When Barry Switzer Lost A Game, And Helped To Ignite The Dallas Cowboys’ Third And Final Super Bowl Run Of The 1990s.
In December of 1995, before Bill and Bob ever squared off against each other in a presidential debate, a bewildering transformation took place at one of Philadelphia’s most prized dumps. Inside frigid, wind-blown Veterans Stadium, where even the rats had run for shelter from the elements, a game of pigskin poker had broken out. The stakes were high, the odds understood by all who watched. Three hours had elapsed since the first card was played. Now it was time for the outsider to fold ‘em, and take his chances on winning the fattened pot with the next, and most likely final, hand. That’s when the distinguished visitor from Texas, who proudly wore the title of Barry, gambled himself into a nameless, faceless Bozo that wasn’t fit to captain the sideline of America’s Team. This two-pronged maneuver that one major news publication dubbed as “Dumb & Dumber” cost the Dallas Cowboys a game they desperately needed, and nearly buried a season of lofty dreams right along with it.
This is the story that provides a glimpse into just how much of a Bozo that Barry Switzer really was, and how this same Bozo then helped to turn that disastrous day in Philadelphia into a late-season drive to Tempe, and Super Bowl XXX. It’s a tale covered with two decades of dust, whose startling truth lends itself to the notion that there are times when the only way to win, is to lose. Even for a Bozo. Even for a Barry. Even for an ultra-talented Cowboys team consumed by bickering, frustrations, and doubt…..
Pressure had been building in Dallas, building like a giant tidal wave that would crush any and all in its path if expectations were not met. These were the 1990’s, a time in Cowboy country when expectations were synonymous with ultimate success. A season without a Super Bowl wasn’t a season at all. Inevitably, a coach without a ring wasn’t a coach at all. Nobody felt the force of this pressure more than Dallas Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer, who in 1995 was trying to take the talent-rich Cowboys back to their rightful place on top of the NFL mountain.
His first season had been minted a failure after his team crumbled in the mud of Candlestick Park against the hated 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Eleven months later, the do-or-die pressure that had been building over the course of the season became a real, tangible thing that hung in the air like a thick cloud over the organization, suffocating the locker room as calendars turned to December and the stretch run….
Veterans Stadium was a perfect storm of icy wind and bitter temperaments on the afternoon of December 10, 1995. The visiting Dallas Cowboys, a week after giving away a home game against the Redskins, had come out of the locker room in a manner that belied their anxiety over maintaining the top seed in the NFC. Rather than playing to win, the two-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys found themselves in an odd situation; they were playing not to lose. That in turn aided the efforts of an opposing Eagles squad still chasing a Wild-Card berth.
Philadelphia, once down by a score of 17-3 in the first half, had clawed and fought their way back to knot the game at 17-apiece in the fourth quarter. The longer the game went on, the more confidence the Eagles gained, as they started bullying the big, bad Cowboys down the stretch.
Emmitt Smith had gained only 9 yards on as many carries after halftime. Smith’s fumble near the goal-line early in the fourth quarter had negated Dallas’ best scoring opportunity of the second half, and prevented the Cowboys from extending their advantage to 24-14.
Smith wasn’t alone in his struggles. Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was also having a tough time navigating the wind, completing less than fifty-percent of his passes against a feisty Eagles secondary.
So it happened that with a stiff breeze against Dallas and momentum clearly set against his team, that Barry Switzer watched the clock tick toward the two-minute warning. Just seconds after Aikman had completed a third-and-10 pass to Cory Fleming for an unofficial gain of 9 yards and 2 feet, Switzer was faced with a decision while the ball rested on the Dallas 29-yard line. Punt or go for it?
The conservative decision would have been to kick it away and rely on a highly-acclaimed Dallas defense to prevent a last-gasp Eagles scoring drive. The Dallas offense had already been stuffed on four previous third-or fourth-and short-yardage situations. And considering the consequences of going for it and failing, punting might have also been categorized as the smart decision. In three fourth quarter possessions with the wind at their back, the Eagles had managed to advance the ball 20 yards only once.
But Barry wasn’t thinking of leaving the Philadelphia offense with a short field. All he could envision was the Cowboys offense keeping the ball and continuing their drive. In his mind, if the Eagles offense was going to step onto the field again, it would be in overtime.
“I wanted to make a foot to control the ball because if we kick into the wind they’re going to come back and kick the field goal to win anyway,” said Switzer after the game.
In the Fox broadcast booth, John Madden wasn’t wasting anytime voicing his verdict of the situation. “Punt! That’s the play you have to make. The score is tied. It’s the fourth quarter. I don’t think there is any other play.”
But Switzer didn’t heed Madden’s cryptic soliloquy, nor did he wait for a relay of it from an over-concerned assistant, instead deciding to keep his offense on the field, albeit armed with their best play – “Load Left.” The play called for Smith to follow fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston to the left side of the offensive line, where tackle Mark Tuinei and guard Nate Newton were – hopefully – pushing enough mass to constitute a hole for Smith to run through. Cowboys running backs coach Joe Brodsky revealed after the game that over the last six seasons with Smith, “Load Left” had been successful 94-percent of the time.
Upon taking the snap from center Derek Kennard, Aikman turned and handed the ball off to Smith, and then watched as the MVP running back ran smack into a sea of green-clad defenders at the line of scrimmage. Emmitt was swallowed up and tossed backwards upon the cold, unforgiving artificial turf. Inexplicably, unbelievably, Load Left had failed.
But out of nowhere an insistent whistle pierced through this scene of disbelief providing Dallas with a welcome reprieve. Referee Ed Hochuli ruled that Kennard had snapped the ball just a fraction of a second after the automatic stoppage of play at the two-minute warning. While Fox took a couple of minutes for a commercial break, Switzer was able to reconsider his decision while getting additional input from assistant coaches and players. The question was still the same. Should the Cowboys punt, or go for it?
“Every one of them was for going for it,” Switzer recalled afterwards. “…I wish it would have been fourth-and-inches. Well, after you go for it the first time and don’t make it, do I turn to my team and say, ‘Well, I don’t have any confidence in you?’ That’s what you’re saying to them if you punted it then. They still wanted to go for it so – we go for it.”
But what Cowboy players in the huddle could not understand was when Switzer decided on calling Load Left for a second time.
“I’m going, ‘Don’t do this.’ Not the same play,” remembered Daryl Johnston in Norm Hitzges’ 2007 book Greatest Team Ever. “They had seven guys at the point of attack and we’re doing the same thing?
“You’re just hoping Troy is gonna say, ‘This isn’t right.’ Call a timeout. Explain your point. Hey, we’ll do this, but give us a different play.”
But Aikman didn’t call a timeout, nor did he change the play, a fact which left even a few Eagles players shaking their heads. Said Philadelphia safety Greg Jackson: “I saw them come out of the huddle and I told the guys, ‘Watch out. They’re trying to draw us offsides.’ Then I see the tight end go in motion and I say to myself, ‘I don’t believe it. They’re actually gonna run this play.’”
Another Kennard snap into the quarterback’s hands. Another handoff to Emmitt Smith. And another avalanche of Eagles defenders. The nightmare of Load Left was happening all over again.
Defensive tackle Andy Harmon, along with linebackers Kurt Gouveia and Bill Romanowski and several other Eagles swarmed around Smith and dragged him down in the backfield.
Predictably, the Cowboys lost 20-17, after Gary Anderson booted a game-winning 41-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. And down came the gauntlet of criticism down on the Cowboys’ head coach, from newspapers, analysts, and fans.
The headlines from Newsday read: “It’s a No-Brainer.”
The New York Post referred to Switzer as: “Bozo The Coach.”
Fox studio analyst Terry Bradshaw remarked to a national audience just moments after the game that “I wouldn’t be surprised if Barry Switzer is fired after this season.”
The common inference from the media was unmistakable: The Cowboys had no shot of winning the Big One as long as Switzer was stalking their sideline. Not even the magical powers of the famed Triplets could overcome the situational incompetence of their head coach. Why, Switzer even defended his decision after the game!
And while players voiced support for their head coach in the postgame locker room, the effect it had upon the team was unmistakable as the following week progressed. A businesslike mood had been replaced by one of silent brooding, as if in anticipation of an inevitable postseason collapse. Undoubtedly, a dynasty was dying in the muck of a circumstantial tragedy. Instead of seeking domination, the Cowboys had lent themselves to the debilitating forces of doubt.
There to lift the locker room out of this funk was none other than Switzer himself, who delivered a passionate, impromptu speech to his team before Wednesday’s practice. In typical Switzer style, Barry began with stories of a rough Arkansas childhood, which included riveting memories of his mother committing suicide on the back porch of their home, and his father being shot to death. “I had things to prove all my life,” Switzer roared. “That’s where I come from. What they say about me now, it’s nothing in comparison.”
Switzer didn’t want sympathy from his players. What he did seek was an effort from everyone at maintaining team unity.
“I wanted them to know I believed in them because I made that call,” Switzer said. “And I didn’t give up on them, that’s why I made it again. I believed in them and I wanted them to believe in me. I didn’t turn on them, and I didn’t want them to turn on me… ‘Coaches make dumb mistakes, along with players who make dumb mistakes, but we win or lose together,’ I told them. Don’t let people outside this room, the media, affect where we are because we’re still going to arrive where we want to arrive.”
There wasn’t a player in that locker room who could deny that Switzer’s message was anything but well-timed.
“I’m just paraphrasing here,” recalled cornerback Larry Brown, “but when Barry said, ‘Put it on me. I’m tough enough to handle it and if you don’t think that, you don’t know me. Let me take the heat. Send the doubters to me. I think the team needed that speech. It was heartfelt, on the spot. ‘I love you guys. I care about you. I still believe in you.’ I think that’s when a lot of people (in that locker room) started believing in him.”
When the meeting broke up, Deion Sanders yelled so as to be heard by everyone in the room: “Hey, coach, don’t pay any attention to all that media out there. We lost with you. We had enough chances to win that ballgame. You didn’t lose it, we lost it, and we want you to know that.”
The following Sunday at Texas Stadium, the newly-galvanized Cowboys rallied from multiple fourth-quarter deficits to nip the New York Giants 21-20 on a last-second field goal from Chris Boniol, and then followed it up with a Christmas night thrashing of Arizona to claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
From there, Switzer’s team managed to do what so many were convinced they could not: run the table and win Super Bowl XXX, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17.