The 1992 Dallas Cowboys entered the season primed to make a run at the Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson had been brought to Big D in the spring of 1988 awash in controversy. Arkansas oil man Jerry Jones had bought the team and made the firing of NFL legend Tom Landry, coming off a 3-13 season, his first priority. The first year was awful at 1-15, but the Cowboys pulled the trigger on a trade that would speed the rebuilding.
Johnson dealt Herschel Walker, the team’s top running back to Minnesota for several draft picks and a few veteran players. And when the coach cut the veterans he was able to redeem them for picks. Dallas moved quickly to 7-9 the following year and likely would have made the playoffs had second-year quarterback and current Fox analyst Troy Aikman not been injured the final two weeks.
In 1991, Dallas did make the playoffs, going 11-5 and winning an NFC wild-card game. They came into 1992 with Aikman at quarterback, future Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin at running back and receiver respectively, and Jay Novacek at tight end. The offensive line was the crown jewel of the team though—a unit that had Pro Bowlers in Nate Newton and Mark Tuinei was the NFL’s best front-five since the Washington Redskins’ Hogs that were in their final moments this season and no offensive line since has come close to being as good, with free agency preventing continuity.
Defensively, the Cowboys didn’t produce a single Pro Bowl player while having the league’s top-ranked defense under coordinator Dave Wannstedt, but they would make an early season trade to get a big playmaker in pass-rushing end Charles Haley. The Cowboys were loaded for bear and lying in wait when the defending champion Redskins came to town to open the season on Monday Night Football.
Special teams made the difference in the opener. Dallas blocked a punt for a safety that began the scoring and then holding a 16-7 lead in the second half, Kelvin Martin returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown. The final was 23-10, but the Cowboys had controlled the line of scrimmage behind Emmitt’s 140 rushing yards, and as a Redskins fan watching this game in his college dorm, all I remember about this game is that the ‘Skins had no shot from the get-go.
Dallas closed September by beating the Giants and Cardinals before going into their bye week. On other side of the bye to begin October awaited another key NFC East Monday Night showdown, on the road in Philadelphia.
The Cowboys’ Monday night trip to Philadelphia didn’t work out well. After being tied 7-7 after a quarter and trailing only 10-7 at the half, the game got away from the ‘Boys. Philadelphia had a ferocious defense led by a Hall of Fame pass rusher in Reggie White, and a dominant defensive front that included Clyde Simmons and future ESPN radio personality Mike Golic.
Linebacker Seth Joyner was similar to Haley, a hybrid was more naturally a pass rusher. Eric Allen manned the corner and Andre Waters was at strong safety, giving Eagles’ coach Rich Kotite a tremendous package of talent. Offensively, the athletic Randall Cunningham played quarterback and the team had a new acquisition in the backfield, one Dallas was quite familiar with—Herschel Walker. He scored a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns, Aikman threw three interceptions and this time it was Dallas who was whipped on the ground. The final was 31-7.
Dallas licked their wounds, came back and won their next three, including a 17-10 win over playoff-bound Kansas City, setting up a November 1 rematch with Philadelphia in Big D. The Cowboys held first place in the NFC East by the time the Eagles came to town, as Philadelphia’s inconsistency led them to drop a pair since the Monday Night battle.
This one was another tough defensive game and the Eagles were behind the eight-ball with Cunningham out. The new quarterback was Jim McMahon, a veteran of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears, but well past his prime now.
Philadelphia’s defense was up to the challenge in the first half, and Dallas trailed 3-0 at intermission. But in the third quarter an Aikman TD pass was the highlight and the game went to the final period knotted 10-10.
From there, the big offensive line and Emmitt took the game over. Smith finished with 163 rush yards, including a fourth-quarter touchdown and the Cowboys won 20-10. At 7-1, they were in command of the division. Through November they had a brief hiccup when they lost at home to the non-contending Los Angeles Rams, and then barely squeaked by the Cardinals a week later.
But a Thanksgiving Day feast upon a Giants’ team that was already light-years removed from the one that won the Super Bowl two years earlier got them back on track. Dallas went out to Denver and won an exciting 31-27 battle with John Elway. Johnson’s team had an opportunity to clinch in a December 13 game at Washington.
A Dallas division title wasn’t in serious doubt when they took the field in Washington’s old RFK Stadium, but there would be something symbolically sweet about making it official on the site of the defending champs, while perhaps dealing a death blow to the Redskins’ wild-card push. Dallas took an early 10-0 lead and led 17-7 at half.
The fourth quarter was a disaster. Three of the teams’ four turnovers came in the final period. One was an interception in the end zone when a TD would have sealed it and instead a long return by Washington linebacker Andre Collins set up a field goal that made it 17-13. The final one was a fumble by Aikman after he was sacked deep in his own end that was recovered and walked in for a touchdown.
It ended up a 20-17 loss, and the temper tantrum Johnson threw on the plane home is one of this Dallas’ era enduring legends. The Cowboys closed the season with workman like wins over Atlanta and Chicago to end 13-3 and get the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs, behind San Francisco.
Dallas began their drive at what they hoped would be their first Super Bowl appearance since 1978 and their first title since ’77. In fact, this proud franchise hadn’t even played for the NFC title since 1982. They took care of that latter omission right away.
Philadelphia had won its wild-card game with New Orleans on the road and played well for one quarter of this rubber match in the old Texas Stadium. An early field goal gave them a 3-0 lead, but Aikman tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to his blocking tight end Derek Tennell, threw another to his Pro Bowl tight end in Novacek and it was 17-3 by the half. The Dallas defensive front was locked in and dominating, as tackles Russell Maryland and Tony Tolbert had two sacks apiece.
It’s tough to do much of anything offensively when you’re beaten straight up the middle and the Eagles offense indeed did nothing. Not until Emmitt had piled up 114 yards on the ground, and the lead stretched to 34-3 did Philly find the end zone. On the other side of the NFC bracket San Francisco held off Washington 20-13 and set up a battle most NFL observers considered to be the de facto Super Bowl.
San Francisco had a lot of the same core players from the teams that dominated the 1980s and won four Super Bowls, but there was one very significant change. Joe Montana was no longer the quarterback as his continual back injuries had moved Steve Young into the job. Montana still wanted to play and his negative attitude toward Young in the media only added to the pressure the new 49er quarterback felt to prove himself with a championship. Montana would be traded to Kansas City in the offseason. In 1992 the present was about Young and Aikman trying to validate themselves by getting a ring.
Dallas drove inside the five-yard line but had to settle for a Lin Elliot field goal. San Francisco drove back and finished the job with a touchdown. Before the quarter was out, the 49ers had the game’s first mistake when Pro Bowl guard Guy McIntyre was called for holding, nullifying a 63-yard Young-to-Jerry Rice touchdown pass and the Niners ended up punting. In the second quarter it was the 49ers settling for a short field goal and the Cowboys getting to the end zone. It went to the locker room 10-10.
Dallas’ offense came right out of the gate with a touchdown drive to start the second half and though Frisco mounted a drive of their own it ended with a field goal and the Dallas offense was locked in. A long 79-yard drive stretched early into the fourth quarter and a 16-yard pass from Aikman to Emmitt made it 24-13 and Young had only seen the ball once the entire half.
Dallas had a chance to blow it open when linebacker Ken Norton intercepted a pass deep in Frisco territory. On fourth down and short, Johnson opted to go for it—an understandable decision, for the way offenses were playing, the need to make it a three-score rather than a two-score game was logical. But the move didn’t work and Emmitt was stuffed. San Francisco countered with a touchdown drive that ended with a short Young-to-Jerry Rice touchdown pass and with the score 24-20 the crowd in Candlestick was rocking.
With the ball inside their own 20, Dallas needed to make something happen. Aikman threw a slant across the middle to secondary option Alvin Harper, who took it 70 more yards. The Niner defense wasn’t able to hold and the Cowboys got a touchdown that clinched the game and the NFC Championship.
The Super Bowl opponent was the Buffalo Bills, making their third straight appearance on the sports world’s biggest stage. Buffalo had lost the previous two games, dropping a heartbreaker to the Giants in 1990 and losing decisively to the Redskins a year ago. Now the Cowboys were the latest NFC East team to get a crack at Marv Levy’s team.
Buffalo had a Hall of Fame quarterback in Jim Kelly who called his own plays in an aggressive no-huddle offense. Thurman Thomas could do it all out of the backfield and Andre Reed was one of the top receivers in the NFL. Across the front line, Buffalo was the only team who could come close to matching Dallas, with Pro Bowl linemen in Wil Wolford, Howard Ballard and Jim Richter.
Defensively they could get after you with Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, blitzing linebacker Cornelius Bennett, the sure and steady Shane Conlan in the middle and top defensive backs in safety Henry Jones and corner Nate Odomes.
As to why it was assumed Dallas was a vastly better team than Buffalo was a mystery to me at the time. And really, how anyone knew it in advance is still a mystery today. But there’s no denying what happened on the football field in Pasadena on January 31.
Buffalo’s top special teams player Steve Tasker struck first, blocking a punt to set up an Bills’ touchdown. Dallas found the end zone twice before the quarter was out, with Aikman hitting Novacek for one, and defensive tackle Jimmie Jones scooping up a fumble on the goal line and scoring the second. It wouldn’t be the last turnover the Cowboys would get on this day.
The Cowboy defense stopped Buffalo inside the 5-yard line and forced a field goal cutting the score to 14-10. At this point Aikman and Irvin hooked up on consecutive scoring passes to make it 28-10. It was already getting out of hand at halftime and the Bills were turning to backup quarterback Frank Reich. Kelly had a knee injury that had kept him out of playoff wins against Houston and Pittsburgh, though he had returned for the AFC title win at Miami.
Reich had acquitted himself more than adequately this January—against Houston he led his team back from a 35-3 deficit to win in the greatest comeback in NFL history. He was also the author of the greatest college comeback in history when his Maryland team had rallied from 31-0 down to beat Miami 42-40 back in 1984. The coach of that Miami team? Jimmy Johnson.
There would be no comebacks in this Super Bowl though. Buffalo briefly made it interesting at the end of the third quarter when Reich connected with Don Beebe on a 40-yard touchdown pass to make it 31-17. But the Cowboy defense had already intercepted Kelly twice, they would pick off Reich two more times and Buffalo put the ball on the turf an astonishing eight times. Five were recovered by Dallas as part of their record-setting nine turnovers forced.
This was the obvious difference in a game where passing and rushing stats were mostly even and Buffalo had made a big special teams play. Aikman was flawless, going 22-for-30 for 273 yards, four touchdown and nary a pick to be found. Emmitt, the NFL’s leading rusher during the season, produced his third straight 100-yard game of the postseason.
Dallas scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns and it would have been four if not for the game’s most memorable play. Cowboy defensive tackle Leon Lett scooped up a fumble and had a clear path to the end zone. He stretched out his arms in celebration a couple yards to soon and a hustling Beebe knocked the ball out and through the end zone, which gave Buffalo the ball on the 20. It was an embarrassing moment for Lett, a tough and hardworking player who got a little carried away in the moment and paid a disproportionate price in terms of media coverage afterward. But for the Cowboys as a whole, it was a minor blot on a fabulous Sunday. They had won 52-17.
Johnson’s Cowboys would be back the next year to defeat these same Bills. In 1995 Johnson would be gone, but the players and coaching staff he’d put together carried Barry Switzer to a third championship. They were the dynasty of the early 1990s and it began in 1992.