It was the second year of the Jimmy Johnson era in Dallas. The first year had gone inauspiciously to say the least—a 1-15 finish. The 1990 Dallas Cowboys showed signs of life, staying in contention for the playoffs to the final week of the season and setting the stage for a great era in franchise history.
The Dallas personnel was still a mix of the too old and the still-developing. Troy Aikman was in his second year at quarterback and while he made progress, the mistakes were still too frequent—an 11-18 TD/INT ratio. Michael Irvin, a future Hall of Fame wide receiver, only caught 20 balls—though he averaged better than twenty yards a pop.
Aikman and Irvin were two parts of what became known as “The Big Three” in Cowboy lore. The third element was rookie running back Emmitt Smith and he made an immediate splash. Smith ran for over 900 yards, won Offensive Rookie of the Year and was the team’s only Pro Bowl selection.
Even though no other players were Pro Bowl-bound in 1990, Johnson continued to develop talent like tight end Jay Novacek, center Mark Stepnoski, right tackle Nate Newton and linebacker Jack Del Rio.
The signs of progress came early. Dallas beat San Diego 17-14 to start the season. They swept a pair of October games with Tampa Bay (the schedule formula prior to 2002 had a conference’s two fifth-place teams playing twice the following season).
Nor were the early losses that disturbing—Dallas dropped three games to NFC East playoff teams in the Giants and Redskins. Two of the three were competitive. The only real disappointment of the first seven weeks was a 20-3 loss at the mediocre Phoenix Cardinals.
The Cowboys dropped another tough game to a future playoff team, a 21-20 decision at home to the Eagles and appeared to hit a wall. Dallas lost 24-9 at a bad New York Jets team and were predictably manhandled at home by the two-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers, 24-6.
With a record of 3-7, a full-scale meltdown that would obscure the early season progress was a real possibility. Instead, the next four games were when Johnson’s Cowboys showed their mettle.
Dallas traveled west to play the Los Angeles Rams, on hard times in 1990, but coming off a strong seven-year run. Emmitt rushed for 154 yards, winning a ground battle with Ram back Cleveland Gary, who ran for 103. The game was tied 21-21 into the fourth quarter before the Cowboys got a field goal that won it.
A bigger breakout game came on Thanksgiving Day against Washington. Emmitt rolled up 132 yards on the ground, while the Redskins got away from their own traditionally strong rushing attack. The result was a 27-17 win for Dallas.
After a 10-day break, the Cowboys came back to host New Orleans in what was a critical game in an NFC wild-card picture that was filled with mediocre teams on the fringe competing for the 6-seed. The Saints were led by quarterback Steve Walsh, who had been drafted by Dallas before being traded.
It was a trade that Johnson, Walsh’s college coach at Miami, would often second-guess in his darker moments before Aikman was established on the road to the Hall of Fame. On this late Sunday afternoon, Aikman played efficiently, going 15/21 for 177 yards. Walsh also threw for 177 yards, on 18/27 passing. An evenly played game was decided by a single red-zone stop—Dallas won, 17-13.
The Cowboys had a late bye week and the results left them tied for the final wild-card spot. Dallas, New Orleans, Minnesota and Green Bay were all 6-7.
But the young and coming Cowboys were the peaking team and they crushed the Cardinals on December 16 (prior to 2002 the Cards were an NFC East rival). Emmitt ran for 103 yards, the defense shut down Phoenix back Johnny Johnson and the final was 41-10. The Packers, Vikings and Saints all lost. Improbably, Dallas controlled their playoff destiny with two weeks to go.
Then disaster struck at Philadelphia. Aikman was knocked out after one pass attempt and lost for the rest of the season. Dallas was stuck with Babe Laufenberg as the season hung in the balance. In the rain at old Veterans Stadium, Laufenberg threw four interceptions, one of which was brought back to the house. The Cowboys lost 17-3.
It almost didn’t matter—Green Bay and Minnesota had each lost on Saturday. If New Orleans could lose at San Francisco in the late afternoon window, Dallas would be in the playoffs. Even though the 49ers had clinched the #1 playoff seed and were resting quarterback Joe Montana, the backup QB was still Steve Young—another future Hall of Famer. But the Saints defense sacked Young four times, recovered four fumbles and stayed alive with a 13-10 win.
Dallas had to either win on Atlanta the following Sunday or hope that New Orleans lost to Los Angeles on the final Monday Night of the season. The game against the Falcons was a disaster. Emmitt was held to 34 yards rushing. Atlanta’s Mike Rozier rolled up 155 yards on the ground and the Cowboys lost 26-7.
There was still hope—New Orleans, at 7-8, was hardly a sure thing to win the next night. But Johnson harbored no illusions, telling reporters “the Saints can get ready to play Chicago (the 3-seed in the NFC).” That’s what happened. The Saints and Rams were tied 17-17 with two seconds to play. A potential game-winning field goal by New Orleans was blocked, but L.A. was flagged for being offsides. A second attempt was good and Dallas was done for the year.
The 1990 Dallas Cowboys still sent a shot across the bow of the rest of the NFL. The following year they won 11 games, made the playoffs and reached the second round. In 1992 they started a dynastic run of what would be three Super Bowl titles in four years.