The 1995 Dallas Cowboys were on a mission for redemption and their head coach had something to prove. After winning Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993, Dallas owner Jerry Jones parted ways with head coach Jimmy Johnson over personal grievances. Jones hired Barry Switzer, a three-time national champion at Oklahoma, but lacking NFL experience. The Cowboys were awfully good in 1994, but they fell short of a historic three-peat. With the help of a big free-agent signing, Dallas got back on top in ’95 and solidified their status as the Dynasty of the early 1990s.
The Cowboys principal rival in the first part of the 1990s was the San Francisco 49ers. These two teams were clearly the best in the NFL. The 49ers’ signing Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders had been decisive in putting them over the top in 1994. But Deion was only on a one-year deal. He hit the free agent market again and this time it was Dallas who won the bidding war. A $35 million signing bonus brought Deion to Dallas.
Sanders joined a secondary that included Darren Woodson, the best strong safety in the NFL. Charles Haley was a Pro Bowl defensive end, with 10 ½ sacks. Larry Brown and Brock Marion picked off six passes apiece in the secondary, while Robert Jones was a steadying force at middle linebacker. The Cowboy defense was third-best in the NFL in 1995.
Deion, a two-sport athlete who also played baseball with the Cincinnati Reds, would not join the team until the Reds’ season was over. As (bad) luck would have it, the Reds made the NLCS and extended their season deep into October. But not to worry—Dallas had plenty of weapons on offense to keep rolling until the help arrived.
The Cowboy Dynasty of the early 1990s was keyed by one of the greatest offensive lines of all-time. Nate Newton was 34-years-old, but the left guard was still 1st-team All-NFL. Ray Donaldson at center and Mark Tuinei at left tackle were each in their late thirties, but were Pro Bowlers. The youth on the line came on the right side—second-year guard Larry Allen made his first Pro Bowl in a Hall of Fame career. And 27-year-old Erik Williams was at right tackle.
That powerful front five created the space for “The Big Three”, that ultimately defined this era—Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
Aikman had one of the best seasons in his own Hall of Fame career at quarterback. His final numbers were 65 percent completion rate, 7.6 yards-per-attempt and was intercepted on just 1.6 percent of his passes. To a modern audience, those look above average. In the world of 1995, Aikman was in the top three for each key statistical category.
Emmitt joined Detroit’s Barry Sanders as the best two backs in the league in this era and the Dallas runner captured his fourth rushing title in five years in 1995. Emmitt rolled up over 1,700 yards and averaged nearly five yards a pop. The ’95 campaign was the last really great season in the career of another Hall of Fame talent.
Then we come to Irvin. Another future Hall of Famer, Irvin caught 111 balls and averaged over 16 yards a catch in 1995. Aikman had other weapons—Pro Bowl tight end Jay Novacek, and speedy Kevin Williams really started to come on later in the season. But Irvin was the focal point of this passing offense. And the unit as a whole also ranked third in the NFL for points scored.
The season opened on a Monday Night in the Meadowlands. The Giants weren’t very good in 1995 and this prime-time opener showed it. Emmitt ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He scored four times in total, rushed for 163 yards and Dallas cruised 35-zip.
A late-afternoon home game against Denver was next. The Broncos were mediocre this year and when the Cowboys knocked out John Elway early on, the mismatch got worse. Dallas took a quick 14-0 lead, Emmitt ran for 114 yards and the offense controlled the ball for nearly 35 minutes. The game was not as competitive as the 31-21 final makes it appear.
Another prime-time date, this one on a Sunday Night, awaited in Minnesota. The Vikings had made the playoffs each of the previous three years. They slipped to .500 in 1995, but they were ready to play against Dallas. But the Cowboys had Emmitt—he rushed for 150 yards on the night and the last 31 of those yards were an overtime touchdown run that secured a 23-17 win.
Dallas came back home and played another late afternoon game. Given the prominence of the Cowboys in this era, Aikman probably got more air time in the 4 PM ET window as a player than he does today as Fox Sports’ #1 analyst. In this game, facing a bad Arizona Cardinals team Aikman went 19/30 for 251 yards. Emmitt and Irvin delivered 100-plus yards in rushing and receiving respectively. Dallas cruised 34-20.
A visit to the rebuilding Washington Redskins should have been an easy win. But Aikman had to leave early with a nagging injury. The Cowboys dug themselves a 27-10 hole, with Redskins’ running back Terry Allen outrushing Emmitt. Wade Wilson was a credible backup quarterback—he had been a starter for playoff teams in Minnesota in the late 1980s—and he tried to rally Dallas. But they fell short in a 27-23 loss.
Aikman was back in the lineup for a home game with Green Bay. The Packers, with young quarterback Brett Favre, were gradually growing as a contender, but Dallas had knocked them out the previous two years in the divisional playoffs. It was more of the same today. Aikman went 24/31 for 316 yards and no mistakes. Irvin caught eight balls for 150 yards. Dallas led 31-10 in the fourth quarter and then held off a late push from Favre to win 34-24.
A road trip to San Diego was up next. The Chargers had gone to the Super Bowl in 1994 and would narrowly squeak back into the playoffs this season. But they were playing with a backup quarterback in Gale Gilbert. The Dallas defense got 2 ½ sacks from Haley and three more from Shante Carver on the other edge. They intercepted Gilbert three times and led the way to a 23-9 win.
Dallas was going into their bye week at 6-1. Deion’s arrival was at hand. This entire season seemed to amount to nothing more than a preordained coronation walk to the Super Bowl. An easy 28-13 win at playoff-bound Atlanta out of the bye, behind 167 yards from Emmitt and 135 receiving yards from Irvin, added to the sense of inevitability .
The Philadelphia Eagles were the principal competition for the Cowboys in the NFC East and the first game with Philly came at home on the first Monday Night in November. Dallas held a 17-12 in the third quarter. Then, behind 158 yards from Emmitt and 115 yards receiving from Irvin, they pulled away to a 34-12 win.
It was time for the game everyone who followed the NFL waited for in this era. The one with the 49ers. Although this year, with San Francisco struggling at 5-4, and the regular season game scheduled for Dallas, it seemed like this was just an opportunity for the Cowboys to validate the idea that playing out this season was a mere formality. Dallas was a 13 ½ point favorite.
But it turned into a complete disaster. Aikman was knocked out early and it probably wouldn’t have mattered. The 49ers exploded to a 24-0 lead by the second quarter and the Cowboys lost 38-20. No one really thought that Dallas—still with a two-game lead on San Francisco for the #1 seed in the NFC, was in danger of losing homefield advantage. But did the 49ers, now 3-0 against the Cowboys in the short Switzer Era, have a head-to-head edge? It was at least worth watching. And as it turned out, even that race for the 1-seed would get awfully interesting before it was over.
In the meantime, Dallas bounced back nicely at mediocre Oakland. The Big Three put up their numbers—110 yards for Emmitt, 109 for Irving, with Aikman going 19/24 for 227 yards and no mistakes. The result was a comfortable 34-21 win.
It was time for the annual Thanksgiving Day feast and a high-profile opponent awaited. The Kansas City Chiefs were on their way to the 1-seed in the AFC and this was a possible Super Bowl preview. Dallas controlled the first quarter, getting a 15-yard TD run from Emmitt and a 33-yard touchdown pass from Aikman to Irvin. Kansas City controlled the second quarter, but their two drives ended in short field goals. The Cowboy defense came up with three interceptions and Dallas churned out an efficient 24-12 win.
At 10-2, a home game with Washington seemed another formality, especially with the Cowboys needing a little payback from the October Surprise back in D.C. But Dallas inexplicably showed up flat and, as a (-17) favorite, lost 24-17. They were still in control for the 1-seed. But San Francisco was coming on strong and the margin for error was gone.
A road trip to Philadelphia, who was 8-5, presented an opportunity to clinch the division title and a first-round bye. When Larry Brown came up with a 65-yard Pick-6 in the second quarter and put the Cowboys up 17-3 in the second quarter, it looked like all was well. But the offense bogged down and Philadelphia pulled even at 17-all. Then came a disastrous sequence late in the game.
Facing a 4th-and-1, deep in his own end, Switzer opted to go for it. Emmitt was stuffed. Unbelievably, it turned out the two-minute warning had been reached prior to the snap. With an opportunity to regain his senses, or at the very least, call another play, Switzer called Smith’s number again. Stuffed again. Philadelphia kicked a field goal and won the game.
Switzer was excoriated across the country. Even the late John Madden, not known for being hard on coaches, said from the broadcast booth, “They deserve to lose.” They had also lost the pole position in the NFC. Philadelphia was within one game in the NFC East and now the Eagles had the tiebreaker. A complete disaster loomed.
The good news is that the schedule would soften up, with the Giants and Cardinals (an NFC East team prior to 2002) in the last two weeks. But the Cowboys were not playing well and at home against New York, were outrushed 244-110. It took five field goals from kicker Chris Boniol to escape with a 21-20 win.
Dallas was scheduled to play on Christmas Night, the Monday Night finale of the season. They sat and watched on Christmas Eve Sunday to see what—if anything–they would be playing for. It amounted to an early afternoon of opening presents in Big D.
The Eagles lost in Chicago, giving the Cowboys the NFC East title. Even more stunning, the 49ers lost in Atlanta. Dallas was back in control for the 1-seed. This time they didn’t give it away. On Christmas Night in the desert, Aikman went 21/32 for 350 yards. Kevin Williams had a huge night, with over 200 yards receiving. The Cowboys won 37-13. The road to the Super Bowl would come through Dallas.
After a week off, Round 3 against Philadelphia awaited in the Divisional Round. The Eagles-Cowboys game would be in the early afternoon on Sunday. Before the game, Dallas got yet another gift—On Saturday, San Francisco lost. Green Bay went west and upset the 49ers. Even allowing the rising Favre all the credit in the world, the Cowboys matched up much better with Green Bay than with San Francisco.
Dallas was also a comfortable two-touchdown favorite against Philly. After a sluggish start both ways where the teams traded field goals and stayed 3-3 into second quarter, the Cowboys took over. Deion, playing a little offense, got the ball in his hands, and went 21 yards for a touchdown. Emmitt rushed for another TD. In the second half, Boniol hit a short field goal from 18 and a long one from 51. Aikman went 17/24 for 253 yards, with the emerging Williams catching six balls for 124 yards. The final was 30-11.
The previous two years in the playoffs had seen the Cowboys comfortably beat the Packers. This NFC Championship Game started much the same way. Aikman threw a pair of short TD passes and Dallas led 14-3 early on.
But Favre answered with a couple of long TD strikes and Green Bay went ahead 17-14. Dallas nudged back ahead 24-17 by half, but the Packers controlled the third quarter. The Cowboys trailed 27-24 going into the final period.
Enter Emmitt. Green Bay was simply not as physical as Dallas was up front and the fourth quarter showed that in spades. Emmitt finished the day with 150 yards and he ran for two TDs in the final period. The Cowboy defensive front got to Favre four times, twice from Tony Tolbert up the middle. They forced the Gunslinger into a couple of interceptions, while Aikman was mistake-free. That was the difference in the 38-27 win.
On the AFC side, Kansas City had been upset in the divisional round and 2-seed Pittsburgh was making their first Super Bowl appearance since the Steel Curtain era. The Cowboys and Steelers had played excellent Super Bowls in 1975 and 1978, both won by Pittsburgh. The winner of this one would join San Francisco as the only franchises with five Lombardi Trophies.
Dallas dominated play early, but two drives stalled, the most damaging when an Aikman-to-Irvin touchdown pass was called back. The early dominance only produced a 13-0 lead, and the Steelers got a touchdown just prior to the half to make it a game.
Dallas got a big break when Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell, obviously not on the same page as his receivers, threw an interception directly to Cowboy corner Larry Brown. It set up an easy score and made the game 20-7.
The Steelers then began to rally. They kicked a field goal, covered an onside kick and cut the lead to 20-17. They were taking the game over with their ground attack and defense, and when Pittsburgh forced a Dallas punt, everyone in the country could smell an upset with 4:15 to play.
Unbelievably, O’Donnell again miscommunicated with his receiver and again dropped a perfect pass into Brown’s lap. Dallas got yet another gift TD and the 27-17 margin was too much to overcome.
Brown was given Super Bowl MVP honors. It was an understandable choice, although he didn’t exactly have to bend over backward to get those interceptions. Aikman going 15/23 for 209 yards and making no mistakes—in a game where a 3-0 turnover edge was the ultimate difference–would have been a better pick.
For Dallas, this was a championship that came more with relief than ecstasy. It hadn’t been the formality everyone anticipated. They had to overcome some real adversity along the way. Like a good movie, the plot had some twists you didn’t expect. But in the end, they had sealed themselves as a dynasty.