In the weekly What-If Wednesday posts, we review some event (draft, game, or whatever) and consider what might have happened if history had been different. This week’s post focuses on the Cowboys’ 1991 playoff loss to the Detroit Lions.
In real life…
In 1991, the Cowboys ended a six-year playoff drought by winning their final five regular-season games. The team then won its first playoff game since 1982 by defeating the Chicago Bears 17-13 at Soldier Field.
It was not Troy Aikman who led the Cowboys during this winning streak. After Aikman suffered a knee injury in a win over Washington on November 24, Steve Beuerlein took over. He was not sensational; in fact, he failed to throw for 200 yards in three of his five starts, and he never threw more than one touchdown in any game. However, he used his weapons, including Michael Irvin, effectively.
Dallas travelled to Detroit to face the Lions at the Silverdome. Although Aikman was able to play, Jimmy Johnson went with Beuerlein. The magic was no longer there, though. Dallas fell behind early, and with the team trailing 17-6 at halftime, Johnson went with Aikman. The change did not make a difference, as the Cowboys fell 38-6.
The Lions faced the Redskins at RFK Stadium in the NFC Championship Game but lost in a rout, 41-10.
Here are some highlights from the Cowboys-Lions game:
What if the Cowboys had beaten the Lions?
Admittedly, this is not a great what-if piece (and see below regarding an alternative what-if regarding Barry Sanders). Few expected the Cowboys to be a playoff contender in 1991, so getting one win made this a feel-good season.
1. The Beuerlein-Aikman Debate Would Have Continued.
By 1991, Aikman had accomplished almost nothing. He had not played a full season and had won only 14 games as a starter. Although he had led the Cowboys on a four-game winning streak earlier in the 1991 season, he did not yet look like a franchise quarterback.
Beuerlein was simply effective. He did not put the team on his shoulders during the streak, yet the team seemed to have a confidence it had lacked at times, even in 1991. The fact that Beuerlein had led the team to its first playoff win in 9 years played in his favor.
Had Beuerlein led the Cowboys to a win over the Lions, the team would have had a difficult time avoiding a quarterback controversy heading into the 1992 season, no matter what happened in the NFC Championship Game.
2. The Cowboys Would Not Beat the Redskins.
The 1991 season turned out to be Joe Gibbs’ last during his first stint in Washington. The team had finished 14-2 after starting the season at 11-0.
The first team to beat Washington in 1991 was Dallas in the game where Aikman suffered his knee injury. Dallas jumped out to a 14-7 halftime lead, and thanks to Beuerlein’s touchdown pass to Irvin early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were able to hang on for a 24-21 win.
The odds that the Cowboys would repeat are minimal, no matter who started at quarterback. I ran simulations on What If Sports using both Aikman and Beuerlein as starters. After 20 attempts, the Cowboys still had not won a simulated game.
3. The Dynasty Would Have Happened Anyway.
The Cowboys’ 1991 season was not great because the team expected to reach the Super Bowl. It was great because the team finally mattered again. A win over the Lions would have extended the good feelings, but few would think it would have had any effect on the Cowboys’ dynasty that began in 1992.
A BONUS WHAT-IF
Yes, we have a bonus what-if this week.
Let’s ask: What if the Cowboys have drafted Barry Sanders instead of Troy Aikman in the 1989 Draft?
This move would have made no sense in 1989, though. The Cowboys already had a franchise running back in Herschel Walker, but Walker was not able to help the Cowboys to win more than 3 games in 1988. The Lions lost their first 5 games in 1989 with Sanders playing running back, and when the Lions won their first game in week 6 that year, Sanders did not play. (To be sure, Sanders ended the season while playing great, rushing for 382 yards and 6 touchdowns during 3 wins in the final 3 games.)
Dallas did not need an individual talent like Sanders. The Cowboys needed a franchise quarterback and many other pieces to the puzzle. The team was fortunate to find a franchise back one year later when the Cowboys took Emmitt Smith.
And here’s why I did not focus on drafting Sanders in 1989—would anyone want to think about the Cowboys’ of the early 1990s with Steve Walsh and Barry Sanders instead of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith? I thought not.