Super Bowl victories in 1992 and 1993 had been the culmination of Jimmy Johnson’s historically rapid rebuilding program in Dallas. But the three-peat bid of the 1994 Dallas Cowboys would be quickly awash in uncertainty. Johnson’s feud with owner Jerry Jones boiled to a head, and the head coach was fired. Barry Switzer, a three-time collegiate national champion at Oklahoma, but lacking in NFL experience, took over.
Meanwhile, Dallas’ key rival for supremacy in the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers, were doing some plotting of their own. The 49ers acquired future Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders. The Cowboys had a stiff challenge ahead of them.
Switzer’s strength at Oklahoma was that he simply let great talent play and didn’t overcoach. Dallas had great talent and much of Johnson’s fine coaching staff remained intact. Barry just let the ship stay the course. That ship was led by the Big Three—eventual Hall of Famers in quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin. Aikman’s 65% completion rate and 7.4 yards-per-attempt were each second among starting quarterbacks in 1994, even if his 3.3% interception rate was subpar.
Irving caught 79 passes and averaged nearly 16 yards a catch, as he joined Aikman in the Pro Bowl. Alvin Harper was a big-play receiver whose 33 catches averaged a stunning 25 yards per. Jay Novacek at tight end and Daryl Johnston at fullback were each Pro Bowlers and their combined 91 catches ensured Aikman could always work the short game.
But Emmitt made this offense go and he did so the tune of 1,484 yards. He was 1st-team All-NFL running behind an all-time great offensive line. Mark Stepnoski at center and Mark Tuinei at left tackle were each Pro Bowlers. Nate Newton at guard was 1st-team All-NFL .And a rookie tackle named Larry Allen was getting started on what proved to be a Hall of Fame career.
It all added up to the second-most prolific offense in the NFL. And the defense wasn’t far behind, coming in third in the league for points allowed. Charles Haley was 1st-team All-NFL at defensive end with his 12 ½ sacks. Darren Woodson was another 1st-teamer at strong safety. Leon Lett punched a Pro Bowl ticket at defensive tackle. Even with Johnson gone, the defense that was his baby, continued to roll on.
Dallas opened the season at Pittsburgh. The Steelers would end up with the 1-seed in the AFC, but they were no match for the Cowboys. Emmitt ran for 171 yards, Aikman went 21/32 for 245 yards, with Irvin catching eight balls for 139 yards. It was vintage Dallas, as they cruised to a 26-9 win.
But a late afternoon home game with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) did not go well. The Oilers had just parted ways with Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon and were on their way to a horrible season. But Dallas had a hard time breaking free. They only led 13-10 at the half before Aikman found Harper on a 53-yard touchdown pass. The 20-17 win had the feel of a warning sign.
That warning came to fruition the following Monday Night. Facing the Detroit Lions, Emmitt and the Lions’ Barry Sanders had an electric running back duel. Emmitt went for 143 yards, but Sanders ripped off 194. The Cowboys lost in overtime, 20-17.
They went into an early bye week at 2-1, clearly looking vulnerable, but just as clearly with time to get it all figured out. Dallas came out of the bye and blasted the Washington Redskins 34-7, controlling the ball for forty minutes and holding the Redskins to 28 yards rushing. A week later, the Cowboys routed the Arizona Cardinals 38-3 in a late afternoon home game. Neither the Redskins or Cardinals were any good, but at least Dallas was back to blowing out bad teams.
Another late Sunday afternoon home kickoff followed with mediocre Philadelphia. The Cowboys forced five turnovers and won 24-13. A return visit to Arizona (prior to 2002 the Cardinals were in the NFC East along with the division’s four current teams) was a little tougher. After three quarters, Dallas trailed 21-14. Worse, Aikman had been knocked out and backup Rodney Peete was in the game.
Peete played well and went 12/19 for 186 yards. He also threw two touchdown passes, including a 65-yard strike to Irvin to tie it up. Dallas survived 28-21. Another narrow escape on the road followed at Cincinnati. The Bengals were awful, but the Cowboys dug a 14-0 hole. Aikman had returned and rallied the team to a 23-20 win behind six catches for 125 yards from Harper. But this was two weeks in a row of less than inspired football.
Dallas was 7-1 and their “problems” were high-class concerns, to say the least. But when the Super Bowl is the only measure of success and you have a rival the quality of San Francisco, there’s no room for error. And the head-to-head battle with the 49ers was just two weeks away.
The Cowboys hosted the New York Giants on Monday Night and clicked back into gear. Aikman was a sharp 19/24 for 241 yards and no mistakes. Irvin caught seven of those passes for 118 yards, while Emmitt rolled up 163 yards on the ground. The final was 38-10. It was time to go to San Francisco.
November 13 at old Candlestick Park was as anticipated as any regular season game could be. The 49ers were 7-2, so Dallas had a one-game lead and could all but salt away the 1-seed with a win here. But it didn’t happen. While Aikman made big plays, he also made mistakes. His final line was 23/42 for 339 yards, but three interceptions. More alarming was San Francisco’s 147-87 edge in rush yardage. The Cowboys lost 21-14.
A home date with Washington followed. A couple of early rushing TDs from Emmitt, along with two interceptions from corner Kevin Smith, paved the way for an easy 31-7 win. But Aikman was again knocked out. So was Peete. With the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast ahead, there was no time to recover.
So it was left to third-stringer Jason Garrett to face the Green Bay Packers and a young Brett Favre. The Cowboys had knocked the Packers out of the playoffs the year before. But without their top quarterbacks, Dallas was in a 24-13 hole. Then Garrett became a Thanksgiving Day legend. He heated up and the Cowboys ripped off 26 straight points. Garrett finished the day 15/26 for 311 yards. Dallas won 42-31.
A road trip to Philadelphia began December. The Cowboys clung to a 24-19 lead late in the fourth quarter. The Eagles were driving. Woodson saved the day. He intercepted a pass on the six-yard line and raced 94 yards to the house, sealing the win.
Dallas was up to 11-2. They had blown away the NFC East, which didn’t even produce a second playoff team, much less a viable challenger to the Cowboys. San Francisco was also 11-2. Both teams had blown away the field for what were then two first-round byes. Dallas just needed a break to get to the top seed.
They hosted the playoff-bound Cleveland Browns, coached by Bill Belichick for a late afternoon Saturday game. Belichick’s defense prevented Aikman from getting the ball down the field. The Cowboys turned the ball over four times. Even though Emmitt ran for 112 yards, the Cleveland running game was also respectable. Dallas lost 19-14.
San Francisco won the following day and again the following Sunday. By the time the Cowboys played again, on Monday Night in New Orleans, they were locked into the 2-seed. They knocked off the mediocre Saints 24-16, mailed on the finale on the road at the Giants in a 15-10 loss and went into the postseason at 12-4.
For the second straight year, the Packers beat the Lions in the wild-card round and earned a ticket to Dallas for the divisional playoffs. I was living in Wisconsin at the time. While the loyal Packer fans were realistic about their chances, they were hopeful that this season—unlike 1993—could at least be a competitive game into the fourth quarter.
For a quarter, Green Bay hung in. Dallas led 7-3 in the second quarter and were backed up on their own six-yard line. Then Aikman hit Harper on a 94-yard strike. Emmitt had to go to the sidelines with a hamstring problem, but it didn’t matter. Aikman was too hot, going 23/30 for 337 yards. He spread the ball around, with Irvin and Novacek joining Harper with 100 yards receiving on the day. It was 28-9 by halftime and ended 35-9.
The previous day, San Francisco had taken care of their own business in blowing out Chicago. After Dallas’ win, Irvin said what everyone in football knew—that the only point of the regular season was to determine where this particular NFC Championship Game matchup would be played. It was time for the battle.
But there were concerns about Emmitt’s health. He played, but the uncertain footing of Candlestick was not ideal for a running back under even the best of circumstances. And in either case, Dallas would have to throw the very idea of running the ball out the window much earlier than anyone anticipated.
Aikman threw a Pick-6 on the first possession. Two more turnovers followed and they were immediately converted into 49er touchdowns. Dallas was staring at a stunning 21-0 deficit in the first quarter. They battled gamely—especially Irvin, who caught 12 balls for 192 yards. They stayed close enough to keep it interesting. But they also never got closer than ten points and ended up losing 38-28.
The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl in a blowout. As everyone believed back in August, Dallas and San Francisco were both several lengths ahead of the rest of the league.
Dallas would regroup. Jerry Jones went out and got Deion Sanders for himself and shifted the balance of power back in the Cowboys direction for 1995, when the franchise got another Super Bowl ring.