There was no stopping the Washington Redskins in 1991. Joe Gibbs' club marched through the month of September by a combined score of 169-58. October was brief — just three games — but easy. By November, most experts believed QB Mark Rypien and company were good enough to finish the year undefeated.
Then Dallas strolled into town. The 6-5 Cowboys outgained their rivals 399-262 in total yardage, attempted an onside kick, went for it on fourth down three times, and left the Nation's Capital with a 24-21 victory. There was no question after the Nov. 24 loss that Washington was still the team to beat that year, but all other NFL teams were put on notice: The Cowboys are coming, better take cover.
"It's big," Jimmy Johnson told a reporter after the Redskins win, "but not as big as ones we're going to have around here in the future." At the time, Johnson's record with Dallas was 15-29.
The 1991 Cowboys are the forgotten team from the Johnson era — not the pathetic 1-15 losers of his debut, or the two-time champions of his exit — but perhaps the most important team during his five seasons in Big D. The club supplied the first evidence that the pieces the coach had assembled were starting to jell, and the team's finish served as a springboard for a record-breaking four-year run. That season gave the franchise some much-needed confidence, and it gave birth to the Team of the '90s.
The Redskins game also proved Dallas' young club could overcome adversity. When Troy Aikman hit the turf midway through the contest with a torn collateral ligament in his right knee, Dallas turned to backup Steve Beuerlein and didn't miss a beat. Four days later, on Thanksgiving, Beuerlein passed for 217 yards and a touchdown in a 20-10 win over the Steelers. Two weeks later, the Cowboys went to Philadelphia and scored 17 points in the final quarter to win 25-13. In the season finale against an Atlanta team that had won five in a row, Emmitt Smith rushed for 160 yards and Michael Irvin caught 10 balls for 169 in a 31-27 victory. Those totals helped Smith and Irvin to become the NFL's first set of teammates to win a rushing and receiving title in the same season.
Owners of the NFC's No. 5 seed, Dallas drew a date in blustery Chicago for the opening round of the playoffs (the team's first appearance since 1985). Most remember the game for Tom Waddle's bravery — knocked out cold, the Bears' receiver accepted a dose of smelling salts and went back out for more. But Dallas controlled the game from start to finish.
The playoff game gave Dallas its sixth consecutive win. More impressive, five of those games came against teams that had finished the 1991 regular season with 10 or more wins. But the winning streak also opened the door to controversy. Beuerlein was showing results, something the team's franchise quarterback had not done. With Aikman fully healed for the playoffs, Johnson stuck with Beuerlein, who had been acquired only months before from the Raiders. After Beuerlein helped Dallas beat Chicago, Johnson had no choice but to start him against Detroit in the divisional round. Roger Staubach could have suited up; it wouldn't have mattered.
CB Melvin Jenkins picked off a Beuerlein pass and returned it 41 yards to give Detroit an early 14-3 lead. Aikman was called on before the end of the half, ending once and for all any questions as to who the Cowboys' quarterback should be. Only, against the Lions, Aikman hardly looked like a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And while Dallas' defense focused on stopping Barry Sanders, little-known Erik Kramer picked apart the Cowboys' secondary in the game of his career. In the fourth quarter, Sanders finally broke free, gaining 47 of his 69 rushing yards for the final score in the Lions' 38-6 blowout victory.
For Dallas, the season was over, but the celebration was about to begin. The team dismantled Washington on a Monday night to start the 1992 season and was on its way to three titles over the next four seasons.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac