Throwback Thursday: Irvin’s Big Day Lifts Shorthanded Cowboys Over Cardinals 10-6
Delirious with a never-ending reel of off-the-field dramas, and more suspensions than any one team could conceive of, the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys stumbled out of the gates in 1996, beginning the regular season with just one victory in four games. The return of All-Pro wide receiver Michael Irvin to the starting lineup in Week 6 appeared to have settled the ship aright somewhat, as the Cowboys entered the season’s final month on top of the NFC East with an 8-5 mark, and fresh off a Thanksgiving Day thrashing of rival Washington.
With a fifth consecutive division title now clearly in sight, the unsuspecting Cowboys, thinking their hardest trials were behind them, closed their ever-loving arms around a week of December doom. On the Tuesday before his team was scheduled to play at Arizona, head coach Barry Switzer was informed by the league office that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Leon Lett had been suspended for an entire year after failing a third drug test. Lett joined defensive end Charles Haley as the second key contributor along the Dallas defensive line to be shelved for the season. But the news only got worse from there.
Already concerned with a depleted depth chart, Switzer nearly went into shock during pregame warmups when his all-world cornerback, Deion Sanders, fell to the ground with back spasms. When Sanders was deemed unable to start by team doctors, Switzer was left no other alternative but to insert Alundis Brice in his place. So by kickoff, the Cowboys had only two of the 11 defensive starters remaining from their Super Bowl XXX team going against a Cardinals team desperately trying to stay in the thick of the NFC wild-card race.
Were it not for the magnanimous efforts of wide receiver Michael Irvin, there is little doubt that a week filled with bad news would have been capped with a disheartening defeat to an inferior foe. But Irvin rose up above headlines and circumstance to put the Cowboys on his back and one step closer to a postseason berth.
Going up against a Cardinals team which had allowed opponents to reach or exceed 30 points on six different occasions in 1996, the expectation was that the Dallas offense would be able to move the ball at will inside Sun Devil Stadium. And, in one sense they did. The Cowboys’ 334 total yards versus Arizona was their third highest output of the season and most since gaining 442 in a Week 7 matchup in Miami. The fact that Dallas could not cash in on a series of early scoring opportunities left the outcome very much in doubt well into the second half.
The first failed drive came early in the second quarter, after Dallas had used completions of 20 and 13 yards to Irvin to move inside scoring range. Then, on third-and-1 from the Arizona 9-yard line, Troy Aikman fumbled the snap from center, allowing Eric Swann to recover.
Later in the third quarter, the Cowboys had possession on the 1-yard line, thanks to a 55-yard Aikman-to-Irvin hookup. But on second down, Emmitt Smith was stacked up at the line of scrimmage. When he reached the ball toward the goal-line, defensive end Simeon Rice promptly slapped it away, leading to another Cardinal recovery.
“I think it was a poor call, personally,” opined Smith after the game. “I thought the play was dead when I was laying on top of everybody with my arm already extended out. I’m not going anywhere. They know I’m not going to get into the end zone.
“The ball is knocked out of my hand and it got called a fumble. That’s about all I can say about that.”
There to cover up for the offensive struggles was the shorthanded version of the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense, which forced four turnovers and kept the Cardinals out of the end zone all afternoon. Dallas safety George Teague could have been the author of the first big play, but he let a Boomer Esiason pass bounce off his hands on the game’s opening drive, allowing Arizona to cash in with a short field goal moments later. Esiason and Co. weren’t so fortunate after that.
Immediately following Aikman’s fumble, Esiason went to work on Brice, completing a 49-yard bomb to Rob Moore over the Cowboys’ overmatched cornerback on first-down. On the very next play, Esiason coughed up the ball after being hit from behind by Chad Hennings, leading to a Broderick Thomas recovery at the Dallas 45-yard line.
Next time out, it was Teague coming down with an interception that thwarted another promising Cardinal possession. While Teague celebrated his good fortune, Brice stayed down on the Sun Devil Stadium grass, grimacing from a newly sprained knee suffered while blocking for Teague’s runback. With Brice on the sidelines on crutches, the Cowboys were down to their final true cornerback, rookie Wendell Davis.
Davis appeared to be ready for the challenge when Esiason targeted his side of the field on three consecutive plays late in the second quarter. After perfectly defensing a deep pass, Davis watched helplessly as Moore hauled in an acrobatic 25-yard catch along the sideline. Davis came back, though, by deflecting away a pass in the corner of the end-zone, forcing another chip-shot field goal from Kevin Butler just before intermission.
After having watched the Dallas defense yield 236 first-half yards and 15 first downs, Pat Summerall sagely told the Fox television audience that “the Cowboys should feel fortunate” to only be down 6-0 at the break. After hearing which, sensing that his team was in need of an inspiration, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones promptly made his way down to the sideline for the beginning of the second half. It was there, in midst of many an encouraging word and much vociferous hand-clapping in front of cameras, that Jones saw Kevin Williams return the third quarter kickoff out to midfield. But the Cowboy attack continued to sputter, going three-and-out.
A pass-interference penalty against Davis in the middle of the third quarter resulted in more than merely a first-down for the Cardinals. It also prompted the surprise return of Sanders, who walked gingerly onto the field toward his station on the defensive left side. In typical Primetime fashion, Sanders made one of the game’s biggest plays on the very next play, falling on top of a Leeland McElroy fumble at the Dallas 32-yard line after Randall Godfrey, trailing on the play, had poked the ball out.
It was on the ensuing possession that Aikman and Irvin authored the game’s defining moment. Aikman, who had watched his receiver battle against double-coverage for the entire game, told Irvin in the huddle before a second-and-5 play from midfield that the next pass was going to No. 88 – no matter what.
“We thought about coming in and running some slants, short slants and deep slants,” said Irvin. “The deep slant is what I got the touchdown on. They played great coverage. They would almost disguise the double-team, and at the last second a safety would run out.”
Lining up on the left side, Irvin was afforded a sizeable cushion by cornerback Aeneas Williams. The pass from Aikman was high but well within reach of the 6-foot-2-inch Irvin, who made a twisting catch as Williams crashed to the ground behind him. After eluding the tackle attempt of Brent Alexander, Irvin was free to race into the end zone for the game’s only touchdown and the 52nd of his career.
An interception by Dallas safety Darren Woodson enabled Chris Boniol to extend the Cowboy advantage to 10-6 in the fourth quarter, a score that would ultimately stand. And though Woodson and the Dallas defense certainly left their imprint upon the game’s outcome, nobody in the Arizona desert was taking anything away from the hero of the hour.
“Great players make things happen,” Switzer said in reference to the Aikman-Irvin touchdown connection.
Said Emmitt Smith: “Michael wanted to put it on his shoulders and take over the game, and he did it.”
Irvin finished the game with 8 receptions for 198 yards, the second-highest yardage total of his career and the eighth best in franchise history.
With the victory and subsequent losses from fellow contenders in the NFC East, the 1996 Cowboys found themselves upon the verge of clinching another division title, which they ultimately did a week later at Texas Stadium versus New England.