1997 Review: A Great Era Comes to a Crashing Halt

Barry and the Cowboys yawned their way to a 6-10 record in 1997, effectively ending their dynasty in the 1990s.

The talk before the 1997 season was whether the Cowboys could outplay the Packers and gain home field advantage for the playoffs. Few were concerned with whether the Cowboys would make the playoffs. Even fewer wondered whether Dallas would manage a winning season.

Little did anyone know at the Cowboys had been reduced to a field-goal-kicking machine.

Week 1: Dallas 37, Pittsburgh 7

The Cowboys looked most impressive by destorying the Steelers in the opening week. Troy Aikman threw four touchdowns, including one to newcomer Anthony Miller and two to Michael Irvin. The Dallas defense held the Steelers 174 total yards.

Week 2: Arizona 25, Dallas 22

The confidence gained by the win over Pittsburgh crumbled when the Cowboys fell to the Cardinals in overtime. Dallas had plenty of scoring opportunities but had to rely on five Richie Cunningham field goals. Arizona overcame a 22-7 deficit to pull out the win, its first against Dallas since 1990.

Week 3: Dallas 21, Philadelphia 20

With one of the most bizarre finishes in team history, the Cowboys downed the Eagles thanks to a botched hold on a short field goal attempt that would have given Philadelphia the win. The Cowboys had erased a 20-9 deficit in the fourth quarter and took the lead on a touchdown pass from Aikman to Miller, marking the first Dallas TD since week 1. Philadelphia stormed back and moved into field goal range thanks to a 46-yard pass from Ty Detmer to Freddie Soloman. But when the Eagles attempted a short field goal by former Dallas kicker Chris Boniol, holder Tom Hutton dropped the snap and was not able to run or throw the ball into the end zone.

Week 4: Bye

Week 5: Dallas 27, Chicago 3

The Cowboys accepted the end result, but their win over Chicago was anything but impressive. Dallas only managed 180 yards of total offense, and because of the Cowboys’ inability to move the ball, they had trouble putting the Bears away. However, a touchdown pass from Aikman to Irvin, followed by Deion Sanders’ 83-yard punt return for a touchdown, was enough to give Dallas its third win.

Week 6: N.Y. Giants 20, Dallas 17

Unlike the previous week, the Cowboys moved the ball effectively against the Giants, outgaining New York 428 yards to 166. Dallas committed 11 penalties for 119 yards, and Aikman threw two costly interceptions in a loss that dropped Dallas to 1-2 in the division.

Week 7: Washington 21, Dallas 16

In the Cowboys’ first game at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, the Redskins rolled over Dallas. The Cowboys once again had trouble on offense, with Aikman only managing 193 passing yards even though Dallas trailed for most of the game.

Week 8: Dallas 27, Jacksonville 22

In the Cowboys’ first game against Jacksonville, Herschel Walker looked like the player who had been the centerpiece of the Dallas offense nearly 10 years earlier. With the Cowboys trailing 22-19, Walker caught a pass on a circle route out of the backfield and raced 64 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Dallas suffered major injures in the win, though, as fullback Daryl Johnston (neck) and tackle Mark Tuinei (knee) were lost for the season. Johnston returned in 1998, but Tuinei never played again.

Week 9: Philadelphia 13, Dallas 12

On a dreary day at Veterans Stadium, the Cowboys once again imploded. Aikman only threw six passes before suffering a concussion, and the Cowboys had to turn to backup Wade Wilson. Dallas moved the ball early in the game only to have to rely on Richie Cunningham field goals. Rodney Peete’s TD pass to third tight end Chad Lewis was enough to give the Eagles a 13-12 win.

Week 10: San Francisco 17, Dallas 10

For the sixth time during the 1997 season, Dallas only scored one touchdown in a loss to the 49ers. The Cowboys fell below .500 in November for the first time since 1990. At that point, Dallas looked nothing like a playoff team.

Week 11: Dallas 24, Arizona 6

Even with the loss to Arizona in week 2, the Cowboys could generally assume they would beat the Cardinals at home, given that Arizona/Phoenix hadn’t won at Texas Stadium since 1989. Dallas didn’t dominate the Cardinals in the week 11 win, but Dallas did manage to score three touchdowns.

Week 12: Dallas 17, Washington 14

Yet again, the Cowboys took an early lead but had to rely on field goals rather than touchdowns. The other team– this time the Redskins– came back and took a lead late in the game, and the Cowboys had few answers. However, when the Cowboys took possession at their own three with just under six minutes left, the Cowboys ralied. Aikman moved the team all the way down to the Washington 6 and hit Irvin on a touchdown pass. A two-point conversion tied the game, and the Dallas defense was able to hold the Redskins and force a punt, which went off the side of Matt Turk’s foot and out of bounds at the Dallas 47. The Cowboys moved into field goal range, and for once, the team welcomed a Cunningham field goal that gave the Cowboys the win.

Of course, the win was the Cowboys’ last of the 1997 season.

Week 13: Green Bay 45, Dallas 17

The Packers were out for blood as the Cowboys visited Lambeau Field for the first time since 1989. The Cowboys managed to keep the game close in the first half, but the Packers were too much in the second half and outscored Dallas 35-7. The Cowboys never recovered.

Week 14: Tennessee 27, Dallas 14

The Oilers came to town on Thanksgiving and ruined the Cowboys’ holiday. Aikman threw for 356 yards, but most of that was because the Cowboys had fallen behind 24-7 in the first half. Dallas was once again below .500.

Week 15: Carolina 23, Dallas 13

In a rematch of the 1996 divisional round of the playoffs, Carolina came to Dallas and saw what Dallas fans had seen all season– Dallas kinda, sorta moved the ball before settling for field goals. The Dallas defense struggled to contain the Panthers’ rushing game, as Fred Lane rushed for 138 yards on 34 carries. Emmitt Smith’s total: three yards on two carries, thanks to an early injury. Even worse: Troy Aikman lost 25 yards on a sack that ended any chances of a Dallas comeback.

Week 16: Cincinnati 31, Dallas 24

The Cowboys had no chance of salvaging a winning season when they visited Cincinnati. It looked as if Dallas might show signs of life, though, when the Cowboys took a 10-0 lead, but it was short-lived. By the end of the third quarter, the Bengals led 31-10. David LeFleur had his first noteable game, catching two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

Week 17: N.Y. Giants 20, Dallas 7

The only reason to show up for the Cowboys’ season finale against the Giants was to boo. In Barry Switzer’s last game as the Dallas head coach, the Cowboys fell behind 20-0 in the first half and let everyone spend the entire game wondering what happened to the 1997 season.

  • Tim Truemper

    Switzer’s obvious indifference was so annoying and disheartening when the team’s fortune’s turned downward. Te Oiler thanksgiving game was so horrible–so many times Dallas was going to get back into it and penalites, u nforeced turnovers ended whatever chance. The Bengal game was super terrible–was not even close. Hated to see Dallas lose but was sure glad to see Switzer gone. One thing that intrigued me was watching Aikman’s frustration. I believe in an SI article he got angry over lackadaisacal practice effort on the offense and so he went to another part of the field away from whom he was to practice with. Plus the whole negative Switzer to Aikman relationship blew up big time. Any more thoughts on this Matt?

  • The first time that I became involved with the Internet was in 1997 on the old ESPN message boards. The topic of firing Switzer came up frequently, with some seriously believing that the Cowboys would have won ever Super Bowl in the decade had Jimmy remained coach. I thought then and still think that was nonsense, given that Jimmy could not have prevented the mass defection that took place between 1994 and 1997. Switzer’s team (whether we credit him or not) overcame a great deal in 1996 to win another divisional title. When things went south in ’97, though, Switzer had already seemed to check out, and his team followed suit. In the Tennessee game, I remember Aikman overthrowing Herschel on a screen pass and having the pass picked off. I barely watched the last two games and really only remember seeing Irvin in tears on the sideline of the Giants game.

  • Jason Neighbors

    Jerry let way too much talent slip away in free agency, especially at linebacker. I think he thought he could easily replace them in the draft because of all the earlier success, but obviously he didn’t come close. I think ’97 taught him a valuable lesson in not taking his talent for granted. Coakley and Nguyen were the first linebackers he ever paid out to to keep around. I think Jerry really leaned alot from that season and the cap mess afterwards. The Cowboys are one of the better teams in the league now at managing their cap and keeping their own talent imo. Of course we fans had to suffer for several years while Jerry learned, heh. ’97 was partly sabotaged by injuries, too.