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Cowboys history: The absurd post-season performances of Alvin Harper

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The wideout was a big-play machine for the Cowboys back in the day.

Super Bowl XXVII: Buffalo Bills v Dallas Cowboys Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken many of the sports things we look forward to, so let’s instead take a look back. Today we’re going to return to the early 90’s and a player who enjoyed a brief, but explosive, career as a Dallas Cowboy.

Alvin Harper was a 6-foot, 3-inch wide receiver who wowed many with his array of highlight-reel plays. Harper was drafted by the Cowboys in the first round of the 1991 draft. He was one of three first round picks by the Cowboys that year (Russell Maryland and Kelvin Pritchett were the others).

Harper had not only excelled at football in high school and college, but was an outstanding track and field athlete as well. Harper won the 1989 SEC Indoor High Jump Championship and anchored the Volunteers 4 X 100 and 4 X 400 relay teams.

Harper’s four-year stint with the Cowboys is not particularly impressive from a statistical view. He never topped 50 catches, 850 yards or eight TDs in a season:

Harper doesn’t rank in the top 15 of any stat in Cowboys history. In fact, his highest ranking is 19th in career touchdowns (behind Terry Glenn and ahead of Mike Renfro):

And yet, outside of Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman, no other player had a bigger impact in the Cowboys’ post-season dominance of the early 90’s. Let’s take at look at his biggest plays.

Play #1

Year: 1991

Opponent: at Chicago Bears

Round: Wild Card

Score: Cowboys 10 - Bears 3

Time: 0:10(?) remaining in first half

Situation: The Cowboys had largely controlled the first half of this game and enjoyed a 10-0 lead in the first half. A late goal-line stand had forced the Bears to kick a short field goal to avoid a first half shutout, with 15 seconds remaining.

A squibbed kick-off and return by Kenny Gant left the Cowboys on their own 25-yard line with something less that 15 seconds (the broadcast never shows the clock so it’s unclear exactly how much time remained).

That’s when this happened:

Harper somehow snags a long pass between two Bears defenders and comes down with a 45-yard catch. You can see both Michael Irvin and Kelvin Martin signaling timeout. But the clock is not shown and when it finally comes up it shows 0:00.

Cowboys players and coaches argue vehemently there should have been an opportunity for another play, but it isn’t given. So, in the end, the catch had no impact on the outcome of the game. But had a timeout been granted the Cowboys would have had the opportunity to line up for a last-play field goal attempt.

More importantly, we see Harper making a high difficulty catch for a big play. We’ll see this is something Harper excelled at as the Cowboys would go on to win seven playoff games and two Super Bowls over the next three seasons.

Play #2

Year: 1992

Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles

Round: Division

Score: Cowboys 7 - Eagles 3

Time: 2:00 remaining in first half

Situation: The first half of this game had been a classic NFC East defensive struggle. Dallas had a 1st-and-10 at their own 44-yard line when this happened:

Harper gained a step on the smaller Mark McMillan and hauled in a perfectly placed Troy Aikman pass for a 41-yard catch. The Cowboys set up at the Eagles 14 and two plays later a Jay Novacek touchdown catch would give them a 14-3 lead en route to a dominating 34-10 victory to send the Cowboys to San Francisco for an NFC Championship showdown.

Play #3

Year: 1992

Opponent: at San Francisco 49ers

Round: Conference Championship

Score: Cowboys 10 - 49ers 10

Time: 12:00 (approximately) remaining in third quarter

SItuation: The teams had battled to a 10-10 tie at halftime. Dallas received the opening kickoff and moved to the 49er’s 45-yard line. A Michael Irvin catch-and-run on the previous play had converted a key 3rd-and-7 where Aikman stood tall and withstood a hard hit to deliver the pass. On 1st-and-10 this happened:

A different angle shows the degree of difficulty as cornerback Eric Davis actually was in better position to catch the ball but Harper simply jumped higher and snatched the ball away from Davis.

Two plays later Daryl Johnston would score from four yards out to give the Cowboys a 17-10 lead. The Cowboys would eventually take a 24-13 lead but a late fourth quarter touchdown from Steve Young to Jerry Rice with just over four minutes remaining set up Harper’s next big play.

Play #4

Year: 1992

Opponent: at San Francisco 49ers

Round: Conference Championship

Score: Cowboys 24 - 49ers 20

Time: 4:22 remaining in 4th quarter

Situation: A seemingly safe Cowboys lead had been diminished when the 49ers completed a 93-yard touchdown drive to pull within four points. The Cowboys needed a couple first downs to ensure the victory and possessed the league’s top rusher in Emmitt Smith. Naturally, on first down Aikman dropped back to pass and this happened:

This is Alvin Harper’s most well-known play. It was the single biggest play in the Cowboys’ eventual victory over the 49ers and arguably the single most noteworthy play of the Cowboys’ ascent from contender to king of the NFL.

Dallas would score three plays later on a Kelvin Martin touchdown (a missed extra point attempt would yield the 30-20 final). The Cowboys would advance to their first Super Bowl appearance in 14 years.

Play #5

Year: 1992

Opponent: Buffalo Bills

Round: Super Bowl

Score: Cowboys 31 - Bills 17

Time: 4:56 remaining in 4th quarter

Situation: The Cowboys had seized control of Super Bowl XXVII late in the first half with two touchdowns to give the team a 28-10 lead. But Dallas managed only a field goal in the third quarter and a Buffalo touchdown had closed the gap to 14 points.

The teams then traded punts until just under five minutes remained. Dallas had a first down at the Bills 45-yard line when this happened:

Harper beat his man cleanly off the line of scrimmage, outran him to the end zone and easily collected yet another perfectly thrown ball from Troy Aikman. The 45-yard touchdown was the finisher. Dallas would go on to score two more touchdowns as the Bills absolutely folded under the Cowboys’ assault.

Play #6

Year: 1993

Opponent: San Francisco 49ers

Round: Conference Championship

Score: Cowboys 28 - 49ers 14

Time: 3:34 remaining in third quarter

Situation: Dallas had dominated the first half, taking a commanding 28-7 lead. But Troy Aikman suffered a concussion late in the first half and would not play in the second half. The 49ers managed to claw within 14 points. The Cowboys struggled to move the ball, with -6 yards of offense on the team’s first three second half drives. Momentum was on the 49ers’ side as the Cowboys took over on their own 17 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.

A clutch conversion from Bernie Kosar to Michael Irvin on 3rd-and-nine kept the drive alive. Another pass to Jay Novacek moved the ball past midfield. Two plays later Dallas faced 3rd-and-four when this happened:

Harper makes a spectacular play, spinning 360 degrees while simultaneously high-pointing a ball over two defenders. The 42-yard touchdown electrified Texas Stadium, giving the Cowboys a 21-point lead en route to an eventual 38 - 21 victory.

Play #7

Year: 1993

Opponent: Buffalo Bills

Round: Super Bowl

Score: Cowboys 27 - Buffalo 13

Time: 3:31 remaining in fourth quarter

Situation: Dallas had dominated the entire second half of this game, turning a 13-6 deficit into a 27-13 advantage. Dallas faced a third-and-one when AIkman went for a kill shot to Harper and this happened:

Harper would come up just short of the goal-line and Dallas would eventually kick a field goal for the game’s final margin of 30-13.

Play #8

Year: 1994

Opponent: Green Bay Packers

Round: Division

Score: Cowboys 7 - Packers 3

Time: 3:49 remaining in first quarter

Situation: Nursing a four-point lead late in the first quarter, Dallas took over on their own six-yard line. Rather than handing the ball to Emmitt Smith to gain some field position the Cowboys chose to take a deep shot and this happened:

The offensive line held off Reggie White and the Packers’ pass rush, Aikman delivered a beautiful deep ball and a streaking Harper snatched it in stride en route a 94-yard touchdown. Now leading 14-3 Dallas would cruise to an easy 35-9 victory.

It was the longest touchdown pass play from scrimmage in NFL history when it happened and still stands as the second longest (a 96-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer to Sterling Sharpe now holds the record). The play still stands as the longest post-season touchdown in Cowboys’ history, longer even then Miles Austin’s kickoff return (93 yards) against Seattle in 2006.

Summary

That’s eight plays of 35+ yards, including two touchdowns and two plays that covered 70+ yards. From 1991 to 1994 Harper played in ten playoff games and put up the following numbers:

Twenty-seven yards per completion and 18 yards per target - those are absurd numbers.

Harper’s Cowboys career would end a week after that Green Bay game, when the Cowboys’ bid for a three-peat ended in Candlestick Park against the 49ers. Harper would have only one catch for fourteen yards. The game was played in muddy conditions and most players looked like they’d wrestled with pigs but Harper’s jersey was spotless on the game’s final series:

It was a quiet ending for a player who had made huge plays routine in the post-season. Harper was a free agent after the 1994 season and signed with Tampa Bay. He would catch only three touchdown passes for the Bucs and recorded less than 1,000 yards receiving. His third season with the Bucs he would catch only two passes and at the age of 29 his NFL career was essentially over.

Watching these plays was a fun exercise. We see the electrifying athleticism and uncanny big-play ability Harper gave to the Cowboys. In many ways, he was the perfect complement to Aikman, Smith and Irvin. Those three were extremely reliable on a play-to-play, series-to-series basis. Harper wasn’t needed to get a first down on 3rd-and-7 or to close out a game with a lead. But his explosive playmaking ability gave the Cowboys a game-changing element that, when activated, proved deadly.

One other thing stood out to me. On virtually every one of these highlights we see two things:

  • An offensive line that was almost perfect. The quarterback drops back and has no one in his face, never has to move in the pocket and has a clear throwing lane and the ability to follow through.
  • Troy Aikman’s deep ball accuracy was outstanding. It’s shocking how many times the receiver is not only able to make the catch but frequently does so in stride, able to continue running without adjusting at all.

When you added Alvin Harper to those two elements, well, you get what you see in the images above.