Memory Lane: Cowboys-Falcons 1990


1990 was a bi-polar year for the Dallas Cowboys. After starting off the year a disconsolate 3-7, the Cowboys had reeled off 4 wins out of their last 5 games. Even though they were 7-8 going into Week 16, all they had to do was win against the 4-11 Falcons to go to the playoffs, since the Cowboys beat the Saints in Week 13 to give them the tiebreaker.

Week 17 was a microcosm of the Cowboys season. In Week 16, the Cowboys lost Troy Aikman for the rest of the season five plays into the contest in Philadelphia. It seemed hopeless, but the Cowboys could easily make the playoffs if they could find a way to beat the 4-11 Atlanta Falcons on the road.

The Dallas Cowboys had beaten the Chargers, Buccaneers, Rams, and Cardinals that season, and neither team had won more than 6 games in 1990. Though the Falcons had won their Week 16 encounter with the Los Angeles Rams, they had lost 7 of their last 8 contests and had only scored a little over 15 points on average. If the Cowboys could just score 17 points, they had a good shot to win the game and get into the playoffs.

Unfortunately, Troy Aikman wouldn’t lead the Cowboys offense. Instead, the Cowboys would have to rely on the beard of Babe Laufenberg to get them into the playoffs. At this point in the future CBS 11 sportscaster’s career, he had only been a backup in New Orleans, San Diego, and Dallas. He had only played 6 games in his career with San Diego in 1988, where he threw 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. The best game of his career came in1988 when he went 13 for 25 for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns in Arrowhead Stadium. Laufenberg also led the Chargers down 23-14 to beat the Chiefs 24-23.

Realistically, all Babe had to do was be a bus driver in this contest in Atlanta. Excluding the loss to Philadelphia, rookie Emmitt Smith was gaining over 4 yards a carry in his last four games. Third-year receiver Michael Irvin, veteran Kelvin Martin, and Plan B free agency find Jay Novacek gave Laufenberg safe targets down field. If the Cowboys could win the turnover differential, chiefly by taking care of the football, there was a good chance the Cowboys could clinch their first playoff berth since 1985.

Troy Aikman, Jimmy Johnson, and Babe Laufenberg try to concoct one last victory to make the playoffs in Atlanta.

Atlanta was 4-11, and Jerry Glanville remarked he inherited a flat tire with the 1990 Falcons. After all, he had taken the Oilers to three straight playoff berths. Now, he was coaching against a club on Sunday, December 30th that was on the precipice of making its own playoff berth. Glanville was quite a character. His personality and phenotype was quite Southern, even though he was an Ohio boy and matriculated at the campus of North Michigan. He told his players in the locker room before the game at Fulton County Stadium that the Cowboys thought they had their playoff ticket punched; there was champagne in the locker room. Glanville asked his players if they were going to let Dallas get away with that. Of course, there was no champagne or confetti in the Cowboys locker room, only 52 players and one very unprepared quarterback.

The first quarter yielded no points for either club. The Falcons pulled ahead 7-0 to go into halftime when Tracy Johnson, a Glanville runningback from the Oilers, scored a 1-yard touchdown. Going into halftime down 7-0 on the road is never really a problem, but giving up the opening kickoff to commence the second half is. Dallas kicker Ken Willis kicked it short to the Falcons 24, and then Keith Jones took it all the way back for an additional 7 points after the successful extra point.

There was still plenty of time to get back into the ball game and pull it out. After all, Babe led a comeback on the road in Arrowhead Stadium. He even got sacked for a safety in that contest. Well, Babe would get sacked for a safety here in Fulton County Stadium, but it didn’t prompt a Cowboys comeback. After the safety, Falcons kicker Greg Davis drilled a 23-yarder to put the Falcons up 19-0 in the 4th quarter.

Pulling out a comeback and going to the playoffs seemed insurmountable.

After the Greg Davis field goal and down by three scores, Babe threw a pick to future Cowboy cornerback Deion Sanders, and Primetime took the 61-yard interception all the way back for a touchdown to make the score 26-0 Falcons.

Now, pulling out a comeback and going to the playoffs was insurmountable.

Thankfully, the Cowboys were able to get a score before the final whistle. Babe Laufenberg threw a 27-yard pass to tight end Jay Novacek to prevent a Cowboys shutout. Now, their streak of games without being shutout was 18 after having been shutout thrice in 1989.

Even though the Cowboys pulled a stunt only rivaled by their Week 17 performance in Philadelphia in 2008, there was still a chance they could make the playoffs. The NFC was so porous in 1990 that a 7-9 team would make the playoffs as a wild card. If the Saints lost to the Rams at home on Monday Night Football, then the Cowboys would hold the tiebreaker, even though they were 7-9, and then would go on to play the Chicago Bears in the wild card playoffs. Yet Jimmy Johnson was very pragmatic in his postgame press conference. He said it was over and the Saints could get read to play the Bears. Jim Mora’s Saints must have listened to Johnson too closely, because it took a Morton Andersen field goal to send New Orleans to their second playoff berth in franchise history.

Here’s the real slap in the face, and something that I know would prompt a lot of mewling from fans had it happened within the last five years: Steve Walsh led the Saints to the playoffs. I’m sure Jerry Jones is somehow to blame for that. But think about it. The quarterback the Cowboys traded away so they could stand by their gimpy $11 million dollar quarterback was now in the playoffs, while the Cowboys had to wait another year to go somewhere they hadn’t been since 1985. If that happened today, the Turkey Neck and the rest of the Legion of Doom on KESN would make that the story line heading into 1991.

Here’s what I don’t get: how did Babe Laufenberg parlay that god awful performance in Atlanta into a sports broadcasting career in the city he let down? I can see San Diego maybe saying he can come do sports at their stations. They had bad teams. But here the Cowboys were one win away from the playoffs and he surrendered 9 points singlehandedly. Then, he turns that into a sportscasting career in Dallas. I guess Bob Dylan’s line about “the loser now will be later to win” is true after all.

Hopefully, Tony Romo doesn’t pull a Babe Laufenberg this Sunday in Atlanta. He’d be lucky to own a used car dealership the way public opinion has swayed against him with the dismal season he’s having.