Friday, January 28, 2011

January 28, 1996: The best team money can buy

TEMPE, Ariz. - The NFL's salary cap for the 1995 season was $37.2 million per team. Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys made a combined $62 million that year. Using a combination of signing bonuses and delayed payments to get around the league's hard salary cap, Jones made his Cowboys the best team money could buy.

He needed that money to keep that team together. Keeping offensive stars like Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin together long-term was expensive, not to mention one of the best defenses in the game. Plus, after the Cowboys had lost the previous year's NFC Championship Game to San Francisco, Jones went out and signed San Francisco's best defender, Deion Sanders, to shore up his defense.

The addition of Sanders was the spark the Cowboys needed to get back to their third Super Bowl in four years for the 1995 season, and in that game, Sanders had the impact Jones was looking for. He caught one pass for 47 yards and returned one punt for 11 yards - numbers that don't look too impressive. But Sanders' mere presence on one side of the defensive secondary forced the Steelers to ignore that side of the field completely in their passing game. This led to more throws being forced to the other side, where cornerback Larry Brown was waiting.

Despite all the star power on the Cowboys sideline, the Steelers stayed in the game. Bam Morris outrushed the future hall of famer Smith for the game. And while Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell is remembered for having a particularly bad game - throwing three interceptions - two of his interceptions came in the fourth as the Steelers were desperately trying to come back, and he actually threw for more yards than Aikman in the Super Bowl.

The Steelers entered the fourth quarter trailing 20-7, but, with the help of a successful surprise onside kick, cut that deficit to 20-17 with 6:36 left. After the Steelers forced a Cowboys punt, they got the ball back with 4:01 left with a chance to drive for the lead. But Brown intercepted O'Donnell on the second play of the drive - Brown's second pick of the game - and returned the ball to the 6-yard line. From there, Smith clinched the Cowboys' third title in four years with his second touchdown run of the game.

Brown was named MVP of the Super Bowl, the first cornerback so honored, then signed a big free-agent contract with the Raiders and had only one interception the rest of his career. The Cowboys had become the first team to win three Super Bowls in four seasons and had become the first NFL franchise to reach five Super Bowl wins, but that was the peak of their dynasty. They only won one playoff game the next season, then didn't win another one until 2009.

Still, Jerry Jones' spending spree paid off in the victory in Super Bowl XXX, as the Cowboys won the game that cemented their legacy as the Team of the 90s.

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