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 second half of the "Triplets" era, the late 90’s. I will add subsequent chapters, hopefully every week or so and be finished by the time the season starts. 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:
1996 – 2000
The Dallas Cowboys entered the latter half of the 90’s the undisputed kings of the NFL. Three Super Bowl championships in four years; a galaxy of stars recognized by only their first name (Troy, Michael, Emmitt, Deion); adoring fans and non-stop media coverage made the Cowboys the biggest name not only in the NFL but all North American sports.
When the decade ended the franchise was a rudderless, dysfunctional shell of its former glory days and would wander in the wilderness for many years before again finding winning ways. The fall was slow and methodical; an enduring death march from dominance to contender to irrelevance.
Watching games from that period was a depressing reminder of how frustrating those Cowboys teams were. The team was talented enough to win 34 of 64 regular season games between 1996 and 1999; win two division titles and reach the playoffs three times. But the team was never a really "good" team. Watching only reminded me of those team’s self-inflicted weaknesses. Over and over the team would string a half-dozen good plays together then negate it all with one stupid mistake or inability to execute. Penalties, poorly-used time-outs and red-zone failures plagued the team year-in and year-out it seemed.
Thus, despite some success only once did the Cowboys manage to reach the division round of the post-season and only once (very briefly) did the team feel like a true Super Bowl contender. The teams were sloppy and undisciplined; good teams just waited for the Cowboys to beat themselves and often the Cowboys would oblige.
The Cowboys reached ten wins in 1996, their sixth consecutive season in double-digits. This was also the team’s sixth consecutive season in the playoffs. Both streaks came to an end in 1997. That team was competitive until the final month of the season, when five straight losses and a 6-10 finish led to the inevitable ouster of Barry Switzer.
The franchise that had enjoyed 29 years of stability at the coaching position would have its third head coach in five years. Chan Gailey posted a combined 18-14 record over two seasons, reaching the playoffs each year. Nevertheless, he was ousted after only two seasons. Dave Campo took over and the team won five games in 2000. The once dominant Cowboys had become an NFL afterthought.
This was the height of dysfunction within the organization. I have long maintained that any organization will reflect the personal makeup of whoever’s in charge and we all know a delusional Jerry Jones was fully in charge during this era. Thus, we had a carousel of coaches, terrible drafts and criminally poor trades. And through it all the worst GM in the entire NFL kept his job.
The points for and against tell a pretty compelling story. The ’96, ’98 and ’99 teams were pretty good. Those teams combined to win 28 of 48 games (.583 winning percentage), twice winning the NFC East. The 1998 team was probably the best of the group, outscoring opponents by a full touchdown. That offense was also the best of the era but fell apart in one of the most demoralizing playoff losses in team history. The 1999 team was the last, final gasp of the "triplets" era Cowboys. By 2000 the charade was over, neither the team or fans could pretend the team was anything but bad, outscored by more than 4 points per game.
Here we see how mediocre the offense had become by 1996; ranking in the bottom 10 of the league. The 1998 team was a top-10 unit but then declined again in 1999 and declined further in 2000. Watching the video I saw a lot of frustrated Troy Aikman yelling at receivers who (apparently) didn’t do the right things and OL (who apparently didn’t do the right thing). More than anything I feel this exposed the woeful lack of discipline and how players weren’t being held accountable during this time. Aikman was having to be the bad cop because no one else would.
The defensive numbers tell a different story. The ’96, ’98 and ’99 teams ranked in the top 5 for points allowed. They weren’t truly dominant, as they gave up quite a few yards and by 2000 the defense, like the offense, ranked in the bottom third of the league. But you can see between both top 10 offenses (’98 and ’99) and top 5 defenses (’96, ’98, ’99) you had a recipe for potential success.
The following summarizes each season and is one of my favorite tables.
Several things stand out to me:
- Three different coaches. Dallas had the same coach for 29 years; now we see three coaches over a four-year period. This reflects the dysfunction that Jerry Jones brought with him as the single decision-maker within the organization.
- Aikman and Smith and Irvin. They were the team’s leading QB, Rusher and WR from 1991 through 1998; 1999 was the first year none of them ranked as the team’s leader at their position.
- Deion Sanders was good. Those AV numbers are exceptionally high.
- James McKnight? James McKnight was the Cowboy’s leading receiver in 2000? No wonder that team was terrible. Nothing against McKnight but he was a #3 receiver.
- The Cowboy’s division record was as good or better than the team’s overall record every year. This reflected the decline of the NFC East. Once the big bully of the entire NFL the division was reduced to a 10-6 Dallas team winning only 2 of 8 non-division games on the way to the NFC East crown in 1998.
These color-coded tables really highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of these teams:
- The 1996 team had a dominant defense that enabled it to overcome a terrible offense.
- The 1997 team ranked in the bottom ten of…. everything: offense, defense, turnovers. I’ve long believed that team tried hard but was broken during a 45 – 17 defeat to the Packers in week 13. Including that game, the Cowboys were outscored 146 – 65 over a season-ending five-game losing streak. Switzer had lost that team by December.
- The 1998 sure looks like a good team; solid marks on offense, defense and turnovers. But apparently, the team didn’t play any quality opponents. That -3.1 strength of schedule number is severe and reflects the Cowboys rode domination of their pathetic NFC East foes to a division title and (perhaps) some inflated rankings.
- Similarly, the 1999 team also has some solid rankings but also faced a relatively modest schedule. The post season results from both 1998 and 1999 seem to confirm those SOS numbers. The Cowboys simply weren’t as good as the offensive and defensive rankings would indicate.
- 2000 began the Dark Ages era in Cowboys history. The team lost, lost in embarrassing fashion and had nothing about it that suggested a return to prominence was on the horizon.
The NFC East division had dominated the NFL for ten years from 1986 to 1995:
- Three teams combined to win 7 of 10 Super Bowls
- Compiled a 30 – 11 playoff record (73% win percentage)
That era was over by 1996. NFC East teams won only 6 playoff games total over the five years (with two of the victories coming against other NFC East teams). A single NFC team (2000 Giants) advanced as far as the NFC Championship game; between 1986 and 1995 9 NFC East teams reached the NFC Championship game.
Thus, the Cowboys .600 overall winning percentage within the division isn’t as impressive as it might seem.
The 90’s began with the following coaches in the NFC East:
- Jimmy Johnson
- Bill Parcells
- Joe Gibbs
- Buddy Ryan
- Joe Bugel
The 2000’s began with the following coaches:
- Dave Campo
- Jim Fassell
- Andy Reid
- Terry Robiskie
- Dave McGinnis
I’ll let you make your own conclusions but apart from the Eagles it’s clear that every other team had a significantly worse coach in 2000 than in 1990.
It’s noteworthy that both Chapter VI (1986-1990) and Chapter VII (1991 to 1995) featured extensive details of particular division matchups. Looking through the Cowboy’s division games of this era there’s very little that’s noteworthy. In fact, the most important intra-division game during this time came against the Arizona Cardinals.
The Dallas Cowboys dominated all of the NFL in the first half of the 90’s, including the post-season. The team won 11 post-season games by an average margin of 16+ points. The 1996 post-season began in similar fashion with the Cowboys whipping the Vikings at home in the wild card round 40 – 15. It was the team’s 12th post-season win in six seasons. Unsuspecting fans could be forgiven if they couldn’t envision a future where the team wouldn’t win another playoff game for 13 years.
In fact, the team’s three post-season losses following the victory over the Vikings would begin two notoriously negative trends:
- The Cowboys would lose the team’s next five post-season games; finally breaking the streak in 2009.
- The Cowboys would lose their next five division round games; a streak that extends through (at least) the 2016 season.
Unlike many of the team’s playoff losses in the 70’s and 80’s there were no gut punch, last minute defeats. In each of the team’s three losses the opponent was simply better. This wasn’t a matter of the Cowboys failing to play up to their potential; they’re potential simply wasn’t good enough to overcome superior opponents.
We see here that the team still had significant talent during this time. Admittedly, the 1996 team that won 11 1st Team All Pro or Pro Bowl awards was probably living on past achievements. But Larry Allen, Deion Sanders and Darren Woodson were dominant, HOF-caliber players playing in their prime. Virtually every other name on this list, however, was an aging player on the back end of their careers. Note that no player other than Larry Allen won any type of award after 2000.
Also, note that 11 of the team’s 21 Pro Bowl awards and 6 of the team’s 10 1st Team All Pro awards were given to offensive lineman. That means the rest of the team won only 10 Pro Bowl and 4 All Pro awards. And yet, we’ve seen above that the defense was a better unit each of the five years.
We’ve outlined in extensive details how the Cowboy’s drafts between 1988 and 1993 produced remarkable results:
Unfortunately for Cowboy’s fans, the seven years that followed were almost the complete opposite. The team went from drafting multiple long-term starters every season to being lucky to acquire even a single significant player each draft. The same table for 1994 through 2000:
Absent of Larry Allen’s Hall of Fame career the Cowboy’s drafts from 1994 through 2000 vary from abysmal to bad to good (one year, 1998). The gory details:
Dallas did prove adept at drafting fast, undersized linebackers. Randall Godfrey, Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen were all good players. Coakley, in fact, played 8 years, logged 141 starts and earned three Pro Bowl nods. Godfrey played only 4 years with the Cowboys but enjoyed a 12-year career with 54 starts for the Cowboys and a career AV of 89. Dat Nguyen was a serviceable pro with one outstanding season (2003).
The 1998 draft was by far the team’s best during this time. Yes, the team infamously bypassed HOF receiver Randy Moss to draft Greg Ellis. Ellis, however, was a very solid pick, playing 11 season, racking up 86 career AV and averaging almost 8 AV per year. Similarly, Flozell Adams was a very solid offensive lineman for a decade and played for the Cowboys for 12 years. Criticized for holding calls and false starts throughout his career he nevertheless was a pro bowl-caliber player for many years.
Here’s the AV details from that time:
You don’t need to be a draft savant to recognize these were disastrous drafts for the Cowboys. Adding to the team’s woes were external decisions that further hampered the team’s ability to acquire good talent. In 2000 Jones, foolishly traded first round picks in 2000 and 2001 for wide receiver Joey Galloway. It’s hard to acquire young talent when you don’t have first round draft picks. Jones, however, misjudged his team, thinking it was one player away from Super Bowl contention.
Instead, the trade proved disastrous. First, Galloway blew out his knee in his very first Cowboy’s game (more on that later) and was never the same as a receiver (average AV of 11.5 pre-injury, average AV of 5 post-injury with Cowboys). Second, because the team was non-competitive in 2000 the team surrendered the 7th pick in the 2001 draft. The trade was widely panned at the time and looks even worse in hindsight.
Another less well-known trade was Jones’ decision to ship a 4th round pick in the 2001 draft to Atlanta for tight end O.J. Santiago. If you’ve never heard of O.J. Santiago it’s because he’s an unremarkable player. In three years with Atlanta he had a grand total of 59 catches for 819 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was a bottom-of-the-roster kind of player. I’m convinced Jones wanted Santiago simply based on a 3-catch / 54-yard performance in a playoff game that he happened to see.
The point being the team was so dysfunctional, and the GM so clueless that teams could fleece him for valuable draft assets for very little in return. It’s the exact opposite of what the Cowboys did in the 70’s and the Jones / Johnson years when the team routinely flipped aging players for high draft picks. Jones has morphed into a quality owner, but revisiting this period reminded me what an absolute clown he was for almost an entire decade.
- Season: 1996
- Date: 1996.12.28
- Opponent: Minnesota Vikings
- At stake: advance to divisional round of NFC playoffs
- Result: Win
- Score: 40 - 15
The 1996 season proved very quickly that the dominant days of the early 90’s were over. Michael Irvin was arrested and eventually pled no contest to possession of cocaine in the spring of 1996. He would be suspended and miss the team’s first five games of the season. Then, opening the season on Monday night for the 4th time in five years, Emmitt Smith was carted off the field after a frightening injury while diving into the end zone of an eventual 22 – 6 loss.
The loss was the first of 3 in the team’s first four games, leaving them at 1-3 after four weeks. The 6 points would also highlight a season-long problem of not being able to score (six times the team scored 12 or fewer points). And yet, by winning 9 of 11 games in the middle of the season the Cowboys clinched the NFC east for a fifth consecutive time by week 15. The team rested starters for the meaningless week 16 loss to the Redskins.
This was important because the now-aging superstars on the team were banged up throughout the season. None suffered major injuries but all missed time at one point or another. Charles Haley and Jay Novacek, who had both missed significant time during the season, would not play in the playoffs.
The team’s 10-6 record won the NFC East division, but forced them to host a wild card round playoff game. It was the first time since 1991 the Cowboys had been forced to play in the wild card round; a pretty remarkable achievement. And for one glorious day it felt like a throwback to better times.
The team started with a proto-typical 90’s Dallas Cowboys drive: 14 plays for 88 yards and a touchdown. Irvin converted two 3rd-and-longs with clutch catch-and-runs. The only surprise was the touchdown conclusion when Troy Aikman bootlegged for the touchdown assisted by a key block from Larry Allen (one of only 10 career rushing touchdowns for Aikman).
And then came the key play of the game. The Vikings responded by driving to the Cowboys 30-yard line. On 3rd-down they called the perfect play, easily beating a Cowboys blitz Brad Johnson found a wide-open Amp Lee out of the backfield and Lee seemed to have an easy waltz into the end zone. Except right as Lee entered the end zone, safety George Teague made a play at the ball from behind.
Amazingly Lee’s punch at the ball from behind was successful, dislodging the ball and resulting in a touchback. Rather than a tie score midway through the 1st period the Vikings were still behind 7 – 0 with the Cowboys in possession of the ball. The Cowboys offense again mounted a long, ball-control drive but stalled inside the Viking’s 10-yard line (a problem that plagued the team throughout the season). A field goal stretched the lead to 10 – 0.
Teague struck again on the next drive, causing a fumble which was recovered by Dallas. Emmitt Smith then raced in untouched from 37 yards for a 17-0 lead. The Cowboys had been virtually unstoppable at this point. The offense was simply running over the under-sized Vikings who had finished last against the run in the regular season.
Teague then ended the game on the next drive when he intercepted a Brad Johnson pass and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown and a 24 – 0 lead six and a half minutes into the 2nd quarter. The rest of the game was largely garbage time as the Cowboys had imposed their will and neutered any hope of a Vikings victory in the first 22 minutes of the game.
When it was over the Cowboys had compiled 40 points, 438 yards of offense, 255 yards rushing and 3 rushing touchdowns, 6 turnovers, 2 sacks and a ridiculous 42-to-18 minute time of possession advantage. It was dominance in every way imaginable.
Thus, despite starting 1 – 3 and enduring suspensions, injuries and inconsistent sloppy play at time, the Dallas team than advanced to the division round of the playoffs looked a lot like past Cowboys teams. This was the team that would face Carolina in Charlotte:
- Winners of 10 of their last 12 competitive games (the team did not compete their meaningless week 16 matchup)
- Winners of 11 of their last 12 playoff games
- Fresh off a dominating playoff performance where every phase of the game performed well
Many, including myself, thought the team might be able to make a deep playoff run with the team playing the best they had all season. Little did we know the Cowboys wouldn’t win another playoff game for 13 years.
- Season: 1996
- Date: 1997.01.05
- Opponent: Carolina Panthers
- At stake: advance to the NFC Championship
- Result: Loss
- Score: 26 - 17
The good fortune and quality play on display against Minnesota the week before was nowhere to be found against Carolina. The first five minutes of the game well captures the way things went throughout the day:
The Cowboys defense thwarts an in-progress Panther’s drive on a terrific interception from Darren Woodson.
On the team’s second offensive play Michael Irvin makes a 22-yard catch over the middle but is driven to the turf, injures his collar-bone and does not return. This leaves Troy Aikman throwing to Deion Sanders, Kevin Williams, Kelvin Martin (fresh off waivers) and Eric Bjornson the rest of the day. This did not prove an effective passing unit.
Nevertheless, Dallas moved downfield and had a 1st-and-goal from the Panther’s 3. All season the Cowboys struggled mightily in the red zone, ranking 24th. Those struggles continued with Aikman (under pressure) missing an open Eric Bjornson on 2nd down and a 3rd-and-2 run losing yards (Larry Allen of all people getting beat).
After settling for a short field goal the Cowboys seemed to have forced a 3-and-out from the Panthers but cornerback Kevin Smith was flagged for interference on 3rd down. Smith led the league in pass interference calls during the season and like the red zone woes, this problem would continue in the playoffs. The Panthers eventually moved 68 yards for a touchdown; 33 of the 68 yards came on penalties.
A quick Cowboys 3-and-out, a good punt return, a short 4th down conversion by Kerry Collins and then a 3rd-and-10 touchdown pass (Willie Green beat Kevin Smith) and suddenly the Cowboys faced a 14 – 3 deficit early in the game.
Dallas responded with their best drive of the game marching 77 yards on 14 plays. The touchdown came on a difficult 3rd-down catch by Darryl Johnson from 2 yards as the team yet again struggled close to the end zone. Still, they had matched the Panther’s touchdown but any momentum was quickly snuffed when Barry Switzer bizarrely elected to go for 2 despite more than 35 minutes remaining. I mean, of course it makes sense to attempt an unnecessary 2-point play when your team’s biggest weakness is goal line offense, right? Needless the say, the attempt failed and Dallas trailed by 5 instead of 4.
Amazingly, the Panthers gave the two points right back. After the Cowboys forced a 3-and-out the Carolina snapper snapped the ball far over the head of the punter, all the way to the back of the end zone where punter Rohn Stark wisely shoveled the ball out of bounds. The safety made the score 14 – 11. Sanders then returned the ensuing free kick to the Dallas 48.
Aikman, who had been extremely sharp throughout thus far, then missed Kelvin Martin who had beaten Eric Davis deep for what should have been an easy touchdown. The very next play Aikman foolishly threw into coverage and the interception was returned to the Cowboys 27 with less than 2 minutes remaining in the half.
Rather than getting at least a game-tying field goal as the half ended, it was instead the Panthers that put 3 more points on the board, stretching the lead to 17 – 11. The halftime stats were very even but the Cowboys faced a stiff challenge as the Panthers had outscored opponents 102 – 13 in the second half of games in Charlotte.
The Cowboys received the ball, a nice gain was negated by a hands-to-the-face penalty by Erik Williams (the rule a new one implemented specifically in response to William’s constantly pushing defenders in the face). This led to a quick 3-and-out and, making matter worse, Aikman injured his calf during the sequence.
Good fortune arrived, however, when Carolina fumbled the punt and the Cowboys recovered. A pass moved the ball to the five for 1st-and-goal. Two Emmitt Smith runs and an incomplete 3rd-down pass resulted in yet another 1st-and-goal failure. The field goal cut the lead to 3 just a few minutes into the half.
From this point forward the Panthers just slowly grinded the Cowboys into submission. Two time-consuming field goal drives surrounded a 3-and-out by the Cowboys, giving the Panthers a 9-point lead with just over 11 minutes remaining. Dallas did respond with a 78-yard drive. Unfortunately, they needed 80 for a touchdown and yet another 1st-and-goal failure resulted in a field goal that made the score 23 – 17. An Eric Bjornson drop of a would-be touchdown pass largely sealed the team’s fate. Dallas would need a stop and then a touchdown to pull the game out.
Carolina kick returner Michael Bates returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield. However, the Cowboys then forced a quick 3-and-out. The resulting punt, though, trapped Dallas on their own 2-yard line. A couple first downs provided brief hope but then Aikman was intercepted by Pat Terrell who returned the ball to the Dallas 19. The resulting field goal restored the 9-point lead with only 4 minutes remaining.
Any hopes of an epic comeback were squashed when Aikman was intercepted a 3rd time. The truth is Aikman was fighting a losing battle as soon as Michael Irvin went down with injury. Emmitt Smith did not look right the entire game, despite ending with 80 yards on 22 carries. At one point Madden commented that Smith didn’t seem to be playing with his usual passion.
It was a demoralizing turnaround from the previous week when the team looked capable of beating anyone. The Irvin injury reduced the offense to scrapping for every yard and completely helpless inside the 10-yard line. The Cowboys ran 7 plays from the 3-yard line or closer and lost a total of 3 yards on those 7 plays. You simply can’t win in the NFL when you can’t score from 3 yards out.
Thus, the Cowboys lost only their second of 13 playoff games since 1992, despite holding the opponent to 227 total yards and 100 yards passing. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last time a Cowboy’s team would have fan’s thinking Super Bowl for a decade. Future Cowboys teams with Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith would be competitive and even make the playoffs. But at no point would any of those teams seriously compete for a Super Bowl. The dynasty truly was over.
- Season: 1998
- Date: 1993.02.02
- Opponent: Arizona Cardinals
- At stake: advance to divisional round of NFC playoffs
- Result: Loss
- Score: 20 – 7
The 1998 Dallas Cowboys were the best Cowboys team of this era. After two years of ranking in the bottom 10 the offense rebounded to a top-10 rank in in both points and yards. Perhaps more importantly, the Cowboys led the league in surrendering the fewest turnovers (15), helping the team rank 3rd in turnover differential. This allowed the defense to rank 3rd in points allowed despite ranking 18th in yards allowed.
The Cowboy’s 10 – 6 record was relatively unimpressive for a division winner yet they were in charge of the division from beginning to end. The Redskins started 0-7. The Giants were 3-7 after 10 weeks. The Eagles finished 3-13 (ha-ha). And the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs on the strength of a 3-game winning streak to end the season with a 9-7 record.
The Cowboys 8-0 division record was both the reason the team won the division and a reflection of how truly horrible the NFC East was in 1998. The Cowboys strength of schedule rating of -3.1 was the team’s easiest since 1971 (eight games against teams that combined to go 26 – 38).
The bottom line was most Cowboy fans and NFL pundits viewed the team’s home wild card round playoff game against Arizona as a warmup for the team’s inevitable advance to the division round for the 7th time in 8 years. After all, the Cowboys had already beaten the Cardinals twice, scoring 73 points in the process.
The Cardinals had been lucky to advance to the playoffs, needing three straight wins (including an overtime victory) simply to reach the post-season. Seven of the team’s 9 wins were by 3 points or less. Further, no version of the Cardinals had beaten the Cowboys in Texas Stadium since 1989. Nothing about the Cardinals indicated anything more than short-lived nuisance.
I’ll admit, I assumed victory.
And I could not have been more wrong. Watching the entire game on video was a horror show. Things start very badly with the absolute worst announcing team in the history of the NFL: Joe Theismann, Paul ("lemme tell ya somethin’") McGuire and Mike Patrick. I hated these guys for years and never understood how they stayed on as the ESPN Sunday night team year after year. Watching this game simply reinforced by previously held beliefs regarding these guys.
Problems that had plagued the offense ’96 and ’97 cropped up in the first drive, which featured a dropped pass and a false start. The second drive then died at the 19-yard line. Richie Cunningham, who had made 63-of-72 previous field goals missed from 36 yards. This was immediately followed by a 59-yard catch-and-run from Jake Plummer to Frank Sanders.
It was the Cardinal’s longest play of the season. Cornerback Terrance Mathis isn’t in the same zip code as Sanders when the ball is caught. The Cowboys seemed in good position to hold when they forced a 3rd-and-10. But a 3rd down blitz was perfectly countered by the Cardinals with a shovel pass resulting in an easy 12-yard touchdown by Adrian Murrell.
After a Cowboys punt Mathis then intercepted Plummer, giving the ball to Dallas at their own 37. The Cowboys responded with their best drive of the game. They marched to the Cardinal’s 9-yard line on 6 straight runs. On 3rd-and-3 they ran for a 7th straight time and Emmitt appeared to have a wide opening but tripped on his own man, resulting in 4th-and-1. An 8th straight run never had a chance as two Cardinals defenders penetrated to drop Smith for a 2-yard loss.
Two penetrations deep into Cardinals territory had yielded 0 points. Neither players or fans knew it but the game was effectively over.
From that point forward the Cowboys offense was almost completely ineffective. All Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams matched up with Michael Irvin (4 catches, 32 yards) and no other receiver could seem to get open. Emmitt Smith ran for only 74 yards on 16 carries and the Cowboys totaled only 260 yards.
The team’s next 8 drives:
That’s 39 yards on 26 plays over 8 drives; 2 first downs and an average drive length of 5 yards. It was embarrassing and humiliating. I was astounded watching at how the Cardinal’s defense completely blanketed the Cowboy’s receivers; you never saw a single receiver open. Not once. Every complete pass was contested. Aikman’s final numbers of 22-for-49 for 191, 3 interceptions, 4 sacks and a 37 rating are abysmal. But honestly, he never had a chance. Only a mobile QB would have given the Cowboys a chance for victory on this day, because Dan Marino in his prime wasn’t going to do much better.
Trailing 10 – 0 at halftime any hope for a comeback was immediately thwarted when Adrian Murrell (him again) raced 74 yards on the second play of the 2nd half. A short touchdown pass two plays later gave the Cardinals a 17 – 0 lead and the Cowboys never seriously threatened.
A Chris Jacke field goal early in the 4th quarter made the score 20-0. A last gasp Cowboys drive which reached the Cardinal’s 5-yard line ended with another 4th down failure. For those counting that’s four drives inside the Cardinal’s 19-yard line that yielded 0 points. Only a meaningless, garbage-time touchdown from Aikman to Billy Davis avoided the humiliation of being shut out at home.
The victory was the Cardinal’s first playoff win since 1947 (and 2nd in franchise history). Thus, the Team of the Decade won 12 playoff games but also lost playoff games to the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals, two teams which had combined to win 0 playoff games in the previous 31 years.
The loss was shocking. Dallas was non-competitive in what was supposed to be an easy win. I feel this game has been largely forgotten and I’m not sure why. I think part of it is we fans became spoiled by the success of the early 90’s and when the team was merely good, as opposed to dominating, we kind of lost interest.
I watched the game with a group of what I’d call casual fans and nobody seemed to care. They had become accustomed to the Cowboys winning Super Bowls and being the unquestioned best; anything short of that elicited yawns. Little did I know the franchise would have very few games that would matter over the next 8 years or so.
- Season: 1999
- Date: 1999.09.12
- Opponent: Washington Redskins
- At stake: division matchup
- Result: Win
- Score: 41 – 35
The three largest comebacks in Dallas Cowboy’s history all featured the team overcoming a 21-point deficit. I don’t think the average fan would be able name one of them. This opening game of the 1999 season against the Redskins is my favorite of the three. (The others, by the way, were against New Orleans in 1984 when Danny White relieved an ineffective Gary Hogeboom and 2014 against St. Louis).
Dallas was coming off another 10-win season, another division title and another disappointing playoff exit. Troy Aikman was still handing the ball to Emmitt Smith and throwing it to Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders was still shutting down opposing receivers. They were still America’s Team, on the front of magazines, featured on prime-time telecasts and generally the most popular team in North American sports.
This game featured it all:
- Over 1,000 yards of offense
- Big plays all over the field
- Dramatic, gut-wrenching changes of fortune
- And finally, the greatest comeback in Dallas Cowboys history
Things started smartly for Dallas as the offense drove 80+ yards on each of the team’s first two drives. More importantly, the team converted each drive into 7 points on two touchdown passes to David LaFleur (if you had told me David LaFleur had two touchdowns in the same game I simply wouldn’t have believed it; he had 12 his entire career). Among the forgotten plays during this sequence was Raghib Ismail dropping a sure 60+ yard touchdown pass on a perfectly executed play-action fake.
The Cowboy’s touchdowns surrounded a field goal by the Redskins for a 14 – 3 lead early in the 2nd quarter. Pro Football’s Win Probability calculator gave the Cowboys a 79% likelihood of winning. All was right in the world.
Then, over the next two quarters the Redskins scored 32 consecutive points. The Redskins scored four touchdowns, a field goal and a 2-point conversion on 8 drives. The offense netted 408 yards on those drives, each traveling at least 48 yards. They averaged almost 11 yards per play. Only two fumbles deep inside Cowboy’s territory prevented Washington from putting up even more points. The Cowboys defense seemed to have no idea how to stop the Redskins.
Simultaneously, the Cowboys offense which started so effectively was wholly ineffective. Over six drives the team totaled 36 yards, netted two first downs and turned the ball over twice:
This was arguably the worst 30 minutes of football the Cowboys had played since the 1 – 15 debacle of 1989. Thus, as the game entered the 4th quarter the Cowboys trailed 35 – 14. The Win Probability Calculator gave Dallas a 0.1% chance of winning at this point. The Cowboys had been thoroughly whipped on both sides of the ball, looking like boys against men.
Thus, it was hard to envision the team suddenly coming to life and orchestrating a 21- point 4th quarter comeback. But that’s exactly what happened. You’d think the comeback would feature quick strike scores but that’s not what happened. Instead, down 21 with only 15 minutes remaining Dallas decided to establish the run, handing the ball off 8 straight times on an 11-play drive that ended with an Emmitt Smith touchdown run.
Now down 14 with under 11 minutes remaining Dallas pulled off a successful onside kick that turned momentum the Cowboy’s way. Darren Woodson and Dat Nguyen both made brilliant plays on the ball; Woodson keeping it inbounds and Nguyen then possessing it without going out of bounds. (Matt Millen announced this game and is so clueless he doesn’t believe the onside kick was on purpose; he thinks the kicker just happened to shank the ball to a perfect position for the Cowboys to recover. Never underestimate the stupidity of Matt Millen).
I was shocked watching the video of this game to learn the Cowboys didn’t turn the good fortune into points. Instead, they turned the ball over on downs at the Redskins 28 after two consecutive incomplete passes to Michael Irvin. The Dallas defense did force a 3-and-out from the Redskins (the Redskins first punt since the team’s first drive of the game).
Down 14 with 6:15 remaining at their own 34 the Win Probability number stood, again, at 0.1%. The best way to capture what happened over the next 10 minutes of game time is to recognize that Troy Aikman had 150 yards passing at this point but would end with 362. First, an 18-yard pass to Ismail set up a 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Irvin. (The replay showed Irvin didn’t actually score but the Redskins failed to challenge. Matt Millen stated that was a wise decision because the Cowboys likely would have scored from the 1 any way and they needed to keep both their challenges. Again, never underestimate the stupidity of Matt Millen.)
The Cowboys were now within 7 points with just under 4 minutes remaining. The once-raucous Redskin fans were now very nervous and the Cowboys were fully energized. A 31-yard 1st down pass from Brad Johnson to Michael Westbrook moved the ball near mid-field and seemed to signal the excitement was about to end. But then three straight runs failed to move the ball anywhere and Washington punted; the Cowboys taking over at their own 10 with 3:01 remaining.
The next drive was not a classic, come-from-behind series of signature plays. Four times the Redskins jumped off-sides, giving the Cowboys 20 free yards. Sandwiched between the penalties were short catches by Irvin, Ismail and Jeff Ogden (Jeff Ogden?). Not until the Cowboys reached the Redskins 12-yard line did they face a 3rd-down. That’s when Aikman hit Irvin for a 12-yard touchdown and a 35 – 34 score. Naturally, the extra point bounced off the upright, nearly derailing the entire comeback, but luckily crossed over for the point and a tie game. The 14-play drive (including penalties) took only 1:11, leaving the Redskins 1:50 on the clock to mount their own comeback.
Again, however, the Redskins were ineffective, using only 14 seconds while going nowhere. A short punt gave the Cowboy’s possession at their own 47 with 1:30 remaining. Remarkably Dallas was now in position to win the game. With momentum firmly on the Cowboy’s side it only makes sense that Aikman immediately threw an interception and gave Washington yet another chance, starting from their own 37. On first down Johnson fumbles the snap, picks it up and throws a blind desperation pass down the sidelines which flies 8 yards over the receiver’s head. Terrance Mathis is ruled to have interfered, however, and the ball is advanced to the Cowboy’s 23. The Redskins are happy to try the 40-yard field goal and make no attempt to advance the ball. In a game that featured everything else, it makes sense that punter Matt Turk would drop the snap on the field goal try then wildly toss the ball for what could have easily ended up a Cowboy’s touchdown. But it didn’t; the game instead ending regulation in a 35 – 35 tie.
Whew. Watching those last few minutes I was dumbstruck. I had completely forgotten all that extra drama after the Cowboys tied the game. The Redskins received the OT kickoff and looked in good position when they moved into Cowboy’s territory. A Greg Ellis sack on 3rd-down, however, forced a punt. Washington then pinned the Cowboy’s down on their own 5-yardline when Turk made a perfect punt.
Emmitt Smith then made a terrific 3rd-down play, taking an outlet pass and racing around the corner to just barely make the 1st down marker (watching all these games…he seemed to just reach the 1st down marker a lot). Two more plays left the Cowboy’s facing 3rd-and-1 from their own 24.
Remember that perfect play-action pass from the first quarter when Ismail dropped a sure long touchdown? Nah, neither did the Redskins. Aikman executed the fake perfectly, both safeties bit hard and Ismail raced past them. Aikman’s pass was placed perfectly, Ismail caught it easily and joyously raced alone into the end zone to complete the 21-point 4th quarter comeback.
Washington fans sat in stunned silence. Cowboy’s players raced around deliriously. It was a truly remarkable game and if you’ve forgotten it it’s worth revisiting (at least the final 20 minutes or so).
It was a disorienting tale of three distinct, separate games. Consider, both teams flip-flopped from dominating on both sides of the ball for sustained periods of time:
The Cowboys would go on to a 3 – 0 start to the season but would win only five of their next 13 games. They snuck into the playoffs as a wild card team with an 8 – 8 record. Their reward would be a visit to Minnesota to take on a Vikings team that featured Randy Moss, Chris Carter, Jake Reed and Robert Smith. They would enter the game without Michael Irvin, whose career ended suddenly on the hard turf of Veteran’s Stadium. He was diagnosed with a narrow spinal cord and advised continuing his career would risk permanent paralysis.
Typically, Philadelphia fans cheered when Irvin was removed on a stretcher. This never bothered Irvin who commented:
"It was a compliment for Philly to cheer me," said Irvin, who later learned that a narrowing of the spinal column made it too dangerous for him to continue his career. "Philly wasn’t cheering my injury. They were cheering my departure.
"Thank God he’s leaving the field, he’s been killing us. Thank God, maybe now we have a chance to win.
"You’ve never heard me say one negative thing about the Philadelphia crowd."
- Season: 1999
- Date: 2000.01.09
- Opponent: Minnesota Vikings
- At stake: advance to division round of playoffs
- Result: Loss
- Score: 27 – 10
I honestly had no real personal memory of this game. I remember the Cowboys were expected to lose and they did lose and it wasn’t particularly close. So, I was equally surprised and frustrated when I watched the video to see:
The Cowboys were the clearly better team for the first 28 minutes of the game
Yet they entered the 2nd half down 7 points because all the errors, miscues and dysfunction that plagued the team throughout the last half of the 90’s were on vivid display.
The first sequence of the game perfectly captured both the exciting potential these Cowboys sometimes exhibited as well as the mind-numbing, bone-headed actions that repeatedly undermined the good they showed.
On only the third play from scrimmage Emmitt Smith, playing in his final playoff game, had his longest post-season run (and longest playoff run in Cowboy’s history). The 66-yard gallop was vintage Emmitt Smith as he broke three tackles. And yet, somehow, despite having two blockers and only a single defender Smith was brought down short of the goal line. The inability to convert this 66-yard run into a 69-yard touchdown would prove fateful. The following series, starting with 1st and goal on the 3:
- Smith 2.7 yard run up the middle to 1-foot line
- The play employed two lead blockers; Robert Thomas completely whiffed on his man or Smith scores easily
- Smith run wide left for no gain
- The Cowboys then can’t line up in time and with 11:34 remaining in the 1st quarter use their first time out.
- Aikman then badly misses a wide-open Eric Bjornson for an easy touchdown. But it doesn’t matter because Emmitt Smith moved too soon and was penalized for illegal motion.
- The Cowboys then kick a field goal.
This used to drive me crazy as it would happen all the time. The Cowboys would be unable to snap the ball after a time-out or stoppage of play. I don’t understand it now and I didn’t understand it then. How, after having several minutes to catch your breath, go through your assignments and prepare for the next play, are you not able to execute a snap of the football?
Thus, the failure to finish the long Emmitt run, a missed block on 1st down, disorganization lining up, a poorly thrown pass and a penalty all conspired to deprive Dallas of an opening drive touchdown on the road against a superior team.
The Cowboys defense then forced a 3-and-out in what was largely a terrific defensive 1st half. Unfortunately, Deion Sanders fumbled the punt giving the Vikings the ball in Dallas territory. The Dallas defense again forced a 3-and-out but on 3rd down Jeff George scrambled for just enough yards to put the Vikings into field goal range. The converted kick tied the score at 3.
The Cowboys offense then took over and, not being able to line up properly, used their 2nd timeout with only six minutes off the clock. Aikman then hit Ismail on a brilliant play for 25-yards. (Ismail had arguably the best game of his career: 8 catches for 163 yards). Two plays later, facing a 3rd-and-6 Dallas again couldn’t line up and used their 3rd timeout. On the ensuing play, Erik Williams is penalized for a false start.
For those keeping score at home, that’s 3 time-outs and two false starts in the first 10 minutes of the game. Both false starts came after the offense called time out. And yet, facing 3rd-and-11 Aikman hit Ismail for 14 yards and a first down. The drive eventually resulted in a nice Emmitt Smith cutback touchdown run and a 10 – 3 lead.
At this point in the game the Cowboys offense, despite all the dysfunction, had moved at will, running up 145 yards’ offense in two series. The defense had contributed two 3-and-outs and yet the lead was only 7 points due to a turnover and all the various miscues.
The second quarter began with the high-powered Vikings offense having 11 yards and 0 yards passing. The Vikings did finally get a first down, moving to mid-field but the Cowboys again forced a punt. But the Cowboys sent too many men on the field on the punt, giving the Vikings a first down via penalty. Luckily, it didn’t cost the Cowboys as the defense held yet again and forced a punt.
The Dallas offense faced a 3rd-and-2 on their next drive. Aikman hits Robert Thomas who fought for a first down but then fumbled with the Vikings recovering. Two unsuccessful plays and a penalty left the Vikings with a 3rd-and-25 from the 26-yard line. Robert Smith is left wide open in the flat, which is fine because surely the defense can rally and stop him before he gets to the first down marker. But no…George Teague, despite having the sidelines a foot away, allows Smith to waltz right by him and into the end zone.
The Cowboys offense had two long drives and the defense had surrendered exactly one noteworthy play by the Vikings offense. And yet the score was tied. It was that kind of game. Aikman hit a wide-open Cowboy named "Brazzle" for what should have been an easy 3rd-down conversion but Brazzle dropped the ball. (This is the first name I’ve come across in this entire "History of…" exercise that I simply did not recognize. Chris Brazzle apparently played two years for the Cowboys, catching 7 balls and dropping the only one that mattered).
The Dallas defense then held again, with back-to-back sacks ending the drive. Facing 3rd-and-8 Aikman then placed a perfect pass to a wide-open Chris Warren 30 yards down the field. Warren dropped the ball; it would have easily moved Dallas deep into Vikings territory.
The Cowboys defense then appeared to have another stop when they forced the Vikings into a 3rd-and-11. Robert Smith, however, ran for 12 yards to keep the drive alive. Deion Sanders was hurt on the play and went off the field. With 30 seconds remaining in the half, George then hit Randy Moss for a 60-yard touchdown on the following play. After an excellent offensive start and a defense that had given up virtually nothing the first 29 and a half minutes…. the Cowboys trailed 17 – 10. Adding salt to the wound, Aikman hit Ismail for a long pass to midfield but, because they had no timeouts remaining, were unable to move into field goal position.
Like I said, I was equally impressed and frustrated watching the video. It was educational, however, in reminding me how completely dysfunctional the team was under Chan Gailey. The events of the first half were not unusual; lining up and snapping the ball was a persistent problem during that time. Wasted time-outs, penalties and poor red-zone execution were staples of the ’98-’99 team. Gailey was a good coach in many ways but those problems seemed to vex his Cowboys team.
The second half was rather uneventful. The Cowboys offense could never really get untracked. The team’s first drive was its most promising, but stalled at the Vikings 34. Rather than attempt a long field goal Gailey chose to punt. The ball was promptly kicked into the end-zone, giving the Vikings the ball at their own 20 for a net gain of 14 yards. The Vikings then managed a field goal. The Cowboys went 3-and-out and the Vikings then used a long Robert Smith run to score another touchdown, giving the Vikings a 27 – 10 lead to effectively end the game.
Dallas did drive deep into Minnesota territory a couple times but each drive ended in a turnover. First Jason Tucker fumbled fighting for extra yards at the Vikings 6 yard line. Then on 2nd-and-goal Aikman threw the ball directly to a Vikings defender. Thus, the Cowboys had the ball four times inside the Vikings 10-yard line and came away with 10 points.
Dallas needed to play a perfect game in Minnesota to beat a better team. They didn’t come close. Despite making many plays they also repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with penalties, dropped passes, sideline confusion and generally sloppy, error-riddled play. Watching the video just reminded me how frustrating the team was in those years.
The game was the last gasp of a once dominant dynasty. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Darren Woodson, Erik Williams, Larry Allen, Mark Stepnoski, Chad Henning, Kevin Smith…none would ever participate in another playoff game with the Cowboys. Their era was over. With Jerry Jones in complete control and having no idea how to run the football side of an NFL franchise the team would wander in the wilderness for many years to come.
The 2000 season started with a new coach (Dave Campo), a shiny new receiver acquired in a trade that cost two first round draft picks (Joey Galloway) and an embarrassing, humiliating home defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles by the score of 41 – 14. The team simply wasn’t ready to play. They looked clueless from the very beginning, when the Eagles recovered an opening onside kick. The score was 21 – 0 a minute into the 2nd quarter. Troy Aikman was injured shortly after. Dallas players looked unprepared and out of shape; many suffering dehydration in the Texas heat while Eagles players looked fresh and energetic. Finally, late in the game, Joey Galloway suffered a season-ending knee injury while on the field in a blowout loss.
Dallas had been outgained 425 to 127, was sacked 5 times, held the ball for only 20 minutes and saw their franchise quarterback and expensive new acquisition leave the field with injuries.
You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more demoralizing opening game loss. It was the beginning of a very dark era in Dallas Cowboy’s history. The team would be a joke for many years. We’ll look at that period in our next chapter.