“They can’t stop us!” Michael Irvin hollered on the Dallas sideline as the Cowboys began to shake off both their butterflies and the seasoned Buffalo Bills on a picturesque afternoon in Pasadena at the 1993 Super Bowl.
Nobody could stop the Cowboys, save for the Cowboys themselves as egos would eventually get in the way of the budding gridiron empire.
Those fissures were more than a year away, however, and on this day at the Rose Bowl the youngest and fastest team in the NFL would complete a remarkable turnaround from the 1-15 and 3-13 seasons that began the Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson era, and hand Buffalo an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl loss.
Quicker than anybody could have imagined, Johnson and Jones would reap the rewards of deft drafts and 46 trades, most notably the Hershel Walker deal that helped transform Dallas into a dynasty in the mid-1990s.
Johnson told the Cowboys in his pregame speech before Dallas’ 52-17 rout that the talent-laden offense would start out conservatively and lean on its overlooked defense, anchored by a rotation of nimble D-linemen like he’d used to win a national title at the University of Miami.
Dallas’ defense delivered a whopping nine takeaways that day in what would be the last Super Bowl played in the greater Los Angeles area for 29 years, a streak that ends with next weekend’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
Dallas led 14-10 at the two-minute warning before Michael Jackson’s epic halftime performance, and Irvin noted that Buffalo’s cornerbacks were playing way off the line of scrimmage and protecting the middle of the field in the red zone.
Aikman asked Irvin if he thought he could run a skinny post against cornerback Nate Odomes, and Irvin said of course he could. He lined up an extra yard outside the numbers to try to draw his defender out and then cut right in front of him to haul in Aikman’s 19-yard touchdown throw.
Irvin told Aikman on the sideline that they were unstoppable, and when Leon Lett punched the ball from Thurman Thomas’ arms and the Cowboys recovered on the next play from scrimmage, Irvin had an immediate chance to prove his point.
This time, he lined up on the right side and promised Aikman he’d score on a corner post route. He took just one jab step inside rather than taking the customary two steps before cutting to the sideline and hauling in Aikman’s spiral just as he was hit by cornerback J.D. Williams.
Irvin later told longtime Cowboys play-by-play voice Brad Sham during a Super Bowl retrospective that he was so eager to score again that he cut short his route and that’s why he kicked his right leg high as he hauled in the pass and spun across the goal line for his second TD catch in 18 seconds.
“I said, ’Oh, my God. He’s going to intercept this and go 100 yards” the other way, Irvin recounted. ”… It looked like it was a designed play, but I was worried. If I would have let him intercept that ball, Troy would have been so upset with me.”
And instead of 28-10 at the half it might have been 21-17, with Mr. Comeback himself ready to lead the Bills on another epic rally.
With Jim Kelly sidelined early by a knee injury, backup QB Frank Reich was running Buffalo’s offense four weeks after engineering a record comeback from a 35-3 deficit against the Houston Oilers in a 41-38 wild card win.
Reich had done something similar in 1984 when he led Maryland back from a 31-0 halftime deficit at the University of Miami, Irvin’s alma mater, for a 42-40 Terrapins victory.
“I was thinking I’d rather keep Jim Kelly in,” Irvin recounted.
There was no need to fret. Dallas’ defense kept up the pressure with four second-half takeaways. The Cowboys’ 35-point margin of victory would have been even greater were it not for Don Beebe chasing down Lett and knocking the football from his right hand just shy of the goal line as he prematurely celebrated a touchdown return.
It was Buffalo’s only highlight.
The teams would meet up a rematch a year later in Atlanta with the sequel playing out much the same as the original in a 30-13 Dallas win.
While the Bills would go down as the only team to ever lose four straight Super Bowls, the Cowboys would soon unravel, with Jones buying out Johnson’s contract and hiring Barry Switzer as his coach. They failed to defend their title the next year but made it three championships in four years with a win over the Steelers in Super Bowl 30 in Arizona.
Neither the Cowboys nor the Bills have been back to the Super Bowl since ruling their respective conferences in the early 1990s, although both franchises could be good bets to change that in the not-so-distant future.