Dallas Cowboys: The '90s Dynasty Versus Today's Travesty

Chad HensleyCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2008

I was flipping through the channels and landed on the NFL Network. They were replaying the Jan. 2, 1994 matchup between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys (This was 1993 Cowboys playing in early 2004) at Giants Stadium.

This particular game is famous because this was Emmitt Smith's "Separated Shoulder" game, or "Emmitt's Gutsiest Game" as the NFL Network called it.

A Trip Back in Time

The game was called by Pat Summerall and John Madden. CBS had the over-sized, gaudy scoreboard that only displayed at certain times. There was no ticker—at the bottom or top of my TV—with the latest on all the other games.

The words "NFC Central" and "Phoenix" came up on the screen during scoring updates.

There was no faux blue and yellow line for the line-of-scrimmage and the first-down marker. 

The jerseys' quality for both teams would be considered practice jerseys today, even at the high school level.

Definitely a small trip back in time.

The Comparison

I was old enough (14) to remember the game, but still had a young football mind and really didn't dissect the game like I do today. I decided to compare what I saw in this game with what I have been seeing week-in and week-out with today's Cowboys.

Now I realize that these two teams are different. It's impossible to truly compare teams from different decades, but there are some details that I believe transcend time.

A Real Head Coach

The first thing that immediately jumped out to me was the fire on the sidelines.  Jimmy Johnson was barking at his players and the officials from the get-go. He had complete control of his men.

This is completely different than what we see today with Wade Phillips.  When a player messes up, the cameras don't ever show an upset Phillips. When the officials make a bad call, we get that half-open mouth, 'What the heck is that?' look, as if he is staring into the toilet after a good magazine reading.  

Even when Jimmy won the game at the end he didn't look like he was satisfied. I am sure guys got their butt chewed for making it such a close game. 

Wade constantly looks frustrated, as if the media is bothering him. When things don't go well and Wade is answering questions, he rubs his head and never looks the reporter in the eyes. 

How can you respect a man who doesn't look you in the eyes when he is talking to you?

It's obvious that Jimmy was the Sheriff in town, and Wade is Barney Fife. 

Offensive Differences

After watching the first two quarters, it became abundantly clear that the game plan that Norv Turner had caters to his players' abilities, as opposed to "Red Headed Jesus," Jason Garrett, whose play-calling cater to the defense. 

Bread and Butter

CBS put up a stat at the end of the first half that made me giddy. Dallas had 30 total plays, and 21 of them went to Emmitt.

Compare this to Tony Romo, who usually has twice as many passes as Barber has runs in the first half.

The 1993 Giants, led by Lawrence Taylor (greatest defensive player of all time), were putting eight in the box to stop Emmitt, but that didn't keep Norv from feeding him the ball. No matter the down, Norv would give it to Emmitt. 

The Cowboys controlled the clock for over 12 minutes in the first quarter.

When is the last time you saw a Cowboys team do that?

They only had three points to show for it though.

Summerall commented that it might come back to haunt Dallas for not scoring more points. He's in Canton—and probably has more football knowledge in his left pinky than I do in my whole body—but I had to slightly disagree. 

Controlling the clock like that pays dividends at the end of the game. The opposing defense is tired, and your defense stays fresh.

When you have a big offensive line like Dallas did—and does today—there is nothing like steam rolling your opponent at the end of the game with run after run. 

This was the bread and butter for the 1990's Dallas Cowboys, and if you look at today's top teams (Giants, Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans), you will find teams that control the clock with the running game. 

You'd think that Garrett, who supposedly bases his offense from his time as a Cowboy under Norv, would realize this. 

Emmitt finished with 229 total yards and a touchdown on 32 carries and 10 catches.

Even healthy, Barber, Tashard Choice and company will rarely carry the ball 32 times with Garrett calling plays.  If they come close, it is because they are winding out the clock at the end of the game. 

Too bad for a team with a physically dominant offensive line and running back.


Norv would then throw in a play-action. Aikman would hit Irvin on a timing route to the sidelines, and no one would be within five yards of him.  

There is a significant thing that I took from this. As talented as Terrell Owens and Roy E. Williams are, they are never that open—within the confines of the called play. The only time they get that open are when Romo works his magic, buys time, and his receiver breaks off—or extends—the route and finally gets separation.

There are a couple reasons for this. 

One, Garrett doesn't ever establish the run. Defenses respect Dallas' running game, but defensive coordinators realize that Garrett is going to try to win via Romo and his passing game. 

This basically eliminates the play-action pass. No safety or linebacker is going to bite on the fake hand-off to Marion Barber III, especially when Romo "fakes" four yards from where Barber actually is. 

A defensive player shouldn't be caught looking in the backfield, but they all do. As soon as they see Barber take a couple steps to either side to pick up the blitz, with Romo dropping straight back, they know it's a pass. The ridiculous fake hand-off does nothing.

That immediately eliminates the "run read" and the defensive player can concentrate on his assignment in the passing game. 

Another reason is that Garrett never calls plays with a short slant or hitch to T.O. or Roy. Everything is a medium to deep route.

Defensive coordinators realize this. They play tight on T.O. with a man over the top and then play off on Roy, knowing he will never run a slant and can play off. This eliminates part of the field they don't have to cover. 

Eliminating sections of field makes the field smaller, making the pockets—that receivers try to "sit" in when the defense is in zone coverage—smaller.

Defensive Differences

Dallas ran a 4-3 in the 1990's and now they run a 3-4.  It's hard to compare the two teams (due to scheme and the players that fit that scheme), except for the intangibles.

Before Wade took over, the corner backs would plays 8-10 yards off receivers, regardless of the down and distance.

This just was just an invitation for a quick hitch for a first down on 3rd-and-4 or so.  This always extended drives (and gave me an ulcer in the process). 

The 1993 Cowboys played a more attacking defense, similar to what we are seeing since Phillips began calling the shots.

Today's Cowboys have finally stopped giving up the big play one or two times per game.  In my opinion is directly related to the loss of Roy Williams (the strong safety).

Since Wade has taken a greater role in defensive play-calling, the current Cowboys have looked a lot more like the dominating defense of the dynasty years. Their toughness has come out in the last few games and I believe this defense can win a championship.

Outside the Game

Another interesting stat that CBS showed was the pass distribution in the first half. Six passes to Emmitt, three to Irvin, and nine to Jay Novacek and the rest of the team.  

I am sure Irvin was complaining to Troy about getting more balls. It just never left the locker room.

Get Your Popcorn Ready

One thing was very clear in the game I was watching, there was a severe lack of "Hey look at me" dance after every play that goes well. 

Emmitt scored on a short pass, Troy came up to celebrate with him, gave him the ball (because Emmitt kept every touchdown), and they went back to the sideline. No "T.A. motions" with his arms from Troy.  No popcorn from Emmitt.

I know today's game has the "new school" players.  It isn't just Dallas, but it'd just be nice if the NFL could get back to that style of gamesmanship.

That's when it got to why this game was on in the first place. 

Desire and Leadership

Emmitt Smith's shear desire to lead his team, despite his separated shoulder, made this one of the greatest games ever by a running back.

Emmitt injured his shoulder in the third quarter on a long, third down run (Hey Garrett, it's actually legal to run on third down when you aren't trying to milk the clock) when he was caught from behind.  Several times he re-entered the game only having to come out before trainers put in some extra padding.

Emmitt carried the ball on nine of the Cowboys' 11 plays in overtime. He stiff-armed (on the sore shoulder side) L.T. on his final run, which set up Eddie Murray's game-winning field goal.

Barber isn't Emmitt, and he may never come close, but he has never carried the ball 32 times. Much less with a separated shoulder.

I'm not a practitioner of medicine, and I have never been an NFL running back, but you can't help but ask, "Would Emmitt have played with a broken toe?". 

In my opinion, probably not.  I think a toe injury is more detrimental to a running back than a separated shoulder (If I remember correctly, Smith wouldn't have been able to play in the following week's game if they hadn't won and gotten the bye).

But this year's events, along with the calling-out of Barber by Jerry Jones, makes me wonder if Dallas is mentally tough enough as a team to persevere?

Final Verdict

The 1993 Cowboys were an elite team and eventually were Super Bowl Champions.

There was no salary cap, and 1990s Dallas team had the best players and the best coach. Period.

But if you believe that Dallas didn't have their drama during those dynasty years, read Boys will be Boys by Jeff Pearlman.

You never heard about it though, because winning solves everything.

The current Cowboys are a work-in-progress. 

I believe that they have the talent to be champions, but the changes have to start at the top.

Jerry Jones needs to give up his role as general manager and hire a "football guy", such as the soon-to-be available Mike Holmgren.

I would love Wade to stay on as defensive coordinator, but he cannot be the head coach of this team, or any team.  He's just too soft.

Garret needs to be shown the door or have an epiphany.  He just misuses all the talent that Dallas has.

If Dallas can somehow coax Bill Cowher out of retirement, they will be a tougher, no nonsense team. He would surround himself with his types of players. (Read: Not T.O.)

But if they start winning now, you'll hear - and people will care - less and less about T.O. and the rest of the stuff the media digs up.

As I said before, winning solves everything.


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