All Pro cornerback Darrell Green the Cowboys attacked mercilessly, Michael Irvin repeatedly winning the battle (130 yards and a touchdown). Dallas also scored a late 1st half touchdown on a 34-yard Hail Mary into the end zone (to my knowledge, the only successful such end-of-half/game score in team history). This made the score 14 – 7 at halftime.
Troy Aikman was injured on the Cowboy’s first drive of the 3rd quarter. He would not play another snap in the regular season and the promising season now seemed at risk. The teams traded possessions in the 3rd quarter and then the Cowboys scored early in the 4th quarter on a brilliant Michael Irvin touchdown catch to stretch the lead to 21 – 7. Beuerlein looked sharp throughout the drive. Dallas then promptly intercepted 1991 MVP Mark Rypien’s next long pass attempt and the Redskin’s perfect season was in serious jeopardy.
The Cowboys would eventually punt with Washington taking over at their own 8-yard line with 12 minutes remaining. At this point of the game the Cowboys had outgained Washington 357 yards to 108. The Redskins (30.3 points per game) had had the ball 8 times yet had only 5 first downs and barely 100 yards in offense. The Cowboys owned a 2-to-1 time of possession advantage.
The Redskins switched to a no huddle attack, however, and moved swiftly down the field, scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run. The score incited the Washington faithful and RFK Stadium was rocking; a stop would put the Redskins in good position to tie the game.
Dallas would take over the ball at their own 26 with just over 8 minutes remaining and methodically march 46 yards and consume all but 1:15 of the clock. More importantly kicker Ken Willis (who had missed twice already) converted the field goal to give Dallas a 10-point lead. The drive featured three clutch 3rd-down conversions:
- A 3rd-and-1 Emmitt Smith dive up the middle for 4 yards
- A 3rd-and-9 slant to Irvin for 14 yards where Irvin physically beat Darrell Green
- A 3rd-and-7 run by Emmitt Smith for 8 yards
This was a championship caliber drive where the Cowboys offense executed to perfection, taking 7 of the final 8 minutes off the clock. The Redskins did manage to score against the Cowboys prevent defense but only 12 seconds remained by the time they did and the game was effectively over.
I attended this game and it’s probably the most enjoyable game I’ve ever seen. Washington fans were, of course, unhappy their perfect season aspirations had expired. The fact the Dallas Cowboys were the team to extinguish those aspirations made it even more bitter. I have a vivid memory of a silent, emptying RFK Stadium with scattered Cowboys fans rejoicing. Two rows in front of me a belligerent Redskins fan was screaming Joe Gibbs should be fired and was terrible, etc. Someone pointed out "hey, they’re 11 -1" and he responded with "exactly; if they had a decent coach they’d be undefeated!" It was one of those indelible moments us sports fans live for.
The Cowboys had thoroughly whipped the best team in football on their own turf, despite losing their Pro Bowl quarterback midway through the game. This would kick start a 6-game winning streak that would see the team vanquish their biggest nemesis and win their first post-season game in 9 years.
I watched a video of this entire game on YouTube but now cannot find the link. Hopefully you’ll find it if you look because it was an outstanding game for Cowboys fans.
Week 15: Dallas 25 – Philadelphia 13
Dallas entered week 15 against the Eagles in a win-and-advance game for both teams. Philadelphia represented the biggest obstacle to the Cowboy’s transformation from cellar-dweller to contender. The Eagles had destroyed the Cowboys in week 3 and had won 8 consecutive games over the Cowboys.
The game would be played at Veteran’s Stadium in windy, 30-degree weather. The 1991 Eagles defense was ranked by Football Outsiders as the very best of the last 30 years. You’d be hard-pressed to create a more challenging or difficult environment. Those who only know the Eagles for their modern Lincoln Field (or whatever it’s called) can’t appreciate the hellhole that Veteran’s Stadium represented. The fans were much nastier then than they are now; evidenced by the fact a local jail was maintained underneath the stands. The turf was by far the worst in the league, basically a thin piece of AstroTurf over concrete. I attended a couple games there and it was terrifying; no rational person would take their children or wife or girlfriend.
I can’t find any video of this game outside of what is found in the 1991 Dallas Cowboys highlights film. My memory is the game was a defensive battle with neither team able to move the ball consistently. I do remember the Cowboys scoring a safety and the Eagles stringing together 4 or 5 plays for a touchdown. The game entered the 4th quarter with the Cowboys trailing 10 -8 when Kelvin Martin fielded a punt at his own 15 yard-line and raced straight up-field for a shocking, game-changing, season-defining touchdown return.
The Eagles responded with a field goal drive to cut the lead to 15 – 13. Then, just as they had done in Washington three weeks earlier the Cowboys offense delivered a late, game-clinching 80-yard touchdown drive. Beuerlein struggled all day but had three key plays on the drive:
- A 32-yard toss and run to Novacek down the middle of the field
- A 35-yard sideline catch and run to Michael Irvin
- A 6-yard scramble and touchdown pass to Michael Irvin
The drive ended the game, the Eagles playoff hopes and the Cowboy’s long season of torment against Philadelphia. I recall watching this game from my tiny apartment in Washington and even my Redskins roommate was happy for me. He also admitted thinking the only team that could possibly derail the Redskin’s 1991 Super Bowl dreams was the Cowboys; nobody else could beat them.
The fact the game turned on a special teams play should not be surprising to fans who followed the Cowboys in 1991. That team overcame spotty play on defense with an outstanding offense and the best special teams in the entire NFL. I count no less than 8 special teams "big plays" during the season:
The Cowboys clinched a wild card berth with the win over the Eagles but the season wasn’t over. Week 16 saw them face off against the 10 – 5 Atlanta Falcons. This game doesn’t get much attention because both teams had already clinched their respective playoff positions but this was a wildly entertaining back and forth game. The teams would combine for 800 yards of offense and 5 scores from 28 yards or more.
The Cowboys led 24 – 14 at one point but the Falcons responded with 13 consecutive points, concluding with a 43-yard touchdown catch by Michael Haynes (5 catches, 148 yards, 2 touchdowns). Emmitt Smith would score on a late 6-yard touchdown run for the final 31 – 27 margin. These were two young teams both headed towards the playoffs and both with promising futures. The Cowboys would fulfill that promise while the Falcons would quickly revert back to…. well, being the Falcons.
Game # 35
- Season: 1991
- Date: 1992.12.29
- Opponent: Chicago Bears
- At stake: advance to divisional round of playoffs
- Result: Win
- Score: 17 – 13
This game is noteworthy for one and one reason only: the Dallas Cowboys first playoff win in almost ten years. The last time the Cowboys won a playoff game was January 16th of 1983 when they beat the Green Bay Packers 37 – 26 to advance to the NFC Championship game.
The game itself was not noteworthy. It was mostly a defensive struggle for both teams. The Cowboys took a 10-0 lead on the strength of a turnover and a blocked punt. Otherwise the offense was bottled up; when they could string together a few first downs the drive would stall and Ken Willis missed three field goals.
Chicago didn’t fare much better. They also didn’t move the ball much and failed to take advantage of scoring opportunities. Twice Dallas stopped Chicago on 4th down near the goal line. A third time the Bears faced a 4th-and-goal from the 1 and opted for the field goal. Another drive ended on a Larry Brown interception in the end zone. That’s three deep penetrations for the Bears that netted a total of 3 points.
The Cowboys finally took control late in the 3rd quarter when a long drive culminated with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jay Novacek. The 17 – 6 lead would hold up until late in in the 4th quarter. A promising Bears drive fueled by a successful fake punt ended at the Cowboys 10-yard line when they failed to convert on 4th-and-4.
The Cowboys offense could not get a 1st down however and the Bears finally converted, scoring after a 65-yard drive. This cut the lead to 17 – 13 with just over 4 minutes remaining. The Dallas offense again failed to make a 1st down, Emmitt Smith dropped for a loss on 3rd-and-1. The Cowboys punted to the Bears own 8-yard line. The game seemed over when Bill Bates recovered Bears QB Jim Harbaugh’s fumble (yes, that Jim Harbaugh). Harbaugh was (correctly) ruled down, however. No matter; on the following play Bates intercepted Harbaugh ending the game and giving the Cowboys their first post-season victory in 9 full years.
Unfortunately, the fun ended there as the following week the Cowboys traveled to Detroit and got trounced by a score of 38 -6. It was the Lions first – and only – playoff win since 1958.
Game # 36
- Season: 1992
- Date: 1993.01.10
- Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles
- At stake: advance to NFC Championship game
- Result: Win
- Score: 34 – 10
My memory of this game was the Cowboys just beat the snot out of the Eagles. My memory, however, was incomplete. Yes, the Cowboys did eventually beat the snot out of the Eagles but the first half of this game was a typical, tense, defensive NFC East game of that era. The Eagles led with an opening field goal drive. Kelvin Martin returned the kick-off 40 yards to the Eagles 45 leading to a Cowboys touchdown pass to backup tight end Derek Tennell (who had not been on the roster the entire season).
Thereafter the two teams exchanged several punts and the tension mounted. Finally, late in the 2nd quarter Alvin Harper did an Alvin Harper thing, catching a deep ball to set up the Cowboys on the Eagles 12. Dallas punched it in from there, the score coming on a Jay Novacek catch with under a minute remaining. Vai Sikahema then fumbled the ensuing kick-off resulting in a last-second Cowboys field goal. The once tenuous 4-point lead was suddenly a comfortable 14-point margin.
Then the Cowboys dominated. They took their first second half possession 80 yards with Emmitt Smith running untouched from 23 yards for the touchdown. The Eagles never threatened the end zone. They were held to only 176 yards of total offense, 63 rushing yards; Randall Cunningham was sacked five times. Emmitt Smith was resting comfortably on the bench when Derrick Gainer scored early in the 4th quarter to make the score 34 – 3. The Eagles did manage a last minute, garbage-time touchdown for the 34 – 10 final.
The Cowboys had been nearly a touchdown favorite going into the game so the win wasn’t surprising. The way the Cowboys dominated the Eagles, however, was a complete turnaround from September of 1991 when Philadelphia had embarrassed the Cowboys 23 -0 in Texas Stadium. Since that game the two franchises had been moving in different directions. The Cowboys had won the NFC East by two full games, had beaten the Eagles twice and had now shown without a doubt they were the best team in the division.
Game # 37
- Season: 1992
- Date: 1993.01.17
- Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
- At stake: advance to Super Bowl XXVII
- Result: Win
- Score: 30 – 20
Fans across the NFL had been looking forward to this matchup throughout the season. Midway through 1992 it was clear the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers were the two best teams in the NFL. They had the two best records in the league. They had lost 5 games combined between them. They ranked 1st and 2nd in points scored and in the top five of most categories:
- 7-yard pass to Irvin on 3rd and 3
- 11 yards on a bootleg to Novacek on 3rd and 3 (great fingertip catch by Novacek)
- 15 yards to Emmitt Smith on 3rd and 11 (Smith should have been stopped short but broke the tackle of Bill Romanowski; the key play of the drive)
- 15-yard touchdown pass to Smith on 3rd-and-5
- Swagger: when the easy, predictable thing to do was run the ball and avoid a turnover at all costs…. the Cowboys instead came out firing. It showed the confidence and willingness to take chances that I loved so much in Jimmy Johnson and his team.
- Big play: the 1992 Cowboys were perfectly happy to slowly grind opponents into submission. But they augmented that slow burn approach with quick-strike capabilities that made them much more exciting and fun than they would have been otherwise
Game # 38
- Season: 1992
- Date: 1993.01.31
- Opponent: Buffalo Bills
- At stake: Super Bowl XXVII Championship
- Result: Win
- Score: 59 – 10 52 – 17
Game # 39
- Season: 1993
- Date: 1994.01.02
- Opponent: New York Giants
- At stake: NFC East division championship / home field advantage throughout playoffs
- Result: Win
- Score: 16 – 13
The 1992 season had largely gone exactly as planned with only a few hiccups along the way to the Cowboy’s third Super Bowl championship. The 1993 season would be different in many ways. The challenges began before the season started, would continue throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.
EMMITT SMITH HOLDOUT
Emmitt Smith did not have a contract and held out of training camp and the team’s first two games of the season. While no salary cap was in place, Jerry Jones played hardball refusing to give in to Emmitt’s demands. Smith was coming off three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, two 1st team All-Pro selections and led the league in rushing the prior season.
The two sides could not reach an agreement and the Cowboys entered the regular season without Smith. The offense struggled to score in the first two games of the season, putting up a total of 26 points in two consecutive losses. No team had lost their first two games and then won the Super Bowl. Halfway through September the team’s goal of a repeat Super Bowl were already in jeopardy.
Desperation set in, Jones quickly acceded to Smith’s demands and Emmitt was on the field for the Cowboy’s week 3 game against the Cardinals. Dallas would not lose until November, running off 7 straight victories.
(Sidenote: I point to these two games as evidence of the difference an elite running back can make. I know it’s popular in today’s NFL to downplay the value of the running back position but I’m a firm believer that an elite running back can be a difference-maker.)INJURIES / LEON’S FOLLY
The Cowboys 31 – 9 destruction of the New York Giants in week 9 was noteworthy for a couple things. First, Tom Landry was honored by having his name added to the Ring of Honor (his trademark fedora in place of a number). The ceremony served as a symbolic peace gesture between the Jones and Landry/Scramm groups and, as a fan, was something I very much welcomed. Second, during the 2nd half Troy Aikman injured his calf during a scramble. He would miss at least the next two weeks.
The Cowboys had no reliable backup quarterback. It’s hard to believe but Bernie Kosar, who was sitting at home and hadn’t played football all season, would start the next game against the Cardinals. Emmitt Smith’s 182 combined yards would fuel the team to a hard-fought 20 – 15 victory.
The following week at Atlanta wouldn’t prove as easy. Emmitt Smith was injured early in the game and without Aikman or Smith the offense struggled, holding the ball for only 23 minutes and gaining only 230 yards. Dallas lost 27 – 14.
Four days later the Cowboys would face the Miami Dolphins in the infamous Thanksgiving snow game. I still remember my disbelief when the broadcast started and they showed the Texas Stadium turf covered in snow; something I never thought possible.
We all know what happened. Both teams struggled to move the ball with consistency, despite the return of both Aikman and Smith. Dallas managed a short touchdown pass to Kevin Williams for a 7 – 7 tie midway through the 2nd period. Then right before the end of the half Williams returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown.
The 14 points looked like it would hold up all the way through the end of the game. Miami set up for a game-winning field goal with 10 seconds remaining. The attempt, however, was blocked,
the game was over and the Cowboys had survived for a much-needed victory but Leon Lett foolishly attempted to pick the ball up, fumbled and gave the Dolphins a second, last-second attempt. The converted field goal and stunning defeat left players, coaches and fans alike in disbelief. The Cowboys were now 7 – 4 and a full game behind the Giants in the NFC East race. They had no margin for error if they wished to return to the Super Bowl.
The team then grinded out four consecutive wins to enter a winner-take-all week 16 contest against the Giants in the Meadowlands. A win would give Dallas a second consecutive NFC East division championship, a much-needed week 17 bye and home field throughout the playoffs. A loss would have them hosting a wild card game the following week.
This game itself was a physical, old-school, NFC East grudge match. Yards were extremely hard to come by. Windy conditions challenged the passing games of both teams. Only three plays netted more than 22 yards and the longest play was only 46 yards. That play is more well-known as the play when Emmitt Smith separated his shoulder after breaking loose for a long gain. The play came late in the 1st half and led to a field goal, giving the Cowboys a 13 – 0.
The Cowboys had control of the game. The defense had completely stifled the Giants offense, the Cowboys offense had moved the ball reasonably well and Dallas had dominated time of possession. The offense had been largely reduced to Emmitt Smith, however. He had 109 yards rushing and 42 yards receiving when he went down with his injury. The rest of the team had done almost nothing.
The 2nd half started like the first with the Cowboys stopping the Giants. Kevin Williams, however, fumbled the ensuing punt and the Giants took over on the Cowboys 39. Every drive in this game seemed to be trench warfare and this was no different. The 39-yard drive would take 11 plays, consume 5 minutes and require three third down conversions before producing a touchdown. But in the end, the drive was successful, resulting in a touchdown that cut the Cowboys lead to 6 points.
The entire game was like that. The absence of big yardage plays and turnovers (only one by each team) meant the two teams stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out on the field. Any sort of negative play like an offensive penalty or sack would derail a possession. The Cowboys offense struggled as Smith wasn’t quite as effective in the 2nd half and no one else could pick up the slack. They always seemed to be starting from their 20 and the drive would stall around midfield.
The Giants fared little better but did manage a field goal, cutting the lead to 3 points. Finally, with 5:35 remaining the Giants took over on their own 18-yard line. Rodney Hampton was handed the ball 8 times in a slow, methodical drive that took all but 8 seconds off the clock and resulted in a game-tying field goal. Watching the game on YouTube I was struck by how the Giants seemed committed to tying the game and not winning the game on the drive. They tried only two passes the entire drive and ended up only 15 yards from a touchdown.
I think it reflected the reality of the game; neither team could manage a big play. John Madden is ecstatic throughout the game, constantly calling it a truly great game. "This is football" he shouts over and over. The stadium was a din throughout. I strongly encourage anyone unfamiliar with the game to watch it as it captures an era of football that simply doesn’t exist anymore.
Of course, the game is most remembered for Emmitt Smith’s heroic performance. Despite separating his shoulder, he was the Cowboy’s only offense. Thus, he was the Cowboys only hope in overtime and despite Jimmy Johnson urging him not to go back out for overtime Emmitt did so.
The Giants won the toss and received the OT kickoff. They managed one first down but a 15-yard chop-block penalty set them back and they punted. The Cowboys took over at their own 24-yard line with around 10:30 remaining in the OT. The sequence of plays speaks for itself:
- E. Smith 2-yard run
- E. Smith 6-yard catch
- E. Smith 11-yard catch
- E. Smith 1-yard run
- D. Johnston 8-yard catch
- D. Coleman 1-yard run
- E. Smith 7-yard catch
- E. Smith 2-yard run
- E. Smith 10-yard run
- E. Smith 1-yard run
- E. Smith 0-yard run
Super Bowl favorite Dallas had their entire season on the line and with Emmitt Smith nursing a separated shoulder and wincing in pain on every play, the Cowboys handed or threw him the ball 9 times on an 11-play drive. He accounted for 43 of 52 yards on the drive, moving the ball from the Dallas 24 to the Giants 24. Eddie Murray, kicking with the wind at his back, easily converted the 41-yard game winning field goal and a legend was born.
I don’t think the 1993 Cowboys win the Super Bowl if they lose that game. First, they would have had to play the following week and they were a banged up team at this point. Charles Haley played in this game but I had forgotten how injured he’d been throughout ’93 (started only 11 games, had only 4 sacks on the season). In addition, Mark Stepnoski was hurt and did not play. Add the injuries to Aikman and Smith and the bye week was a much-needed break. Obviously, had they lost they would have also played their division and championship games on the road. Add the emotional letdown of losing this week 16 game… I just don’t see a Super Bowl victory via that route.
Game # 40
- Season: 1993
- Date: 1994.01.16
- Opponent: Green Bay Packers
- At stake: advance to NFC Championship
- Result: Win
- Score: 27 – 17
This was the first time the Cowboys entered the post-season with a big, huge target on their back since the 80’s. And this was the first of three consecutive post-season wins over the Green Bay Packers. It was also a fairly typical, ho-hum victory for this iteration of the team.
The final score is not indicative of how much better Dallas played than Green Bay. The game unfolded like many Dallas wins during that period:
- Teams feel each other out for a quarter; Green Bay managed a field goal (after a failed fake punt attempt from the Cowboys own 30-yard line!)
- Dallas responds with a touchdown in the 2nd quarter
- Late in the 2nd quarter Dallas scored a field goal to take a 7-point lead with 23-seconds remaining
- Green Bay turned the ball over on the next play
- Dallas quickly capitalized, scoring a touchdown and Green Bay finds itself down 17 – 3 at halftime
- Dallas takes a mid-3rd quarter drive 65 yards for a touchdown, a 24 – 7 lead and effectively the game is over
The final 20 minutes of the game was largely Dallas thwarting Green Bay attempts to get back into the game:
- Down 14 points Robert Brooks returned a punt 43-yards to set Green Bay up in Dallas territory. Charles Haley, however, intercepted a Favre deflection on the next play.
- Down 17 points the Packers advanced to the Cowboys 15-yard line but Favre was intercepted by Darren Woodson
The Packers did manage a final-minute touchdown to make the final score more respectable, but truthfully the game changed in the final 23 seconds of the first half when Dallas scored 10 points to take a 13-point lead into the locker room.
Game # 41
- Season: 1993
- Date: 1994.01.23
- Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
- At stake: advance to Super Bowl XXVIII
- Result: Win
- Score: 44 – 28
This game was a much-anticipated rematch of the 1992 NFC Championship game. Again, the two teams seemed on a collision course all season. Both teams easily won their divisional playoff games in impressive fashion. Coach Jimmy Johnson then threw gasoline on the hype fire when he boldly proclaimed Dallas would win. "We will win the game. And you can put it in three inch headlines" he said.
His confidence proved well-founded. Dallas absolutely dominated San Francisco in the first half. The 28 – 7 score told an accurate story. Dallas outgained SF 273 yards to 110; 19 first downs to 6. The Cowboys scored touchdowns on drives of 75, 80 and 72. A Thomas Everett interception set up another 24-yard touchdown drive. Outside of an opening touchdown drive the 49ers managed only 30 yards of offense. It was utter destruction; a contest of men against boys.
And yet, it still wasn’t easy. Troy Aikman got kneed in the head on the first possession of the 2nd half. He played a couple more plays but was then diagnosed with a concussion. In fact, his concussion was so bad that to this day he still has no memory of his injury or any part of the game.
Thus, the Cowboys called upon Bernie Kosar. The offense struggled to put the game away. San Francisco scored late in the 3rd quarter to cut the lead to 14 points. Dallas then faced a critical 3rd-and-9 to avoid a 3-and-out that would have created a much more anxious situation. Kosar found Michael Irving for 12-yards and a crucial first down. A few plays later Kosar hit Alvin Harper for a 42-yard touchdown and effectively ended the game.
The final numbers don’t do justice to just how good the Cowboys were in the first half; it (along with another half we’re about to explore) was the early 90’s Cowboys at their very best, hitting on all cylinders and thoroughly outclassing a very qualified opponent.
Game # 42
- Season: 1993
- Date: 1994.01.30
- Opponent: Buffalo Bills
- At stake: Super Bowl XXVIII Champion
- Result: Win
- Score: 30 – 13
I believe if Super Bowl XXVIII were played today Troy Aikman would not be allowed to play. Unlike most years, the 1993 Super Bowl was played only 7 days after the NFC Championship game. Aikman had suffered a severe concussion in that game and it was questionable whether he would be able to play. Today, I think the NFL’s concussion protocol would prevent his participation.
Aikman did play, but was relatively ineffective (77 passer rating). And the heavily favored Cowboys struggled throughout the first half to move the ball. An opening 50-yard kickoff return by Kevin Williams set up one field goal. James Washington forced a Thurman Thomas fumble to set up another field goal. Those six points were all Dallas could muster; a promising late 2nd quarter drive ended on an Aikman interception where he badly underthrew the ball.
The Bills, meanwhile, found some offensive success. A 17-play 80-yard touchdown drive was sandwiched by two field goals. The first was a Super Bowl record 54-yard kick and the second came on the final play of the half to provide a 13 – 7 Buffalo lead. That kick came after a key 3rd down stop from the Cowboys 9-yard line on a failed shovel pass.
I can tell you I felt no panic or concern watching the game. I believed Dallas would come back and win the game. The people I was watching with all generally felt the same way. There really wasn’t doubt among fans which team was better. There were some Bills fans who were cautiously optimistic, however.
It took only three plays for that optimism to disappear and for Dallas to take control of the game. Running from his own 34-yard line Thurman Thomas again fumbled. James Washington picked up the ball and zig-zagged his way 46-yards for the touchdown. In the blink of an eye the game was tied, Dallas had seized momentum and the ghosts of failed Super Bowl pasts again haunted the Bills.
Buffalo would gain only 2 yards on 3 plays on their next possession and punt to the Cowboys. Dallas, recognizing the passing game was ineffective with Aikman not at 100%, switched to a ground-focused attack. The adjustment proved devastating. The 8-play, 64-yard drive featured only a single, short screen pass and 7 Emmitt Smith runs:
- E Smith – 9-yard run
- E Smith – 3-yard run
- E Smith – 9-yard run
- E Smith – 7-yard run
- E Smith – 14-yard run
- E Smith – 4-yard run
- D Johnson – 3-yard reception
- E Smith - 15-yard run, touchdown
The drive was simple, straight-ahead power football in which the Dallas offense simply beat up the Bills defense. Emmitt Smith made several terrific runs, including the score when he was hit behind the line of scrimmage, nearly went to the ground, regained his footing and knocked two defenders down heading into the end zone.
Six minutes into the second half the Cowboys had turned a 7-point deficit into a 7-point lead and I imagine even Bills fans doubted their team would recover. They didn’t.
And yet, the margin was still only 7 points when the 4th quarter began with Buffalo moving from their own 35. James Washington then intercepted Jim Kelly setting Dallas up at the Buffalo 34. It took 9 plays and a 4th down touchdown from the 1-yard line but the Cowboys eventually converted the turnover into the score. Four Emmitt Smith runs from the 6-yard line provided the final yards.
A late field goal fueled by a 35-yard Alvin Harper reception provided the final 30 – 13 score. The numbers tell the story of 2nd-half domination. Dallas outscored the Bills 24 – 0. The Bills committed 2 turnovers, the Cowboys none. The Cowboys gained 172 yards to the Bills 98 (63 of which came on a last-minute, garbage-time drive after the outcome had been settled).
The Dallas defense just completely shut the Bills down in the 2nd half. Buffalo’s first 26 plays of the 2nd half yielded 35 yards, two turnovers and a Dallas touchdown. Domination. The Bills 2nd half drives:
Emmitt Smith is rightly hailed for his performance in both the Super Bowl and his entire 1993 performance. Despite missing the first two games of the season he won his second consecutive rushing title, etched his name in history with an historic performance to clinch the division against the Giants and propelled the Cowboys to victory in Super Bowl XXVIII. He owns MVP trophies for both the regular season and the Super Bowl.
James Washington, however, was the real MVP of Super Bowl XXVIII. His performance:
- Caused the fumble that led to the team’s second field goal
- Recovered a fumble and ran it in for a 46-yard touchdown
- Intercepted a pass that led to another touchdown
- Added 12 tackles
Washington’s fumble return is arguably the single biggest play in Dallas Cowboys playoff history. It came in the Super Bowl and, per Football Reference’s win calculator, the Bills had a 63% chance of winning the game before the play and only a 32% chance after. Add his other contributions and there’s no doubt in my mind he deserved the MVP. It’s a bit disappointing that Emmitt Smith’s performance has (deservedly) been well-documented but Washington’s has become a footnote.
Nevertheless, when all was said and done the Dallas Cowboys had passed a litany of challenges to repeat as NFL champions. They still had the youngest, most talented team in the league. Players, fans and NFL observers spoke of a dynasty. None predicted that three months later Jimmy Johnson would no longer be Head Coach of the Cowboys.
The Departure of Jimmy Johnson
Obviously, Jimmy Johnson leaving the Cowboys is not a key game. However, no history of the Cowboys could be written without addressing the event. Most point to the events around the Orlando Owner’s Meetings as the cause of the Jimmy / Jerry breakup. I’ve long thought that was simply the impetus for a change that was going to happen anyway.
Jimmy claims he had planned to leave the Cowboys before the Orlando situation ever happened. His behavior supports this. Prior to the team’s Super Bowl XXVIII-win Jimmy openly talked about how he would listen to offers from other teams (specifically the Jacksonville Jaguars). He had complained about his contract. He didn’t particularly enjoy living in Dallas and longed to live near the ocean.
Johnson had also been a nomad throughout his coaching career. He never stayed anywhere longer than five years. His demanding approach brought out the best in players but also wore on them. I’m not sure, after two years of success, players would have been as willing to go to the mats for Johnson as they had previously.
All of which is to say I don’t think Jimmy Johnson leaving the Cowboys was the single cause of the team’s decline. I do think they would have been more successful had he stayed but I’m not sure how long he would have lasted.
Instead, I think the primary cause of the eventual demise of the 90’s Cowboys was Jerry Jones ludicrous decision to bring in an aging, hands-off college coach who hadn’t been involved in football in five years. Barry Switzer was 56 years old when named the coach of the Dallas Cowboys and had zero pro football experience.
His lackadaisical, player-friendly approach was a dramatic departure from Johnson’s rabid demands. It was also a departure from Switzer’s younger days when he was highly successful at the University of Oklahoma. The 56-year old Switzer simply wasn’t as driven or committed as the younger Switzer.
I knew the team was in trouble the very first training camp. Reports from Austin were a morning practice had been cancelled after only 10 minutes. Apparently, a number of players had stayed out late and were having difficulty in the hot Austin heat. Switzer responded by calling practice off.
This astounded me. Leadership 101: reward positive behavior, punish negative behavior. Switzer should have run those players until they were sick. He should have made it clear that practice was important and players were expected to fully participate. Instead, the message he sent was it’s okay to slack off, practice isn’t that important and negative behavior will be rewarded rather than punished.
It's amazing the Cowboys performed as well as they did in 1994 and 1995 considering this kind of "leadership". So, it wasn’t so much Jimmy Johnson’s departure that resulted in a slow, steady decline as it was the arrival of Barry Switzer. I firmly believe had a quality coach, even someone like Butch Davis or Dave Wannstadt, taken over the culture would have remained consistent and the team would have been more successful.
Game # 43
- Season: 1994
- Date: 1994.11.13
- Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
- At stake: path to home field advantage; bragging rights
- Result: Loss
- Score: 21 – 14
The 1994 San Francisco 49ers were focused on a single purpose: defeat the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys had ended the 49ers two previous seasons in convincing fashion. The 49ers defense, in particular, had proven vulnerable. Thus, the 49ers went all-in an to transform their defense to compete with the Cowboys.
It’s impossible to overstate the commitment San Francisco made for this single objective. The team drafted defensive tackle Bryant Young in the first round, to team with their 1993 first round pick Dana Stubblefield. They also added a number of older, but still productive free agents:
- Rickey Jackson
- Charles Mann
- Tim McDonald
- Tim Harris
- Richard Dent
They didn’t stop there, however. They also signed Ken Norton, Jr. to a lucrative free agent contract, thus dealing the Cowboys a double whammy. And, in a final act of belligerence, signed Deion Sanders. Add rookie Lee Woodall and youngster Merton Hanks and the 49ers had completely transformed their defense. The players brought in via free agency had a combined 792 career AV:
Their spending spree would be tested in week 10 when the Cowboys visited Candlestick Park. The Cowboys were 8-1 and the 49ers were 7-2. Whoever won would assume control for home field advantage for what all NFL observers assumed would be a third consecutive showdown between the NFL’s two premier franchises.
The moves proved successful. Despite generating over 400 yards of offense Dallas scored only 7 points through 59 minutes. The difference was the 49ers were able to get key stops (forcing six punts) and forced three turnovers.
All three turnovers came on interceptions and two of the three came deep in 49er territory, ending promising drives:
The most damaging was the 4th quarter interception. The Cowboys trailed by 7 with just over 6 minutes remaining. A touchdown would tie the score. Instead, the Hanks interception ended the drive and maintained the lead. San Francisco then put together their best drive of the game, marching 87 yards for a 14-point lead with just over 2 minutes remaining.
The 49ers won the game, took control of the home field race and, most importantly, proved they could defeat their nemesis. For Dallas, it was the first meaningful, big-game defeat since 1991.
Game # 44
- Season: 1994
- Date: 1994.11.24
- Opponent: Green Bay Packers
- At stake: not a lot
- Result: Win
- Score: 42 – 31
The Cowboys entered this game with a 9-2 record and a comfortable lead in the NFC East. Only a total collapse would have prevented a 3rd consecutive division title. Thus, there wasn’t much at stake when Dallas and Green Bay took the field on Thanksgiving Day. And yet, the game is arguably the second greatest Thanksgiving game in team history.
The Cowboys had learned their lesson from 1993 and had obtained an experienced, quality backup QB in the off-season. Rodney Peete had been called on twice previously when Troy Aikman had been injured and performed well. But in week 11 he injured his thumb while filling in for Aikman. Neither player could play and thus 3rd-string quarterback Jason Garrett got his first start in the NFL.
Garrett’s 3rd pass was intercepted and set up an early Green Bay touchdown for a 7 – 0 Cowboys deficit. Green Bay later extended the lead to 17 – 3 late in the 2nd quarter when Brett Favre hit Sterling Sharpe on a 36-yard touchdown pass. To that point Garret was 5 of 13 for 46 yards, no touchdowns, an interception, an intentional grounding penalty and two sacks. His debut had not been an auspicious one. I was once again home watching with my family and we all just kind of assumed this game was a lost cause.
With only seconds remaining in the half, however, Garrett and the Cowboys gave a hint of things to come. A 21-yard strike to Michael Irvin got the drive started. Then, on 3rd-and-10 Garrett hit Alvin Harper for 38 yards to set up a 36-yard Chris Boniol field goal.
It was Kevin Williams, however, who restored faith, returning the 2nd half kickoff 87-yards to the Packers 5-yard line. Emmitt Smith scored on the following play and the seemingly lost cause was suddenly a competitive 17 – 13 game. Unfortunately, the Packers also had a lengthy kick-off return and Favre hit Sharpe for another long score, this one from 30-yards out. The two teams had combined for 14-points in 92 seconds of football. Then things really got interesting.
Jason Garrett would lead the Cowboys on three consecutive touchdown drives of 76-yards, 81-yards and 53-yards. Two of the scores came on long Garrett completions: 45-yards to Alvin Harper and 35-yards to Michael Irving. The third score was set up by a 27-yard completion to Jay Novacek that put the ball on the Green Bay 3. Another touchdown was set up by a 68-yard catch and run from Garrett to Emmitt Smith.
The score was 25 – 24 when the fourth quarter started and would grow to 39 – 24 before the Packers managed another touchdown. A final Boniol field goal made the final margin 42 – 31. The Cowboys would receive the ball six times in the 2nd half and score on every one of them (5 touchdowns and a field goal; there were 2 missed 2-point conversions). The 36 points is a record for points in a single half for the franchise.
Jason Garrett would start 7 games in the 1998 – 99 seasons but none came remotely close to having the impact of his first NFL start. While not quite matching the improbability factor of Clint Longley’s Mad Bomber game against the Redskins in 1974, he did provide Cowboys fans with yet another Thanksgiving memory.
Game # 45
- Season: 1994
- Date: 1995.01.08
- Opponent: Green Bay Packers
- At stake: Advance to NFC Championship game
- Result: Win
- Score: 35 – 9
Just over six weeks later the two teams would meet again, this time with a berth in the NFC Championship game at stake. Dallas would be healthy this time, with Aikman having returned several weeks earlier. Unlike the Thanksgiving tilt, this game was not a contest as the Cowboys downed the Packers for the 5th consecutive time and 2nd consecutive season in the playoffs.
The key play of the game was a late 1st-quarter, 94-yard touchdown pass from Troy Aikman to Alvin Harper. The big play turned a relatively tight 4-point game into a 14 – 3 Cowboys lead the team would never look back from. If it seems like Harper seemed to make a big play in every Cowboys playoff victory during this time it’s because he did.
Harper’s playoff numbers are absurd:
- A perfect 158 passer rating
- Caught 86% of balls thrown his way
- Averaged 27 yards per catch; 23+ yards per target
- Scored a touchdown once every 7 times he was thrown the ball
Harper was receiving only 3 targets per game but all of them were deep and he seemed to catch almost every one. Any doubt about why Harper seems to have an outsized reputation among Cowboys fans of this era is explained by these 24 catches and half-dozen or so big plays.
Game # 46
- Season: 1994
- Date: 1995.01.15
- Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
- At stake: Advance to Super Bowl XXIX
- Result: Loss
- Score: 38 – 28
Pre-season prognosticators predicted in August that Dallas and San Francisco would again face off in the NFC Championship game and they were (for once) correct. Like 1992 and 1993 the two teams looked like the best teams in the NFL and had trounced their divisional playoff opponents (combined score of 79 – 24). The anticipation and hype was off-the-chart as observers of all kinds expected another showdown.
Four and a half minutes into the game these were the facts:
- San Francisco led 21 – 0
- Dallas had run 6 plays and turned the ball over three time
- San Francisco had generated 61 yards of offense and 3 touchdowns
Very rarely in the NFL can you say that five bad minutes of football can doom an entire season but that’s exactly what happened when Dallas took the Candlestick field in January of 1995. The Cowboys would spend the remaining 55 minutes trying to overcome the team’s disastrous start. They would fight valiantly and courageously but would come up just short.
Many are aware of the nightmarish opening minutes of the game, but the end of the first half played just as big of a role. The Cowboys had fought back to reduce the 21-point deficit to only 10, 24 -14 when they took over at their own 16 with 1:56 remaining. Conventional wisdom would say the worst possible outcome would be a 10-point deficit at halftime but maybe Dallas could cut it to 7 or even 3. Three straight incompletions, however, took no time off the clock and allowed the 49ers a final first half opportunity. A short John Jett punt (23 yards) then set San Francisco up at the Cowboys 39. The 49ers moved to the Cowboys 28 but had no timeouts remaining; at this point they would be reduced to taking shots at the end zone or short sideline routes for a more makeable field goal attempt.
Shockingly, Larry Brown was left alone with all-world wide receiver Jerry Rice who caught a 28-yard touchdown pass against one-on-one coverage. After having fought hard to get back into the game the final sequence of the 1st half left the Cowboys facing a 17-point halftime deficit. It was a devastating development.
And yet, with just over 8 minutes remaining the Cowboys were very much in striking distance. The deficit stood at 10 points but the Cowboys had been outplaying San Francisco for 45 minutes; the natives were nervous, their once insurmountable lead at risk. Then came a play that I have yet to get over.
Michael Irvin had abused Deion Sanders and anyone else trying to cover him throughout the game. His 12 catches and 192 yards were NFC Championship game records. His numbers should have been bigger. On 2nd-and-10 Aikman tossed a perfectly placed long ball down the left sideline that hit Michael Irvin in stride. It was an easy catch for Irvin except his arms were held down by a blatant interference by Deion Sanders. Somehow the call was not made.
The result should have been either a touchdown or a Cowboys 1st down at the 49ers 5-yard line. The Pro Football Reference calculator gives the Cowboys a 68% chance of winning if they have a 1st down on the 49ers 5-yard line with 8 minutes remaining. I’d put the odds even higher when you consider how the game had gotten there. Instead, the call was missed. Naturally, Barry Switzer made things worse by attracting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that resulted in a 3rd-and-25 (rather than a very makeable 3rd-and-10).
A 14-yard 3rd-down completion was followed by a 4th down sack of Aikman. The dream of threepeat was over. San Francisco had vanquished the Cowboys and went on to an easy 49 – 26 win in Super Bowl XXIX. I’m still bitter.
And yet, I consider this one of the early 90’s team’s greatest games. Aikman and Irvin both had, arguably, their best games as professionals. Emmitt Smith suffered an injured hamstring injury that made him a shell of his normal self. Rookie Larry Allen had replaced injured Erik Williams at RT and was also hobbling on one leg. The 49ers had a loaded defense that seemed to have an assembly-line of pass-rushers who teed off knowing Dallas couldn’t afford to run the ball playing from behind.
Despite all that Aikman threw for 380 yards and two touchdowns, putting Dallas into position for an epic comeback victory. Yeah, football is a 60-minute game and every minute counts, including those first five minutes. Still, I’m proud of how the team played that day. Their own mistakes created a nearly impossible situation but they never once backed down or hung their head, instead fighting valiantly the entire game. I’m real curious how those final minutes play out if Deion Sanders doesn’t get away with blatant cheating.
I’m also curious how that game….and the entire season…evolves had the Cowboys had a legitimate NFL head coach. There were good coaches on that team (Offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, defensive coordinator Butch Davis, OL coach Hudson Houck, position coaches Dave Campo and Mike Zimmer) but leaders set the culture for any organization. And I believe the permissive culture Barry Switzer nurtured was the difference between a close loss and a victory in that 1994 NFC Championship game.
The 1995 season opened with questions about whether the reign of the Cowboys was over. Fans and the media (rightly) blamed Jerry and Barry for the failure to threepeat. Nothing less than a Super Bowl would satisfy anyone but many also seemed to think the task impossible. The Cowboys exploded out of the gate with a dominating 35 – 0 Monday Night opening week, Monday night victory over the Giants. The team would roll to an 8-1 record.
Nobody seemed particularly impressed. Regular season wins elicited yawns and criticisms for not winning in dominant fashion. The 49ers came to Dallas in week 9 but were a shell of their 1994 team, sporting only a 5-4 record. They were also hobbled, Elvis Grbac filling in for an injured Steve Young. And yet, less than 4 minutes into the game San Francisco led 17 – 0 and easily waltzed to a dominating 38 – 20 victory.
The critics again wailed and again targeted the coaching staff. The Cowboys had brought in Deion Sanders as another "first name" player to shore up a secondary diminished by Kevin Smith’s Achilles heel injury. And yet, when the 49ers put Jerry Rice in the slot the Cowboys coaches were befuddled and failed to adapt. With Deion effectively removed by the simple formation change, the greatest receiver in the NFL found himself matched up against a linebacker. He easily raced 81 yards for a touchdown on the 3rd play of the game.
Prior to the play, you can see the Cowboys defenders confused and unsure what to do. A team that once dictated to opposing offenses was now being out-schemed by simple maneuvers. Two plays later Michael Irvin fumbled, Merton Hanks picked up the loose ball and easily walked in for a 14 – 0 lead. Aikman’s next pass was then intercepted and in almost identical fashion to the 1994 NFC Championship Game the Cowboys had strung together five minutes of clown ball that bared little resemblance to the crisp, efficient teams of 1992 – 1993.
The shocking defeat (Dallas had been favored by 13.5 points) simply agitated the already feisty critics. More importantly, it humbled the players themselves; many expressing wonder and bewilderment at what happened. Daryl Johnston talked about how it was the first time in years a team had proven they were simply better than Dallas.
Two victories over Oakland and Kansas City quieted the mobs a bit but then came two more shocking losses. First, the Cowboys lost at home to a 3 – 9 Redskins team. Turnovers again plagued the team. Nursing a 10 -7 lead the Cowboys gave up a touchdown to fall behind 14 – 10. Aikman was then intercepted which resulted in another Washington touchdown. Smith then fumbled leading to a Redskins field goal.
The 17-point outburst was too much to overcome and the Cowboys fell to 10 – 3 as they next traveled to Philadelphia. A loss would allow the Eagles to pull within a game of Dallas and the team’s once firm grip on the NFC East was in jeopardy. Things did not go well.
Veterans stadium was a foul place that day with 23 degree temperatures and winds gusting to 25 MPH. The game itself was another old-school NFC East grudge match. Dallas seemed to have things in hand with a 17 – 6 lead midways through the 3rd quarter. But an Eagles touchdown and 2-point conversion cut the lead to 3. The Cowboys were poised to regain control when an Eagle fumble set the Cowboys up near the Philly end zone.
But another turnover, this time an Emmitt Smith fumble, wiped out the scoring opportunity. The teams exchanged punts until Philly managed a field goal with just over 2 minutes to tie the game. Dallas then took over at their own 20. Playing into the wind three plays gained 9 yards and left the team with a 4th-and-1 from their own 29. Shockingly, Switzer decided to go for the first down; Emmitt Smith’s run had no chance of success, losing two yards.
The Cowboys were given a reprieve, however, when it was deemed the 2-minute warning had occurred, negating the play and giving Switzer an opportunity to fix his mistake. Instead, he not only went for it on 4th down again, the team ran the exact same play which yielded the exact same outcome.
The Eagles simply held the ball and then, with the wind, easily kicked a game-winning field goal. The once 8-1 Cowboys were now 10-4 and reeling. Switzer and the coaches were rightly eviscerated by critics. The team seemed rudderless, void of leadership. The staff didn’t seem to know how to employ Deion Sanders. The once mistake-free team now routinely turned the ball over, committed penalties and otherwise shot themselves in the foot. When the players managed to play well coaches would screw up with outrageous decisions like those in Philadelphia.
There was absolutely no indication this was a team about to embark on a Super Bowl run. Then came a true character test. A home game against the New York Giants in a wet, cold Texas Stadium in front of dubious fans. Despite being 15 point favorites the Cowboys again struggled, allowing New York almost 250 yards rushing. The Dallas offense kept sputtering in the red-zone, kicking field goals in lieu of touchdowns. A New York field goal early in the 4th quarter gave the Giants a 17 – 12 lead. Dallas responded with an 82-yard drive where they managed their only touchdown of the game. A missed 2-point conversion made the score 18 – 17. New York then handed the ball to Rodney Hampton on 8 straight plays and looked poised to score a touchdown but a holding penalty killed the drive. A Brad Daluiso field goal made the score 20 – 18 with just over five minutes remaining.
Things looked truly bleak when Aikman was intercepted near midfield on the ensuing drive. The defense, however, forced a critical 3-and-out and Dallas had one last chance, starting from their own 25 with 2:30 remaining and 1 time out.
The following drive would begin the team’s march back from laughingstock to Super Bowl champion. The 13-play, 67-yard drive was sheer fortitude, with 3 high-difficulty 3rd-down conversions:
- 3rd-and-7 from Dallas 38: 13-yards to Kevin Williams
- 3rd-and-10 from New York 49: 11-yards to Michael Irvin
- 3rd-and-10 from New York 38: 11 yards to Kevin Williams (the play of the game and the season in my opinion; a brilliant diving catch by Williams)
The drive took the ball down to the Giants 17-yard line where Chris Boniol kicked the game-winning field goal on the final play of the game.
A loss would have left the Cowboys tied for the NFC East with Philadelphia, with the Eagles holding the tie-breaker. The win meant a Cowboys win or an Eagles loss in the final week of the season would clinch a fourth consecutive NFC East division title. Somehow this Giants game has been lost in Cowboys history. The America’s Game documentary doesn’t even mention it (a stunning omission from an otherwise terrific series).
Instead, the film sets up the Arizona game as the point where the turnaround began. That’s simply wrong. The Eagles had lost in week 16 on Sunday, so when Dallas took the field on Monday against Arizona they had already clinched the division; the game meant nothing. The week 15 win over the Giants, and the final drive in particular, was the turning point in the 1995 Dallas Cowboy’s fortunes.
The team that played in Arizona looked completely different. Dallas drove the length of the field for an opening touchdown. Brock Marion immediately following with an interception return for a touchdown. Aikman later hit Williams for a 48-yard touchdown. Minutes into the 2nd quarter the score was 24 – 0. Dallas racked up 475 yards of offense and held the ball for 35 minutes. Emmitt Smith scored his 25th rushing touchdown of the season to set an NFL record. He also won his fourth rushing title in five years. The 38 – 3 final was the best game the Cowboys had played since opening night against the Giants.
It was an impressive, thoroughly dominating performance. The game was the last ever coached by Buddy Ryan and was a fitting send-off to the overrated curmudgeon. As coach of the Cardinals he had lost 4 straight times to the Cowboys by a combined score of 103 – 49.
Game # 47
- Season: 1995
- Date: 1996.01.07
- Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles
- At stake: Advance to NFC Conference Championship
- Result: Win
- Score: 30 – 11
Two weeks later the Cowboys would have a chance to avenge the humiliating defeat suffered in Philadelphia just a month earlier. The Dallas defense would dominate, holding the Eagles to 227 yards, sacking Eagles quarterbacks 5 times and allowing only 3 points over the first 57 minutes of the game. Once Deion Sanders electrified fans with a dazzling 21-yard reverse where he crossed the field twice there wasn’t much doubt about the outcome.
It was a return to the workman-like effort that had symbolized much of the team’s success in earlier seasons. Dallas outgained the Eagles 397 to 227 yards; rushed for 158 yards and held the ball for 35 minutes. Adding the team’s 34-10 win in 1992 Dallas had twice defeated the Eagles in the playoffs by a combined 64 – 21 score (and 14 of those 21 points were meaningless garbage time points; remember that the next time you hear some clueless Eagles fan chirping).
Game # 48
- Season: 1995
- Date: 1996.01.14
- Opponent: Green Bay Packers
- At stake: Advance to Super Bowl XXX
- Result: Win
- Score: 38 – 27
This was a fantastic game; perhaps the best, most hotly contested of the Cowboy’s 13 playoff games during this time. Sixty-five points, 750+ yards, six lead changes and a final superlative sequence from the Triplets finally delivered the Cowboy’s 8th NFC Championship in 30 years. This was the only Cowboy’s playoff victory where the Cowboys trailed at any part of the 4th quarter. It featured an at-his-peak gun slinging Brett Favre.
And it featured what I consider Emmitt Smith’s best game as a pro (even better than his 1993 separated should game against the Giants). Again, I can’t find any video of this game, but my memory is Emmitt wasn’t once brought down by the first tackler. His 35 carries consistently moved the chains leading to scores and finally, in the 4th quarter, broke the Packer’s defense. It was a championship performance by any standard.
All three triplets played major roles, accounting for all five Dallas touchdowns:
- Smith: 35 carries / 150 yards / 3 touchdowns
- Irvin: 7 catches / 100 yards / 2 touchdowns
- Aikman: 21-of-33 / 255 yards / 2 TDs / 0 INTs / 108 rating
Those yards and points were needed as the Cowboy’s coaching staff again struggled with scheme. This time the Packers utilized two tight end sets to free Keith Jackson for 99 yards worth of catches. Robert Brooks chipped in a 73-yartd touchdown and the Cowboys seemed to spend the entire 1st half trying to figure out who was supposed to guard who.
It was a see-saw affair. The Cowboys scored consecutive touchdowns following a GB field goal to take a 14 – 3 lead. The Packers then scored two TDs of their own to regain the lead at 17 – 3. A Cowboys FG tied the score at 17 and that’s when the Cowboys began to exert their will.
A 57-yard punt pinned the Cowboys at their own 1-yard line with just over 4 minutes remaining in the half. Fourteen plays, 99-yards and 4 minutes later Dallas took a 24 – 17 lead. The Cowboys faced only a single 3rd down on the drive and featured a mix of 6 runs and 8 passes. Emmitt Smith started it with a 25-yard run from the 1 and finished it with a 1-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown. It was a championship drive.
And yet, the Cowboys found themselves trailing going into the 3rd quarter. Favre led the Packers on two long drives, surrounding a 3-and-out from the Cowboys. The 10 points restored the Packer’s lead at 27- 20 when Dallas took over near the end of the 3rd quarter. This would begin a sequence where Dallas won every small battle, outscoring GB 14 – 0 and winning going away:
- A 14-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that consumed nearly 9 minutes of clock. The team would face only two short 3rd-down plays (3 yards and 1 yard) and, again, Emmitt Smith would cap the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run.
- A three-play sequence that pretty much ended the game:
- Down 4 points with 10 minutes remaining Larry Brown intercepted Brett Favre at the Dallas 25.
- Michael Irvin made a spectacular, juggling, highly contested catch for 36-yards down the left sideline
- Emmitt Smith ram 16-yards untouched for his third touchdown and a 38 – 27 lead with 9:30 remaining
- Favre drives the Packers to the Dallas 42 but is sacked on 2nd down setting up an eventual 4th-and-14 pass that falls incomplete
- After Chris Boniol misses a 36-yard field goal for a 14-point lead Favre is sacked on three consecutive plays to set up an unsuccessful 4th-and-38 attempt.
After slugging it out for 40 minutes the Cowboys dominated the final 20 minutes:
- Outgained Green Bay 180 to 73
- Outscored Green Bay 14 – 0
- Generated 4 sacks and one turnover
The victory was the Cowboys third straight in the post-season over Green Bay and the team’s 7th straight win dating back to 1991. If you think the two post-season losses to the Packers in 2014 and 2016 stings imagine being a Packer fan in the early 90’s. The win propelled the Cowboys to the team’s 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years and record 8th overall.
Again, there used to be video of the entire game on YouTube but now I can’t find anything. If you get a chance, watch this game. And specifically watch Emmitt Smith; he was simply outstanding throughout the entire game.
Game # 48
- Season: 1995
- Date: 1996.01.28
- Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
- At stake: Super Bowl XXX
- Result: Win
- Score: 27 – 17
This was not a fantastic game. It started well, with the Cowboys scoring 13-points on three scoring drives, covering a total of 180 yards. Dallas seemed in control and in position to ease their way to a solid victory. However, their next drives would be:
- 3 plays / 0 yards
- 6 plays / 13 yards
- 2 plays / 18 yards (touchdown)
- 3 plays / 6 yards
- 4 plays / 15 yards
- 2 plays / 6 yards (touchdown)
- 3 plays / - 1 yard
Dallas gained a total of 73 yards over the team’s final 7 possessions. Luckily one of those possessions started at the Steeler’s 18 and another at the Steeler’s 6-yard line. Otherwise, the offense was completely shut down after the first 20 minutes of the game. Emmitt Smith gained 23-yards on his first run from scrimmage and 26 yards on 17 carries after. The inability to run consistently put the offense in bad passing downs which they were unable to overcome.
The early lead, however, enabled the defense to "play from ahead" and they held up pretty well. Pittsburgh managed a touchdown late in the 1st half after setting up at their own 46-yard line. The key play was a 3rd-and-13 conversion that gave the Steelers a 1st down at the Cowboys 6 with 17 seconds remaining. The 13 – 7 score held up until midway through the 3rd quarter, when O’Donnel threw directly into the arms of Larry Brown.
Brown returned the ball all the way to the Steeler’s 18. Aikman then hit Irvin for 17 yards and Emmitt Smith scored on the following play. The 13-point lead was restored and Dallas was again in a comfort zone.
Late in the 3rd quarter Pittsburgh took over at their own 20 and drove 52-yards for a field goal. Then came the key play that turned a relatively comfortable 10-point lead into a nail-biter. With just over 11 minutes remaining the Steelers surprised the Cowboy’s kick return team with an on sides kick which Pittsburgh recovered.
The Steelers, now with momentum, easily marched 52-yards for a touchdown. O’Donnell went 5-for-5 for 42 yards on the drive and had gone 10-of-11 for 69 yards since his first interception. In less than five minutes the seemingly comfortable 13-point lead had dwindled to only 3.
The Cowboys offense again struggled and quickly punted, giving Pittsburgh the ball at their own 32. At this point things looked grim. The Cowboys offense had been completely shut down since early in the 2nd quarter and the defense had surrendered 17 points on the last four Steeler’s drives. Two plays later, however, Brown again intercepted O’Donnell, this time returning the ball to the Pittsburgh 6. Two Emmitt Smith runs traversed the six yards needed for the touchdown, the 10-point lead gave Dallas breathing room and less than four minutes remained.
It’s noteworthy the Cowboys converted both Brown interceptions into touchdown. I’ve documented how anemic the Dallas offense had been. Brown didn’t return the interceptions for touchdown. The Dallas offense had to put the ball in the endzone and did so in efficient fashion. They ran 4 plays for 24 yards directly after those two turnovers. The Pittsburgh strength was their defense and yet, when the game was on the line, the Cowboys offense managed to overcome those Steeler’s defenses.
Pittsburgh managed to reach the Dallas 40 on their next drive but four straight incompletions ended the drive and the Cowboys were NFL champions again, the third time in four years they ended the season as the NFL’s best.
Thus, ended the most dominant four years in the history of one of the NFL’s greatest franchises. In fact, I believe the 1992 – 1995 Dallas Cowboys to be the most dominant dynasty in the entirety of the NFL’s Super Bowl era.
Very few teams have had the opportunity to win 3 Super Bowls in 4 seasons, as the early Cowboys did. I believe the most dominant dynasties of the Super Bowl era to be:
- 1971 – 1974 Miami Dolphins
- 1974 – 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers
- 1988 – 1990 San Francisco 49ers
- 1992 – 1995 Dallas Cowboys
- 2001 – 2004 New England Patriots
The early 90’s Cowboys, in my opinion, outperformed each of these teams terms of dominating their opposition. I have a future post planned where I’ll comprehensively review each team. But here I’ll show how Dallas was simply better in every phase of the game compared to their competition. Specifically, the Cowboys dominated quality playoff opponents in ways that these other teams couldn’t match.
I mentioned above that of the Cowboys 11 playoff games between 1992 and 1995 only once did the Cowboys trail in the 4th quarter. None of the team’s victories came by less than 10 points. The point is that none of the Cowboy’s 10 playoff victories relied upon a single great play, a key turnover, a lucky bounce or a controversial referee’s decision. There simply isn’t any argument that in all ten victories Dallas was simply better than their opponent’s. None of the other teams I listed above can make the same claim.
The point and yardage averages per game from each season
The Cowboys outscored and outgained their playoff opponents every single year during this period. The point totals aren’t remotely close, with Dallas outscoring teams by 23, 15 and 13 points during their Super Bowl winning seasons, and by 15 points overall. Dallas also outgained opponents every year, by an average margin of 60+ yards. Notably, the season the Cowboys suffered their one defeat was also the season they grossly outgained their opponents (468 to 315 yards).
One of the Cowboys strength was their balance on offense. The running game was generally dominant and would set up an effective passing game:
Dallas averaged 125 yards and nearly 2 touchdowns on the ground over these 11 games. The 32 carries per game is also noteworthy as it shows the running game wasn’t a switch-up but provided the foundation from which the team generated offense.
Opponents, by comparison, often struggled to run the ball against the Dallas defense. Teams averaged only 86 yards running. Seven times opponents failed to gain 100 yards on the ground and six times failed to average more than 3.7 yards per carry. This ground dominance on both sides of the ball set up the Cowboys passing game for success while putting opposing air attacks at a disadvantage.
The key column in the above table is the final one…showing the passer rating variance. It is well-documented that winning the passer-rating contest strongly correlates to winning games in the NFL. This table strongly supports this finding. The Cowboys absolutely dominated this statistic with a 37 point advantage on average. Nine times out of 11 contests Dallas enjoyed a passer rating advantage of 23 points or higher; six times of 35 points or higher and five times of 50 points or higher.
These are absolutely dominating numbers. The sole game when Dallas failed to win the passer rating contest is also the sole game when the team lost. The 1994 NFC Championship loss to the 49ers represented both the lowest passer rating for a Dallas team across these 11 games, but also the highest opponent passer rating.
Overall, Dallas quarterbacks averaged 275+ yards, 8.7 yards per attempt and 2 touchdowns, 0.7 interceptions and a 106 passer rating. Opponents, by contrast, averaged 250 yards, 6.7 yards per attempt, 1.1 touchdown and 1.5 interceptions per game, with a 69 passer rating.
The following tables show the rushing yards, passing yards and variance by year:
The following shows the passer rating and variance each year as well as turnovers and variance:
Again, the passer rating numbers are phenomenal…Dallas was highly effective throwing the ball these games and rendered potent, high-powered aerial attack ineffective.
We have long seen, however, that racking yards does not win games. Turnover difference is a much more strongly related with winning NFL games than yardage. Dallas also dominated the turnover statistics. The Cowboys generated an average of 2.8 turnovers while limiting their own turnovers to 1.3 over these playoff games. The sole season they didn’t win the turnover battle is, not coincidentally, the year they lost a game.
The following tables shows the game-by-game details:
Dallas caused at least one turnover in every game. They caused more than one in 7 games and five times generated at least 3. By contrast the Cowboys committed 0 or 1 turnover in 8 of 11 games. Only three times did the commit more than 1 turnover and they lost one of the two games they also lost the turnover battle.
Finally, if we look at only variances – the difference between Dallas and opponents – we see a real story emerge:
Dallas consistently ran for more yards than opponents. They consistently passed more effectively than opponents. They consistently generated more total yards, more turnovers and more sacks than their opponents.
A good recipe for success in the NFL it to outgain opponents on the ground, through the air and generate more turnovers than you commit.
The following table clearly demonstrates the absolute dominance of the 1992-1995 Dallas Cowboys, capturing their 11 playoff game performances and converting them into a 16-game season (and per game averages):
- The 535 points scored would rank 9th all-time, with every team ranking higher coming in 1998 or later (when NFL rules allowed for more scoring).
- The 15-point scoring variance per game would rank among the very best teams ever in the Super bowl era (only the 2007 Patriots and 1985 Bears rank higher).
- A 37-point passer rating variance would probably win every game played; only multiple special teams plays or a monumental rushing difference could negate such a passer rating margin.
- The 1.6 turnover margin, similarly, is an almost sure-fire recipe for winning in the NFL.
- Generating more sacks than you give up doesn’t translate directly to wins but it sure helps.
Now, the key here is Dallas was creating these huge positive outcomes not across 16 regular season games but against playoff opponents in the biggest games of each season. And they did not benefit from facing substandard, lucky, one-shot opponents. Eight times they faced teams led by Steve Young, Brett Favre and Jim Kelly. Their opponents went a collective 19-5 against non-Cowboys playoff opponents over this four-year period.
Dallas also won 49 regular season games over the four years, more than any other team. They won the NFC East division (the most difficult division in the NFL during this time) four consecutive seasons.
The bottom line…the 1992-1995 Dallas Cowboys were the best, strongest, most dominant team of the Super Bowl era. They won 10 of 11 playoff games, 3 of 4 Super Bowl Championships, 59 of 75 total games (79%) and did so in convincing fashion.
It’s highly unlikely any team will ever match that generation of Cowboys in terms of winning and dominance.