1996 Review: Even More Distractions at Season’s End

Leon Lett looked like a star until a suspension ended his 1996 season.

After a week 14 win over the Redskins in 1996, the Cowboys were tied for the division lead at 8-5. The defense was starting to come together, and Leon Lett was developing into a star.

And then came the news that he had yet again violated the league’s substance-abuse policy when he tested positive for cocaine. He was gone for an entire year. In his place, Dallas signed former Oiler Ray Childress, who had retired after playing in only six games in 1995. The Dallas defense just wasn’t the same.

Dallas managed a first-round playoff win before more bad news– Michael Irvin and Erik Williams were accused of sexually assaulting a woman in Dallas. Although the allegations turned out to be false, the news did anything but help the Cowboys in their push to win a fourth title during the 1990s.

Wildcard Round: Dallas 40, Minnesota 15

The same team that could only manage at total of 59 points over its last five games exploded for 40 points against Minnesota. Emmitt Smith had 116 yards on the ground, while Irvin added 103 in receiving yards. An unexpected hero was George Teague, who forced three turnovers and scored on a 29-yard interception return.

(You might know that the Cowboys didn’t win another playoff game for a few more years after this game. These summaries are going to get shorter.)

Divisional Round: Carolina 26, Dallas 17

The Panthers didn’t exist when the Cowboys won Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993.  Few probably remember a former Notre Dame fullback named Anthony Johnson, who had played for four teams by 1996. However, he had a career season that year by rushing for 1,120. Against the Panthers in the 1996 playoffs, the Cowboys finally missed Leon Lett, as Johnson made the Cowboys pay by not having a dominant force in the middle. Johnson rushed for 104 yards on 26 carries and helped to set up four John Kasay field goals. On offense, Dallas had to deal with a week’s worth of news about the rape charges, but a greater problem on the field was having to replace Irvin when he injured his shoulder. Troy Aikman could only manage 165 passing yards in the loss, which meant that the Cowboys would not play in the NFC title game for the first time since 1991.

  • Jason Neighbors

    IIRC, Irvin got injured on the Cowboy’s first series? I remember him burning the Panthers secondary on an out, then coming right back and doing it again, but this time getting hurt during the tackle.

  • I think you are right that it was the first series. He only caught one pass for 22 yards, and I don’t recall exactly what happened on the play when he was hurt (for that matter, I prefer not to think of this game…).