With Super Bowl XLVII this coming Sunday between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, I thought I would take a walk down memory lane to the last time the Dallas Cowboys were relevant. Let’s remember Super Bowl XXX which capped off the 1995 season. No, that’s not a typo – it was 17 seasons ago!
First, let’s look at how the Cowboys got there. Way back then, the NFC East was still a 5-team division including the current NFC East plus the Arizona Cardinals. The Cowboys were coming off back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the ’92 and ’93 seasons and narrowly missed making it 3 straight when they lost the NFC Championship game the season before to the 49ers. This was Barry Switzer’s second season as head coach after the dramatic departure of Jimmy Johnson. Aikman, Irvin, and Emmitt Smith were still performing at a high level while off-season acquisition Deion Sanders (who was with the 49ers in their Super Bowl win the year before), Darren Woodson, and Charles Haley were the most notable defensive stars.
They opened the 1995 season in New York against the Giants on Monday Night Football and shellacked them 35-0. Three more wins followed to get them to 4-0: a home win against Denver, an overtime win against the Vikings in Minnesota, and a home win against the Cardinals. Their first loss was a close one in Washington, falling 27-23 to their division rivals. They rebounded from that loss to beat the Packers in Dallas and then beat the Chargers on the road and headed into a week 8 bye with a 6-1 record. Coming out of the bye week, they beat Atlanta on the road and then beat the Eagles at home. Their momentum was completely stifled however when they lost badly at home to the hated 49ers in week 11. The final score was 38-20 but they trailed at halftime 31-14 and were convincingly outplayed by the defending Super Bowl champions. Two more wins followed however against the Raiders in Oakland and against the Chiefs at home. The ‘Boys were sitting at 10-2 before hitting a rough patch. They were swept by the Redskins (who ended up finishing the season at 6-10) and then lost to Philadelphia in Philly 20-17. This was the infamous “4th and 1″ game where Switzer chose to go for it at his own 29 late in the game and was stuffed. The Eagles took over on downs and kicked what would be the game winning field goal.
The Cowboys appeared to be in full retreat after two straight losses and then were trailing against the Giants in Texas Stadium in what appeared would be a third straight loss before pulling out a 21-20 win with a late field goal. They rebounded to beat the Cardinals in Arizona in a Christmas night season finale (which incidentally was the game used as footage for the Jerry Maguire movie which came out in 1996) and finished the regular season 12-4. Thanks to a late season loss by the 49ers, they also claimed the #1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Cowboys opened the playoffs by exacting revenge on Philadelphia beating them 30-11. The Eagles had beaten Detroit convincingly the week before in the wild card game (while Green Bay beat Atlanta in the other wild card game). That Cowboys victory earned them a 4th straight appearance in the NFC Championship game against the #3 seeded Green Bay Packers who had upset the 49ers the week before to eliminate them. The game was in Dallas and the Cowboys carved out a tough win against the Brett Favre led Packers beating them 38-27. The Cowboys advanced to their third Super Bowl in 4 years and would face the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers had finished the regular season at 11-5 after reeling off 8 straight wins following a 3-4 start (losing only the season finale to Green Bay). They were the #2 seed in the playoffs earning a first round bye like the Cowboys. They beat the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round and then defeated the Jim Harbaugh led Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship 20-16.
The Cowboys were installed as 13 1/2 point favorites in the game played for the first time in Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. It would be the third time the Cowboys had faced the Steelers in a Super Bowl, losing both Super Bowl X (21-17) and XIII (35-31) to the Terry Bradshaw/Lynn Swann led Pittsburgh team.
In the game itself, the Cowboys jumped out to a 13-0 lead and were dominating the Steelers until they mounted a drive just before halftime and cut the score to 13-7 at the half. The Cowboys scored first in the 2nd half after Larry Brown intercepted a Neil O’Donnell pass and returned it to the Pittsburgh 18. The Cowboys led 20-7 when Pittsburgh started to swing the momentum their way. After a field goal cut the score to 20-10, Bill Cowher called for an onside kick catching the Cowboys by surprise. The Steelers drove for a touchdown and cut the lead at that point to 20-17.
I remember the sick feeling in my stomach as you could see the game slipping away. That is, until Larry Brown again intercepted an errant O’Donnell pass and returned it to the 6-yard line. Emmitt Smith scored two plays later and with 3:43 remaining in the game, the Cowboys had extended their lead to 10 points, 27-17. That would be enough however to earn the Cowboys their third World Championship in 4 years. They had clearly been outplayed in the second half but had capitalized on the Steeler mistakes to bring home the win.
Living in Arizona at the time, I had the good fortune to attend the game live with my brother Matt – my one and very likely only Super Bowl. I remember being surrounded by obnoxious Steeler fans who had yet to taste defeat in a Super Bowl. They were eerily quiet as they shuffled out of the stadium after the game. Despite being in the mix almost every year, it would be another 10 years before Bill Cowher and the Steelers returned to the Super Bowl (beating Seattle 21-10 in Super Bowl XL).
The 90’s were good to Cowboys fans. It is an era we may never see again. I wish I had known how long our dry spell would last. I would have made sure I enjoyed it even more than I did. Oh yeah. Ravens 27, 49ers 24 in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. Enjoy the game as the “dark times” return until next July/August. Go Cowboys!