January 28, 2014

1996: Key Interceptions Propel Cowboys Over Steelers in Super Bowl XXX

Super Bowl XXX on January 28, 1996 featured the Dallas Cowboys, back after a one-year hiatus following back-to-back titles in 1992 and ’93, against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While Barry Switzer had replaced Jimmy Johnson as head coach since the last two Super Bowl appearances, the Cowboys still relied on the offensive trio of QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith, and WR Michael Irvin, and all three had excelled in 1995. TE Jay Novacek was also a Pro Bowl-quality player and the veteran offensive line was solid. The defense was anchored by aging but able DE Charles Haley and was particularly strong in the backfield, where flashy CB Deion Sanders was a dominant defender and had good company in SS Darren Woodson. Dallas won the NFC East for the fourth straight year with a conference-best 12-4 record and defeated the Eagles and Packers thus far in the postseason to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in four years.

Under Head Coach Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh had been in the playoffs for each of the past three seasons and barely missed going to the Super Bowl the previous year. QB Neil O’Donnell was a good fit in running a conservative offense, but it was the solid defense which ranked third overall in the NFL that made the Steelers a contender. Outside linebackers Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd were both selected to the Pro Bowl, and big Levon Kirkland was a solid inside linebacker. Injuries to star cornerbacks Rod Woodson and Deon Figures could have been shattering blows, but replacements Carnell Lake, moved from strong safety, and Willie Williams rose to the occasion. After getting off to a 3-4 start, the Steelers won eight straight games and topped the AFC Central with an 11-5 record. They defeated the Bills in the Divisional round and held off the Colts to win the AFC title.

There was a crowd of 76,347 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, supplemented by the usual mammoth television audience. The Cowboys had the first possession and drove 47 yards in six plays. Troy Aikman threw to Michael Irvin for 20 yards and Emmitt Smith followed up with a 23-yard carry to the Pittsburgh 28. They picked up four more yards on the next three plays and Chris Boniol kicked a 42-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

The Steelers went three-and-out on their first series and punted. Dallas put together another scoring drive, this time advancing 75 yards in eight plays. Following two carries by Smith that picked up eight yards, a false start penalty backed the Cowboys up and forced a third-and-seven situation. Aikman connected with Irvin for 11 yards and then went long on a post pattern to Deion Sanders, inserted as a wide receiver, for a gain of 47 yards to the Pittsburgh 14. Three plays later, Aikman converted a third-and-nine play with a pass to Jay Novacek for ten yards and then went to the tight end again for a three-yard touchdown. Boniol’s extra point made it a 10-0 game.

The Steelers responded with a long series that stretched into the early second quarter. Neil O’Donnell completed a pass to WR Ernie Mills for 11 yards in a third-and-eight situation and QB Kordell Stewart, coming in for the short-yardage play, ran for two yards to convert a fourth-and-one near midfield. O’Donnell completed another third-and-eight play with an 11-yard completion to WR Andre Hastings, but the drive finally stalled at the Dallas 39 and the Steelers punted into the end zone.

The Cowboys came back with another long scoring drive of 13 plays and 62 yards. Aikman completed six passes, but an apparent completion to Irvin at the goal line from 24 yards out was nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty and, after Aikman threw to Novacek for 19 yards, Smith ran twice and was stopped for a three-yard loss on a third-and-one play. Dallas settled for a Boniol field goal from 35 yards, but now led by 13-0.

The teams traded punts before the Steelers, taking over with 3:52 remaining in the half, put together a 13-play, 54-yard scoring drive. It didn’t look promising when O’Donnell was sacked by Charles Haley for a loss of 10 yards to bring up a third-and-20 play, but O’Donnell threw to Hastings for 19 yards and Stewart gained three yards over tackle on fourth-and-one. A 12-yard run by RB Bam Morris put the Steelers at the Dallas 30 at the two-minute warning and, after Morris ran for three yards and TE Jonathan Hayes dropped a pass, O’Donnell connected with Mills for seven yards and a first down. DT Chad Hennings sacked O’Donnell, but he came back with completions to Hastings for six yards, Mills for 17 on third-and-13, and then six yards to WR Yancey Thigpen for a touchdown with the clock down to 13 seconds. Norm Johnson added the extra point and the score was 13-7 at the half.

The teams exchanged punts to start the third quarter before the Steelers drove to their 48, but a misdirected O’Donnell pass was intercepted by CB Larry Brown (pictured at top), who returned it 44 yards to the Pittsburgh 18. The Cowboys made the most of the turnover as Aikman passed to Irvin for 17 yards and, on the next play, Smith ran the last yard for a touchdown. Boniol added the extra point and Dallas had an extended lead of 20-7.

The Steelers again advanced toward midfield on their next series. O’Donnell completed three passes but, after reaching their 47, Morris was stopped for no gain on three straight carries, the last one while facing fourth-and-two. The Cowboys had a short series and punted and, with 33 seconds remaining in the period, Pittsburgh again had possession. The Steelers went 52 yards in 10 plays that started with O’Donnell passing to Mills for 12 yards, followed by two carries by Morris that picked up another 17. Mills fumbled after gaining 11 yards on a catch, but TE Mark Bruener recovered to keep the series going. Four straight short passes got the ball to the Dallas 19, but an incompletion was followed by a sack and the Steelers settled for a 46-yard Johnson field goal.

Down by 20-10, the Steelers went for an onside kick and it was successful when CB Deon Figures recovered at the Pittsburgh 48. O’Donnell went to the air for three straight completions to the Dallas 22, and after Morris (pictured above) picked up five yards on a run, two more passes got the Steelers to the five. Morris carried on the next three plays, the last for a one-yard TD and, with Johnson adding the extra point, Pittsburgh was back in the game at 20-17 and appeared to have the momentum.

The Cowboys had a short series that ended with a punt, and the Steelers again had the ball, starting off at their 32 with 4:15 left on the clock. But after an incomplete pass on first down, O’Donnell again threw for Hastings and his off-target pass was picked off by Brown for a second time, who returned it 33 yards to the Pittsburgh six. Smith ran for a four-yard TD two plays later, and for all intents sealed the win for Dallas.

O’Donnell passed the Steelers to the Dallas 40, but they got no farther as the next three tosses fell incomplete, the last on fourth down. The Cowboys were winners by a final score of 27-17.

It was the 12th straight loss by an AFC team in the Super Bowl. However, the Steelers made a game of it, leading in total yards (310 to 254) and first downs (25 to 15). Pittsburgh’s defense did especially well against the run, holding the Cowboys to 56 yards on 25 running plays, but Dallas recorded four sacks, to two by the Steelers. However, the Steelers gave up three turnovers, two of which directly led to touchdowns, while the Cowboys didn’t turn the ball over at all.

Troy Aikman completed 15 of 23 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Michael Irvin had five catches for 76 yards and Jay Novacek (pictured at left) also caught five, for 50 yards and a TD. Emmitt Smith was limited to 49 yards on 18 carries, but had the two short touchdowns. Larry Brown was the game’s MVP thanks to his two big interceptions, although in addition to that he had seven tackles, five of them solo.

For the Steelers, Neil O’Donnell was successful on 28 of 49 throws for 239 yards and a TD, but gave up three interceptions, two of which were critical. Andre Hastings had 10 receptions for 98 yards and Ernie Mills accumulated 78 yards on his 8 catches before leaving the game with a sprained knee. Bam Morris was the leading rusher with 73 yards on 19 attempts that included a score.

“I knew I was going to be the key today,” said Larry Brown. “I knew they would stay away from Deion (Sanders).”

“I’d like to commend Pittsburgh for the way they played,” commented Barry Switzer. “They dominated the second half.”

Several of the key players on both sides were wearing different uniforms in 1996, including Neil O’Donnell, who signed a big contract to play for the Jets, and Larry Brown, who moved on to Oakland. The Cowboys once again finished first in the NFC East but fell to the upstart Carolina Panthers in the Divisional playoff round. Pittsburgh, despite a tumultuous offseason, came back to top the AFC Central and thrashed the Colts in the Wild Card round before losing to New England.