Dallas Cowboys: Top 25 Worst Moments in 3-4 Defensive Scheme
And, finally, it comes to an end.
After eight years of carnage and mayhem and close to a decade of humiliation and letdowns, the 3-4 defense finally leaves Valley Ranch.
After an exciting start on September 11, 2005, this scheme never really came together for the Cowboys—and that’s putting it quite mildly.
The Dallas Cowboys are founded by names like Bob Lilly, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Harvey Martin, Randy White, Charles Haley, Darren Woodson and Deion Sanders. The legacy of defensive excellence and championship results is quite extensive.
But, in the end, the scheme was so bad for Dallas that it easily marks the worst defensive stretch in the history of the franchise.
This eight-year stretch of football was so incredibly bad that it deserves a name all of its own, kind of like “dark ages” when talking history. It was so bad that it should have a catchy recognition like some new super-virus that melts away Sunday afternoons before attacking your internal organs.
For this presentation, DC-34 will refer to the entire 3-4 era in Dallas. I know it sounds more like a classic aircraft but, trust me, nothing was flying during DC-34—especially nothing wearing a blue star.
DC-34 might forever mark the worst stretch of Dallas defense ever.
So prior to looking forward to the return of the classic 43 approach on defense, let’s take one final look back at DC-34—and then forget about it forever.
The following slides are not for the faint of heart.
Viewer discretion is advised.
25. Detroit Comeback (2010)
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Our first entry is much better known for the second half interceptions thrown by quarterback Tony Romo. Two of those picks were returned for touchdowns in a game the Cowboys had led 27-3 early in the third quarter.
Still leading 27-17, the Dallas defense did literally nothing to get Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson off the field in the fourth quarter. The two connected for two touchdown passes in the final period and Detroit would win the game, 34-30.
Even when DC-34 was not completely guilty of a Sunday afternoon mess, it was always complicit in that it seldom made any effort to clean it up.
24. Thanksgiving for Ron Dayne (2005)
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In the first entry from DC-34's inaugural season, it was already understood that then-head coach Bill Parcells’ new philosophy could work, but that it also had some holes.
The few holes opened up by the Dallas 3-4 were bigger than the one that appeared in overtime on Thanksgiving Day 2005.
Yes, DC-34 worked holidays like clockwork.
The name Ron Dayne had barely been heard since the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner from Wisconsin arrived in the NFL. His 55-yard scamper off left tackle in overtime set up Jason Elam’s chip-shot field goal and Denver’s 24-21 victory.
The loss would cost Dallas a shot at the playoffs in the regular season finale against St. Louis.
23. Chicago Wins Arlington Opener (2010)
To open the 2010 home schedule at Cowboys Stadium, Dallas hosted Chicago for the first time, hoping to set the tone.
DC-34 certainly set the tone as new Bears quarterback Jay Cutler hit stride early on. His two first quarter touchdown passes to tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Devin Hester offered the kind of fast start opponents often enjoyed during DC-34.
The 27-20 loss to Chicago got the Cowboys off to a 0-2 start.
22. Tennessee Rolls Dallas (2010)
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In Dallas’ second home game of 2010, concerns grew rapidly regarding the future of the team and then-head coach Wade Phillips.
The Cowboys were coming off a Week 4 bye that was preceded by a big upset win against Houston. With a record of 1-2, it was time to string together wins.
But DC-34 offered a new standard of reduced expectations against inferior competition. Tennessee quarterback Vince Young, already a washout as a starter, had a career day against DC-34. Young fired two first half touchdown passes and running back Chris Johnson’s two fourth quarter touchdown runs put the Cowboys away 34-27.
Dallas fell to 1-3, 0-2 home.
21. New Orleans Takes Overtime (2012)
Knowing that they could not be eliminated from postseason play with a loss, the Cowboys staged a furious comeback against the high-powered New Orleans Saints. Romo would tie the game with seconds left on a fourth down touchdown pass to receiver Miles Austin.
But after a quick three-and-out by the Dallas offense to start overtime, DC-34 melted with typical quickness.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed a 26-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham to start things off. Five plays later, receiver Marquis Colston would fumble a short completion down the middle that then rolled forward 30 yards—and was recovered by Graham at the 1-yard line.
20. Seattle Rookie QB Shines (2012)
DC-34 had an unusual knack for launching careers.
In the second game of 2012, the Cowboys were coming off a big upset win over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants on opening night.
But momentum was not to be gained at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, starting his second game in the NFL, completed 75 percent of his passes for a paltry 151 yards—but his lone touchdown pass was more than enough to keep DC-34 guessing all day.
Running back Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s only weapon coming in, totaled 122 yards on 26 carries and the 27-7 loss dropped the Cowboys to 1-1.
19. Philly Buries Cowboys, Owens (2006)
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If there was ever anything personal involved, DC-34 was there to mess it all up.
True, T.O. was with the Cowboys but the Eagles had a guy named Hank Baskett that stole the show with an 87-yard touchdown reception. Quarterback Donovan McNabb shredded DC-34 with 354 yards passing and two touchdowns.
The 38-24 loss dropped the Cowboys to 2-2.
18. Giants Win Third In Arlington (2011)
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The New York Giants used the hospitable environment at Cowboys Stadium to begin righting their ship for a Super Bowl run. Coming in undefeated at the new stadium, Giants quarterback Eli Manning had a career night against a DC-34 performance that was about as bad as any other.
After allowing a first-quarter safety that didn’t help the Dallas defense, this evening’s DC-34 experience saw a career night for Manning. Weeks before receiver Mario Manningham would make his stunning sideline catch in Super Bowl XLVI, he would change the momentum for good with a 47-yard touchdown strike from Manning.
Romo threw four touchdown passes to Manning’s two, but the defense gave up over 500 yards in a 37-34 loss that dropped the Cowboys record to 7-6.
17. Jacksonville Owns Cowboys Stadium (2010)
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One of the more fascinating qualities of DC-34 was its ability to not only launch a young career but also jump start an older one that really needed it.
Jacksonville had been little more than tolerating quarterback David Gerrard when the Jaguars traveled to Dallas in 2010. Garrard turned in a career performance in a surprising 35-17 victory—and the score was nowhere near that close.
In the end, Garrard posted a quarterback rating of 157.8—you kidding me?
It was Dallas’ first game without Romo, who was injured the week before. But DC-34 was nowhere near up to the task in allowing 28 unanswered points throughout the middle two quarters.
The loss dropped the Cowboys to 1-6, 0-4 home.
16. Giants Knock out Romo (2010)
By Week 7 of the 2010 regular season, the Cowboys were 1-5 and without a single victory at home. If there was ever a time for revenge, it was now. The Cowboys needed a win and the Giants had spoiled the grand opening of Cowboys Stadium a year before.
DC-34 responded with three interceptions of Manning—but also allowed gaping holes for the New York rushing attack. Having no nose guard allowed running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to grind out 201 yards rushing.
This 41-35 loss cost Dallas its starting quarterback as Romo would suffer a broken collarbone. His season was over, as was his team’s.
To date, it’s the most points ever scored by a Dallas opponent at Cowboys Stadium.
15. Eagles Answer Rob Ryan (2011)
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Assuming you’re aware of the history between the Ryan family and the Cowboys, you might understand the stage that was set when Dallas and Philadelphia met for the first time in 2011.
Ryan was a first-year defensive coordinator who also ran his mouth, in typical Ryan fashion, during the preseason. He basically called out his NFC East arch-rivals.
Then Philadelphia responded.
Following a sack of Eagles’ quarterback Michael Vick to begin play by outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, nothing ever went right again as Philadelphia rolled to a 24-0 halftime lead.
The 34-7 loss pretty much eliminated any "mojo" that Ryan might have created for his struggling unit.
The Cowboys fell to 3-4 just shy of midseason.
14. RGIII Returns to Texas (2012)
Again, DC-34 could launch an opponent’s career if any defense ever could.
Such was the case with 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in his first meeting with the Cowboys in his home state of Texas.
The Cowboys led 3-0 after the first quarter, but then Washington unloaded, with the help of numerous turnovers, with 28 unanswered points in the second quarter, building an embarrassing 28-3 half-time advantage.
Dallas tried to come back but would lose 38-31, its second loss to a rookie quarterback in 2012.
13. Romo Debut, NY Rolls (2006)
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Let's be clear on one thing: DC-34 loved to show up for evening games against the Giants, especially in north Texas.
As the career of former quarterback Drew Bledsoe was at its end, it was Romo who was waiting in the wings to grab the Cowboys and guide them into the postseason.
But DC-34 didn’t make it easy.
Despite the offense's dramatic personnel move, quarterback Eli Manning got the party started with a 50-yard touchdown bomb to receiver Plaxico Burress that sucked the wind right out of Texas Stadium.
DC-34 allowed 155 yards rushing in a 36-22 loss that dropped the Cowboys back to .500.
12. Fading St. Louis Rolls (2008)
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In no other game was DC-34 able to elevate an inferior opponent to such heights.
The aging and fading St. Louis Rams hosted Dallas as the Cowboys were stuck with backup quarterback Brad Johnson, who could throw the football about 27 yards, tops. Having handled the Rams the season before, you felt that the Cowboys had this one in hand.
Then came kickoff.
Running back Stephen Jackson made the Cowboys pay for not selecting him like never before in rolling up 160 yards on 25 carries.
Jackson scored three touchdowns, two more than his team had victories before DC-34 came to town.
This somewhat surprising 34-14 blowout loss to a team that only had a single win was as demoralizing as any on record. The Cowboys left St. Louis 4-3.
11. Texas Stadium Farewell (2008)
Yeah, DC-34 saved its biggest performances for the biggest of stages and occasions.
In fact, this thing is just starting to warm up, believe it or not!
Texas Stadium had been home to the Cowboys since 1971. A legacy of success was built around the stadium with the hole in the roof.
And it was time to say goodbye—and try to secure a playoff spot with a victory.
Following a furious comeback, DC-34 literally made history of the wrong kind.
Baltimore had back-to-back touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards by running backs Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain, respectively.
Both in the fourth quarter.
They were the longest touchdown runs ever given up at Texas Stadium and the 33-24 loss was the curtain call at the house that Landry helped build.
10. Triplets Night (2005)
Never one to miss a special occasion, DC-34 offered a shockingly early glimpse of itself in just its second game ever. Opening night at Texas Stadium would also include a halftime induction ceremony for ex-Cowboys Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
This 34 defensive scheme was new. Dallas had won its opener the week before in San Diego and this is all anybody knew.
The Cowboys played one of their best defensive efforts in franchise history up until late fourth quarter.
And then DC-34 was rudely introduced.
Washington quarterback Mark Brunell tossed two touchdown passes to Santana Moss in the final four minutes to steal a game that Dallas had all but dominated.
This stunning 14-13 loss dropped the Cowboys to 1-1 in their inaugural season with DC-34.
9. Dallas Playoff Loss to Giants (2007)
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When most of us think back to the shocking 2007 divisional playoff loss to the Giants, we probably think of Romo’s end-zone interception in the closing seconds that ended the whole season. But the damage had been done well before that point.
The offense was balanced and effective at moving the ball but could not score enough points to pull away in what became a short game.
DC-34 allowed the Giants to completely eliminate the crowd and any momentum when Eli Manning hit receiver Amani Toomer with a 52-yard touchdown connection to open the scoring.
Toomer, who was well north of 30 years old, was the primary receiver for the Giants that day and would score two touchdowns.
With a chance to host the NFC championship game the following week, the defense should have done more than it did against an NFC wild-card team, regardless of what division it came from.
Sometimes just one big play ends up beating you in a football game.
Other times, it just ends your season.
8. Sean Payton Returns to Dallas (2006)
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Ever wonder why Jason Garrett ended up in Dallas?
No, I don’t know for sure but I believe the 2006 meeting between Dallas and New Orleans is what got things started.
Saints head coach Sean Payton had just left the Dallas coaching staff to try to revive a New Orleans franchise and region recently ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Having approached Jones about the prospect of leaving for Louisiana, Payton was actually encouraged to take the gig despite the fact that Parcells certainly would not be in Dallas much longer.
Well, Payton’s Saints came to Texas Stadium and simply destroyed the Dallas defense in ways that very few teams ever have. Rookie running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush would score on a 61-yard touchdown catch and run.
And DC-34 could offer career performances from guys you never even heard of before, like fullback Mike Karney. Karney had never scored in 43 games before that night.
He scored three in the 42-17 destruction that saw New Orleans roll up six touchdowns in just two quarters.
7. Giants Crash Grand Opening (2009)
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For years, it had been anticipated.
For months, it had been open for concerts and a few other special events.
And, now, the Cowboys would open the brand new Cowboys Stadium on national television against, of course, the Giants.
DC-34 wasn’t late for this moment.
Hampered by offensive turnovers, DC-34 still had the game in its reach with less than four minutes remaining. But Manning never felt so much as a breath of pressure in guiding the Giants 57 yards on 11 plays.
New York kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired in a 33-31 victory for the G-men.
Dallas fell to 1-1, winless in the new palace.
6. New England Stays Perfect (2007)
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But when you’re undefeated like his team is, and you’re at home, you would sure like to make a bigger statement than what was made that day.
Brady tossed five touchdown passes that afternoon as the Patriots offense was completely unstoppable. The game also included yet another dagger thrown from wide receiver Randy Moss who was enjoying a career re-birth with the eventual AFC champions.
Yes, a loss would have been understandable but a 48-27 track meet blowout didn’t look too good.
Ironically, the team that eliminated Dallas from the postseason would meet, and beat, the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
5. RGIII Re-Match (2012)
A strange trilogy took place during DC-34 in which the Cowboys found themselves in do-or-die scenarios on the final weekend of the regular season. Dallas managed to face all three division rivals on the road in each contest over a span of five seasons.
The third and most recent was 2012.
For the second straight season, Dallas faced a prime-time “win and you’re in” regular season finale, but this time at Washington. Redskins rookie quarterback RGIII, already having beaten the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, was hobbled this time and didn’t figure to threaten much with his legs.
Griffin III was a non-factor in completing just nine passes for exactly 100 yards and zero touchdowns.
But rookie running back Alfred Morris might have enjoyed a career day in rolling up exactly 200 yards on a staggering 33 carries.
With a division championship on the line, DC-34 was completely ineffective in the 28-18 curtain call in Dallas.
4. Giants Steal Division, Super Bowl (2011)
It’s well established by now that DC-34 never missed holidays and preferred the big stage, especially after sundown.
Dallas found itself in another “win and you’re in” regular season finale in New York to end Jason Garrett’s first full season as head coach. Nothing is bigger than being in New York during prime-time television with the NFC East division up for grabs.
Eli Manning, about to be on his way to winning another Super Bowl, looked the part of a championship quarterback against DC-34. His quarterback rating of 136.7 summed up another 300-plus yard day with multiple touchdown passes against a horrible Dallas secondary.
Not that the final score of 31-14 looks particularly competitive, but this game wasn’t even that close.
3. Packers Can Phillips (2010)
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In 2010, the Cowboys were trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to celebrate the franchise’s 50th season of football.
DC-34 was trying harder.
In a half-century, Dallas had never fired a head coach during the season, so the term interim was fictional at Valley Ranch.
In a year in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers are marching towards another Super Bowl win, this time in the Cowboys’ backyard, there wouldn’t seem to be any shame in losing at Lambeau Field on a Sunday night. Only DC-34’s special gift for making history could change that idea completely.
Dallas came in with a record of 1-6 and would actually be accused of quitting on national television.
All the phases of the Packers football team scored touchdowns as the Cowboys suffered one of the most humiliating defeats in franchise history. There have been bigger losses, but only the 44-0 loss to the 1985 Chicago Bears could possibly outrank the carnage that was left strewn about the grass at Lambeau.
This 45-7 annihilation marked the greatest departure ever from a Dallas legacy of proud defensive tradition.
2. Brett Favre’s Revenge (2009)
For the second time in just three seasons, the Cowboys found themselves just a victory away from the NFC Championship Game following the 2009 regular season. Just when it looked like Dallas might be poised to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, it was quickly learned that the Cowboys were absolutely not a contender.
Dallas would meet divisional champion Minnesota after picking up its first playoff victory in 15 years just a week prior. The Vikings were holding on tight to the postseason farewell of quarterback Brett Favre.
Prior to DC-34, a postseason matchup against Favre automatically meant victory since the Cowboys had never lost to the future Hall of Fame passer during his long run with Green Bay. The 1990s parade of championships usually tramples right over Favre as he made numerous unsuccessful trips to Texas Stadium back then.
But DC-34 could re-write history like nothing ever seen before.
Dallas was only competitive in this contest for most of the first quarter. The Cowboys were finally exploited by Favre via Sidney Rice on a 47-yard touchdown pass that was enough to win the game by itself.
The ghost of Favre looked like the quarterback who won his only Super Bowl some 15 years previously in chalking up a quarterback rating of 134.4. He connected for three touchdowns with Rice during one of the most pathetic defensive performances in franchise history.
Favre, in his naturally classless self, was even able to run up the score without any retribution in firing his final touchdown pass with under two minutes remaining in a 34-3 blowout.
1. Philly Crushes Season (2008)
By 2008, DC-34 was not recognized yet as the catastrophe that it would later become—but it was well on its way.
With plenty more future failures and disappointments to come, it was hard to know exactly where the Cowboys were heading with this still relatively new scheme. After just missing the postseason in its inaugural 3-4 season of 2005, the Cowboys had reached the playoffs in 2006 and ’07.
Trying to right the playoff loss to the Giants the year before, the Cowboys arrived at their first matchup in the “win and you’re in” trilogy. A loss the previous week to Baltimore in Texas Stadium’s final game created this one final crack at postseason play.
Dallas was handled in every way imaginable by an Eagles squad that ended up learning just before kickoff that they, in fact, could make the playoffs. Philadelphia was energized.
But the Cowboys were demoralized in all phases and some forget that Romo only threw a single interception in this game.
The defense was simply a non-factor against the pass and the run, and also offered timely penalties that created the most humiliating and degrading loss in the 3-4 era.
The Eagles scored a shocking 41 unanswered points in just over a quarter and a half beginning early in the second quarter. The 44-6 final score made this game seem a little closer than it really was.