Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
16 Sep 2005
by Mike Tanier
Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin became The Triplets on January 10th, 1992. They beat the Eagles 34-10 in the divisional round of the playoffs that day, en route to their first Super Bowl victory.
Some may quibble with that birth date, saying that The Triplets were born a week later when they beat the 49ers to win the NFC, or a few weeks later, when they steamrolled the hapless Bills to win the Super Bowl. But heroes must slay dragons to become legends. The Eagles breathed fire in those days, and three young Dallas warriors subdued them with sword and lance to become legends that January day.
Legends in Texas, to be sure, and in most of America. In Philadelphia, they became arch villains. We rooted for the dragon. So while most of a nation respected and admired The Triplets, we grew to despise and revile them.
And while most football fans will tip their caps at The Triplets as the enter the Cowboys Ring of Honor, a few rival fans, still tasting sour grapes from a decade ago, may be tempted to say "good riddance".
The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry is one of the greatest in American sports. By contrast, the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry has usually been a one-sided hate fest, born from decades of gridiron failure along the Delaware River. Philadelphia-area Cowboys fans are reviled as the ultimate traitors, prodigal sons wooed by the glamour, the flash, and the possibility of an actual championship that the Cowboys offered in the 1960s, 70's, and 80s. By contrast, Texans view Eagles fans as just another bunch of also-rans with a chip on their shoulders.
Times were different in 1988, when the first Triplet, Michael Irvin, entered the NFL. The Cowboys had fallen on hard times, and Eagles coach Buddy Ryan made it team policy to kick dirt on them whenever he could, running up the score at the end of one game by having Randall Cunningham fake a clock-killing kneel, only to uncork a bomb. Ryan's antics earned him adoration in the beer-soaked 700 level of Veterans Stadium. Every 23-7 and 27-0 victory was a reminder that while the Eagles couldn't get over the playoff hump, at least the Cowboys were lying facedown in the mud. And Cowboys fans, unaccustomed to losing, began to return a little of the hate.
Irvin couldn't harm us back in 1988, certainly not with Steve Pelluer throwing him the ball. Aikman arrived a year later. He made his debut against the Eagles in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day in 1989. He completed 7-of-21 passes for 54 yards and three interceptions. The Eagles cruised to a 27-0 win.
We soon learned that there was a price on Aikman's head. "We were told last night by a Philadelphia coach," said Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson after the game, "and it's confirmed by two different players - there's a $200 bounty on (kicker Luis) Zendejas and a $500 bounty on Troy." Players allegedly collected bonuses for knocking Cowboys out of the game; Ryan called the allegations "crap". The Bounty Bowl saga lasted through the Eagles 20-10 win over Dallas a few weeks later, in which Aikman threw his first touchdown against the Eagles. The league investigated. The media was outraged. Eagles fans, for the most part, snickered along with their defiant coach.
Irvin and Aikman were still merely a duet; neither even had their starting jobs locked up in 1989, and Irvin was hurt much of the year. Smith arrived in 1990, scoring a late touchdown to spur a near comeback by the Cowboys in a 21-20 Eagles win.
We feared this new arrival from the start. "Describing his running style is as futile as tackling him," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer scribe Jere Longman in 1990. Longman took a darn good stab at it anyway: "Smith is not big (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) or particularly fast (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash). But he is maddening to tackle. He darts, feints, shifts back and forth like a typewriter carriage. He stops in the hole -- comes to a complete stop -- looks unhurriedly for a seam and skates across the field like a hot dog wrapper."
Now part of a trio of offensive stars in Dallas, Smith was destined to get bigger. And loom larger.
The Cowboys returned to playoffs in 1991. Irvin finally shook off injuries and became an outstanding receiver. He scored his first touchdown against the Eagles in a late December win at Veterans Stadium, the Cowboys' first win in Philly since 1986. Steve Beuerlein, subbing for Aikman, threw the pass. Times were changing. Buddy Ryan was gone. The Eagles missed the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Cowboys reached the playoffs, only to be hammered by the Lions. Our most hated rivals were once again worthy foes, thanks in part to their trio of young offensive stars. But they weren't The Triplets yet: legends don't lose to the Lions in the playoffs.
Then 1992 arrived. The Cowboys went 13-3, running away with the division. The Eagles were a Wild Card team. The Cowboys' worst lost of that season was in Philadelphia, a 34-7 rout. The Eagles beat the Saints in the Wild Card game, their first playoff win since the Dick Vermeil era. Despite a two-game difference in the standings, there was reason to believe that two equals were squaring off at on that January day in Texas Stadium.
Until the game started.
The Eagles took a 3-0 lead on their first possession, but Aikman orchestrated a 10-play, 46-yard scoring drive, helped along by a 16-yard run by Smith. Later in the first half, Aikman completed a bomb to WR Alvin Harper, then a scoring strike to Jay Novacek. On the first possession of the third quarter, Irvin got involved, turning a slant into a 22-yard catch to put the Cowboys in Eagles territory.
Then Smith took over. His 23-yard touchdown run four plays after Irvin's catch gave the Cowboys a 24-3 lead. And Smith personally secured that lead. The Eagles did everything to stop him -- safety Andre Waters was accused of threatening to break Smith's leg -- but nothing worked, as Smith racked up 74 rushing yards after halftime.
As the Eagles headed for the tunnel, a Cowboys fan dangled a dead rubber chicken dressed in green over their heads. Fans shouted "F*** Philadelphia!" as the Eagles left the field. The Eagles had been systematically dismantled. Aikman finished with 200 yards and two TDs. Smith ran for 114 yards and a touchdown. Irvin caught six passes for 88 yards.
Three great players, now battle-hardened, now capable of settling old scores. They purged memories of Buddy Ryan. Then they finished some business with the 49ers, who climbed over the Cowboys' backs and into prominence in the early 1980s. Then they racked up 52 points in the Super Bowl.
They deserved a better nickname. But The Triplets would do, especially when Eagles (and Redskins, and Niners) fans added a few choice expletives to the appellation.
Irvin was an easy target, with his legal problems and outsized appetites for drugs and women. He was everything Philadelphia fans hate: Apollo Creed, without the class. We swore he pushed off every time he got open, except for the times when Novacek set a pick for his defender on a crossing route.
We questioned Aikman's manhood, and his sexuality. It was a common joke in Philly, repeated often on talk radio, shouted from the 700-level. As he beat us time and again, grinding the Eagles into the dirt like he was snuffing out a cigarette on his way to another Lombardi trophy, it was all we had left to taunt him with. It was juvenile, the humor of last resort as Rick Kotite's Eagles slipped into the basement.
And Smith? He scared the hell out of us, always earning something close to grudging respect. He was the one doing all the dirty work, we reasoned. In 1993, he set a Cowboys record with 237 rushing yards in one game against the Eagles. The old mark was set by Tony Dorsett. Against the Eagles.
As the Super Bowl victories piled up in Dallas, memories of bounties and Buddy boasts and fake-kneels faded. The Eagles were just a speed bump, swept by the Cowboys in 1993 and 1994. In Philly, Ryan's Cowboy-stompin' heyday became legendary, tales of a time before ogres named Troy, Michael, and Emmitt ruled the NFL.
The Eagles and their fans clamored for respect. The Eagles were 10-point underdogs at home against Dallas in 1993; the Philadelphia Daily News ran an article in which several players grumbled about the spread. The Eagles didn't cover. In 1994, Cowboys LB Robert Jones was asked about the Eagles rushing attack of Herschel Walker and Charlie Garner. "They put no fear in our hearts," he quipped.
Cowboys pride became hubris on December 10th, 1995. Many of the names had changed -- Barry Switzer coached the Cowboys, Ray Rhodes the Eagles -- but The Triplets were still there, two championships in the bag and a third in their sights. So with the score tied at 17, with the ball on the Cowboys 29-yard line, and facing 4th-and-1 late in the game, it may have made some sense for Switzer to call Smith's number on a simple off-tackle run.
But when Smith was stuffed, yet officials declared that the play had been whistled dead and that the Cowboys would get another chance, it made a lot less sense to call the exact same play. Smith was stuffed again. The Eagles kicked a field goal and won the game.
We had stopped the Cowboys. We had stopped Smith, most dangerous of the Triplets. The Eagles were returning to the playoffs. Fans believed again, believed in the tough-talking Rhodes, in offensive wunderkind Jon Gruden, in our ability to beat the Cowboys now that they were older, fattened by success, and coached by a dolt.
After a lopsided victory over the Lions in a Wild Card game, the Eagles traveled to play the Cowboys in January of 1996. A winter storm dumped over a foot of snow on Philadelphia that weekend. Fans stayed in their homes, hoping for playoff redemption.
Instead, we got a reality check: Cowboys 30, Eagles 11.
Smith rushed for 99 yards and one of the touchdowns. Aikman threw another to Irvin, their only hookup of the game. The first touchdown of the game was scored by a new foe: Deion Sanders, who took a handoff on a reverse, escaped three tacklers, and raced 21-yards into the end zone. "I finally got to see the dance," Irvin said of Sanders' first score as a Cowboy.
Eagles fans saw the dance too. Had The Triplets become the Four Horsemen? It was irrelevant. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the game "just another Texas Stadium mismatch." Eagles fans rooted for the Steelers as hopelessly as we had rooted for the Bills against the Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
Three players, three rings. One city of fans shaking their fists at the mountain.
The Triplets remained great after that third Super Bowl win, but they ceased to be immortal. Eagles fans learned they were human in 1996, when Aikman threw an interception in the end zone to conclude what appeared to be a come-from-behind Cowboys drive. The Eagles became terrible, but the Cowboys were suddenly just good, and they could no longer wither us with their gaze. CB Bobby Taylor learned how to contain Irvin. Aikman was starting to take sacks. The talent around them was slipping. Only Smith kept plowing.
Then, on October 10th, 1999, at 1:16 PM, in Veterans Stadium, The Triplets ceased to be. Irvin's head got caught between Eagles safety Tim Hauck's knee and the granite slab that Philadelphians jokingly called a playing surface. He lay on the field, motionless.
Eagles fans -- some of them, a vocal minority of them -- cheered.
Jay Mariotti re-christened Philly as "The City of Brotherly Loathe." Most Eagles fans were appalled by what became a notorious incident. The local talk radio station was flooded with apologists the next day. Some said they cheered until they realized how hurt Irvin was. Some said they were mortified and would never return to a game.
But one fan, quickly cut off by the radio hosts (but quoted in the Inquirer by future radio personality Anthony Gargano), offered no apology. "The only thing that would have made me happier is if it would have been a coffin, not a stretcher, coming out."
It was the ugliest incident ever in a city notorious for ugly fan incidents. It was reprehensible. But it demonstrated how deeply feelings ran. For some fans, The Triplets and the Cowboys weren't sports rivals. They really were archenemies, bringers of misery and frustration and disappointment, emotions so strong that some Eagles fans -- more than just a few -- forgot their basic humanity and started acting like a bloodthirsty mob.
Irvin would never play again. Aikman would retire a year later. Smith -- who would rush for 2,466 yards against the Eagles in his career -- soldiered on and on, one of the few reminders of Super Bowl glory as the Cowboys strung together 5-11 seasons under forgettable coaches. In his last game against the Eagles, he carried the ball eight times for 30 yards in a 27-3 loss. It was sad: Triplet turned Lone Ranger on a team with no more use for legends.
They are up on the wall now in Texas Stadium, where they cannot hurt the Eagles anymore. Or perhaps they will smile down on Julius Jones and Roy Williams the way Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett and Don Meredith smiled on them, invigorating the next generation of Cowboys to terrorize the NFL in general and the Eagles in particular.
Can green-bleeding Eagles fans like me finally look past the bitterness? Can we cheer Irvin's brilliance in penance for once cheering his adversity? Can we praise Aikman as thoroughly as we once belittled him? Can we finally accept these players for who they are: Hall of Famers, All Time Greats, True Champions?
Honorable foes, worthy of respect and admiration?
If we cannot, then Eagles fans deserve everything that's said about us, every cheap "snowballs at Santa Claus" crack that national writers and announcers throw at us. We went through too much with The Triplets. We witnessed their birth and their fall. Maybe they are Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and The Joker to some, but without great villains, our heroes wouldn't be very interesting.
Congratulations, gentlemen. It was a pleasure to root against you.
106 comments, Last at 23 Sep 2005, 2:42pm by Carl