In Battle Of Standout Runners, Barry Outshines Emmitt & Cowboys in OT Thriller
The NFL playoff races had as yet to heat up in 1994, but on a late-September evening all the eyes of the football world were focused inside Texas Stadium where Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions were paying a rare visit to Emmitt Smith and the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. As the league’s two-time defending Super Bowl champions, Barry Switzer’s Cowboys entered the game as 14-point favorites, making victory seem all but inevitable to the home crowd. But instead of a blowout for the favored Cowboys, a pair of dazzling performances from Sanders and Smith proved to be the hallmarks of an NFL classic that needed overtime to determine a winner.
In addition to this showdown between the two premier running backs in the league, a national television audience was treated to a special display of classical garb. As part of the NFL’s 75th anniversary celebration, both teams were sporting throwback uniforms from a bygone era. The Lions, playing in Dallas for the first time in seventeen years, wore a 1935 replica uniform, their silver helmets stripped of the “Lion” logo.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, wore throwbacks from the 1960s with white stars emblazoned on blue shoulders. Unlike the visitors, Dallas did not wear vintage style helmets, choosing to stick with their customary 1990s version.
To complete the throwback theme, the officiating crew led by referee Bernie Kukar had traded in their ballcaps for white berets. And last, but certainly not least, the Cowboys had Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White serve as an honorary team captain.
The Cowboys displayed a combination of might and brilliance on the game’s opening drive, marching 80 yards in 13 plays with a mixture of Emmitt runs, and well-timed Aikman deliveries. It was a glorious demonstration, with Dallas even executing a misdirection screen pass, a type of play that had befuddled them in recent years. On the play, Aikman faked a hand-off on an end-around to Alvin Harper going right, and instead passed left to a waiting Smith, who ran for 11 yards. The drive was complete when Aikman found Harper open in the back of the end-zone for a 17-yard touchdown play.
The upset-minded Lions responded on the ensuing kickoff by running a reverse to Johnnie Morton, who returned it to the Detroit 41-yard line. Their superstar running back took it from there.
With Sanders and FB/RB Derrick Moore as the only runners on the active roster, some thought that Detroit head coach Wayne Fontes would rely on the right arm of Scott Mitchell, the Lions’ $11 million quarterback who had signed in the off-season after a stint in Miami as Dan Marino’s backup. But after watching Mitchell get sacked 6 times in a Week 2 loss to Minnesota, and with wide receiver Anthony Carter on the injured list, Fontes decided instead to feed Sanders early and often in an effort to wear down the Dallas defense on a humid, 80-degree Texas night.
Sanders’ first two carries went to the right side for a combined 13 yards. Later in the drive, Sanders broke loose on a delayed draw for another chunk. Only Brock Marion’s push along the sideline prevented Sanders from turning a third-and-14 play into a first-down, and preceded Jason Hanson’s 32-yard field goal that put Detroit on the scoreboard.
The draw would prove to be the one riddle that the Cowboys could not solve against Sanders. Said defensive tackle Russell Maryland: “[Detroit] kind of kept us off-balance running the draw plays, it hindered our pass rush I think. [Sanders] had us thinking in the first-half, but we came back with a different plan in the second-half and stopped it a little bit.”
“You have to have a contained rush where you maintain your gap responsibility and have [Sanders] make a decision,” explained Chad Hennings. “We were able to do that, that’s why he was cutting back. That’s where your support guys have to fill in, and we didn’t do that.”
In the second quarter, Sanders jump-started a 94-yard touchdown drive with a 28-yard run of his own. Mitchell concluded the drive with a 25-yard scoring throw to a wide-open Brett Perriman to put Detroit ahead 10-7. Perriman’s score was the first passing touchdown that the Dallas defense had allowed in six regular season games, dating back to the 1993 season.
Detroit’s passing game was the driving force in the Lions extending their lead in the third quarter. Herman Moore’s 25-yard reception moved the ball to the 11-yard line. Moments later, his 9-yard touchdown catch upped the Detroit advantage to 17-7.
On the ensuing Dallas possession, Emmitt broke loose down the left sideline for a 41-yard gain to the Detroit 11-yard line. A facemask penalty on Lions cornerback Ryan McNeil promised to move the ball even closer. But wait! An infraction on Erik Williams for a blow to the head of a player while out of bounds negated the run, and returned the ball to the Dallas 49-yard line. Despite the setback, the Cowboys marched all the way to the 1, where Smith was stopped twice, forcing a Chris Boniol field goal to end the quarter.
After Hanson misfired on a 52-yard field goal attempt, Smith followed a Larry Allen block for a 32-yard scamper to the 4-yard line. On second-and-goal from the 6, Smith dashed right behind the block of Nate Newton and into the end-zone to tie the score 17-17.
Sanders began the drive by taking a handoff and crossing the formation for a pickup of 14 yards. A cutback run on the next play netted 4 yards, moving the ball to the Detroit 40. A third-down completion of 11 yards to Aubrey Matthews moved the chains, and created a murmur among the Texas Stadium crowd as the Lions neared field-goal range at the 2:00 mark of the fourth quarter.
Sanders’ first-down carry up the middle provided 9 more yards. After a sneak by Mitchell moved the chains, Sanders was swallowed up in the backfield by Dixon Edwards at the 41 for a loss of three yards, as the clock ticked down below 15 seconds. By the time Mitchell’s downfield pass on second-down fell incomplete, only 3 seconds remained, leaving Fontes no choice but to send out Hanson for a 58-yard try. The kick was blocked by Leon Lett, forcing a fifth period.
Detroit won the coin-toss and ran back the kickoff to the 32-yard line. Sanders carried for gains of 6 and 15 yards respectively, before going to the sideline for a breather. Mitchell’s 17-yard pass to Moore on third-and-13 advanced the ball to the Dallas 33. A Detroit penalty combined with ferocious run defense from Dallas to force Hanson into attempting a 51-yarder. Lett blocked that kick too, setting the Cowboys up in prime position to steal a victory.
But then the madness began. After a carry by Smith of eight yards put the ball on the Detroit 45-yard line, Aikman’s first-down pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage, but came down into the arms of Cowboy lineman Derek Kennard. The big guard had hardly enough time to take two steps before authoring an inauspicious fumble that Pat Swilling recovered for Detroit.
Following a Lions punt, the Dallas offense started moving again. Emmitt ran for seven. Then eight. With the defense anticipating another handoff, Aikman faked to his running back and passed for 20 yards to Michael Irvin to the Detroit 49-yard line. With only 2:00 remaining in overtime, it appeared that the Cowboys were either going to win the game or, at worst, settle for a tie.
But when Aikman fumbled in the backfield after being hit by Broderick Thomas on a first-down pass play, the Cowboys found themselves staring down the gun-barrel of their first loss of the Barry Switzer Era. A 17-yard pass play from Mitchell to Perriman put the ball well inside Hanson’s range. And with 32 seconds showing on the clock, Hanson finished what he had been unable to on two previous occasions, booting the Lions to victory from 44 yards out.
Discussion after the game centered around Detroit’s amazing halfback. “Barry Sanders is the most dangerous back in the league,” declared Switzer.
“Barry played exceptional tonight,” Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley said.
“Our defensive goal was to hold them to 17 points,” said Dallas safety James Washington, “but it is hard to hold Barry for four quarters, much less five. Barry has lots of talent…he’s a great back and deserves all the attention defenses give him.”
Sanders carried the ball 40 times for 194 yards – an all-time record for carries against the Cowboys. And, Sanders’ 40 carries fell only five short of the NFL’s all-time record.
Overshadowed a bit was Smith, who had a fine day himself for the Cowboys, carrying 29 times for 143 yards and one touchdown. But on this wacky night in Irving, there was nothing Emmitt or the Cowboys could do to keep up with the superlative speed and shiftiness of Barry Sanders.