1998 was a season of hope and humility for the Dallas Cowboys. After a 2-2 record in September, they jumped out to an 8-3 mark shortly before Thanksgiving, when rookie wide receiver Randy Moss and the Minnesota Vikings’ 46-36 Thanksgiving thumping propelled Dallas to a three-game losing streak. With an 8-6 record, the Cowboys were one game in first place in the NFC East. They had to be careful, because the Cardinals were flapping at their backs at 7-7, as was the resurgent Tampa Bay.
The Philadelphia Eagles were as sad as the 1991-92 Philadelphia 76ers’ uniforms. Their playoff hopes were over before Halloween. In fact, on November 2nd, they played a trick on their hometown fans and let the Cowboys treat them to a 34-0 shutout on Monday Night Football. At 3-11 heading into Irving for a Sunday afternoon encounter with the Cowboys, it was all a formality. Heck, their entire season was a formality, as the Ray Rhodes tenure waned into history. He was the franchise’s first African American head coach, and its first since Dick Vermeil to lead the Eagles to only three wins. At least Vermeil had an excuse: he only had nine games to coach in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
On the Dallas sidelines stood a man resembling Tom Landry, if you discount everything except the fact both men were bald and devoutly Christian. Chan Gailey was the Dallas Cowboys’ fourth head coach in their 39-season history. Ken Hatfield, Stephen Jones’ coach at Arkansas, gave Chan Gailey a good recommendation for the Dallas job because the two had coached together at Air Force. The Cowboys offense was hardly high flying in ’98. Troy Aikman wasn’t even going to throw for 2,500 yards and had only thrown for 12 touchdowns all year. Admittedly, he missed five games to injury. Michael Irvin experienced a similar slump, having only one touchdown on the year, which came in the first Eagles blowout earlier in the season. Ernie Mills and Billy Davis led the team in touchdowns with 4 and 3 respectively. Emmitt Smith was the only Cowboy offensive leader who was getting back into his groove. He was already over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the year at this point. No more scares like in 1997 when he barely gained over 1,000 in Barry Switzer’s final season.
In spite of it all, one just had the confidence the Cowboys would cream the Eagles again and get back into their rhythm come playoff time. All they needed to do was beat the Eagles, regardless of what the Cardinals did. They had the tiebreaker having swept the Cardinals should both teams finish 9-7. All the Cowboys needed to do was win on Sunday.
Former Cowboys kicker Chris Boniol, former Cowboys kicker from 1994 to 1996, sank an effortless 21-yarder after the Eagles offense failed to reach the end zone. Later on the first quarter, the Cowboys jumped out to 7-3 on a 7-yard rush. No, it did not come from Emmitt Smith. Rather, Eric Bjornson, the Cowboys fourth year backup tight end, ran it in for seven points after a successful Richie Cunningham point after attempt. The scoring thereafter was sporadic and small. In the third quarter, Chris Boniol sank a 41-yard field goal to make it 7-6. But Richie Cunningham hit two more field goals to extend the Cowboys’ lead to 13-6. The only points in the fourth quarter came on a 39-yard Chris Boniol field goal to cut the Cowboys’ lead to four points. Dallas prevailed 13-9 and secured their 19th division crown.
Both quarterbacks, Troy Aikman and Koy Detmer, threw an interception and did not record a touchdown. Detmer had 231 yards after going 24/43, while Aikman went 10/23 for only 120 yards. Four of his completions went to Michael Irvin for 56 yards. It was clear to see the Cowboys played a more ball control game with Emmitt Smith having 25 carries for 110 yards. Even though the score was much closer, the game indicated Dallas dominance once the offense put up a touchdown. The defense didn’t register a sack — 2 straight weeks since George Teague’s two sacks against the Saints –, but it was the first time since Week 10 against the Giants that they held a team without a touchdown.
The game was a microcosm of the Cowboys’ season: sloppy but successful. Yes, the Cowboys swept the Eagles for the first time since 1994, the first time in the Ray Rhodes era. But there was something off. Why couldn’t the Cowboys offense rack up points like they did in the first meeting? Thankfully, the Cowboys kept the Eagles out of the end zone all season. Still, there was consternation if one were to evaluate the game realistically heading into the playoffs.
The Cowboys would roll the Redskins 23-7 in the season finale at Texas Stadium behind Emmitt Smith’s two rushing touchdowns. Things would appear fine, but the problems from Week 16 would hinder the Cowboys as the wild card Cardinals would upset the Cowboys in Texas Stadium 20-7, giving the Cowboys their first home playoff loss since 1983 against the LA Rams.
As for the Eagles, they would lose their season finale against the Giants 20-10 and finish 3-13 tying with the Colts and Bengals for the worst record in football. In typical Eagles fashion, they wouldn’t get the #1 pick as the revamped Cleveland Browns, returning from their three seasons of suspended operations, would have the first overall pick. Ray Rhodes would be jettisoned, along with some no-name quarterbacks coach named Sean Payton. On January 11th, 1999, eight days after the Packers lost the 49ers in the NFC wild card playoffs, the Eagles hired Packers assistant head coach Andy Reid as the franchise’s 19th head coach. In the NFL draft, they would use their second overall pick to select Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb and performed an avian abduction on the NFC East for the next decade.
This Sunday could signify the end of the Andy Reid era in the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry. Dallas and its fans need to realize that NFC East games have the tendency to be battles, even when it’s one demoralized franchise at the end of its Aquarius age coming into the house of a team with playoffs on the brain. On paper, the Cowboys should take Andy Reid’s Eagles from endangered to extinct. But the games are played on a field, not paper. Nonetheless, here’s to hoping none of us read any papers Monday morning decrying the astonishing ineptitude of these 2012 Dallas Cowboys.