Back on January 10, 1982, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship in what came to be known as “The Catch”. Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin were 12, 15, & 15 yrs of age respectively at the time. Over the next decade, a football generation came to know the 49ers as the dominant team in pro football. Yet here they were in January 1993, as men, having conquered the 49ers in the ’92 NFC Championship 30-20 in a true changing of the guard.
Joe Montana, an iconic symbol of the old guard, was shaking hands congratulating the young Cowboys. They had vanquished not only the team with the NFC’s best record, 14-2, they topped the team that epitomized conference excellence over the last decade. Now they were navigating uncharted waters and off to Super Bowl XXVII to take on the Buffalo Bills. By the time they made it to Pasadena to take on the Bills, they’re confidence was at an all time high.However beating Buffalo was anticlimactic to what had taken place in soggy San Francisco 2 weeks before.
They had come through the gauntlet which was the NFC at the time. A conference that had won the last 8 straight Super Bowls and would ultimately win 13 in a row. The physical nature of the conference was one thing, but they had to beat the mystique of the best organization in San Francisco.
Once the 49ers unseated the Cowboys back in the ’81 NFC Championship Game, they became the gold standard of NFL franchises. Every veteran wanted to play for Eddie Debartolo’s organization. Once Jerry Jones purchased the team in 1989, he traveled to San Francisco to study how the league’s model front office operated.
By the time Jimmy Johnson had rebuilt “America’s Team” in a few short years, they were ready to take on a 49er team that was prepared to rule the 1990’s just as they had the 80’s. They were built with a different breed of player. Fast, aggressive and an in your face bravado reminiscent of the Miami Hurricane teams Johnson coached in college. The most indelible image from that ’92 Championship was in the locker room when he boasted “How ’bout them Cowboys!??!” loud enough you could nearly hear it in the 49er locker room.
Terry Bradshaw once said “Once you win a Super Bowl the regular season is boring. All you care about is getting back to the playoffs where it can be fun again.”
Well the boredom Dallas had to endure was losing Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt, Emmitt Smith’s holdout, and the advent of free agency. In time free agency would prove to be the bigger foe, but when the Cowboys started 0-2 without Smith’s services, it was clear what priority one was.
The reality set in these were the two best teams in football. Steve Young had won the last two passing titles but Aikman was thought of as the better quarterback. Troy entered ’93 as a Super Bowl winning QB, something Young had yet to do. Michael Irvin (78 rec. 1,396 yds 7 TDs) was beginning to challenge Jerry Rice (84 rec. 1,201 yds 10 TDs) as to who was the best receiver in the game.
In every way these two team were eyeing each other for another postseason date but first had to get through a regular season affair that offered some answers.
The 26-17 win over the 49ers gave the Cowboys the inside track to Super Bowl XXVIII. In fact when they won homefield advantage for the ’93 playoffs, the only question was the status of Emmitt Smith’s separated shoulder suffered in the clinching finale against the New York Giants. Smith was one of 11 Pro Bowlers that included QB Troy Aikman, FB Darryl Johnston, WR Michael Irvin, linemen Mark Stepnoski, Nate Newton, and Eric Williams. By the time you include TE Jay Novacek, they were 3 starters away from sending every player to the Pro Bowl.
The defense, which ranked 10th in the league sent LB Ken Norton Jr, DT Russell Maryland, and FS Thomas Everett to Honolulu. A far cry from the year before when they ranked #1 defensively and sent 0 players to the Pro Bowl. We’ll talk about the importance of Everett later but this team was riding high after the emotional win vs. New York. They kept their eye out west on the 49ers as they blew out the wildcard Giants 44-3 in the divisional round. Dallas beat Green Bay 27-17 to set up the NFC Championship rematch in Texas Stadium.
As pundits lauded the 49ers lopsided win in Candlestick, it belied the fact they had actually struggled down the stretch losing 3 of their last 4. Sure their defense had put it together in taking down the 1 dimensional Giants, but that is after they had the huge battle in the season finale at Dallas and a hard fought wildcard against the Vikings.
After listening to the experts all week, Jimmy Johnson had had enough and called in to a Dallas Radio show on Friday night and declared “We will win the game! You can put it in 3 inch headline!” There was no easing into it now….this was a street fight in the school yard. They called the laced up shirt and tie corporate 49ers out and how would they respond.
They beat down the 49ers 38-21 and were actually ahead 28-7 in the 2nd quarter. Texas Stadium for the first time ever was raucous. Even in the Tom Landry days crowds in Dallas responded like they were at a play or something. They cheered when it was time to but this felt different. It was boisterous and the tempo of the team and the audience fed off Jimmy Johnson’s bravado and echoed in kind. Who knew it was going to be Johnson’s last game ever at Texas Stadium??
After beating The Chancellor of Football’s Buffalo Bills for the Super Bowl XXVIII championship, we had Johnson’s departure in the offseason. On March 29th was the press conference where there was a mutual parting of the ways. The shock wave could be felt through the NFL. The youngest team in the league that won back to back Super Bowls was going on without their vocal leader?? Jerry Jones erroneously stated there were 50 coaches who could coach the Dallas Cowboys and hired Barry Switzer to succeed him.
The Cowboys were that talented and headed into 1994 as the best team in football on paper. Or so they thought… the 49ers had retooled and fashioned much of their team and personality based on the bravado that left them whipped in Dallas the preceding January. The Niners had signed away Ken Norton Jr. and 6 defenders to bolster their defense including future Hall of Famers Ricky Jackson, Richard Dent, and Deion Sanders. All off the NFC Pro Bowl roster. Back then the team that lost the conference championship coached the Pro Bowl and San Francisco used this as a recruiting trip.
Free agency had robbed the Cowboys of Norton, DTs Tony Casillas & DT Jimmie Jones, and to the Chancellor the most valuable defender in FS Thomas Everett. Before Everett’s arrival in ’92, the 11-5 Cowboys struggled with Run & Shoot offenses especially, and at times was awful against the pass. Why do you think they drafted CB Kevin Smith, S Darren Woodson, and traded for Everett to start 1992??
Dallas had been 1-3 against Run & Shoot teams in 1991. They went 5-0 against those teams including the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII that finished as the top passing teams that year with Everett. It was this end zone interception in Super Bowl XXVII that started the 1990’s reign of the Dallas Cowboys. Otherwise the Bills take a 17-14 lead and the Bills take control of the game. In big games he starred….in each NFC Championship Game against the 49ers he picked off Steve Young. You cannot underscore his importance in gluing a young secondary together and teaching them to be pros by example.
Yet 1994 saw this team try to move on without this defensive firepower and they did go 12-4. DE Charles Haley was healthy and made the Pro Bowl with 12.5 sacks, S Darren Woodson, and Leon Lett came into their own making their first Pro Bowl trips. The offense was as potent as ever with Smith’s 1,461 yards and 21 TDs. Although he battled leg injuries the 2nd half of the season. Did they have enough in the gas tank to get to win a 3rd straight Super Bowl and make it into NFL lore?? All they had to do was take a trip out to beat the 49ers for the right to go to Super Bowl XXIX.
So Dallas had to watch the 49ers go on to win Super Bowl XXIX 49-26 over San Diego. They did return the following year to beat Pittsburgh 27-17 to win their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years yet the rivalry came to an end for this era. Both teams kept raising the bar on each other and pushed themselves to a height no other team could reach. In each of these seasons they were the best teams in football and won all 4 Super Bowls… yet lingering questions are still being debated to this day…
- How many Super Bowls would Dallas have won if Johnson coaches the whole decade??
- Would they have won 3 in a row if Johnson coached them in ’94??
- Would the 49ers have won in 1994 if they hadn’t built a defense from the ’93 Pro Bowl roster??
- How would the 1990’s play out for Dallas if there had not been free agency??
- Why isn’t Jimmy Johnson in the Pro Football Hall of Fame??
- Would the Cowboys have won in 1994 if T Erik Williams doesn’t get in that car accident??
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Epilogue: When it came to Jimmy Johnson’s success in Dallas, it was bitter sweet being a Buffalo Bill fan. We lost those two Super Bowls but I was a fan of his back to Herschel Walker and when he first coached the Cowboys. Nope not Dallas…we’re talking the Oklahoma St Cowboys. I first read about Jimmy Johnson during the ’82 season when his running back Earnest “Sparkplug” Anderson became the 5th back to run for 1,000 yards in just the 5th game of the season.
Herschel walker won the Heisman but I kept screaming it was “Sparkplug” Anderson that led college football in rushing! Alas…no blog back in ’82. Yet remember following Johnson and as a tradition would watch the Bluebonnet Bowl played on New Year’s Eve and watched Oklahoma St win that game. When it was announced he was coming to my favorite college team at The [[_]] of Miami, talk about excited… I knew Schnellenberger’s replacement and the rest is history.
I did get to meet Johnson and the Dallas Cowboy coaching staff at Houlihan’s on St Patrick’s Day in 1993 just after the first Super Bowl with Buffalo. I remember having him sign my Golden Nugget /Mirage jacket from Vegas and talked a little football. If only cell phones with cameras, Instagram & Facebook existed then…
Dedicated to the memories of Mark Tuinei, Godfrey Myles, and Joe Avezzano
Next Up: 1990’s San Francisco 49ers v. Dallas Cowboys: 49ers Perspective