With their catastrophic 34-3 loss to the Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys might have shown just how far they are from competing for a championship: not that far at all, actually.
While the debacle highlighted many of the Cowboys' shortcomings, the way the 2009 season went for this team might bring to mind another 11-5 Dallas team to some fans: the 1991 version.
It goes beyond the regular-season record. This season's Cowboys had an up-and-down year parallel to the 1991 campaign, and many of the principal characters in key positions on the two teams were at similar stages of their careers. Let's take a look at a few of the similarities, some of which are quite striking.
Not only was the 1991 squad the last Cowboys team to go 11-5 before this year, but it also followed a similar roller-coaster pattern of wins and losses.
Beyond that, both teams had a similar turning point late in the regular season. The 1991 team was 6-5 and hanging onto its postseason hopes after two straight losses going into a Week 13 game at the 11-0 Redskins. Despite being double-digit underdogs and losing quarterback Troy Aikman to injury early in the second half, the Cowboys pulled off a 24-21 upset that set the stage for Dallas' five-game win streak to end the regular season.
This year's team had lost two straight and was facing yet another December of discontent entering a Week 15 showdown at the Superdome against the 13-0 Saints. You know the rest: The Cowboys jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead on the way to a 24-17 victory, shaking off their December demons while beginning a three-game win streak heading into the postseason. It was the franchise's longest win streak to end the regular season in 16 years.
Going in reverse this time, the 2009 team snapped a six-game playoff losing streak (tied for the longest postseason losing streak in NFL history) with a resounding 34-14 defeat of the Eagles in the wild-card round. The Cowboys' defense harassed Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb into multiple turnovers to help get the franchise's first playoff win since 1996.
In 1991, the Cowboys snapped a similar postseason drought with a 17-13 victory over the Bears in a wild-card game. Dallas' defense forced Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh to commit multiple turnovers on the way to the franchise's first playoff win since the 1982 playoffs (at the time, this was the longest span without a playoff win in franchise history).
In both cases, the success did not extend to the next round. Riding high into the Metrodome, this year's Cowboys got crushed by the 12-4 Vikings to the tune of 34-3, the second-largest playoff loss in franchise history. Although they limited one of the league's best running backs, Adrian Peterson, to just 63 yards on 26 carries, the Cowboys were burned by 231 yards and four touchdowns through the air from Brett Favre. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw one interception and lost two fumbles.
Rolling into the Silverdome in the 1991 divisional round, the Cowboys were manhandled by 12-4 Detroit, losing by 38-6 in what remains the largest postseason loss in franchise history. Despite limiting one of the league's best running backs, Barry Sanders, to 69 yards, Dallas was burned by 341 yards and three touchdowns through the air from Erik Kramer. Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman threw one interception and lost two fumbles.
Head coach earns respect
This one may seem like a stretch: fiery, impossible-to-please disciplinarian Jimmy Johnson versus laid-back, optimistic "players' coach" Wade Phillips. But look at the facts. Johnson earned his first NFL playoff win in his third season with the Cowboys in 1991. Phillips earned his first NFL playoff win in his third season with the Cowboys.
Yes, Phillips is much older than Johnson was back in 1991. And yes, Phillips had previous NFL head coaching experience, while Dallas was Johnson's first NFL job. But each reached a critical stage in his Cowboys coaching career during his third season with the team.
We went into Soldier Field and beat the Bears. This is only the beginning.
”-- Jimmy Johnson, after the Cowboys ended a nine-year playoff drought with a wild-card win in 1991
Johnson helped the Cowboys snap a streak of five losing seasons in 1991, allowing him to step out of the shadow of his predecessor, the legendary Tom Landry. Phillips led the Cowboys to their first playoff win since 1996, which earned him some respect and a new contract that runs through 2011.
While he may have had a better team during his first season in 2007, many believed Phillips' success then was due to his predecessor, Bill Parcells, leaving the cupboard full when he did not return following the 2006 season. As many of the Cowboys' comments have indicated in recent days, Phillips definitely established his role as a leader with this year's team -- especially the defense, which he called the plays for.
After that loss to the Lions in 1991, Johnson made the following comments in his postgame speech to his players: "We went into Soldier Field and beat the Bears. This is only the beginning. It is another step on the road that leads inexorably to the Super Bowl and greatness as a football team."
Following this year's defeat in Minnesota, Phillips offered up a similar analysis of his team: "I do think we did a lot of great things and I thought winning the division was important and winning the playoff game at home was important. We need to get back to that point again next year."
While their respective styles and manners of speaking may be different, Johnson and Phillips were both saying the same thing: The current year's success should be looked at as a step toward a much bigger goal in the near future.
Young running back on the rise
In 1991, second-year running back Emmitt Smith ran for a league-high 1,565 yards and 12 touchdowns on the way to his second Pro Bowl selection. This year, second-year running back Felix Jones ran for 685 yards (an NFL-best 5.9 yards per rush) and three touchdowns.
Okay, so the regular-season totals don't compare at all. But look at the postseason numbers:
Clearly, Smith was a much more established runner by the end of his second season than Jones is right now. And Smith's role as a grind-it-out, every-down back stands in stark contrast to Jones' position as a "home run hitter" who generally shares touches with Marion Barber.
But as his late-season performance indicates, Jones is ready for an increased role in the Cowboys' offense if he can stay healthy. While it's tough to say anybody is on a career path similar to the NFL's all-time rushing leader, the fact is that Jones' performance in his second season shows he can be a major asset for the Cowboys at running back, as Smith was in the '90s.
No. 1 receiver with a breakout season
Heading into the 1991 season, the Cowboys were thinking about trading Michael Irvin, who had largely been a disappointment in his first three seasons after Dallas selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 1988 draft. However, getting more opportunities in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's passing game, Irvin broke out with a league-high 1,523 receiving yards in 1991. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl and even made first-team All-Pro.
Going into his fourth season with the Cowboys in 2009, undrafted WR Miles Austin was known mostly for his special-teams work, only occasionally lining up at wideout in his first three seasons. After making 10 catches for 250 yards and two scores in his first NFL start in Week 5, Austin earned himself a permanent starting role and didn't disappoint, finishing in the top five in the league in receiving yards and touchdowns despite not even starting the first four games. Like Irvin, Austin was selected to the Pro Bowl after a breakout year in his fourth season.
And the similarities don't end there. While Irvin is generally remembered as more of a "possession receiver" and Austin is considered more of a deep threat/run-after-catch player, their profile and statistics from their fourth seasons are quite comparable. Notice that while they had different styles, both Irvin and Austin averaged just over 16 yards per reception in these seasons.
Pro Bowl tight end playing a major role
The 1991 team featured seventh-year veteran Jay Novacek at tight end. Novacek developed as a safety net for the Cowboys' quarterbacks, catching 59 passes for 664 yards and four touchdowns, all second on the team behind Irvin that season. Novacek finished third among NFL tight ends in receptions and receiving yards in 1991, earning himself his first career Pro Bowl selection.
Playing a similar role this season was seventh-year veteran Jason Witten, who continued to be a major target for Tony Romo in the passing game. Witten caught a career-high 94 passes for 1,030 yards and two touchdowns.
Witten's totals may seem to dwarf Novacek's from 1991, but keep in mind that the NFL is now a more pass-heavy league. Both tight ends averaged similar yards per reception (11.3 for Novacek, 11.0 for Witten), and both served as reliable threats over the middle while developing a good rapport with their quarterbacks. Like Novacek in 1991, Witten finished in the top three among NFL tight ends in receptions and receiving yards in 2009, earning a Pro Bowl selection.
Quarterback and defense? No comparison
While these similarities are in some ways pretty staggering, there are obviously some glaring differences between the two seasons. You can start at quarterback, where 29-year-old Tony Romo has cemented himself as the starter for the past 3½ seasons and who, given his age and experience, is probably in his prime right now.
The 1991 Cowboys had a quarterback controversy between 25-year-old Troy Aikman and backup Steve Beuerlein, who led the team to five straight wins, including the playoff victory over the Bears. Aikman would establish himself as the full-time starter beginning in 1992, and his career as a top-flight NFL quarterback would take off from there. Simply put, while 2009 Romo is probably better than 1991 Aikman, it's difficult to imagine that Romo will experience the kind of growth going forward that Aikman did in 1992 and beyond.
The defense is another major difference between the two teams. The 1991 Cowboys ranked 17th in the NFL in points allowed (19.4 PPG) and sacked the opposing quarterback just 23 times (third-fewest in the league). That team had zero Pro Bowlers on defense.
The 2009 defense ranked second at 15.6 PPG allowed and had 42 sacks (seventh-most in the NFL). This year's defense will have at least three Pro Bowl selections in DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Terence Newman.
So while the comparison is not exactly perfect, the similarities provide some hope for fans who are discouraged after the Cowboys' loss to the Vikings. The 1991 group remained mostly intact into 1992, when the Cowboys came right out of the gate as a dominant team, starting the season 8-1. This included a trip to Detroit -- the site of their humiliating playoff loss the previous season -- in Week 10, when the Cowboys got their revenge with a 37-3 victory.
The 1992 Cowboys would go on to finish 13-3, with Aikman, Irvin, Smith and Novacek all being selected to the Pro Bowl. And most important, Dallas went on to win the first of back-to-back Super Bowls with a 52-17 shellacking of the Bills, completing the journey to greatness that Jimmy Johnson envisioned after the 1991 season.
Most of the players from the team that went 11-5 this season and won a playoff game is likely to return next season. A chance for redemption also presents itself, with a trip to Minnesota on the 2010 schedule. Taking all this into consideration, next season's outlook seems bright for the Cowboys. If 2009 was like 1991, will 2010 be 1992 all over again?