Aikman Redeems Himself With Late TD Pass, Leads Cowboys Over 49ers In OT 20-17
Troy Aikman knew better than to throw it, but that didn’t stop him from doing it anyway. He gambled, and watched in disgust as San Francisco 49ers safety Marquez Pope stole the ball and what were once-strong playoff hopes away from the soon-to-be 5-5 Dallas Cowboys. With 6:36 remaining in the game’s final quarter and San Francisco holding, not only the ball but a seven-point advantage, the situation looked precariously bleak for the 1996 Cowboys.
For this, Aikman had only himself to blame. He had tried to fit a pass in to Deion Sanders in tight coverage at the 49ers 2-yard line, even when the defense was ready for it. Now Aikman was walking back toward the sideline wallowing in personal disgust. That’s when mammoth offensive tackle Erik Williams told him simply, “I believe, baby. I believe.” Aikman might have laughed out loud when he reached the bench if the next play didn’t give him just as much reason to believe.
49ers backup quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a pass behind fullback William Floyd and into the mitts of linebacker Fred Strickland at the San Francisco 15. Given a second chance, Aikman led his offense back out onto the field, where five plays later he connected with tight end Eric Bjornson for a six-yard game-tying touchdown. The pass, which came on third-and-goal, was perfectly placed beyond the reach of linebacker Lee Woodall, and was a signal to the San Francisco defense that Aikman had rediscovered his accurate touch. In overtime, Aikman was a perfect five-for-five throwing the ball. His bullet to a sliding Sanders on third-and-seven from the San Francisco 35 kept the drive alive. And on the next play, his handoff to Emmitt Smith was the prelude to a 16-yard pickup, and Chris Boniol’s game-winning kick from 29 yards out, which set off a raucous celebration on the Dallas sideline.
Not only was it the fifth victory in six games for the Cowboys, but was the first in four tries versus San Francisco for Dallas head coach Barry Switzer. Three consecutive defeats, including a 38-20 loss at Texas Stadium the previous season, had many thinking that Switzer’s Boys were jinxed. And early in this game, a familiar re-run was unfurling itself.
The 49ers jumped out to a 10-0 lead, thanks in large part to their stifling defense, which held the Dallas offense without a first down for the game’s first twenty minutes. And while Aikman & Co. were grounded early, the 49ers offense had a golden opportunity to place a permanent seed of doubt in the Cowboys’ minds. Already with a two-score advantage, San Francisco started their third drive at the Dallas 38-yard line after Dexter Carter’s 52-yard punt return. But three plays later, quarterback Steve Young was stripped of the ball by Cowboys linebacker Broderick Thomas, and defensive tackle Leon Lett recovered. Young was knocked out of the game later in the quarter with a concussion, thanks to another hard hit from Jim Schwantz.
The Cowboys eventually tied the score on the strength of a 3-yard second quarter run by Aikman and a chip-shot field goal from Boniol early in the fourth quarter. Terry Kirby’s 27-yard jaunt shortly after put the 49ers ahead once again at 17-10, but Grbac’s second interception of the day proved to be San Francisco’s undoing.
So bitter was the loss for those in the Bay Area that San Francisco mayor Willie Brown remarked the following day that Grbac was an “embarrassment to humankind.”
Aikman, on the other hand, was enjoying the sweet praise of victory during what would be the final Pro Bowl season of his career.