1996 Review: Cowboys Overcome 1-3 Start to Win NFC East Again

Deion Sanders was a true two-way player in 1996, excelling at defense and catching 36 passes as a receiver.

Although many expected that the Cowboys could win Super Bowl XXXI by holding off the Green Bay Packers for one more season, the team was a somewhat odd mix of talent. Michael Irvin would miss the first five games due to suspension, leaving the team with two-way player Deion Sanders, Kevin Williams, and Kelvin Martin as the wideouts. Along with K-Mart, the Cowboys brought back another star who began his career in the 1980s by signing Herschel Walker. Fitting– the player whose trade sparked the Dallas revival came back just in time to see the franchise start to decline once again.

Some good news: Deion was still dominant, and the defense benefited as a result. Less than good news: Deion and fellow corner Kevin Smith never developed into the dominant duo as the team had hoped.

The bad outweighed the good for the first quarter of the season, as the Cowboys found themselves with a 1-3 record. The team picked itself up off the canvas, though, and salvaged the season.

Week 1: Chicago 22, Dallas 6

Opening on Monday Night Football, the Cowboys struggled all evening at Soldier’s Field. Dallas committed four turnovers including three fumbles. The worst moment occurred when Emmitt Smith appeared to suffer a serious neck injury. A possible bright spot: Deion Sanders caught nine passes for 87 yards.

Week 2: Dallas 27, N.Y. Giants 0

Emmitt Smith shook off his neck injury to rush for 82 yards on 24 carries. Meanwhile, Troy Aikman threw three touchdowns in the first half to give the Cowboys a comfortable lead. The Dallas defense held Dave Brown to 55 passing yards.

Week 3: Indianapolis 25, Dallas 24

The Cowboys blew a 21-3 lead in the first half, and when Cary Blanchard kicked a 43-yard field goal with 51 seconds left, the Cowboys were down by one. Chris Boniol had a chance to win the game with a 57-yard attempt as time expired, but the ball bounced off the crossbar.

Week 4: Buffalo 10, Dallas 7

The Cowboys struggeld on the road again, as Troy Aikman threw three interceptions. Smith managed a touchdown but otherwise only had 25 rushing yards in a terrible team effort.

Week 5: Dallas 23, Philadelphia 19

The Cowboys fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter at Philadelphia, but a long kickoff return by Herschel Walker sparked a Dallas comeback. The Cowboys stormed to a 20-10 lead and then held on to win 23-19. The win may have saved the Cowboys’ season.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: Dallas 17, Arizona 3

Michael Irvin returned from suspension and caught five passes for 51 yards. Smith gained 112 yards on the ground and had two touchdowns, enough to give Dallas a 17-3 win.

Week 8: Dallas 32, Atlanta 28

In a see-saw game, another player who began his career in the 1980s helped the Cowboys to a win. With the Cowboys trailing the winless Falcons with less than a minute remaining, Troy Aikman connected with Kelvin Martin on a 60-yard touchdown that gave the Cowboys their fourth win. Irvin was the real star, though, catching seven passes for 119 yards.

Week 9: Dallas 29, Miami 10

In a much-anticpated battle, the Cowboys went to Miami to face Jimmy Johnson and the Dolphins.  Miami led 10-9 at the half, but the Cowboys took the game over thanks to three touchdown passes by Aikman, who finished with 363 passing yards. It was the second-highest yardage total of his career and most passing yards since he threw for 379 in his rookie season.

Week 10: Philadelphia 31, Dallas 21

With the Cowboys trailing by three late in the game, it looked as if the Cowboys would either win the game on a touchdown or at least force overtime. Instead, Troy Aikman’s pass in the end zone wound up in the arms of linebacker James Willis, who pitched the ball to Troy Vincent, who ran the ball back 90 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

Week 11: Dallas 20, San Francisco 17

Playing at San Francisco for the first time since the 1994 NFC Championship Game, the Cowboys were in familiar territory by falling behind 10-0. However, the Cowboys continued to battle back time and time again and forced overtime. A run in overtime by Emmitt Smith helped to set up Boniol’s 29-yard field goal that gave Dallas the win. The Cowboys were just a game behind the 7-3 Redskins and 7-3 Eagles.

Week 12: Dallas 21, Green Bay 6

The Dallas defense suffocated the Green Bay offense for most of the night. Though Dallas could only manage field goals, Boniol was able to kick seven, which tied an NFL record.

As noted below, though, the Coboys had a difficult time scoring for the rest of the season.

Week 13: N.Y. Giants 20, Dallas 6

It might have been Smith’s worst game up to that point, as he managed only 18 yards on 11 carries against the Giants. Barry Switzer did the unthinkable in the second half by benching the star running back and going with Sherman Williams.

Week 14: Dallas 21, Washington 10

Smith rebounded in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Redskins, carrying 29 times for 155 yards and three touchdowns. The Dallas win left the Redskins, Eagles, and Cowboys with 8-5 records.

Week 15: Dallas 10, Arizona 6

Arizona nearly spoiled the Cowboys’ plans to take control of the NFC East, but a 50-yard touchdown pass from Aikman to Irvin sparked the Cowboys. Dallas forced four turnovers in a close win.

Week 16: Dallas 12, New England 6

The Cowboys wrapped up their fifth consecutive NFC East title by holding off the Patriots. Dallas also managed to beat both eventual Super Bowl contestants, though the Cowboys did so by kicking a total of 11 field goals and not scoring a single touchdown.

Week 17: Washington 37, Dallas 10

The Cowboys allowed the Redskins to enjoy their final game at RFK Stadium by resting the Dallas starters. It was no contest, though at least Herschel Walker got to score his lone touchdown of the 1996 season.