50 Seasons Series
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Review each year in the history of the Dallas Cowboys, starting with the planning stages in 1959 and through the present day.
Few who watched it could forget the season opener between the Cowboys and Redskins in 1999, which was the last time that the teams faced one another in the first week of the season. That streak, of course, ends on Sunday night.
In the first quarter and a half, it looked as if Dallas might run away with the game after Troy Aikman hit David LaFleur on two touchdown passes. The Redskins, however, stormed back, scoring 32 unanswered points to take a commanding 35-14 lead by the start of the fourth quarter.
The Triplets’ last hurrah didn’t last long in 1999 (more on that later), but against Washington, the trio reminded fans they had something left in the tank. Emmitt Smith rushed for 109 yards on 23 carries and scored a touchdown that cut the Washington lead to 35-21.
Then Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin went to work. Aikman threw his third and fourth touchdown passes to Irvin in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 35. Yes, this was the same Michael Irvin who disappeared in the Cowboys’ playoff loss to Arizona one year earlier.
The teams went to overtime, during which the Cowboys faced a 3rd and 2 from their own 24. Aikman gave a great play-action fake to Smith, and new acquisition Rocket Ismail found a seam down the middle of the field. Aikman hit Rocket at the Washington 40, and nobody was close to catch him.
Here is a clip of the play:
Aikman finished with 362 yards, marking the only time in 1999 he would surpass the 300-yard mark. Irvin recorded the last 100-yard game of his career, while Ismail recorded the first of five 100-yard games.
After their loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the 1998 playoffs, the Cowboys had some work to do on the roster. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin had moments where they showed some greatness, but each had as many moments that left fans frustrated.
To help Aikman and Irvin in the passing game, Dallas brought some speed to the second wide receiver position by signing Rocket Ismail from the Carolina Panthers. Ismail had been a minor disappointment in his first five seasons in the league, but he gained more than 1,000 yards in 1998 with Carolina. Dallas was convinced that Rocket would ease the burden on Irvin.
The team improved its offensive line with three moves. Dallas brought back Mark Stepnoski after he had spent four seasons with the Oilers. Dallas also moved Flozell Adams to left tackle, which allowed the Cowboys to move Larry Allen back to guard. Everett McIver returned from injury to start 14 games in 1999.
On defense, Randall Godfrey moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, and Darren Hambrick became the new starter at left outside backer. Kevin Smith, who never returned to form after returning from an Achilles injury suffered in 1995, only played in eight games in 1999.
When the draft came around, the Cowboys for the fourth time in six seasons selected a defensive end with their first pick. Dallas believed that the combination of former North Carolina standouts Greg Ellis and Ebenezer Ekuban would give the team bookend defensive ends for years to come. But while Ellis was a solid player for more than a decade, Ekuban only lasted five seasons after recording 12.5 sacks with the Cowboys. He did, however, have more success with Cleveland and Denver.
Here is the entire draft:
1(20) Ebenezer Ekuban, DE, North Carolina
2(55) Solomon Page, G, West Virginia
3(85) Dat Nguyen, LB, Texas A&M
4(118) Wane McGarity, WR, Texas
4(132) Peppi Zellner, DE, Fort Valley State
6(193) MarTay Jenkins, WR, Nebraska-Omaha
7(229) Mike Lucky, TE, Arizona
7(243) Kelvin Garmon, G, Baylor
- Nguyen turned out to be the best player in this group, though he only managed three full seasons as a starter.
- Page, Garmon, and Zellner became starters, though they played when the team was especially poor in the early 2000s. ‘
- McGarity was not a bad slot receiver, but the team cut him in the middle of the 2001 season after he failed to meet expectations as a slot receiver.
- Lucky was a blocking tight end for three seasons.
- Jenkins never played for the Cowboys but later played for the Cardinals.
To understand the 1998 Cowboys, we only need to look at the team’s three games against the Cardinals.
In the season opener, the Cowboys dominated on both sides of the ball. Dallas ran the ball efficiently and passed it effectively. The team put pressure on Jake Plummer and held the Cardinals’ offense in check.
In the second game, played just over two months later, the Cowboys showed signs of offensive dominance in the first half but could not move the ball consistently in the second half. The defense started giving up huge chunks of yardage, allowing the Cardinals to climb back into the game.
The result was that in the first six quarters of action in 1998, the Cowboys outscored Arizona 66-17. In the second half of the second game, Arizona outscored Dallas 21-7.
When Arizona came to Texas Stadium for the first round of the playoffs, most hoped the Cowboys could capture what they had done in those first six quarters. Instead, the entire game looked much more like the second half of the game in Tempe.
Arizona jumped out in front in the first quarter when Plummer threw a shovel pass to running back Adrian Murrell, who scored from 12 yards out. By halftime, the score was 10-0.
There was perhaps time for the Triplets to wake up and display some playoff magic. Instead, Troy Aikman struggled throughout the game, completing less than half of his passes and throwing three interceptions. Michael Irvin had only four catches for 32 yards. The team’s leading receiver as Patrick Jeffers, who was a complete unknown when Arizona had visited in week 1 of the season.
By the fourth quarter, it was 20-0, and though Dallas scored to avoid the shutout, the Cowboys could not avoid the reality that the Cardinals had won a playoff game for the first time in 51 years. Against the Cowboys. At Texas Stadium.
Blah. And that’s only because I don’t use other four-letter words on this blog.
When the Dallas Cowboys were riding high in the late 1960s, 1970s, early 1980s, and most of the 1990s, division championships were mostly forgone conclusions. In a couple of instances, though, the division title was about as unimpressive as it could get. One such instance occurred in 1985, when the Cowboys won their final NFC East title under Tom Landry. The second took place in 1998, when the Cowboys stumbled through parts of the season but managed to do enough to win the division.
The problem in both 1985 and 1998 was that by the time the team reached the playoffs, there wasn’t much left in the tank.
Week 1: Dallas 38, Arizona 10
The Cowboys opened the season in impressive fashion, dominating the Cardinals from start to finish. Emmitt Smith had 124 rushing yards on 29 carries, while Michael Irvin caught nine passes for 119 yards. So much (for the time being) about missing the timing-based offense.
Week 2: Denver 42, Dallas 23
The Cowboys were no match for the defending Super Bowl champions. Terrell Davis scored on runs of 63 and 59 yards in the first quarter, helping the Broncos jump out to a 35-17 halftime lead. The news got worse for Dallas when Troy Aikman broke his collarbone and would miss the next five games.
Week 3: Dallas 31, N.Y. Giants 7
In Jason Garrett’s first start since 1994, Deion Sanders stole the show by catching a pass for 55 yards, returning a punt 59 yards for a touchdown, and returning an interception 71 yards for another score. Garrett looked solid and completed an 80-yard touchdown pass to Billy Davis.
Week 4: Oakland 13, Dallas 12
Between 1997 and 1999, the number 13 was the unluckiest number the Cowboys could imagine. During those three seasons, the Cowboys lost games with scores of 13-12 (Philadelphia, 1997); 13-12 (Oakland, 1998); 13-12 (Chicago, 1998); 13-10 (Philadelphia, 1999); 13-10 (N.Y. Giants, 1999); 13-9 (Arizona, 1999); and 13-6 (New England, 1999). In the loss to the Raiders, Garrett struggled, throwing two interceptions and no touchdown passes.
Week 5: Dallas 31, Washington 10
The Redskins started off horribly in 1998, and the Cowboys continued to make Washington miserable. Both Emmitt Smith and Chris Warren rushed for more than 100 yards in the blowout win.
Week 6: Dallas 27, Carolina 20
Despite two first-half touchdowns from former Dallas QB Steve Beuerlein to future Cowboy Rocket Ismail, the Cowboys finally figured out how to beat the Panthers. Two touchdown passes by Garrett erased an early 14-3 deficit, and a touchdown run by Smith helped to put the game away.
Week 7: Chicago 13, Dallas 12
The second of the 13-12 losses in 1998 (see above) was just as frustrating as the first. Dallas had a 12-7 lead in the second half thanks to a touchdown pass from Garrett to tight end David LaFleur, but Garrett could only manage 136 passing yards. Two Jeff Jaeger field goals were enough to give the Bears the win.
Week 8: Bye
And time to welcome Aikman back.
Week 9: Dallas 34, Philadelphia 0
Ray Rhodes final season was an ugly one, and Dallas dominated the Eagles in week 9. Aikman had two touchdown passes in his return.
Week 10: Dallas 16, N.Y. Giants 6
A touchdown pass from Aikman to Eric Bjornson helped the Cowboys put the Giants away and sweep the season series. Smith finished with 163 rushing yards to give him his highest total since 1995. He would never rush for more than 150 yards in a game after this one.
Week 11: Dallas 35, Arizona 28
Three touchdown runs by Smith gave the Cowboys a commanding 35-14 lead in the third quarter. However, the Cardinals roared back. Jake Plummer, who finished with 465 passing yards, threw two passes into the end zone to try to tie the game. However, cornerback Kevin Smith broke up the last of the two passes, and the Cowboys held on for the win.
Week 12: Dallas 30, Seattle 22
In a see-saw game, the Cowboys held off the Seahawks. Aikman threw two touchdown passes, and by the time Chris Warren scored against his former team in the fourth quarter, the game was all but over.
Week 13: Minnesota 46, Dallas 36
Randy Moss made the Cowboys pay for not picking him in the 1998 draft. The rookie caught three passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns, while Cris Carter added 135 yards on seven receptions. Aikman surpassed 400 yards for the only time of his career by completing 34 of 57 passes. Most of those passes, though, were part of a desperate attempt to keep up with the Vikings.
Week 14: New Orleans 22, Dallas 3
In probably the ugliest loss of the 1998 season, the Cowboys barely showed up at the Superdowe in New Orleans. The worst no-show? Emmitt Smith, who rushed 15 times for 6 yards.
Week 15: Kansas City 20, Dallas 17
The Cowboys’ first trip to Kansas City since 1989 was not a pleasant one for the Cowboys, who again had trouble moving the ball effectively. The team’s leading receiver was little-known Patrick Jeffers, who caught five passes for 74 yards with a score.
Week 16: Dallas 13, Philadelphia 9
The Cowboys thankfully got to play the Eagles with a chance to secure the NFC East title for the sixth time in seven years. There was little celebration, though, as most thought the Cowboys looked nothing like a playoff contender. According to the great Frank Luska:
After the Cowboys almost strained themselves into a hernia to beat Philadelphia on Sunday, the prevailing perception of the result appeared the work of a cartoonist.
The mental picture looked like a poor chap hunched over a can of beans tied to a stick and held over an open fire. The fellow wears a tattered hat, has the butt of an unlit cigar stuck in his mouth and sports a week-length growth of whiskers. He personifies the 13-9 winner at Texas Stadium in a thought that goes:
Behold the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys – King of the Hobo Jungle.
Week 17: Dallas 23, Washington 7
Emmitt Smith scored two touchdowns on 10 carries to give him 13 for the season. The Cowboys otherwise put the Redskins out of their misery with a 23-7 win in the season finale.
The big question: would Dallas wake up in time for the playoffs?
Um, the very nature of that question was not reassuring for Dallas fans.
And the answer was no.
By 1998, Jerry Jones realized that the team was not simply a piece or two away from being a title contender. In January, Jones fired Barry Switzer as head coach, and the search was on for a replacement. Names being tossed around were plentiful—George Seifert, Lou Holtz, Norv Turner, Dave Wannstedt, Jon Gruden (then offensive coordinator with Philadelphia), college Rick Neuheisel (then Colorado’s head coach), Gerry DiNardo (then LSU’s head coach), and Terry Donahue (former UCLA head coach). Dallas assistants Joe Avezzano and Dave Campo were also in the mix. More names emerged during the month of January, including Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and Minnesota offensive coordinator Brian Billick.
In the end, Jones decided to go in a completely different direction by hiring a no-name in Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. The Steelers had just come off an 11-5 season and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, and Gailey’s innovative offensive system relied on versatile Kordell Stewart along with a bus of a running back in Jerome Bettis.
Colleagues praised Gailey, and many fans were willing to give the man a shot. At the same time, though, plenty of questions arose about how his system would work when the QB was a not-very-mobile Troy Aikman and the running back was Emmitt Smith, who appeared to be declining rapidly. Gailey’s offensive was quite different than the timing-based passing system the Cowboys had used since the early 1990s, so everyone would have some learning to do.
Dallas did not experience major free-agent defections but still lost some quality players. Mark Tuinei and Tony Tolbert both retired, as did Tony Casillas. Larry Allen moved from right guard to left tackle, and the Cowboys signed Everett McIver to fill in at right guard. Brock Marion signed with the Dolphins, and the Cowboys replaced him with George Teague.
One big concern was that the Cowboys did little to address their receiver position. Anthony Miller’s time in Dallas lasted only one season, and the team had no proven second wide receiver. When the Cowboys’ time came to make the eighth overall pick, Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss was still on the board. However, Dallas was still recovering from its image problems, and Jerry Jones decided to pass on Moss and take North Carolina defensive end Greg Ellis.
Here’s the rest of the draft:
1(8) Greg Ellis, DE, North Carolina
2(38) Flozell Adams, T, Michigan State
4(100) Michael Myers, DT, Alabama
5(130) Darren Hambrink, LB, South Carolina
5(138) Oliver Ross, T, Iowa State
6(188) Izell Reese, DB, Alabama-Birmingham
7(223) Tarik Smith, RB, California
7(227) Antonio Fleming, G, Georgia
7(237) Rodrick Monroe, TE, Cincinnati
Ellis spent 11 seasons in Dallas and was a starter for most of his career. However, the team to this day regrets not taking Moss, who could have teamed with Michael Irvin instead of Cris Carter. Adams was a huge pick in the second round, not only due to his size but because the team found a very good left tackle outside of the first round. Myers and Hambrink both became starters in Dallas, but neither lasted long with the Cowboys.
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.
By 1997, the Cowboys were a team hoping to turn back the clock by three or four years. Dallas hoped that the trio of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin had enough to keep the team in the championship hunt, but each of them was starting to show cracks during the 1996 season.
More problematic was that the talent level of the surrounding cast was declining because of age and defection through free agency and retirement. Dallas lost hope that Jay Novacek or Charles Haley would ever return, so the search was on to replace both of them. Darrin Smith’s departure meant that every starting linebacker from the Super Bowl era had left as a free agent. The starters were still talented, though, as second-year player Randall Godfrey teamed up with rookie Dexter Coakley to give the Cowboys two quick outside backers. The secondary was still a strength, but Kevin Smith struggled in 1996 and would continue to struggle for the rest of his career.
On offense, the left side of the line consisting of Mark Tuinei (37) and Nate Newton (36) wasn’t getting younger. Larry Allen was all-world, but Erik Williams never dominated like he did before his car wreck in 1994. Ray Donaldson retired for good, and the Cowboys tried to go with second-year player Clay Shiver. It didn’t work.
As for skills positions, the Cowboys signed former pro bowler Anthony Miller, who had posted four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons between 1992 and 1995. By 1997, though, he was 32, and he only caught 56 passes for 735 yards the year before in Denver.
Eric Bjornson’s play in 1996 tended to make people miss Novacek even more, so the Cowboys targeted a tight end during the 1997 draft. Aikman personally selected LSU’s David LaFleur, so the Cowboys snagged him with the 22nd overall pick. Dallas found Coakley in the third round, giving the Cowboys two starters for its first two picks. The others were largely forgettable.
1(22) David LeFleur, TE, LSU
3(65) Dexter Coakley, LB, Appalachian State
3(83) Steve Scifres, G, Wyoming
3(94) Kenny Wheaton, DB, Oregon
4(101) Antonio Anderson, DT, Syracuse
4(127) Macey Brooks, WR, James Madison
4(129) Nicky Sualua, RB, Ohio State
6(187) Lee Vaughn, DB, Wyoming
7(224) Omar Stoutmire, DB, Fresno State
LaFleur had a few moments, but injuries held his career back, and he was gone after four seasons. Coakley turned out to be the best pick of the draft, as he earned three trips to the Pro Bowl during his 10-year career.
Many wanted to see Dallas give Brooks a chance, but he never quite caught on. He played two seasons in Chicago but never stood out. Wheaton, Anderson, Sualua, and Stoutmire saw action as special teams players. Of these four, Stoutmire had the best career, starting for four different teams and playing for five during a nine-year career.
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.
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.
The Cowboys had distractions during their Super Bowl years, including Erik Williams missing much of the 1994 season after a car wreck; Williams facing charges that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old dancer (later dropped); Leon Lett and Clayton Holmes facing drug suspensions; and so forth. Still, the talk of the town after Super Bowl XXX was that the Cowboys would go for an unprecedented fourth title in five years. The team had the talent to do so, but then…
On March 3, receiver Michael Irvin was arrested in a hotel room in Irving, and police found cocaine and marijuana in his room. Irvin and teammate Alfredo Roberts were in the room with two dancers/models (and I’ll let you recall on your own what was going on in the room).
There was news that the Cowboys had rented a house– referred to as the White House– where players could share drugs and women. The Cowboys also decided to sign linebacker Broderick Thomas, who a year earlier faced charges unlawfully carrying a weapon as well as for drunk driving. Sadly: “if this is America’s team, then woe is America.”
The Cowboys continued their string of subpar drafts in 1996 as well, which didn’t help matters. Dallas had five picks in the second and third rounds and did manage to find a quality starter in linebacker Randall Godfrey. However, second-round pick Kavika Pittman only managed 10 total sacks in four years. Center Clay Shiver didn’t make anyone forget about Mark Stepnoski. Stepfret Williams caught 30 passes in 1997, which was his final season in Dallas. The others who played at all played special teams.
Here is the draft summary:
2(37) Kavika Pittman, DE, McNeese State
2(49) Randall Godfrey, LB, Georgia
3(67) Clay Shiver, C, Florida State
3(94) Stepfret Williams, WR, La.-Monroe
3(95) Mike Ulufale, DT, BYU
5(157) Kenneth McDaniel, T, Norfolk State
5(167) Alan Campos, LB, Louisville
6(207) Wendell Davis, DB, Oklahoma
7(243) Ryan Wood, RB, Arizona State
The Cowboys also continued to lose quality players that robbed the team of its talent level and depth. Jay Novacek never played a game again after Super Bowl XXX because of his back problems. Russell Maryland and Larry Brown both signed as free agents with the Oakland Raiders. Linebacker Dixon Edwards left for Minnesota, while linebacker Robert Jones left for St. Louis. Charles Haley only saw limited action because of injury and only managed one sack in 1996.
What would help the Cowboys was that Deion Sanders was still the premiere shutdown corner in the NFL. He also spent the offseason preparing to play receiver, and after Irvin’s trial and subsequent five-game suspension, the team needed Sanders on offense more than it would like.