Being an Eagles fan can be trying sometimes. We don’t have recent memories of the team winning a Championship. You’d have to go to back over 50 years, before the Super Bowl era, to be able to celebrate the last time the Eagles won. Hanging your hat on being the only team to best a Vince Lombardi-coached Packers team in the postseason is pretty flimsy, especially when Chuck Bednarik probably owns underwear older than you. Therefore, we have to take the little things in as much as possible. There are 29 other teams in the league against whom the Eagles have played games, so there are plenty of opportunities for triumph and defeat. However, the most vivid ones seem to center around one franchise in particular.
The Dallas Cowboys.
I don’t know where I got my visceral hatred for the Cowboys. Maybe it was my father, who was born in a time when Tex Schramm had put his marketing shoes on, establishing a brand in a fairly vacant-for-professional football Southeastern United States. “America’s Team,” the Cowboys were branded. Forget the fact that the major population centers, Philadelphia included, all had teams. The Cowboys somehow represented America, and even worse, had engendered an equity with people in those cities that they had burgeoning fan bases across America. New York, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh and most infuriatingly so, Philadelphia among others had people screaming “HOW ‘BOUT THEM COWBOYS?” when they had never even been within a 200-mile radius of the Lone Star State in their lives.
The worst part was that in those days, the Cowboys were always good. You didn’t have a defense against them because they won. Sure, the Packers defeated them in the Ice Bowl, and the Steelers made them their personal bitches in the Super Bowl on two occasions, but there was always that sense of dread to my father’s generation that the Cowboys weren’t dead in the water until they actually were mathematically eliminated. It didn’t hurt that the Eagles were a chronically moribund franchise in my father’s youth. They couldn’t even tank correctly, winning games down the stretch of a season that could have netted them OJ Simpson if they had lost. Some years, hating the Cowboys was all my dad had.
Like any good son, I wanted to be just like my dad. So when he was screaming at the TV when the Cowboys were playing, so was I. Then again, had my youth been translated ten years into the future, would the visceral hate have been the same? The Dallas Cowboys of the last fifteen years have been a running joke, a team that coasts off its history, yet fails hilariously in clutch situations. Of course, the fact that their only playoff win in that span came over the Eagles sticks in my craw, but that’s not nearly enough to overcome their ineptitude and the hilarity of watching ESPN praise them like an elite franchise when they haven’t had nearly the success of even the team jettisoned from the NFC East during the league’s realignment after adding the Houston Texans, the Arizona Cardinals.
But the Dallas Cowboys of 1991 through 1996? Oh, those were some scary teams. I came of age as a football fan in 1990, the year before the Cowboys “got good” again, so my formative years were spent seeing the Cowboys usurp the Giants, Redskins and 49ers as the alpha dogs of the NFC, and by proxy, the NFL in general. The only thing keeping them from reeling off four straight Super Bowl Championships was the fact that the 49ers snuck in and had one last hurrah season to interrupt their dominance in 1994. The cacophony of Cowboys fans who were dead silent in 1989 during their infamous 1-15 season (a season where the Eagles sacked Troy Aikman 11 times in a game) was deafening. Even my brother fell to the temporary insanity of Cowboys fandom, although I suspect this was just an act of rebellion against my dad. It was in this time that I learned to be a Cowboys hater in my own right rather than just one who didn’t like them because my dad was also not a fan.
Because of this, I’ve always treated Eagles/Cowboys games as a matter of life and death. I could live with the Birds going 2-14 as long as both wins were against Dallas. Wins against Dallas were always sweeter. Losses were always taken more personally. Even today, as I’ve grown further and further away from the reactionary, life-and-death approach to sports fandom that I had in my younger years, I still react more intensely to any game the Eagles have against Dallas than any other team, even the Giants, who have been undoubtedly better and whose two Super Bowl Championships sting in the face of the Eagles’ zero, and the Redskins, who have been nearly as hilariously inept as the Cowboys.
With that written, in the vacuum of Super Bowls won in my lifetime, of course my most memorable time as an Eagles fan was on December 10, 1995. Was there ever really a doubt? The Cowboys came into Veterans Stadium on a cold and blustery winter’s day, 10-3, on top of the world again and having shellacked the Eagles 34-12 earlier in the season in Dallas. The Eagles were fighting for a playoff spot, and a win against the Cowboys would have gone a long way to securing that bid. It was a tall task, but on that day, the Birds came out and punched the Cowboys in the mouth all game long. The Cowboys swung back, but it wasn’t nearly as easy for them as it was in Big D.
In the fourth quarter with the two-minute warning looming, the Cowboys were pinned inside their own 30. The score was tied, 17-17, and they faced a 4th-and-1. The common logic dictated that they should punt it. Of course, pro football common logic is pretty flawed most times. In a situation with one yard or fewer to go, the probability always rests on the offense to convert, regardless of down. That probability was at an even higher level considering what the Cowboys had as weapons to convert that fourth down into a potentially back-breaking drive leading to a field goal.
In the backfield, they had Emmitt Smith, regarded as one of the best running backs in NFL history. Clearing running lanes for him was the most fearsome offensive line in the league at that time and maybe the best one in history. Under center was Troy Aikman, not a guy with the gaudy statistics of a Steve Young or a Brett Favre, but a proven winner and a consensus elite quarterback. His targets were numerous: All-Pro wide receiver Michael Irvin, speedy deep threat Kevin Williams and stalwart tight end Jay Novacek. Even though the Eagles defense finished the season ranked fourth overall in total yards allowed, it felt like they were over matched.
The Cowboys called “load left,” one of the standards in their playbook. Smith took the hand off and gnashed into the mangled mass of man flesh duking it out in the trenches. When the dust cleared, it looked as if he didn’t make it. The stadium exploded. I started to hoot and holler in my living room until the officials waved the play off. The Cowboys didn’t get the play off in time, and the two minute warning had elapsed before Aikman took the snap under center.
The mood quickly changed. The Eagles stopped the Cowboys, but now they were going to get a do-over. They’re a NFL-elite team. They not only have the tools to get one yard after getting the Eagles to show their hand, but we all should have known they’d have the officials in their pocket. It was a variation on the Jordan Rules in basketball, where there’s a rulebook for handling Michael Jordan and a rulebook for handling everyone else. Regardless of whether a double standard exists or not is irrelevant in the minds of rabid homer fans who wanted nothing more than to beat the hated dynastic Cowboys as reward for braving the Arctic cold temperatures of the day.
When they lined up for a second try at it, they didn’t call play action like they probably should have called. They didn’t call a different run play, or a normal pass play. They didn’t roll Aikman out to give him options to pick the first down up. They didn’t do a quarterback draw or sneak. Barry Switzer, or more specifically offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, called load left one more time. The hubris involved in this decision was staggering, but then again, it wasn’t exactly unwarranted. Load left was a play that the Cowboys ran a lot because it worked a lot. They knew that Smith and that offensive line could get one yard in their sleep. They also knew that the Eagles were a bit pliable against the run (their strength defensively in ’95 was in the passing game, where teams were virtually impotent) and thought they probably got lucky on the previous non-play. So, they ran load left one more time. One more time, Smith took the rock and plowed ahead.
And one more time, that Eagles defense, fronted by Andy Harmon and William Fuller, backed by William Thomas and Bill Romanowski, coached by Ray Rhodes and coordinated by Emmitt Thomas, stopped Smith dead in his tracks.
As if drawing from a bottomless well of emotion, the stadium and my parents’ living room erupted one more time. The defense came up huge. The Eagles were going to win. We didn’t even need to see Gary Anderson put the ball through the uprights to seal the victory. We knew it was over. No one pushed that Cowboys team back even once in that situation. The Eagles did it twice. There was no physical explanation for it. It was magic to some, a rare moment when grit, determination and all those other clichés that sportswriters like to use to explain when an unexpected outcome happens triumphed to others. No matter the explanation, it was special.
The Eagles would go on to play one of the craziest games ever in their wild card contest with the Lions before going back to Dallas and getting thrashed. Yes, the Cowboys would get the last laugh, going to the Super Bowl and getting vicarious revenge against the Pittsburgh Steelers fifteen-plus years after the fact for those original Super Bowl losses. There’s no reason why we as Eagles fans should hold this game in such high esteem. Then again, that’s what happens when you’re starved for success, and all you have is a rivalry. Does that make us petty? Maybe it does. I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care either. Sometimes, all you really want is something to matter. Even when both teams are terrible, which is the case for this weekend’s match-up between the two teams, Eagles and Cowboys always seem to matter.
There are times when I think I hate the Cowboys more than I like the Eagles. This year is probably one of those times. The Eagles have won three games, none of which felt like they deserved to win. They all felt like accidents. This team stinks from top to bottom. It’s not a statement of pessimism as much as it is objective interpretation of data. I don’t even know if I enjoyed any of the Eagles victories this year as much as I reveled in seeing the Cowboys crap the bed early and then late against the Giants a week ago. A Cowboys loss always feels right. Of course now, it feels right in the same way watching a really funny comedy does. There’s no fear that the Cowboys will actually succeed, and the sad thing is, there is a generation of Eagles fans who will only know the Cowboys as Boris and Natasha of the Eagles’ rogues’ gallery of opponents.
But for those of us who do remember when the Cowboys were juggernauts, that game on December 10, 1995 will always be a reminder that no matter how good the Cowboys were, at least on that one cold winter afternoon, our guys in Kelly green and silver were better. In lieu of a Super Bowl, which I hope is coming sooner rather than later, that’s a fine signpost victory to have, regardless of what anyone might think.Tags: 1995, 4th & 1, Andy Harmon, Barry Switzer, Bill Romanowski, Dallas Cowboys, Emmitt Smith, Emmitt Thomas, Ernie Zampese, Gary Anderson, Michael Irvin, NFL, Philadelphia Eagles, Ray Rhodes, rivalry, They Stopped Them Again, Troy Aikman, William Fuller, William Thomas