Let’s preface this list with an important qualifying statement: the only moments up for consideration are on-the-field occurrences. In other words, this is a list of the ten most devastating plays in team history. Consequently, we won’t be mentioning moments many may consider catastrophic, like the day Landry was fired or the day Jimmy Johnson walked away or the day Switzer was hired. Nor will we talk about the “white house” or the Michael Irvin trial. We may long debate the impact of such happenings on the team. But that is a different discussion.
In selecting the plays included in this list, several factors were considered:
- Was it a catastrophic moment for the team?
- Do Cowboys fans still remember it?
- Does it still hurt?
Number Ten: Cards Make History with Blocked Punt. On October 12, 2008, The Dallas Cowboys would suffer a tough overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The catastrophic moment came in overtime, when, after the Cowboys offense failed to do anything with the opening drive, Mat McBriar was called on to punt the ball away. But the Cardinals’ Sean Morey broke through to block the punt and teammate Monty Biesel scooped up the ball and scored the winning touchdown. The Cowboys would spiral into an 8-8 finish while the Cards would finally break through with a successful postseason and their first-ever Super Bowl appearance. Oh, and McBriar was lost for the season.
Number Nine: Rookie Kicks Cowboys in the Super Bowl Groin. The Cowboys had finally done it. After years of falling just short and being called “bridesmaids” or dubbed “next year’s champs,” they made the Super Bowl. Their opponent was the John Unitas-led Baltimore Colts. Super Bowl V was a mess. The teams combined for eleven turnovers. Some called it the “Blunder Bowl,” or the “Stupor Bowl.” Still, Dallas had a 13-6 lead at the end of three quarters. The Colts, however, would tie the score in the fourth. Then, with five seconds left in the game, rookie kicker Jim O’Brien trotted onto the field and promptly kicked a 32-yard field goal to win the game. Next year’s champs would have to wait…again.
Number Eight: T.O. Desecrates the Star. It would have been impossible to imagine on September 24, 2000 that Terrell Owens would some day be dancing into the end zone, scoring TDs with the Cowboys’ star on his helmet. In the ultimate show of disrespect for a franchise and its fans, the lightening rod (some say Nimrod) receiver scored a TD for the 49ers and then dashed to the star at the fifty yard line to rub his success – and their failure – in the nose of the Dallas Cowboys and their longsuffering fans. Owens scored twice that day and made the same trip to the star each time. The second time, safety George Teague knocked him off the star. It was a bad start to a decade that has mostly been unkind to the Cowboys.
Number Seven: “No, Danny! No!” The Cowboys were looking good going into the final weeks of the 1983 season. Then, they ran into the hated Redskins. The ‘Skins held the ‘Boys to a franchise-low 33 yards rushing. Washington had a thin 14-10 lead in the third quarter. Dallas had the ball, fourth and one, at their own 48. Landry instructed quarterback Danny White to use a hard count to try and draw the defense offsides. White, however, changed the play at the line of scrimmage, calling for a Ron Springs run up the middle. Springs lost two yards and the Cowboys lost the game. Cameras caught an animated Tom Landry on the sideline yelling, “No! No, Danny! No!” It was as close as the stoic coach ever came to losing his cool during a game. Moreover, after a decade (the 70s) of five Super Bowl appearances and two wins, the Cowboys would begin a slow spiral through the 80s.
Number Six: The Play-Maker will Play No More Forever. October, 1999. Michael Irvin’s career-ending inury was a catastrophic moment for himself and the Cowboys. It served notice that the Triplets were done. Their marvelous run as the mighty triumverate of football acumen came to an unceremonious end when the polarizing, flamboyant, spiritual leader of the team of the 90’s landed awkwardly on his head after hauling in his last-ever pass from Troy Aikman. To make matters worse, it happened in the worst possible place: Philadelphia. The classless morons making up a significant part of the crowd that day once again proved themselves to be America’s lowest form of sports fan: the kind that cheers the failure of others even more loudly than the success of their own team. (Losers are that way.) CNNSI.com reported the incident this way:
By cheering Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin as he lay motionless on the turf Sunday with a neck injury, the fans brought the city’s reputation for boorishness to new lows. It disgusted even those who thought they had seen it all in the “City of Brotherly Love.”
“Unspeakable, even for us,” proclaimed a headline in the Philadelphia Daily News.
Number Five: A Disgraceful End to A Glorious Run. It was the final game ever to be played in Texas Stadium, where so many glories of the past had transpired, where so many great Cowboys players had left their indelible mark. The final game was not against a division rival…or any other bitter rival, like maybe the 49ers or Steelers. It was the Ravens. No history there. Well, now there is. The Baltimore Birds made history. First, halfback Willis Mcgahee tied a Texas Stadium record with a 77-yard touchdown run against the Dallas D (the one Wade Phillips had taken over and “improved” in recent weeks). Then, his teammate, Le’Ron McLain broke the record with an 82 yard run. The Dallas defenders looked like matadors on that play. I know: this is two plays…but they happened so closely together and constituted a single insult. The light that had shined so gloriously through the hole in the stadium’s roof into the North Texas night for 28 years was unceremoniously doused. If Jerry Jones had walked down to the field and fired the excuse-making, underachieving, overmatched, good ole boy head coach right there on the spot, who could have blamed him? But Jerry needs a man who will surrender enough of his manhood for the owner to retain absolute control. Wade Phillips – the world’s doughiest puppet – is his man. (Pardon the veering and venting. It still smarts.)
Number Four: Romo Fumbles Away Playoff Victory. January 6, 2007, Seattle, Washington. First, let us be clear: Romo the quarterback played well enough to defeat the Seattle Seahawks on their own turf and earn a long-awaited and much-needed playoff victory for his franchise. Romo the kickholder did not. I place as much blame on the shoulders of the world’s biggest Tuna as I do on Romo. Why on earth do you need the starting quarterback, the man who has poured everything he has onto the field of battle, to hold the ball for your kicker? Do you also want him distributing Gatorade during timeouts? Maybe he could work a hot dog stand. At any rate, Romo bobbles the hold. The Cowboys fail to score. The Seahawks make sure they don’t get another shot. The playoff drought continues.
Number Three: The Catch. January 10, 1982, San Francisco. It was a prayer, uttered by a desperation-heaving Joe Montana and answered by a right-place-at-the-right-moment Dwight Clark. With Ed “Too Tall” Jones closing in and looming over Montana’s field of vision, the man who would become arguably the game’s greatest clutch quarterback launched his fabled assault on NFL post-season lore. The Catch, as the play that sealed the NFC championship victory for the Forty-Niners would come to be known, marked the end of one dynasty and the birth of another. The torch was reluctantly passed.
Number Two: Ice, Ice, Baby. December 31, 1967, Lambeau Field, Green Bay. The Ice Bowl is one of the most famous games in NFL history. Game time temperature was -13 degrees Farenheit. The wind chill was -48°. The great game came down to a Packers’ third and goal at the Cowboys’ one yard line. Players could be seen stomping at the ground with their cleats, trying to get traction. The Cowboys clung tenaciously to a tenuous 17-14 lead. They expected a pass. A completion would win the game and an incompletion would stop the clock for one last try. Instead, Quarterback Bart Starr ran a QB sneak right at defensive tackle Jethro Pugh and behind guard Jerry Kramer. Starr scored and the Pack won its third consecutive NFL championship, while the Cowboys were foiled and frustrated once again.
Number One: Jackie Smith. January 21, 1979, Super Bowl XIII. If you are a Cowboys fan 40 years old or older, it is doubtful that any former player’s name brings more gut-wrenching agony than that of Jackie Smith. Smith was a superb tight end who spent his entire career laboring away on a so-so Cardinals’ team. He was thirty-eight when the Cowboys signed him. With Dallas trailing 21-14, Smith dropped a sure-fire touchdown pass in the end zone. The ball just bounced off his chest. The Cowboys settled for a field goal, making Smith’s play a four-point debacle. The Cowboys ultimately lost by those four points, 35-31. If they had won, it would have meant that they and the Steelers each had three Super Bowl victories in the 70’s, with the Cowboys making five appearances to the Steelers’ four. Instead, the Steelers were proclaimed the team of the decade and the Cowboys’ remarkable achievement of appearing in half of the decade’s Super Bowls was relegated to a “nice” accomplishment.
Every team has its share of disappointments, and the Cowboys are no different. No team wins them all. This is the beauty of competition. The games, the plays, the victories, the defeats…they live on inside us. They fuel our heated debates. They fire our imaginations. They fill us with joy…or pain. They remind us of the human condition. They whet our appetite for more.