Monday, October 3, 2011

profiles in epic comebacks: your 1996 dallas cowboys

“Where do we go from here?
This isn’t where we intended to be.
We had it all!
You believed in me. I believed in you.

Certainties disappear.
What do we do for our dream to survive?
How do we keep all our passions alive,
As we used to do?

Deep in my heart I’m concealing
Things that I’m longing to say.
Scared to confess what I’m feeling,
Frightened you’ll slip away.

You must love me …”

-- your 1996 Academy Award nominated performance by Madonna from the “Evita” soundtrack, “You Must Love Me”. And yes, if you want to openly mock me for loving this musical, feel free to fire away, I can take it. It’s that damned solid of a musical …


Yesterday at beautiful Arrowhead Stadium, in perfect weather conditions, our flawed Chiefs team got off the mat, touched gloves with the Vikings, and delivered one helluva right-hand punch squarely into the Vikings jaw.

Chiefs 22, Vikings 17.

I am aware there is still a solid block of Chiefs fans who think this season is toast. We’re 1-3 at the quarter pole. We have injury issues the likes of which we haven’t seen in this town in a long, long time. And my God, the late November / early December schedule! We done be screwed!

And to those of you who feel that way, at least one of you who sent me a message on Facebook that inspired an all-time classic Stevo meltdown, I give you one of the most inspirational teams I have ever had the privilege of seeing play in person.

The 1996 Dallas Cowboys.

Like the Chiefs, the 96 Cowboys opened 1-3. They got demolished in their opener at Chicago in front of the nation on a Monday night. They demolished an awful Giants team in their home opener. They lost on a 50 yard field goal at the gun in week three. And they lost on a last second field goal at Buffalo in week four to tumble to 1-3 entering October.

With a visit to the Eagles, a 10-6 divisional round team the year before, on tap, again on Monday Night Football. (The previous year, the game at Philly went down in the annals of history, as Barry Switzer went for it on 4th and 1, in the fourth quarter of a tie game, at his own 22 – twice! The only complaint I ever had about that … was that he called the same play twice in a row. (Offsetting penalties resulting in replaying the down.) The way the Dallas D was imploding, he made the absolute right call in going for it.)

Like the Chiefs, the 96 Cowboys had serious injury issues. Emmitt Smith landed on his head in the opener on a short yardage play, resulting in temporary paralysis and lingering concussion issues throughout the season. The second wideout, Kevin Williams, went down with an ankle issue in the loss to Buffalo. Which would have been ok … had the primary wideout, Michael Irvin, not been suspended for the first five games of the season due to his unfortunate choice of doing some lines of blow with a group of “self employed models”.

Entering that Monday nighter at Philly, staring 1-4 in the face (the Eagles entered 3-1), well, how can I put this delicately. Chiefs fans, if you think WE have issues? These were the starting wide receivers that night at The Vet:

Deion Sanders.

And Herschel Walker.

Now, the NFL savvy amongst you reading this instantly realize “wait a second … Deion Sanders isn’t a wide receiver!” And you would be correct. (Deion actually started at WR all five games of Irvin’s suspension. To compensate for that, Barry Switzer stopped using Deion to return kicks, bringing back Herschel Walker to handle those duties. Now? He’s gotta start Herschel at WR because he was the second best option the Cowboys had, behind their starting cornerback. Again Chiefs fans, you think we’re up sh*ts creek? You haven’t seen sh*ts creek yet.)

Living in Dallas at the time (ok, ok, south Fort Worth), I had to suffer a lot of Cowboys fans. (The 1996 Chiefs opened 4-0, the fourth win being the final defeat that (insert very long string of obsenities here) john elway would ever be handed at Arrowhead. Good times!) To say Cowboys Nation was in a near state of panic entering that Monday nighter at the hated Eagles, is an understatement of Biblical proportions.

(editors note: that was the most epic brain fart of epic brain farts imaginable. The Chiefs still had one final "ram it up his ass!" victory to enjoy over elway, fourteen months later. Pete for President!!!!! And you're damned right I picked this link because the "broncos fan author of it" was too godd*mned stupid to realize the 35-31 loss by us in 1998 occurred AT denver. Jesus f*cking Christ, if you're going to toss sh*t out there to support your team, at least get the godd*mned venue correct, you f*cking f*ckhead of a f*ck. Wow, I really hate denver apparently. Having said that ... these are pretty much the same exact ten games I'd pick. Although I'd have swapped 2 and 1. Sorry, as great as Montana to Davis was, Playoffs trumps it. Excuse me while I bash my head on the window sill while chugging large quantities of vodka ...)

Philly, as expected, rolled early. They led 10-0 after a field goal early in the second quarter.

And then, one play changed everything.

As this fatally flawed Cowboys team, desperate for ANYTHING to go right, lined up to return the kick, a desperate Barry Switzer came up with a “why the hell didn’t you try this before now?!?!” decision*.

(*: again, Chiefs fans, you think our coaching staff leaves a lot to be desired? And I don't for what it's worth ... but the Cowboys were coached by Barry Switzer. A tremendous college coach, an underrated pro coach, but still, Barry EFFING Switzer! If anyone could rally a team from a 1-3 hole ... he most certainly was not on your list of your top 10,038,482,385,387 candidates to do so.)

He lined up both Deion Sanders AND Herschel Walker to return the kick, sacrificing a gunner to ensure that someone would return the kickoff, and possibly jump-start a miraculous turnaround*.

(*: if you can find the clip of this return, take note -- that awesome Bears return two weeks ago against Green Bay that everyone is fellating? Uuh, Barry Switzer and Joe Avezanno came up with that fifteen f*cking years ago on this particular return. There is NOTHING in today's NFL that hasn't been tried at least once before. Never forget that.)

It worked – Herschel Walker took the kickoff 94 yards to the Eagles end zone. The Cowboys rallied to win that game 23-19, to get to 2-3 entering the bye, a chance to regroup, recover, and get healthy.

And then go on one helluva second half run, against an insanely difficult stretch of games, after padding the stat sheet against a couple of also-rans and pretenders.

WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED! Dallas won its next game against a hapless opponent (Arizona, in Dallas), then beat a decent Falcons squad (they were a 1995 wildcard team) on the road. Neither outcome was all that surprising – you would expect the defending Super Bowl champions to defeat a hapless Cardinals team, and a reeling Falcons squad*, no matter where they played them, no matter how beat up they were.

(*: your Falcons head coach, who was poop canned during this lost season? June Jones! Yes, THAT June Jones! Again, all these "throw the ball all over the field" offenses now in vogue? Hello, Run and Shoot of the 1990s! There is NOTHING in the current day that hasn't been tried before. Never forget that.)

And then came the stretch that every pundit and prognosticator said would BURY the Cowboys, now back to a respectable 4-3, only a game back of the Eagles, who appeared to be the most credible threat to end the Cowboys sustained run atop the NFC East. I know fifteen years ago is a long time, but think of the football world in the mid 1990s and you’ll see why nearly every fan in the Metroplex wearing blue and white was scared sh*tless:

* at Miami. The Dolphins were a playoff team in 1995. And oh yeah, they’d hired some dude named Jimmy Johnson to coach the team in 1996. I seem to recall a dude named Jimmy Johnson winning two straight Super Bowls with … oh yeah, the Cowboys! It was the Jimmy / Jerry Bowl. (If you didn’t live in Dallas then, pat yourself on the back for missing out on the insane overhype of this game.)

* vs Philly. The Eagles were the heavy favorites in the division, a game ahead of Dallas at this point. Virtually everyone said this was a “must win” game if the Cowboys had ANY chance to repeat. (A statement I agreed with, for what it’s worth.)

* at San Francisco. The 49ers were in year sixteen of their insane eighteen year run of winning at least ten games every year. (They made the playoffs in seventeen of those seasons.) And oh yeah, Dallas vs San Francisco was THE game every year in the NFC. Unless the “third party” to the NFC Party showed up, and it just so happened that team was …

* vs Green Bay. The Cowboys had beaten the Packers in the NFC Title Game the previous season. The Packers were the odds on favorites to win the Super Bowl at this point. (Something they would go on to do, by the way.)

Is that a brutal stretch or what? Especially for a 4-3 team with serious injury issues, serious “is our coach any good” issues, serious “my God our general manager is a moron!” issues. (Any of this sound familiar, Chiefs fans? Any of you had issues with coaching, on-field play, our rash of injuries, or the man who assembled the roster in the last month? Uum, I plead the fifth.)

Dallas went to Miami, and went to the locker room at halftime trailing 10-9. I will never forget how cocky, how self-assured, how arrogant Jimmy Johnson looked as he was interviewed by Chris Myers heading to the locker room. I will also never forget watching this game with my roommates, and seeing Vineet and Frank in full on meltdown mode. There was no consoling them. Their season was slipping away and …

Then the third quarter happened. Whatever the hell happened at halftime, whoever opened their mouth, something incredible happened.

Dallas 29, Miami 10.

The next week, the one game in this stretch nearly EVERYONE agreed Dallas had to win? Saw the Cowboys with goal to go and barely 30 seconds to play, trailing 24-21. I was at Texas Stadium that day with our buddy Mike and my roomie Frank. There was absolutely NO DOUBT Dallas had overtime locked up.

Philly 31, Dallas 21, on an interception that makes Matt Cassel’s brain fart at San Diego two weeks ago look forgivable and understandable.

I remember how dejected, how absolutely depressing, walking the two miles back to the car that night was*. Dallas was now 5-4, two games behind the Eagles, and the Eagles held the tiebreaker at that point (better divisional record). EVEN WORSE? The Cowboys were also two games behind the Redskins, who also sat at 7-2. (But they still had two games left against the 'Skins.) The odds of overcoming a two game deficit with seven to go to one team is astronomical. Especially when they (at the time) hold the tiebreaker. But two teams? It just doesn’t happen. And even worse, on tap? Only the two best teams in the conference, if not the entire NFL – the 49ers on the road, and Green Bay at home on a Monday night.

(*: if you never had the "privilege", and my God, do I use that term loosely, the "privilege" of attending a game at old Texas Stadium, count your damned blessings. That place was the SH*TTIEST STADIUM IN HISTORY. You didn’t miss a damned thing. That place was a DUMP. Christ, it was built in the confluence of three f*cking freeways – Northwest Highway, Airport Freeway, and the Carpenter. Literally built in the f*cking triangle three freeways intersecting causes. It would be like if Arrowhead sat in the middle of the Grandview Triangle. That was Texas Stadium. It was a SH*THOLE. Don’t let any Cowboys fan wax nostalgic for that place. It SUCKED. You had to park so far away (because, again, you had THREE F*CKING FREEWAYS surrounding the place!), that the last time I attended a game there (in 2005), the Cowboys actually offered tram service back to your car, like Worlds of Fun offers. Most times when NFL owners claim their stadium is a dump and they can’t compete if they have to play there, I laugh at them. In Jerry’s case, he was 110 percent correct. Texas Stadium was a DUMP. Goodbye and good riddance.)

I remember that 49ers game way too well. Chiefs fans, when you read the next few paragraphs, please – resist ANY and ALL temptations to begin swearing profusely, chucking sh*t at your computer screen, and randomly yelling out “WHY WAS ANYONE SHOCKED BY HOW HE TURNED OUT HERE?!?!?!” with various curse words in that statement.

The Cowboys trailed 10-0 before anyone knew what hit them. 49ers quarterback Steve Young dropped a massive TD bomb late in the first quarter on the Dallas defense. Somehow, Dallas rallied, managing to tie the game at 10, and knocking Steve Young out in the process. San Fran retakes the lead on a long Terry Kirby touchdown run, and Dallas begins to drive in an attempt to rally late in the fourth quarter.

Then, Troy Aikman is picked off at the 49ers 6 yard line. I forget if it was this INT, or the one Aikman threw in the Giants game a few weeks later, that caused Frank to chuck the remote against the wall, resulting in a gigantic crack in the wall and a need to visit Best Buy afterwards to replace it*, but let’s just say, nobody on our couch was smiling at this point.

(*: admit it, you love these "what the f*ck else does he have to add to that paragraph?!?!" sidebars. This one is simple: I got a ton of crap for "destroying" the UltimaTV remote at the old place with Dusty during the Chargers game in 2007. So much crap, that I was banished to the basement for every Chiefs road game until I moved out in 2009 as a result of that incident. Uuh, let's just say, I didn't come up with the "chuck the remote at the wall and see what cracks" move on my own ...)

The VERY NEXT PLAY, with a chance to BURY their hated rival … 49ers quarterback Elvis Grbac returns the interception favor, tossing a layup to LB Fred Strickland. Aikman then hits our favorite little tight end that could, Eric Bjornson*, for the game tying score. And a long Emmitt run to open overtime sets up a gimme Boniol field goal from 29 yards out to steal a victory by the Bay.

(*: hey another one! Bjornson might be my favorite NFL player of all time. And I say that with all seriousness. For three reasons. (1) Highly underrated tight end who caught every damned ball thrown in his direction. (2) Hosted a hysterical weekly show on the old 97.1 The Eagle in Dallas (much like Chiefs players used to have their own radio shows here). And (3) said Bjornson hosted show? After twenty minutes of Cowboys talk, the last ten minutes WAS A GAMBLING TIPS SHOW! And the timeslot he occupied? 5:30pm on Fridays. Right in the heart of drive-time. Hell to the yes! How Paul Tagliabue never shut that one down, I have no idea, but I'm sure as f*ck glad he didn't.)

Season effing on, if only for one more week … because the heavily favored Green Bay Packers were on tap, on a Monday night that was literally do-or-die for the Cowboys playoff hopes.

This game is memorable for three reasons:

(1) Dallas did not score a touchdown.
(2) The Packers were destroyed. And
(3) Chris Boniol set a NFL record for most field goals converted in a game, with seven. Why do I remember this off the top of my head? (Dallas won 21-6.) Because leading 18-6 as the clock was winding down, Barry Switzer decided “why not” to running up the score, and sent in Boniol to kick a 28 yard field goal as time expired to run up said score.

Again, why do I remember that? Because I needed 23 points out of Chris Boniol to win my first ever fantasy football playoff game*. Boniol had 21 points before that field goal attempt. Let’s just say, NOBODY was more fired up than me when Switzer had his “eff you” moment for Mike Holmgren.

(*: to date, it is the only fantasy football playoff game I have ever won.)

So, to recap: Dallas opens 1-3. They’re starting a cornerback and a running back at wide receiver, in a prime time game on the road against a hated rival. They somehow win that one, somehow overcome losing to said hated rival at home, and just keep finding ways to win, to survive “Murderers Row”, and now sit 7-4 entering the stretch run.

Dallas whipped the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, and ultimately won another game in which they couldn’t find the end zone (against the Patriots in week 16) 12-6 to clinch the NFC East at 10-5. (They lost a meaningless final game at the Redskins, the final game in RFK history.) The Cowboys then demolished the Vikings 40-15 in the wildcard round, before bowing out to the Panthers in a divisional round game that many Cowboys fans consider as the end of the dynasty*.

(*: I do not consider that to be the end. The end was 11 months later, on a Monday night in Dallas, when said Carolina Panthers stopped the Cowboys on a 4th and 1 at the 2 minute warning. I remember leaving the Stadium that night with a “we may never see a run like this again” feeling of frustration. (Yeah, I got drawn into rooting for Dallas. You can’t live there and NOT get drawn in. (kellie voice) I know what you’re saying Stevo!))

My point in this first of what might become many “Inspirational Looks Back” at teams that rallied from impossible odds to make something of their season? Simple. THIS SEASON IS NOT OVER! Not by a wide country mile. And as Brantley Gilbert would have you know, country MUST be country wide …

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