Super Bowl XXVIII will go down in history as a blowout, because that's what a 30–13 score looks like when you read it in the record book five or 10 years later. But the score won't come close to telling the story. The Buffalo Bills, short-enders for the fourth straight year, had the Dallas Cowboys on the ropes on Sunday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, and they let them escape.
The Bills have now lost two Super Bowls that they should have won, the first and fourth in this series of consecutive defeats, and have lost the other two most convincingly. Sunday's defeat was the most disheartening because the Cowboys were a struggling team in the first half; Dallas was ready to be put away. The Cowboys' quarterback, Troy Aikman, seven days removed from a severe concussion, was having difficulties. Emmitt Smith's favorite running play, the lead draw, was getting stuffed. Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly was picking Dallas apart with his short, meticulous passes, and the Cowboy defense was on the field far too long—41 snaps in the first half—against the Bills' no-huddle offense, which literally takes your breath away.
Buffalo had the ball and the lead, 13–6, to open the third quarter, and the game had arrived at the point where usually someone either steps up to win it or someone does something to lose it. This time both happened.
James Washington, a 29-year-old reserve safety (sidebar, page 33), turned the game around with two terrific second-half plays, to go with another big one he had made in the first half. Buffalo's All-Pro running back, Thurman Thomas—and this is the sad part—was the guy who blew it with his second fumble of the game.
In the first half, with the scored tied at three Thomas had taken a shovel pass from Kelly and had dropped the ball when Washington hit him at midfield. The Cowboys had taken over and driven for Eddie Murray's second field goal, a 24-yarder, which had put Dallas ahead 6–3.
Thomas's second fumble, on the third play of the second half, sucked the life out of a team that had taken a lead and an unexpected feeling of confidence into the locker room at intermission. On first-and-10 at the Bill 43, Thomas took a handoff, slipped through the left side for three yards and was met by defensive tackle Leon Lett, who slapped the ball loose. Washington grabbed the fumble and took it 46 yards to the end zone to tie the score 13–13. Washington's third big play of the game, an interception at the beginning of the fourth quarter, set up the Cowboy touchdown that put the game away.
The story of this strange Super Bowl began a week earlier in a darkened room at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, where Aikman lay in an eerie, semiconscious twilight. He had been knocked unconscious by the right knee of 300-pound San Francisco 49er defensive end Dennis Brown in the third quarter of the Cowboys' 38–21 win that afternoon in the NFC title game. "It was scary," says Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, who spent most of that night at his client's side. "We sat there, he and I, alone in the dark, and his head was kind of in a cloud. He kept asking me the same questions over and over, and finally I wrote the answers out on a piece of paper."
By 4 a.m. Aikman was beginning to function. Seventeen hours later he was standing at a podium at a press conference in the Cowboys' hotel in Atlanta, answering questions about things he had trouble remembering. Yes, Aikman confirmed, in the hospital he had asked the same questions over and over. And, yes, on the sideline he had turned to injured center Mark Stepnoski, on crutches and in civvies, and asked him why he wasn't playing. No, Aikman said, he didn't have a headache. But, he admitted, he hadn't been sleeping too well. And true, he had offered some weird answers to routine questions in the hospital. "A real Abbott and Costello routine," he said, and everyone laughed. "I'll be fine," he said.
Fine? Not exactly. After Dallas's Wednesday practice, the first full workout following the 49er game, Aikman was troubled by headaches. "Bad headaches, really bad," Steinberg says. "He was having trouble sleeping, too."
In boxing, when a fighter takes a 10 count, he is not permitted to get back into the ring for as long as 90 days in some states. In football it's called "getting your bell rung," and a week later the guy is back in uniform—if the game is big enough. On Super Sunday there was Aikman, lining up under center for the first Cowboy snap, although he wasn't the same Aikman who had riddled the Green Bay Packers for 302 yards and three touchdowns in Dallas's first playoff victory, or who had completed 14 of 18 against the Niners before getting conked. In the Super Bowl he was just a tiny bit off on his reads and on his deliveries, especially the short stuff against a defense that was intent on shutting down his wideouts, Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper.
A four-yard dump-off to tight end Jay Novacek in the first quarter was low, and Novacek had to make a twisting effort to get to the ball. Two plays later his throw to Kevin Williams on a little crossing pattern underneath the zone was wide and incomplete. Aikman's completion percentage for the afternoon, 19 of 27, was good—hey, the guy could complete 70% in his sleep—but his timing was off, even on the completions.
"Off? What do you mean, off?" Novacek said afterward, bristling at the suggestion that Aikman had been struggling. "We won the damn game, didn't we? What kind of stupid question is that? Troy was Troy."
"They were just defensing us well," Dallas left guard Nate Newton said, "taking away the stuff we do best."
"My fault," the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, said. "We were trying to get the ball outside too much."
And so it went through the Dallas locker room. It was like The Manchurian Candidate: It was as though all the Cowboys had rehearsed the same script. Troy struggling? Hell, no, give the Bills some credit.
But other observers had different thoughts. "He wasn't right; you could tell there was something wrong with him," said Don Hasselbeck, the former New England Patriot tight end who now markets shoes for Reebok.
"Hell, yes, he was struggling," said former Baltimore Colt halfback Torn Matte, who is now with NFL Properties. "The guy had a severe concussion a week ago, didn't he?"
"Frankly, I was nervous," Steinberg said.
Of course, the Cowboys did not have to rely on Aikman's arm alone. On Buffalo's first series after Washington's fumble return, defensive linemen Jimmie Jones and Charles Haley sacked Kelly for a 13-yard loss on third-and-eight at the Bills' 26. After Buffalo punted, Dallas commenced its only sustained drive of the game, 64 yards for a touchdown. The drive relied not on Aikman's arm but on the churning legs of Smith, running behind 1,000 pounds of blocking on the right side.
Smith carried the ball on seven of the drive's eight snaps and gained 61 yards, most of those on a play that bears the simple but descriptive label Power Right. There is nothing fancy about it: Right guard Kevin Gogan and right tackle Erik Williams blocked down while Newton pulled to his right. That trio, with a combined weight of half a ton, opened the holes, while fullback Darryl Johnston picked off any stragglers.
"They'd been laying back and sitting on our lead draw in the first half," Newton said. "So we made the linebackers move, made the line move, and we hit them with the power. Emmitt did the rest."
The seventh play of that Dallas drive, a three-yard screen pass to Johnston, produced one of the game's more interesting moments. All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith was bearing down on Aikman as he released the ball. Hearts stopped. Would this be the hit that turned out the lights? At the last moment Smith pulled up, wrapped up Aikman and took him down easy. Aikman landed on Smith's wrist and sprained it, taking Smith out for the rest of the series. What had come over Smith? A brief flash of compassion? Fear of a penalty? All Smith would say afterward was, "It didn't amount to anything."
After Emmitt Smith's 15-yard run on the Power Right capped the drive and put the Cowboys up 20-13, the Bills adjusted their defense, sending inside linebacker the Marvcus Patton to the outside, to the point, to stand in firm against the Dallas power, and moved the smaller Cornelius Bennett inside. The game settled into trench warfare. Defense took over.
Washington's interception, on the opening play of the final period, was the crusher for Buffalo. On third-and-six at the Bill 35, Kelly sent wideout Don Beebe on a crossing pattern. Cornerback Kevin Smith was covering, and Washington, breaking as soon as Kelly threw the ball, picked off the pass and returned it to the Buffalo 34. Two plays keyed Dallas's ensuing nine-play scoring drive: a checkoff pass to Smith, who faked Patton and then shook off inside linebacker Keith Goganious for a nine-yard gain, and a gutsy 16-yard pass by Aikman to Harper, with a blitzing safety, Henry Jones, in his face. Smith put the game away with a one-yard touchdown on the left side.
There was plenty of time remaining, but the Buffalo offense was finished. Bill Walsh once said that a strong pass rush late in the game is the key to winning in NFL, and Kelly, who was never sacked in the first half, was finally overrun by fresh troops sent in along the Dallas defensive front. The Bills' no-huddle offense was, indeed, taking its toll—on the Bills' offensive line. "They kept bringing in those fresh guys," Buffalo center Kent Hull said. "When you get in a situation where you have to throw on every down, it's a huge burden on the offensive line."
In the winners' locker room, Dallas tackle Erik Williams talked about the change in momentum and characterized the game as "like watching a guy on steroids. He has mood swings. One moment he's the happiest person in the world. The next, he's tearing things up."
Across the hall, Hull was asked to sum up the game, with those shifts of mood. "This game was a roller coaster," Hull replied. "We were high in the first half and then—boom!—the turnover. It took a big chunk out of our confidence. We had to change the momentum. When you have big-game players, you can do it, but they did it, and we couldn't get it back."
It was a grim place, the Buffalo locker room. "This one is the worst," wideout Andre Reed said. "We should have won. Then they come up with 24 unanswered points. That last fumble was once in a million. These things always happen to the Bills. It rips the heart out of you."
Several of the Buffalo players expressed bitterness about the Cowboys' trash-talking. "That's the way they are," right guard John Davis said. "They'll test a person's manhood until someone knocks them off the pedestal. They're a reflection of their coach. I'm not saying that's the reason we lost. We were beaten in the second half. But when you add a Jimmy Johnson and a Jerry Jones to all that, it makes it tougher to stomach."
A few of the Bills tried to find consolation. "In the immediate future we'll be thought of as losers," Hull said. "But one day down the road, when I'm no longer playing, they'll say, 'Wow, they won four straight AFC championships. They must have been good.' "
Buffalo general manager John Butler, roaming the locker room, warmly slapped Thomas on a bare shoulder and turned to a reporter, saying, "I love him dearly and I always will. Thurman Thomas got us to four Super Bowls."
Then someone uttered the dreaded G word. Goat. Butler glared. "Let me tell you something," he said. "If he's a goat, I'd like to have a whole herd of them."
Thomas, for his part, was offering no excuses. "No, Dallas didn't wear us down in the second half," he said. "I fumbled. I cost us the game."
Thomas may be Smith's equal as a runner, and his impact on his team may be just as profound. When Smith held out at the beginning of the season, Dallas went 0–2. With Thomas raging at himself on the sideline Sunday after his second fumble—throwing his helmet to the ground and retreating to a seat on the bench—the Bills appeared suddenly rudderless. Kelly, who is at least as hard on himself as Thomas is, responded to his interception with an angry punch to the air as he left the field. But Kelly never forgot his role as Buffalo's leader. Thomas seemed to lose his focus.
For the third straight year the Bills' franchise running back had vastly underachieved in a Super Bowl, which is odd because he can be such a gamer. Against the Patriots in November Thomas played with ribs so badly bruised that he crouched in pain on the sideline, and he ached from cramps. Still, he willed Buffalo to a 13–10 overtime win with a 30-carry, 111-yard day. But in the last three Super Bowls he has rushed 37 times for 69 yards—a 1.9-yard average—and he has a total of 158 yards rushing and receiving in those games, which is exactly what Smith did all by himself on Sunday.
Smith, on the strength of his 30 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns, was named the MVP. "I wish there was some way they could have given co-awards," he said, "so James Washington could have gotten something."
Before these Cowboys are done, most everyone could have some kind of award! "What's this?" said Newton, playfully holding up his hand for reporters in the Cowboy locker room. "A Super Bowl ring. And what's this? A Rolex watch the linemen got for blocking for Emmitt and helping him win the rushing title."
A lot of the postgame buzz in the Dallas locker room was, naturally, about a dynasty. Jones has maneuvered to keep his Cowboys' payroll some $7 million dollars under the new salary cap, which means that a good chunk of this team will stay together. Dynasty? Why not?
"Too early," Haley said. "You have to be in the playoffs for at least five years to be considered a dynasty." But this is a young team. Smith is only 24, Irvin and Aikman are 27.
As the last of the Cowboys trickled out of the locker room on their way to the postgame party, Newton paused for one final salvo at the journalists who had hounded the Dallas players all week. "Goodbye, media," shouted the voluble lineman. "All the others hate you. I love you. I embrace you. Bye, now."
You almost expected him to add, "See you again next year."