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Here is another animated GIF, with this one featuring Emmitt Smith. Trivia questions are below the image.
(1) During which season did this play occur?
(2) Smith scored two touchdowns during an 18-second span. However, he missed the entire second half because of an injury suffered on this play. What was the injury?
(3) Troy Aikman was also removed from this game because of a concussion. Who replaced Aikman at QB, and how did the backup perform?
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.
Twenty years ago, the Cowboys headed into a season as the defending Super Bowl champions. It was hardly difficult to find an NFL magazine that featured one of the Cowboys on the cover (even in Missouri).
A book published in 1993 also featured a member of the Cowboys. It was Cliff Charpentier’s 1993 Fantasy Football Digest, which had Emmitt Smith on its cover. I had never played fantasy football at that point, so I bought the book.
The Cowboys were not only the best real-life team heading into 1993 but also had several of the top fantasy players. Here’s a summary
Emmitt Smith, #2 RB: Charpentier ranked Thurman Thomas above Smith in terms of “performance points” (yards), thanks to the yardage that Thomas picked up through the air.
Michael Irvin, #1 WR: Irvin had back-to-back seasons with 1,523 and 1,387 yards, respectively, and Charpentier ranked Irvin ahead of Jerry Rice.
Jay Novacek, #2 TE: Novacek had three consecutive seasons with more than 600 receiving yards, and Charpentier ranked him second behind Keith Jackson of Miami.
Troy Aikman, #6 QB: Aikman was never known for his stats, but he was good enough to rank just below Jim Kelly and ahead of Jim Everett of the Rams, Chris Miller of the Falcons, and Brett Favre of the Packers.
Lin Elliott, #5 K: Charpentier was not impressed with Elliott’s accuracy in 1992, but Charpentier liked that Elliott had 35 attempts in 1992.
As it turned out, several of these Cowboys failed to live up to the hype:
- Smith famously (infamously) held out for the first two games of the 1993 season and saw his TD numbers fall from 18 to 9 between 1992 and 1993.
- Although Irvin had 1,330 yards and 7 TDs, his performance could not match that of Rice, who had 1,503 yards and 15 TDs.
- Aikman had 3,100 yards and 15 TDs, which was not bad but not a top-6 performance.
- Novacek had only 445 yards on 44 receptions with 1 TD, far below expectations.
- Elliott only played in two games for the 1993 Cowboys after missing two critical field goals in a loss to Buffalo.
* * *
This was a time before the widespread use of the Internet. This was also a time when fantasy football magazines were hardly commonplace. Moreover, this was a time when many people did not have cellular phones.
Without an Internet program to run a league, commissioners had to rely on things like the telephone. For instance, Charpentier describes a commissioner’s job on transaction night when players make trades or pick up players off waivers. The players would give the commissioner a telephone number where the commissioner could call at a certain time. Here are the rules that applied when a commissioner could not reach a player:
1. If a commissioner receives no answer at the given franchise number, it will be assumed that the franchise desires no transactions that evening and, after allowing 15 rings, the commissioner may go on to the next team. If the team involved calls later in the hour to make transactions, this team will go to the end of the list.
2. If a commissioner gets a busy signal, the must continue to call that team for 3 minutes. If the commissioner fails to reach a team, he goes on to the next team. If the skipped team calls in and wants to make transactions, it must go to the end of the list of the first-hour transactions.
3. If the commissioner reaches a telephone recorder, he should leave a message with the time of the call. If the team calls back and wants to make transactions, it must go to the end of the list.
Even more daunting is the option where the first player who called got to make a transaction. Charpentier suggested that the commissioner leave the phone off the hook for five minutes before the commissioner started accepting calls at a certain time, such as 6 p.m.
* * *
Incidentally, Cliff Charpentier was inducted into Fantasy Sports Trade Association’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
As of last night, Jason Witten is the Dallas Cowboys’ all-time leading receiver in terms of receptions. Witten now has 754 receptions, surpassing Michael Irvin’s total of 750.
After a well-publicized slow start in 2012, Witten has caught fire. He has 58 receptions for 538 yards in just eight games. At this pace, he would finish the season with 116 receptions for 1076 yards. He has surpassed more than 1,000 receiving yards three times during his career but has never had more than 96 receptions in a season.
He needs 3,457 yards to surpass Irvin in receiving yards. The question for now: can he last long enough to break the mark?
Somewhat amazingly, Witten is only 30 years old. Many may look at Tony Gonzalez (now 36) to suggest that Witten has five or six more years left in him.
However, Gonzalez is really the exception in terms of durability at the tight end position. Consider these stats:
- In NFL history, tight ends age 30 or older have had at least 50 receptions 45 times. Gonzalez has at least 50 receptions in each season since he turned 30, including the current season.
- Once tight ends reach the age of 33, their production typically falls off considerably. Only six tight ends have had 50 receptions after reaching the age of 33. Gonzalez is one of them, of course, along with former Cowboy Jay Novacek, Pete Metzelaars, , Pete Retzlaff, Shannon Sharpe, and Wesley Walls.
- Only five tight ends age 30 or older have had at least 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Gonzalez did it twice when he was still with Kansas City.
- The oldest tight end to have 1,000 receiving yards was Retzlaff, who played in Philadelphia during the 1960s.
Dallas receiver Kevin Ogletree managed to change the focus of conversations from “The Cowboys don’t have a third receiver” to “This Ogletree kid looked awfully good. Should I pick him up on waivers for my fantasy team?”
Anyway, the point of this post isn’t really about Ogletree. It’s about one of the greatest opening-day performances not only in Cowboys history but also in league history. A certain receiver once opened as season by catching 10 passes for 241 yards with 3 TDs, two of which were on pass plays of longer than 50 yards. For those scoring at home, that’s 42.1 fantasy points in most standard leagues and 52.1 points in PPR leagues.
The player was Frank Clarke. His 3 TDs helped the Cowboys to a 35-35 tie with the Washington Redskins on opening day in 1962. Those 241 receiving yards are the most by any receiver on opening day in league history, according to a post today at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Of course, without the fantasy football implications of today, reference to Clarke’s performance did not appear until the ninth paragraph of Charles Burton’s story in the Dallas Morning News:
The tie score obscured a brilliant day of pass receiving and running by Frank Clarke, the veteran wingback, who caught the ball 10 times, made the catches worth 241 yards and three touchdowns.
Incidentally, Clarke had some other monster games for the Cowboys. He had two games in 1963 alone where he had more than 150 receiving yards, including an 8-reception, 190-yard performance against the San Francisco 49ers.
During their dynasty in the 1990s, the Cowboys relied primarily on four players at the wide receiver position: Michael Irvin, Kelvin Martin, Alvin Harper, and Kevin Williams. Irvin, of course, dominated this group, but each of the others played vital roles during the Cowboys’ playoff runs between 1992 and 1996:
- Harper made three of the greatest catches in team history during the 1992 and 1993 NFC Championship Games,
- Martin was an effective punt returner who also caught the game-clinching touchdown to beat the 49ers in the 1992 NFC title game.
- Williams started to come into his own late in 1995, helping to spark momentum that allowed the Cowboys to win their third title in four years.
Each of these four was drafted, and three of the four were drafted to meet specific needs. Irvin was expected to become a top-flight leading receiver, and he came through. Harper was expected to use his athleticism to make big plays, and he did. Williams was supposed to be a solid returner and good slot receiver, and he was.
Current teams have used a variety of approaches to adding their receivers. Some, such as New England, have had good fortune in the free agent market. Others, such as the Colts and Steelers, have devoted their attention to drafting their receivers. In the case of Indianapolis, Peyton Manning benefits not only from a great offensive system designed by coordinator Tom Moore, but he also has at his disposal three former first round draft picks in Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Anthony Gonzales, along with yet another first round pick at tight end with Dallas Clark.
Tony Romo has one receiver drafted by the Cowboys (in the seventh round, no less), along with two receivers who have cost the Cowboys more in dollars and draft picks than either are worth to the team. Other receivers are undrafted free agents who have shown some promise but who have not developed into full-time contributors.
In sum, it is well past time for Dallas to adopt a new strategy when it comes to the receiver position.
Since 1986, the Cowboys have spent 24 draft picks on receivers, including each of the four listed above. Two others– Mike Sherrard and Jimmy Smith— suffered through injury problems and left Dallas after just a few years. However, both were productive with other teams after leaving Dallas.
Michael Irvin’s suspension for the first five games of the 1996 season exposed the Cowboys’ lack of depth at receiver. The Cowboys brought Martin back to the team that year after he had played four seasons with Seattle and Philadelphia, but he was more of a complementary receiver than a primary threat. The same was true of Williams, who was injured ten games into the 1996 season and left for Arizona via free agency after that year.
The Cowboys tried to address their problems at receiver in 1997 by going the free agent route. Dallas signed receiver Anthony Miller in 1997, expecting the former big-play receiver to take pressure off of Irvin. Miller, however, was limited to 645 yards during a disappointing 6-10 campaign, and he never played again after that season.
The arrival of Chan Gailey in Dallas in 1998 led to the signing of former Steelers receiver Ernie Mills, who was not a bad slot receiver but who also did not take any pressure off of Irvin. The other starter in 1998 was an undrafted receiver named Billy Davis, who did not play badly but who was also not enough of a threat to give Irvin any relief.
In 1999, Dallas once again addressed the receiver problem through free agency, picking up former Carolina Panther Rocket Ismail. Ismail made a memorable play during his first game with the team, catching a 76-yard pass from Troy Aikman in overtime to give Dallas 41-35 win over the Redskins. It was one of the few big plays for Ismail in Dallas however, as he averaged only 14.4 yards per reception and scored only nine touchdowns, which were low numbers for someone expected to help spread the field.
It did not help Ismail or the Cowboys that Irvin was lost for good during the fourth game of the 1999 season. The Cowboys could have had the opportunity in 2000 to select Irvin’s replacement in the draft, but Dallas instead traded two first round picks to Seattle to obtain Joey Galloway. Galloway was supposed to team with Ismail to create nightmares for defensive coordinators, but the move was destined to failure thanks to an injury that Galloway suffered during his first game with the team in 2000. Ismail was also lost midway through the 2000 season, leaving Dallas with another free agent acquisition in James McKnight, who performed well enough to earn a free agent contract from Miami in 2001.
The Cowboys have apparently learned nothing from their past experiences in trying to find the right receiver through the free agency process. Galloway played three seasons in Dallas, none of which were as productive as he has been in Tampa Bay. Dallas has brought in Terry Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens, and Roy Williams, but none of these players has helped Dallas win so much as a single playoff game.
Granted, there are plenty of other reasons why Dallas has struggled in since 1996, but the failed strategy of trying to find receivers from other teams has not helped matters.
The focal point of the offseason for Dallas is apparently on continuity and team chemistry. The focus of the past couple of days has been on whether the team should release Owens, who has hurt the team’s chemistry.
Should the Cowboys release Owens, we should hope that the team also adopts a new approach to its receivers. Some teams have had some luck relying on free agent receivers to excel, but that strategy simply has not worked in Dallas. It’s about time Dallas started looking at teams such as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, which have had pretty good fortune relying on the draft to build their receiving corps.
Part of the Greatest Players by Number Series
Nine players have worn #88 for the Cowboys. This includes six wide receivers, a linebacker, a tight end, and a punter/kicker.
Antonio Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh, 2002-04
Statistics: Bryant caught 99 passes for 1549 yards and 8 TDs with Dallas.
Longevity: He played less than three full seasons with the Cowboys.
Intangibles: The highly talented Bryant has yet to find a way to stay out of trouble. He lasted just over two seasons in Dallas before the Cowboys sent him packing.
Sonny Davis, LB, Baylor, 1961
Longevity: He played one season in Dallas.
Intangibles: Davis was a wide receiver at Baylor, but the Cowboys tried to convert him to linebacker. He saw little action during his one pro season.
Jackie Harris, TE, Northwest Louisiana, 2000-01
Statistics: Harris caught 54 passes for 447 yards and seven touchdowns with Dallas.
Longevity: He played two seasons in Dallas.
Intangibles: Harris was a starter in Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Tennessee before Dallas signed him in 2000 to replace David LeFleur. He was adequate for the two years he played in Dallas.
Michael Irvin, WR, Miami, Fla., 1988-99
Statistics: Irvin caught 750 passes for 11,904 yards and 65 TDs with the Cowboys.
Accolades: Five Pro Bowls, All-Decade Team of the 1990s, Ring of Honor, and Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Longevity: Irvin played 12 seasons in Dallas.
Intangibles: Irvin was a physical receiver who could fill roles as both a possession receiver and as a big playmaker. He was the most vocal (and obviously most flamboyant) of the leaders on the 1990s teams, but he always backed up his talk with his play. His 1995 season (111 rec., 1603 yds.) is easily the greatest single season for any Dallas receiver, and he accomplished it even though every opponent knew he was the primary weapon in the passing game.
Drew Pearson, WR, Tulsa, 1973-83
Statistics: Pearson caught 489 passes for 7822 yards and 48 TDs.
Accolades: Three Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams. He was also a member of the All-Decade Team for the 1970s.
Longevity: He played 11 seasons in the NFL, all with Dallas.
Intangibles: Pearson was a free agent who became the team’s top receiver during the Cowboys’ resurgence in the mid-1970s. He was a clutch receiver who made as many big plays in big games as any player in team history.
Sonny Randle, WR, Virginia, 1968
Statistics: Randle caught one pass for 12 yards with the Cowboys.
Accolades: None with Dallas. He made four Pro Bowls with the Rams.
Longevity: He played less than a full season in Dallas.
Intangibles: Dallas picked up Randle in 1968 after he spent several seasons with the Rams, Cardinals, and 49ers. He retired after the 1968 season.
Colin Ridgway, P/K, Lamar Tech, 1965
Statistics: Ridgway averaged 39.2 yards on 13 punts for the Cowboys.
Longevity: He played less than a full season for the Cowboys.
Intangibles: Ridgway competed in the Olympics in the high jump for Australia in 1956. He spent most of his time in Dallas on the taxi squad. Tragically, he was a murder victim in 1993 in a crime that has never been solved.
Reggie Rucker, WR, Boston University, 1970-71
Statistics: Sellers caught 10 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns for the Cowboys.
Accolades: None with Dallas.
Longevity: He played less than two full seasons for the Cowboys before being traded to the Giants.
Intangibles: Rucker is best remembered as member of the Cleveland Browns. He finished his career with more than 7000 yards, but only a few were with the Cowboys.
Ron Sellers, WR, Florida State, 1972
Statistics: Sellers caught 31 passes for 653 yards and five touchdowns with the Cowboys.
Accolades: None with Dallas.
Longevity: He played one season in Dallas.
Intangibles: Sellers caught Roger Staubach’s last-minute touchdown pass in the 1972 playoff win over San Francisco. That happened to be his final catch as a Cowboy, as he was traded to Miami in 1973.
Here is your chance to vote for the greatest player to wear #88.
Note from 9/2: Thanks to an “upgrade” to my WordPress software, I was having trouble with the poll plugin. I think I have fixed it. I incorporated the results from the Zoho poll (below) into this poll:
- Michael Irvin (82%, 164 Votes)
- Drew Pearson (17%, 34 Votes)
- Jackie Harris (1%, 2 Votes)
- Sonny Davis (0%, 0 Votes)
- Antonio Bryant (0%, 0 Votes)
- Sonny Randle (0%, 0 Votes)
- Colin Ridgway (0%, 0 Votes)
- Reggie Rucker (0%, 0 Votes)
- Ron Sellers (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 199
Here is the Zoho poll in case anyone is still having problems.
My Vote: Irvin
When I set out to conduct this poll, the debate over the greatest #88 is what came to mind first. The stats clearly support Irvin, but this one is about more than stats. Both made plays that created their legends, and the Cowboys’ franchise wouldn’t have been what it was during either of their eras. What gives Irvin my vote is that he was greater for a longer period of time. From 1991 to 1998, he was the centerpiece of the Cowboys’ passing attack, and he consistently came through in the biggest moments. By comparison, Pearson became less and less of a primary target as his career progressed, and he finished behind Tony Hill in receptions during each of Pearson’s final six seasons. We can only pick one here, and my vote has to go to Irvin.