1996 Dallas Cowboys: The Dynasty Starts To Wind Down

With three Super Bowl championships in the previous four years, Dallas was already a dynasty. All of the key players were back in tow for another shot at the ring. The 1996 Dallas Cowboys were good and they had a few moments where flashes of their championship selves came shining through. But they also lacked consistency and ’96 was the year when the dynasty began to wind down.

It was no fault of the defense. The Cowboy D ranked third in the NFL in points allowed. Deion Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback was one big reason. So was Darren Woodson, who wasn’t one of the big names in this era of Cowboy football, but was consistently the best strong safety in the league.

Dallas got a career year from defensive end Tony Tolbert, who made the Pro Bowl with twelve sacks. So even though the Cowboys had suffered personnel losses in free agency—cornerback Larry Brown,  defensive tackle Russell Maryland and linebacker Robert Jones—the defense didn’t miss a beat.

Troy Aikman, the future Hall of Fame quarterback, saw his numbers slip from the championship year of 1995, even though he did make another Pro Bowl at the age of 30.  Aikman’s 64 percent completion rate was still second-best among starting quarterbacks. But his 6.7 yards-per-attempt was mediocre. He was intercepted on 2.8 percent of his passes, which was above average, but still down from ’95.

The loss of tight end Jay Novacek to retirement was a blow to the passing game. Kevin Williams, who had started to emerge late in the season in 1995 as a viable second receiver and deep threat, was limited by injuries. Aikman found himself dumping more passes to new tight end Eric Bjornson and fullback Daryl Johnston. Deion got a little time at receiver, as head coach Barry Switzer looked for answers.

It might have been a complete disaster, but another future Hall of Famer, Michael Irvin, was there to at least provide some stability at receiver. Irvin caught 64 balls, averaged 15 yards a catch and made sure the passing game didn’t disappear.

The same can’t be said of another great player from this era of Cowboy football. Emmitt Smith is one of the great running backs of all time. He had won four rushing titles in the previous five years, including an MVP award in 1993. And he ran for over 1,200 yards in this 1996 season. But if you look below the surface, he averaged less than four yards a pop. This is in spite of four offensive lineman—Nate Newton, Ray Donaldson, Larry Allen and Erik Williams having Pro Bowl years.

It’s Smith’s down season that was the biggest difference between this Cowboy team and those that won Super Bowls in 1992, 1993 and 1995, and was the clear second-best team in 1994. The inability to muscle past opponents is the key reason the Dallas offense ranked a woeful 25th in the league in points scored.

The problems showed up right away on an opening Monday Night in Chicago. Dallas couldn’t run the ball against a mediocre opponent, lost three fumbles and took a 22-6 Labor Day loss to start the season.

The Cowboys came home and dispatched a bad New York Giants team 27-0, behind early touchdown passes from Aikman to Deion, Kevin Williams and Emmitt. A week later, at home against playoff-bound Indianapolis, the Cowboys built a 21-6 lead in the third quarter. They were getting big days from Tolbert and defensive tackle Leon Lett, who combined for five sacks. But in the fourth quarter, Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh heated up. Dallas melted down in front of the late Sunday afternoon national audience and lost 25-24.

Buffalo had been Dallas’ Super Bowl foil in the 1992-93 seasons and were still a playoff team here in 1996. The Cowboys went on the road for another late afternoon national game. Facing a backup quarterback in Todd Collins, the defense played exceptionally well. The offense did not. Aikman threw three interceptions. Dallas only rushed for 32 yards. They lost 10-7.

At 1-3, the Cowboys were reeling and the rest of the league could see blood in the water. The Philadelphia Eagles had been the top challenger in the NFC East and Dallas had a Monday Night date in Philly to close September. When they dug a 10-0 hole in the first quarter, disaster loomed. But the defense stepped up with six sacks, two by Tolbert, and getting five turnovers. A 23-13 win stopped the bleeding going into the bye week.

The week off seemed to be what the running game needed. Emmitt went for 112 yards in a 17-3 home win over mediocre Arizona. Then a bad Atlanta Falcons team came in the following week, and put the Cowboys in a 25-17 hole in the third quarter. Facing a complete embarrassment, Aikman threw a short touchdown pass to Emmitt and converted the two-point play to tie the game. Then, trailing 28-25, Aikman hit Kelvin Martin on a 60-yard TD strike that salvaged a 32-28 win.

Dallas was back on the right side of .500 at 4-3, but still looked nothing like a Super Bowl contender. And they were entering a crucial four-week stretch of high-profile games.

Jimmy Johnson had been the Dallas coach for the first two Super Bowl titles. He left in a soap opera dispute with owner Jerry Jones. After two years out of the game, Johnson was back on the sidelines in Miami this year. And as luck would have it, the Cowboys and Dolphins were due to play each other on the AFC-NFC rotation. They were in the late Sunday afternoon national window on the final weekend of October.

Dallas moved the ball consistently in the first half, but three deep drives ended in field goals. They trailed 10-9 at the half. But Aikman and Irvin took over. The quarterback finished 33/41 for 363 yards and no interceptions. Irvin, one of his former coaches’ favorites, showed why, with 12 catches for 186 yards. The Cowboys took over the second half and won 29-10.

It was a great time to build on the momentum with the Eagles coming to Big D. Instead, Aikman was outplayed by Philadelphia counterpart Ty Detmer and the Cowboys lost 31-21. They were 5-4.

A road trip to San Francisco was next. The previous four years in the NFL had been defined by the Cowboys and 49ers, clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Dallas trailed this game 17-10 in the fourth quarter. With 49er quarterback Steve Young out, Aikman ended up making the difference. He finished 24/39 for 230 yards, including a late TD pass to Bjornson that tied the game. Dallas won 20-17 in overtime.

The next big contender on the docket was the Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys had ousted the Packers from the playoffs each of the previous three seasons. But this year’s Green Bay team was different. The Brett Favre era in Lambeau Field was fully emerging and the Packers were playing the best football of anyone. But they knew they had to be able to beat Dallas.

This writer is originally from southeastern Wisconsin and was gathered with a group of Packer fans who watched this Monday Night game in horror. The Dallas defense was vintage, sacking Favre four times and preventing him from getting the ball down the field. The offense comfortably marched up and down the field. In a rather strange circumstance, they kept kicking field goals—seven of them in all—but was enough to win 21-6.

Now 7-4, with consecutive wins over the 49ers and Packers, Dallas was back in the Super Bowl conversation. It was another great time to build some momentum. But this Cowboy year was different and the following Sunday in the Meadowlands showed it. There was no running game against the Giants. Dallas turned it over five times. A 20-6 loss broke up all the good feelings they had come over the last month.

As we approached Thanksgiving and the final quarter of the season, Dallas was in a jam-packed race in the NFC East. At 7-5, the Cowboys and Eagles each trailed the 8-4 Washington Redskins. The Arizona Cardinals (an NFC East team prior to 2002) were 6-6, but had a potentially favorable tiebreaker situation shaping up.

The very top of the NFC had Green Bay at 9-3, with San Francisco and Carolina (NFC West rivals prior to the ’02 realignment that created the NFC South) at 8-4. Of course Dallas had their own potentially favorable tiebreakers working here. But first, they had to somehow push through the logjam in their own division.

That would start on Thanksgiving, with the Redskins coming into town. It looked like the Cowboys of old, mainly because Emmitt looked like his old self. He muscled his way for 155 yards. The ‘Skins could only muster 46 yards rushing. Dallas won 21-10. That Sunday, the Cardinals lost. The NFC East was down to Dallas, Washington and Philly, all 8-5. It was a mad race to the finish.

Down in Arizona, the Cowboys were sluggish for a half, trailing 6-0 into the third quarter. Aikman found Irvin on a 50-yard touchdown pass. It was the showcase point of a game when Aikman went 15/24 for 255 yards and Irvin’s eight catches produced 198 yards. The Cowboys won 10-6. Meanwhile, the Eagles and Redskins both lost.

Dallas not only had a one-game lead, but the tiebreakers were falling their way. They hosted the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots in the season’s penultimate game. With 22mph winds swirling, neither offense could do much of anything. But the Cowboys won the turnover battle 4-2, which led to them winning a battle of field goals 4-2. The 12-6 win clinched a fifth straight NFC East crown.

The Cowboys were locked into the 3-seed and the Redskins had collapsed, so a potentially high-profile season finale in the final game of Washington’s old RFK Stadium ended up not meaning anything. Switzer mailed this one in and got players some rest. It ended a 37-10 loss.

No one knew quite what to make of this Dallas team going into the playoffs. Their pedigree was unquestioned. So was the fact they had clearly demonstrated an ability to dominate the league’s best teams in this season. But could they string together the four consistent games it would take to win a fourth Super Bowl title in five years?

Minnesota came in for a late afternoon Saturday visit to start the playoffs on the final weekend of December. The championship Cowboys showed up for this one. Emmitt ran for 116 yards. Irvin caught eight balls for over 100 yards. Dallas was ahead 30-0 by halftime and cruised to a 40-15 win.

Carolina had outlasted San Francisco in the NFC West, so the Panthers had the 2-seed. Divisional Round Weekend started when the 49ers were eliminated up in Green Bay. The Cowboys and Panthers took the field on late Sunday afternoon.

All the negative patterns of the regular season came through for Dallas. They didn’t run the ball and dug themselves an early 14-3 hole. They game stayed tight, with the Cowboys pulling to within 14-11, 17-14 and 23-17 at various points. But Aikman threw three interceptions and the season ended with a 26-17 loss.

The dynasty was officially over. It seemed like an inappropriate end. The folks up in Green Bay badly wanted Dallas to have come to Lambeau Field. Losing to San Francisco would have been a worthy final chapter. A defeat to a franchise in its second season of existence wasn’t what any scriptwriter would have produced.

But it’s what happened. And the cracks that showed in 1996 opened wide in 1997. The Cowboys slipped to 6-10 and Switzer was fired. Even though the franchise would get back into the playoffs in 1998, they were never an elite team and it was never the same. Aikman retired after the 2000 season. The dynasty came to an end in 1996.