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.
In January, I wrote a post noting several similarities between the 1991 season for the Dallas Cowboys and the most recent 2009 season. I thought these similarities were kind of eerie; others disagreed and noted that the similarities were little more than a series of coincidences. Fair enough.
But what we all really want in 2010 is for the Cowboys to follow up their 2009 season the same way the team followed up the 1991 campaign. There are more similarities between 1992 and the upcoming season worth noting, but there are also several differences.
Similar: Fourth-Year Head Coaches
In 1992, Jimmy Johnson was heading into his fourth season as the Dallas coach. During the previous season, he had won his first playoff game, which was a huge accomplishment given that he inherited a team that had gone 3-13 the season before his arrival. He had replaced a legend in Tom Landry, who had won two Super Bowls.
Wade Phillips is now heading into his fourth season as the Dallas coach. He won his first playoff game in 2009, which ended the team’s streak of seasons without a playoff win that began after the 1996 season. Phillips had replaced a legend in Bill Parcells, who had won two Super Bowls.
Different: Jimmy Johnson vs. Wade Phillips
Johnson helped to gut the Cowboys and rebuild it according to his standards. His approval rating jumped from 0% (or so) to about 80% or 90% between 1989 and 1991 thanks to his rebuilding efforts. He eventually became a legend.
Phillips had previously coached the Broncos and Bills, and he was an interim coach with two other teams. By the time he arrived in Dallas, his teams had generally been mediocre. Whereas Johnson started with nothing and went 1-15, Phillips inherited many of the team’s current stars and went 13-3 in his first season. His approval rating has never been great, but a playoff failure in 2007 followed by a poor 2008 season had many fans calling for his head.
Similar: Star Power in the Skills Positions
The 1992 Cowboys were a young team with an abundance of talent at the skills positions. Few teams could boast having skills players such as the likes of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Daryl Johnston, Alvin Harper, and Jay Novacek.
The 2010 Cowboys are a fairly young team with plenty of talent in the skills positions. The skill players include Pro Bowlers and former Pro Bowlers such as Tony Romo, Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten.
Different: Acquiring the Star Players
The 1992 Cowboys’ star players were mostly high draft picks. Aikman, Smith, Irvin, and Harper were each first-round picks, while Johnston was a second-rounder.
Romo and Austin were both undrafted free agents. Witten was a third-round pick, while Barber was a fourth-round pick. Only Jones was taken in the first round, but he has yet to earn the starting running back job.
Similar: Charles Haley and DeMarcus Ware
Charles Haley (#94) converted from outside linebacker to defensive end and gave the Cowboys a dominant pass rusher in 1992.
DeMarcus Ware (#94) is an All-Pro outside linebacker and gives the team its best outside pass rusher since Charles Haley.
Different: 4-3 vs. 3-4
The 1992 Dallas defense was built on speed. The team had an aggressive front four that was backed up by speedy linebackers. The team did not blitz often, and the secondary often played a bend-but-don’t-break zone defense.
The 2010 Dallas defense will line up in the 3-4, and the team will blitz frequently. The Cowboys often rely on Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins to dominate in man coverage.
Similar: Opening with the Redskins
The 1992 Cowboys had their first test in the opening week when they hosted the Washington Redskins in primetime on Monday Night Football. Dallas took care of business and won 23-10.
The 2010 Cowboys also open against the Redskins in the primetime slot on Sunday Night Football. Dallas needs to take care of business to start the season on a good note.
Different: The 1992 Redskins vs. the 2010 Redskins
The 1992 Redskins were defending Super Bowl Champions and featured the reigning Super Bowl MVP in QB Mark Rypien.
The 2010 Redskins are rebuilding after the team suffered through a 4-12 season in 2009. The team features a new head coach in Mike Shanahan and a new QB in Donovan McNabb.
Similar: Visiting the Site of the Previous Season’s Playoff Loss
The 1992 Cowboys put a big circle around their November 8 trip to Detroit, which is where the team had suffered a blowout loss the previous season.
The 2010 Cowboys on October 17 will visit Minnesota, which is where the team suffered a blowout loss last season.
Different: Strength of Schedule in General
The most difficult part of the 1992 Cowboys’ schedule was having to face division rivals Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. The Cowboys faced AFC West opponents, none of which were especially strong in 1992. Even the Falcons and Bears, who had made the playoffs in 1991, were not especially strong in 1992.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone will consider the 2010 schedule is easy. In addition to the divisional rivals, Dallas has to travel to Indianapolis, Green Bay, and Minnesota, and the team hosts the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints on Thanksgiving Day.
Anything I’m missing?
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.
NFL Films’ first installment of the The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players debuted tonight on NFL Network. Several Cowboys are bound to wind up on the list, and two have already appeared between #91 and #100. Here is the list:
100. Joe Namath
99. Michael Strahan
98. Lee Roy Selmon
97. Derrick Brooks
96. Mel Hein
95. Larry Allen
94. Lenny Moore
93. Sam Huff
92. Michael Irvin
91. Fran Tarkenton
Really tough to argue with this so far. If we start seeing the likes of Roger Wehrli or Floyd Little in the top 50, then something is wrong. But seeing Irvin appear two spots ahead of the great Lenny Moore and Allen appear ahead of the likes of Derrick Brooks and Lee Roy Selmon just makes me want to nod quietly in approval.
The next episode will debut on Tuesday.
Pretty sad news today as the Cowboys traded receiver Patrick Crayton to San Diego for a seventh-round draft pick next year. The trade isn’t entirely unexpected, as some thought Dallas would move Crayton once the team selected Dez Bryant in the first round of the draft. Still, Crayton has been a solid contributor since he entered the league as a seventh-round pick in 2004. The receiving corps that season? Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Antonio Bryant (before he was shipped to Cleveland), and Quincy Morgan (traded for Bryant).
Since then, all of those receivers left. Terrell Owens came and went. Roy Williams came and has done nothing. Crayton seemed to be a long-shot when he arrived, but he was steady throughout his entire career. He played 82 games in Dallas and started 32 of them. He averaged 32.7 receptions and 481.3 yards per season during that time. He ranks 19th on the team’s all-time list for career receptions (196, trailing Terry Glenn by 12 receptions) and ranks 16th on the list for receiving yards with 2,888. He was a decent punt returner and even took two back for touchdowns in 2009.
The title of the post asks whether Crayton is the best slot receiver in team history. This is a tough question, given that it’s tough to identify a slot receiver before Butch Johnson. Since that time, the team has had a handful of third receivers who played principally in the slot position. I won’t waste time discussing the likes of Ernie Mills, Wane McGarity, or Stepfret Williams. Crayton is among four slot receivers who would be part of this debate. Others include Butch Johnson, Kevin Williams, and Kelvin Martin. Here are the career stats for these players:
Butch Johnson (1976-1983): 112 games, 132 receptions, 2,124 yards, 19 TD
Kevin Williams (1993-1996): 57 games, 98 receptions, 1,268 yards, 5 TD
Kelvin Martin (1987-1992, 1996): 98 games, 237 receptions, 3,083 yards, 9 TD
Patrick Crayton (2004-2009): 82 games, 196 receptions, 2,888 yards, 23 TD
Like Crayton, the others spent part of their careers as starters, but they were best known for playing the slot on third downs and other obvious passing situations. Who among these was the best?
Johnson may be the player most would remember, given his amazing catch in Super Bowl XII and flamboyance in developing the California Quake. But Johnson never caught more than 25 passes in any single season until 1983, when he caught 41 for 561 yards.
Martin’s receptions mostly came during his years as a starter in the 1980s. When the team became competitive in 1991 and 1992, he only had 16 and 32 receptions respectively.
Williams caught a total of 33 passes as a slot receiver in 1993 and 1994 before becoming a starter in 1995. Even while starting 16 games, he only had 38 receptions that year.
Crayton wasn’t a great starter in 2007, but he was consistent while filling the slot role in other seasons. I think he’ll be missed.
The majority of the Cowboys’ starters did not play against the Dolphins on Thursday, while Miami played most starters for much of the first half. Nevertheless, the Cowboys were able to come from behind several times in the game and won on David Buehler’s 31-yard field goal as time expired. It was Buehler’s fourth field goal for the game.
Stephen McGee played the entire game and completed 27 of 42 passes for 304 yards and a 43-yard touchdown pass to Sam Hurd. Kevin Ogletree had six receptions for 51 yards, while Manny Johnson had three catches for 50 yards, including a 33-yarder that set up Buehler’s game-winner.
On defense, Victor Butler and Sean Lee each recorded two sacks. Butler also caused a fumble by sacking Chad Henne early in the second quarter. Lee recovered the fumble and returned it 11 yards. On the ensuing drive, McGee hit Hurd on the TD, which gave Dallas a 7-3 lead.
The Cowboys finish their preseason at 3-2. The team will announce its final roster cuts by Saturday.
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.