The year is 1999, and, no, this isn’t a science fiction story. It’s a tragedy. Or, it could be seen as simply the circle of life: a noble beast died and a dynasty of vermin, filth, and bottom feeders feasted on the beast’s carcass for the next 14 years.
The year is 1999. People are freaking out — some because of the impending Y2K crisis, and Cowboys fans because America’s Team was 3-0 for the first time since 1995, the last year they won the Super Bowl. Maybe that wild card playoff loss to the Cardinals early in the calendar year wasn’t a death knell, but more of a catalyst for this team to perform better.
What a year the Cowboys were having. They started off shocking the Redskins in a thrilling 21-point 4th quarter comeback to start 1-0. Then they dominated the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football before dismantling the Arizona Cardinals in a 35-7 revenge-fest.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, represented a team in rebuilding mode. Yes, they had their presumed franchise quarterback in Donovan McNabb, who the Eagles fans booed off the stage at the NFL Draft earlier in April. But here they were on their sixth head coach since 1983 with only two playoff wins to show for it. By the way, Andy Reid’s 0-4 Eagles were off to a spectacular start that year. One would have to go back to Mike McCormack’s 1973 Eagles to see a first year head coach have as bad of a start.
Jim Johnson, Philadelphia’s dubious defensive coordinator who had previously been a position coach with the Cardinals, Colts, and Seahawks, had the Eagles defense playing well. They had forced 12 turnovers through four games and scored 9 points through a safety and picksix the previous week against the Giants. Maybe he was on to something, but offensive genius Andy Reid and his offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower were muddling around below mediocrity splitting time between Doug Pederson and Donovan McNabb at quarterback.
The game started out with the Cowboys taking the game’s opening possession and stalling out their drive at the Eagles 41 yard line. For the third time all year, the Triplets were unable to move the ball into the end zone, a trait indivisible from their championship identity. But their punting the ball away was actually a boon, soon they downed the ball inside the Eagles’ own 5 yard line. A three-and-out resulted in a Sean Landeta 40-yard punt from the shadows of his own goal post, which Deion Sanders took right to the Eagles 29. What a great place to start shop.
Again, Dallas had trouble moving the ball against this Jim Johnson defense. Who was this guy? Starting a drive at the Eagles 29 and all they can produce is a lousy four yards and a Richie Cunningham field goal to go up 3-0?
Dave Campo, the Cowboys defensive coordinator, was renowned. After all, he had taken this defense to Super Bowl XXX where cornerback Larry Brown picked off Neil O’Donnell en route to winning the MVP. So why shouldn’t his defense force another Eagles three-and-out as they did on Philadelphia’s second drive? Dallas got the ball back at their own 31. Now, they just needed to mount a touchdown drive and sit on the lead for the next three quarters, because there was no way this offense could score 20 to win.
“Slant to Irvin” — for Cowboys fans, there were two things legendary about that signature route of the Playmaker’s career: first, the reliability of the play, and second, Brad Sham’s call. For over ten years, this is what was a victorious comfort for Cowboys fans. To move the ball to start that scoring drive, Troy Aikman dropped back and rifled the ball into #88. As usual, he caught the ball. Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor dragged Irvin down, and Irvin fell queerly on the green concrete of Veterans Stadium landing on his head.
Michael Irvin broke his neck.
There was silence.
Had #88 avoided a career-ending, life-threatening play and sprung to the turf flamboyantly signalling a first down? Well, no, because he only gained eight yards, and also because he still lie motionless.
Yes, from the same mass of human flotsam that booed Santa Claus and hurled injurious ice balls at opponents came cheers because a player was hurt. Eagles fans were like intrepid explorers. Instead of exploring the cosmos, they explored how far the baseness of humanity reached.
The Eagles fans didn’t cheer for the entire 20 minutes that Irvin lie motionless on the turf, his face mask unscrewed, his head and back fastened to a backboard, and himself loaded onto a gurney where he would spend the night in a Philadelphia hospital’s spinal trauma ward. The fact they cheered branded their reputation forever as merciless illegitimi that would forever top NFL lists as one of the worst fan bases.
“You and me. Make plays. Deuce deuce and 88.” It’s what Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin would say to each other before walking out of the tunnel of every game they played, including the one in Philadelphia that day. How appropriate Emmitt Smith would begin the next 57 yards with a 3-yard gallop of his own, and how tragically ironic that he would fumble the ball on the 1 yard line trying to score that touchdown that would give the Cowboys a desired 10-0 lead.
Again, the Eagles were unable to move the ball, going three-and-out. On the next drive, Emmitt Smith came out with vengeance. He accounted for 34 of the Cowboys’ 52-play scoring drive that finally put them up 10-0. Once again, the Eagles went three-and-out on their next possession. Yeah. This Andy Reid guy was some offensive genius.
Dallas moved the ball on the next drive due to Emmitt Smith runs and Philadelphia sloppiness. They dodged a bullet on the drive’s penultimate play when Emmitt Smith again fumbled the football. Thankfully, Cowboys tight end David LaFleur recovered the fumble. The bullet hit the Cowboys when on the next play Troy Vincent picked off Aikman in the end zone and stalled another Dallas chance at putting up points.
The Eagles finally got a first down, though it was because of an unnecessary roughness penalty on Dallas. After that, a penalty of their own made it 1st and 20, and then here came the customary three-and-out.
With 2:08 left in the first half, the Cowboys sought to put up points on the board going into the locker room, since the Eagles would get the ball to start the second half. Instead, they looked like a Rod Dowhower offense and went three-and-out, which is precisely what the Eagles did after receiving the ball. The entire third quarter featured stalled drives for both teams. The closest scoring position either team got was the Eagles to the Cowboys 38 yard line.
Philadelphia finally got on the scoreboard with a 48-yard Norm Johnson field goal to cut the deficit to 3-10. On the next drive, Dallas’ Richie Cunningham missed a 50-yard field goal. On the immediate Eagles possession, Norm Johnson hit a 31-yard field goal. Suddenly, this hapless Eagles offense could move the football and put up points.
So long as they kicked field goals all day, the Cowboys could hold off for the win. The Cowboys didn’t kick another field goal. After holding the ball and melting time off the clock, they punted the football away to the Eagles with 3:13 left in the game. From their own 38 yard line, it wasn’t lunacy to presume this offense, which had produced two previous field goals, could get into position to tie the game. But they weren’t out to tie the game.
They were in it to win it.
After a holding penalty, backed up to their own 30, Doug Pederson hit wideout Torrance Small for a 20-yard gain. Then, Duce Staley rumbled his way for a 19-yard gain. They were at the Cowboys 31.
An incomplete pass and a three-yard run by Staley set up a 3rd and 7 from the Cowboys 28. Maybe they were playing for the field goal. It would be the safe bet, but Andy Reid knew he was playing with house money on that play and had Pederson fire one for the end zone.
Touchdown, Charles Johnson.
The wide receiver in his sixth year, who had been on the Steelers from 1994-98 and sustained three losses to Dallas, caught the game-winning touchdown. With 1:01 left in the game, the onus was on Dallas to either tie the game or score their own game-winning touchdown.
From their own 13 yard line and with all three timeouts, the Cowboys got a break when linebacker James Darling interfered with Raghib Ismail, the Dallas hero from Week 1 who caught a bomb to give Dallas the overtime win in Washington. On the next two plays, Aikman kept looking for wide receiver Jason Tucker. On third down, Aikman looked for second-year wideout Jeff Ogden.
Bobby Taylor, the man who ended Michael Irvin’s career, ended the Cowboys’ comeback with an interception. How fitting.
The dreary skies in the City of Brotherly Love cast a light upon the Cowboys’ navy uniforms that made them seem more like the black garb a grieving family wears at a funeral. They had just been to one: their own. The Cowboys’ ’90s dynasty was dead, and it happened on a routine slant to Irvin.
Dallas left 13 points on the field and had three uncharacteristic turnovers. Andy Reid had infected the Cowboys with a disease that day and swept the Cowboys for the next three years.
This Sunday, the Cowboys aren’t looking to go to another funeral in Philadelphia, but the birth of their own dynasty as a first-year coach in Philadelphia has his first bout with the Dallas Cowboys. Hopefully, this generation’s #88 will have more than 1 catch for 8 yards, and whoever starts at runningback won’t fumble twice. Jason Garrett bore witness to that dreadful day in Philadelphia, and Dallas fans can be assured he is doing all he can to prepare his team to play better than this franchise did on October 10th, 1999.