Aikman, Irvin Lead The Way As Jerry’s Cowboys Roll Over Jimmy’s Dolphins 29-10
When Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson parted ways in March of 1994, the only thing remaining from a highly successful business relationship was two pieces of jewelry and a hearty, healthy dislike. Jones was the proud owner of a Dallas Cowboys franchise coming off back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Johnson was the coach who had gotten them there.
But the pride that mixed with the strong wine of success left the two JJs with the realization that they couldn’t co-exist. So Jones paid off his head coach and replaced him with Barry Switzer, the former Oklahoma Sooners legend whom Jones said he had wanted to bring to Dallas before he hired Johnson in 1989.
Their mutual disdain that was relegated to trading barbs through the media for two years took center stage once again in October of 1996, when Johnson, now as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, squared off with Jerry’s and Barry’s Cowboys at Pro Player Stadium in south Florida.
What many had unwittingly dubbed as “The Game Of The Year” was in reality a matchup pitting two 4-3 teams trying to stay afloat in the playoff race. The Cowboys had rebounded from a slow start to win three consecutive, while the Dolphins came into the game having dropped three of four. The mystical force of momentum would certainly be evident before the game reached its conclusion.
A swirling, unpredictable wind greeted the two teams for the start on a muggy 80-degree afternoon, as Dallas kicker Chris Boniol rendered the pre-game hype mute as he booted the opening kickoff into the Miami sky.
Aside from what it may have meant for his head coach, the game was especially meaningful for Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, who was making his first start after an early-season ankle injury required surgery and a four-week absence. Marino owned a 12-0 lifetime mark against teams from the NFC East, including a 3-0 record against the Cowboys.
But what Dolphins fans soon found out was that their quarterback was not the best one on the field. That distinction belonged to Dallas’ Troy Aikman, who looked early and often for wide receiver Michael Irvin in the Miami secondary.
Aikman’s first pass of the game was a pump-and-go to Irvin down the right sideline for a gain of 37 yards. Three plays later, Aikman went back to Irvin for 12 more. A false-start penalty on Erik Williams – his second infraction in a few plays – helped to stall the drive, resulting in a 33-yard Boniol field goal.
On Dallas’ next possession, Aikman went back to the sideline and Irvin for a pickup of 18. Later, he directed another outside pass to No. 88 for an additional ten yards. After completing 8 of his first 10 passes, Aikman was taken down in the backfield by Trace Armstrong on third-and-goal, leading to Boniol’s second field goal in as many drives, this one from 29 yards on the first play of the second quarter.
Marino responded with a scoring drive of his own, driving the Dolphins 72 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. The key play was his 38-yard hookup with Charles Jordan over the middle. On the very next snap, Marino found running back Stanley Pritchett behind the Dallas defense down the sideline for the 16-yard touchdown.
Often regarded as the league’s premier prima-donna at his cornerback position, Deion Sanders earned a newfound respect around the NFL in 1996 for his commitment as a two-way player. With Kevin Williams still recovering from an ankle injury, the Cowboys called on Sanders to fill in on the outside at wide receiver opposite of Michael Irvin. With the game-time humidity rating in Miami at seventy-percent, that was easier said than done.
In addition to action at his right cornerback spot, Sanders caught two first-quarter passes from Aikman, helping Dallas to an early lead. But when a winded Sanders needed a rest on defense later in the half, the Dolphins found the break they were looking for.
With Sanders on the sideline getting a breather, Marino went deep to speedy target Randal Hill, who was working against Alundis Brice for a gain of 46 yards. Moments later, Miami expanded their lead to 10-6.
Another drive for Dallas ended in yet another field goal just before intermission to draw within 10-9. In what was turning out to be a strange tale defined by red-zone ineptitude, the Cowboys had controlled the ball for more than 19 minutes in the first-half and had piled up 248 total yards, but found themselves trailing on the scoreboard.
That all changed in the second half when Aikman and the passing game broke the ice and ended the Cowboys’ TD drought…even though they came very near to wasting yet another trip. A third-and-9 completion of 12 yards to Sanders put Dallas in a goal-to-go situation at the Miami 9. After an Emmitt Smith gain of four yards on first-down, Aikman connected with tight end Eric Bjornson in the left flat. As Bjornson prepared to stretch across the goal-line, the ball was ripped out, and authored a fortuitous bounce for the Cowboys as it went out of bounds as the 4-yard line.
Following a timeout, Aikman went right back to Bjornson in the front of the end-zone to put Dallas ahead 16-10.
Irvin’s tenth catch of the game served to break the backs of the upset-minded Dolphins. On a third-and-17 play from the Dallas 36, Irvin simply ran past a confused Terrell Buckley down the right sideline and waited at the Miami 30 for the pass from his quarterback. Upon making the catch, Irvin turned upfield and ran all the way to the 3 before he was brought down, giving him 174 receiving yards for the day.
On the ensuing third-down, Aikman went back to Irvin, this time on a slant from the left side for the 2-yard touchdown. When Boniol missed the extra-point, the Cowboys owned a 22-10 lead.
Back-to-back turnovers forced by the Dallas defense to end the third quarter prevented any semblance of a Dolphins comeback. First, it was Sanders and Leon Lett teaming-up to strip Bernie Parmalee of the ball, which Sanders recovered. Then on Miami’s next possession, cornerback Kevin Smith stole the ball from Marino, stepping in front of a third-down pass intended for Fred Barnett at the Dolphins 31-yard line.
Aikman immediately found fullback Daryl Johnston in the flat for a gain of 20 yards. Two plays later, Aikman authored the game’s final points with his 10-yard scoring pass over the middle to Smith.
The committed historian will be hard-pressed to find a better performance from the Aikman-led Cowboys in their post-Super Bowl era than their thorough domination of Johnson and the Dolphins.
Aikman was simply impeccable, completing 33-of-41 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns. Irvin, as we’ve already indicated, played the part of the unstoppable force, finishing with 12 receptions for 186 yards. Smith, though banged-up from a rash of early-season injuries, was still an effective weapon out of the backfield, rushing for 74 yards on 22 carries, with an additional 44 yards on seven catches.
Even backup tailback Sherman Williams made his presence felt, piling-up 48 yards on only eight rushing attempts.
Aided by the return of defensive end Charles Haley from the injury list, the Cowboys defense was equally impeccable, limiting the Dolphins to 221 total yards, while forcing three turnovers. Marino completed just 12-of-27 throws for 173 yards.
By game’s end, the Cowboys had controlled the ball for nearly 42 minutes, allowing them to run 78 plays to the Dolphins’ 40.