1991 Dallas Cowboys: Jimmy Johnson’s Playoff Breakthrough

The dynasty Jimmy Johnson built in Dallas defined the NFL for the first half of the 1990s. The big breakthrough came when the 1991 Dallas Cowboys got into the playoffs for the first time under Johnson and the first time for the franchise since 1985.

Johnson took over the team in 1989 and a bad team was allowed to bottom out, with a 1-15 record. But the Cowboys had stockpiled assets when they traded running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a boatload of draft picks. Progress came immediately, as the 1990 Cowboys won seven games and contended for a playoff spot. The burden of expectations were with them to at least get into the postseason, when the 1991 NFL season began.

Troy Aikman was in his third year at quarterback and he stepped up and finished in the top five in both completion percentage and yards-per-attempt. The mistakes were still there, but the 11-10 interception ratio was at least manageable by the standards of this era.

Aikman was surrounded by Pro Bowlers. Running back Emmitt Smith won the rushing title with 1,563 yards. Michael Irvin led all receives with over 1,500 yards. Tight end Jay Novacek caught 59 balls for 664 yards. There were no Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, but the building blocks of a line that would eventually become one of the great units in league history were in place, with center Mark Stepnoski and right tackle Nate Newton. Dallas finished seventh in the NFL in points scored.

The defense would also eventually join the league’s elite, but not in 1991. Defensive end Tony Tolbert got seven sacks, but that was the only notable achievement with a young group that included two rookies, defensive tackle Russell Maryland and corner Larry Brown. Dallas ended up 17th in a 28-team league in points allowed.

Aikman, Emmitt and Irving would eventually take their place in NFL lore as “The Big Three” and they came out of the gate firing at the season opener in Cleveland. The Browns were on a rebuilding project led by Bill Belichick, in his first game as a a head coach, and Dallas had too much firepower. Emmitt ran for 112 yards, Aikman went 24/37 for 274 yards and no interceptions, and Irvin caught nine balls for 123 yards. The result was a 26-14 win.

A showcase opportunity awaited at home on Monday Night against a powerful Washington Redskins team that was nearing the end of its own glory era, but had its best team yet in store for 1991. Dallas played well. Aikman went 27/42 for 242 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Emmitt ran for another 112 yards. But the Cowboys narrowly lost the turnover battle, 2-1 and were beaten 33-31 on an exceptional performance from Redskins kicker Chip Lohmiller.

The offensive line collapsed six days later in the face of the Philadelphia Eagles defense. Aikman was sacked eleven times, Emmitt couldn’t find running room and the 24-0 loss handed Dallas their second straight defeat at home to an NFC East rival. They bounced back on trip to Phoenix, where Emmitt ran for two early touchdowns, including a 60-yard jaunt, pounded out 182 yards on the day and led a 17-9 win.

Dallas played their fourth divisional game of September when they hosted the New York Giants (the Cardinals were in the NFC East prior to 2002 and were also known as “Phoenix” rather than “Arizona”). The Giants were the defending Super Bowl champions, but under new leadership after Bill Parcells retired and the reins were given to an unknown in Ray Handley. Aikman spread the ball out to ten different receivers. Defensive back Ray Horton kept his team in it with a touchdown and Aikman’s 23-yard TD pass to Irvin eventually won the game, 21-16.

Horton did it again one week later in Green Bay, starting the scoring with a 65-yard Pick-6. It turned out to be another badly needed defensive score, because the Cowboys did not play well against what was then a poor Packers team, still a year away from getting Brett Favre. But they won the turnover battle 3-zip and survived 20-17. The following week at home with Cincinnati, the Cowboys picked off Boomer Esiason twice, got six catches for 148 yards from Irvin and after spotting the Bengals a 10-0 lead, took over and won 35-23.

Dallas was 5-2 as they headed into their bye week. On its face, the record was on track for the playoffs. But there were reasons for concern—namely, that the three toughest divisional opponents—Redskins, Eagles and Giants—had already come to Texas Stadium and the Cowboys had tough road trips ahead of them. The NFC was also shaping up as by far the more difficult conference to reach the postseason in.

The job got more difficult at playoff-bound Detroit, when Dallas turned it over four times and fell apart in the second half of a 34-10 loss. The Cowboys got back on the board with a 27-7 home win over the Cardinals, although it was another sloppy offensive performance. At 6-3, Dallas was looking at an exceptionally difficult three-game road trip that could make or break the season.

It started in Houston, where the Oilers were on their way to an 11-5 season. The Cowboys got on the board first when they recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown. But they couldn’t run the ball, nor could they stop the run. They eventually lost in overtime, 26-23. A high-profile road game in New York in the late Sunday afternoon TV window went worse. Three trips to the red zone resulted in field goals and the 22-9 loss put the Cowboys on the brink.

On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, Dallas was in a desperate spot, facing undefeated Washington in old RFK Stadium. What happened was a franchise-defining moment. The Cowboys came at the Redskins when everything Johnson could conjure up in the defensive arsenal and they slowed an offense that had been demolishing its opponents. Emmitt ran for 132 yards. Irvin and Alvin Harper each had over 100 yards receiving and the 24-21 upset kept the Cowboys alive.

But even though Aikman played well, going 13/20 for 204 yards, he injured his thumb and was lost for the remainder of the year. With five teams competing for two wild-card spots all packed within a game of each other, the hopes of the 1991 Dallas Cowboys were put on the shoulders of Steve Beurlein.

Dallas had its annual Thanksgiving feast against the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cowboys played a mistake-free game and led 13-10 in the fourth quarter, when Beurlein went 66 yards to Irvin for the touchdown that clinched the win. A home game with playoff-bound New Orleans was next. Again, the Cowboys played mistake-free and again they won in the fourth quarter. Trailing 14-13, they scored ten straight points to close it out. Emmitt and Irvin each cleared the 100-yard threshold and at 9-5, Dallas had some momentum.

The Cowboys, Eagles and Falcons were all 9-5. The 49ers were 8-6 and two straight losses by the Giants had left them 7-7 and realistically eliminated. There were two wild-card spots available for the four contenders and the Dallas-Philadelphia game in old Veterans Stadium on December 15 was a monster regular season battle.

Winds were blowing at 22mph and quarterback play was erratic on both sides. The Cowboys managed just two field goals and a safety through three quarters, but only trailed 10-8. Special teams made the difference—Kelvin Bryant returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown and Dallas continued its trend of strong fourth quarter play down the stretch. They won the game 25-13. When all the different tiebreaking possibilities were calculated, the Cowboys had clinched a playoff berth.

Atlanta had secured the other wild-card spot and the season-ending Cowboys-Falcons game in Dallas lost some of its juice. It was still a good game, with Emmitt rushing for 160 yards, including a six-yard TD run in the fourth quarter that won it, 31-27. Dallas moved up to the 5-seed with the win and earned a trip to Soldier Field in Chicago.

Mike Ditka’s Bears were in the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. But they had gotten crushed in San Francisco to end the season, a loss that cost them the division title and a first-round bye. And the rise of a new power necessarily means the fall of an old one. Johnson’s Cowboys would replace Ditka’s Bears on this early Sunday afternoon in the Windy City.

Dallas used a turnover and a blocked punt by Darrick Brownlow to grab an early 10-0 lead. Chicago countered with two consecutive drives to the doorstep of the end zone, but the Cowboy defense stiffened. The first drive ended with a goal-line stand, the second with a 19-yard field goal. Instead of trailing 14-10 at half, Dallas led 10-3.

The game tightened in the third quarter when the Bears kicked another field goal. The Cowboy defense would be on the field a long time in this game—over 37 minutes—but the offense was at least taking care off the football and they won turnovers 3-0. Beurlein flipped a short touchdown pass to Novacek to make it a 17-6 game.

Chicago drove two more times inside the 10-yard line. They were stopped on downs a second time (the two-point conversion did not exist prior to 1996, so a fourth quarter field goal for a team down 11 points was pointless). The Bears did get a touchdown on their fourth trip inside the Cowboy 10-yard line, but it was too late. Dallas won 17-13, with Emmitt rushing for 105 yards.

Another road trip to Detroit for the late Sunday afternoon finale to Divisional Round weekend was next. Dallas was playing for the chance to go back to Washington, where they had turned their season around, and play for a Super Bowl berth. But this trip to Motown went a lot like the one in October had.

Beurlein led a couple drives in the red zone, but this time it was the Cowboys settling for field goals. He also threw a Pick-6. Trailing 17-6, Beurlein’s starting career in Dallas came to an end, as Johnson tried Aikman. It went no better, the Cowboy pass defense was shredded and the result was a 38-6 loss.

The poor showing in Detroit could not take away from the excellence of the season though, particularly the closing stretch drive, with the wins in Washington and Chicago. The Dallas Cowboys were back in business and one year later they kicked the dynasty into high gear with a Super Bowl trophy.