FRISCO, Texas -- The Georgia Dome is gone, replaced by a parking lot and grass fields next to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the New England Patriots will play the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday.
Twenty-five years ago, the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVIII inside the Georgia Dome, beating the Buffalo Bills 30-13. Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper famously stood back-to-back in the final moments of the game, as the Cowboys made their first claim to being the team of the 1990s.
That night, everything seemed possible for the Cowboys. Two straight Super Bowls and maybe a record third. They had a young, talented team with eventual Hall of Famers. They had a coach with a domineering personality and guts to match his guile.
Since that night, however, the Cowboys have won just one more Super Bowl.
Jimmy Johnson never coached the Cowboys again after beating the Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII. Like a slow drip, the talent was siphoned away in part by the salary cap and in part by mismanagement. They went from a team with outsized personalities all fighting for one common goal to a team that had more drama, real and contrived, than it could handle.
But on Jan. 30, 1994, inside the Georgia Dome, it was the Cowboys’ world.
“The swagger about our football team, it was like there was no doubt we were going to the Super Bowl,” Ring of Honor safety Darren Woodson said. “We had confidence. We played with swagger. Jimmy did a great job neutralizing the personalities, making sure we worked, got things done.
“I was young, only 23 or 24, but we were gym rats, man. We didn’t leave. We use to have pingpong tournaments until 7, 8 at night in between watching film. That’s the culture that it was. That was the culture Jimmy bred. Valley Ranch was home. All of us guys, we did things together. We were a family. We hung out. We talked s--- to each other. Anything went.
“Of all my years, the ’93 team, that was the best team that we would have. We were a true family.”
Perhaps Woodson feels that way because of the depths the Cowboys came from to hoist that Lombardi Trophy. They lost their first two games of the season, including a Week 2 game against the Bills at Texas Stadium.
Emmitt Smith sat out the first two games of the season in a contract dispute.
“Not having Emmitt was creating a lot of angst in the locker room, especially with management, with Jerry and myself,” executive vice president Stephen Jones remembered.
Defensive end Charles Haley did more than voice his displeasure. He threw his helmet into the wall in the direction of Jerry Jones after the Buffalo loss.
“You need to sign that m-----f-----,” Haley yelled.
“Man, that helmet hit the wall so loud, everything stopped,” Woodson said. “And that was it. He got signed a couple of days later.”
Smith signed a four-year, $13.6 million deal that made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. The Cowboys won seven straight after Smith’s return. He ended up leading the league in rushing with 1,486 yards on 283 carries.
“It was extremely hard to watch, because as a player we’re always looking for a rhyme or reason why," Smith said. "Have I done everything that I possibly could do to be there with the team and earn the right to be on that team?
"And so, when you answer the questions and you check off the boxes and say, 'Yes I did,' then you ask yourself, 'Why am I sitting here? Why am I sitting here? What did I do to deserve to be sitting here? I earned the right to do these things.' I was upset because I needed to be out there with my teammates. So in order for me to be out there with my teammates, I needed to be signed so I could go do what I’ve been trained to do.”
In November, the Cowboys lost back-to-back games again, including inside the Georgia Dome to the Falcons. Four days later they lost to the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving when Leon Lett inexplicably tried to handle a blocked field goal try that gave Pete Stoyanovich another chance for a game-winning kick on an icy Texas Stadium turf.
Lett, now an assistant defensive line coach for the Cowboys, admitted that he thought he would be cut.
“But Jimmy, Mr. Jones, the rest of the coaching staff, they were quick to tell me, ‘Hey, you’re here. You’re our guy. We’re not going to cut you over this play,’” Lett said. “It was a mistake. One mistake, and it did determine the outcome of the game, but there were a lot of mistakes that led to the loss.”
The Cowboys did not lose another game the rest of the way, but those defeats to Atlanta and Miami meant they needed to win their final game against the Giants to clinch home-field advantage. And it led to perhaps the signature moment in Smith’s career, which spanned 15 seasons and an NFL-record 18,355 yards.
Playing with a separated shoulder, Smith carried 32 times for 168 yards and caught 10 passes for 61 yards and a touchdown in a 16-13 overtime win. He winced every time he went to the ground.
“The longevity of Emmitt’s career defined Emmitt,” Stephen Jones said. “Most backs can’t play for that period of time. That’s why I think it’s going to be so difficult for any back to break Emmitt’s record, because he had such durability. He had bumps and things that, and that game he had probably one of the bigger injuries he had. But he had a great way of missing big hits. He just knew right when to turn his body or make himself skinny. You just don’t ever remember Emmitt really getting waylaid in terms of big collisions.”
On the Thursday night before the game, Johnson called in unannounced to WBAP host Randy Galloway, who was also a Dallas Morning News columnist at the time.
"We will win the ballgame,” Johnson told Galloway. “You can put it in 3-inch headlines!”
"Of all my years, the '93 team, that was the best team that we would have. We were a true family."Darren Woodson
It wasn’t in 3-inch headlines, but it did make the front page of the paper and it was noticed by San Francisco coach George Seifert.
“Well, the man’s got balls, I’ll tell you that,” Seifert said the next day. “I don't know if they’re brass or papier-maché. We’ll find out here pretty soon.”
The reaction inside the Cowboys locker room?
“Bold statement,” Smith said.
“A coach like Jimmy Johnson knows his team, and he also knows how to deflect and put things out there that will make others ponder on it,” Smith added. “It ain’t had nothing to do with him and us. It had something to do with everybody else, because now you had to go into the opposing locker room and put it in their heads and have them start thinking about it. Reverse psychology, and it worked, and it used you guys [media] as the conduit to make it happen. That’s how things worked sometimes, and the way he handled that situation, I guess he said I could take a lot of the pressure off my team that way, because the expectations are high.”
The Cowboys whipped the Niners 38-21, setting up a rematch against the Bills inside the Georgia Dome. Unlike 1992, there weren’t two weeks between the conference title game and Super Bowl.
“That second Super Bowl, that was the funnest,” six-time Pro Bowl guard Nate Newton said. “Because Atlanta, baby. You got to be careful where you go in that city. If you’re unfocused, you can lose your way there. But that was big fun there, man.”
At halftime, though, the Cowboys were losing 13-6. But there was no panic.
On the opening possession of the second half, safety James Washington returned a fumble forced by Lett 46 yards for a tying touchdown. When the Cowboys offense got the ball, they fed Smith. He carried the ball on seven of the eight plays on the drive, picking up 64 yards, and finished the drive with a 15-yard touchdown to give the Cowboys the lead for good.
“They shut down our lead draw and our off-tackle stuff [in the first half],” Newton said. “We came in and everybody’s shocked. Jimmy’s like, ‘Nah, get your heads up, it’s time to play ball.’ All we did was change one play. We went to a play called ‘power,’ where the guard pulled around just by the other guard, and we just did our thing. Emmitt cut it up in there. That play changed it.”
The Cowboys had the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl win, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers and 49ers for the most of any team. They had everything ahead of them. They had the Hall of Fame triplets in Smith, Irvin and Troy Aikman, entering the prime of their careers. They had a Hall of Fame pass-rusher in Haley. They had a terrific offensive line and an underrated defense. They had Johnson and an owner in Jones willing to do whatever to keep the winning going.
“I don’t know how many times Michael Irvin said, ‘Three-peat,’” Woodson said. “We kept hearing that the whole way back on the bus back to the hotel, on the airplane. ‘Man, we can make history. Let’s make history.’ Just didn’t know what was going to happen moving forward with Jimmy.”
Six weeks after the Super Bowl at the owners meetings in Orlando, Jones said, “500 coaches could win a Super Bowl here.” On March 29, 1994, the divorce between Jones and Johnson was finalized. Behind the scenes in the run to consecutive Super Bowls, Jones and Johnson had conflicts. Plus, Johnson never stayed more than five years in one spot.
Woodson was home in Phoenix when he got word Johnson was out.
“We didn’t have social media or any of that stuff. My brother called me up on the phone. It was a landline. He said, ‘Hey, you need to turn on the news,’” Woodson said. “That’s when I saw it. Of course you couldn’t talk to anybody. There was no cellphones, no texting. I sat down and said, ‘What the f--- just happened?’”
ESPN NFL Nation reporter Michael DiRocco contributed to this story.