Smith is such a sound sleeper that even on the morning of game days, the Dallas Cowboy tailback does not stir before his wake-up call. On Sunday his call at the DFW Airport Marriott, where the Cowboys bunk before home games, was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. But Smith found himself wide awake and energized at 7:30, and this was his first thought: This is the day. This is the day I've been waiting for.
When his roommate, reserve running back David Lang, finally woke at around nine, Smith shared the good news. "David," Smith told him, "today is going to be a good day."
Many of the Cowboys had been waiting a long time for this day, waiting 364 days, to be exact—ever since the San Francisco 49ers beat them in last year's NFC Championship Game. For the Cowboys of the 1990s, the regular season is a mere preamble to January, the only month of the year that really matters to them. For this generation of Cowboys, any season that does not conclude with a Super Bowl appearance is a failure. "If we lose today," quarterback Troy Aikman said on Sunday, "our next 12 months are going to be total crap, until we get to this exact point again."
January 22, 1996
The Green Bay Packers desperately wanted to win this NFC title game. The Cowboys had to win. When Smith walked into the Cowboy locker room at Texas Stadium shortly after noon, "he had fire in his eyes," according to Dallas offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese. Seven hours later Smith would be celebrating yet another huge game in his six-year career, having rushed 35 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys advanced to their third Super Bowl in four years with a 38-27 victory. On Jan. 28, in Super Bowl XXX in Tempe, Ariz., Dallas will meet the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who earlier on Sunday defeated the Indianapolis Colts 20-16 (page 32).
The victory was sweet for the Cowboy players, who rejoiced with unaccustomed abandon. But it was positively sublime for Dallas owner Jerry Jones. Twenty-two months ago he was looking much like the village idiot after his messy split with coach Jimmy Johnson, who had taken the team to victory in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII, and his subsequent hiring of former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, who had been out of football for five years. Last week Johnson had briefly diverted attention from Sunday's games with the announcement that he would be coaching the Miami Dolphins for the next four seasons at $2 million a year (page 38). Yet on Sunday night, as Jones partied at the Stadium Club, he enjoyed a delicious feeling of revenge: Jerry and Barry in the Big One—and Jimmy nowhere in sight.
"This means as much to me as the first Super Bowl," Jones said, straining to be heard above the din of a hundred fellow partyers. "If we didn't go to the Super Bowl, Barry and I would be villains. But Barry was the man for the job, and we're in the Super Bowl."
And woe be to Pittsburgh if the Cowboys click in Tempe as they did against the Packers. The mainstays of the Dallas offense—Smith, quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin—each had a vintage day. Aikman completed 21 of 33 passes for 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Irvin, brawling his way clear of coverage all afternoon, finished with seven catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
That Dallas so thoroughly dominated a solid Packer team came as no small surprise. The Cowboys had put together this sort of performance only sporadically in a season that had featured a resounding defeat by the 49ers and late-season, back-to-back losses to the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. There seemed to be at least an even chance for a return to glory by the Packers.
Addressing his team the night before the game, Packer coach Mike Holmgren said, "The experts all said Dallas-San Francisco in the championship game. We proved them wrong. In July all the magazines had us fourth or fifth. The only people believing in us seven months ago were the people in this room. We proved them wrong. Go and prove them wrong again."
Holmgren's hopes rested mainly on the shoulders of quarterback Brett Favre, the NFL's Most Valuable Player this season. In his previous nine games Favre had thrown 26 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Three days before the game, Favre went into the Packer equipment room at Green Bay's Lambeau Field and took the team's unofficial mascot—a black-and-white rabbit, a gift from the downstate Milwaukee Brewers—out of its pen. After petting the animal, Favre watched as it romped around the room. Then he put his feet up on assistant equipment manager Bryan Nehring's desk, settled down with a cupful of Gummy Bears and tried to explain the reasons behind his hot streak.
"Here I am," Favre said, "three nights before the biggest game of my life, and I'm playing with a rabbit and eating Gummy Bears. I think that helps, being so relaxed. It's just a game. If I ever knew how many people were counting on what I did, I'd go nuts."
In spite of their leader's laudable poise and Dallas's inconsistent regular season, the Packers were at a disadvantage entering the game. Losers of six straight to the Cowboys since 1991, they had never been able to contend with the passing accuracy of Aikman, the physicality of Irvin and tight end Jay Novacek, and the relentless, driving style of Smith. Green Bay defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur thought the solution might be to play a more bruising and intimidating game. Yet while the contest was as nasty as any in recent memory, the Cowboys appeared to relish the violence.
"I pray they'll play me physical," Irvin said before the game. "If they do, I will unleash the wrath of Michael upon them." When things got rough, it was the Packers who fared worse. With 10 minutes left in the game, Irvin snared Aikman's 36-yard pass despite being used as a sparring partner by cornerback Doug Evans. On the next play, Smith scored Dallas's final touchdown on a 16-yard run off tackle.
On defense the Cowboys knew their success depended on containing Favre. Defensive coordinator Dave Campo believed that Favre's success this season was the result of being able to connect consistently over the middle. A Packer back or a tight end always seemed to get open by shedding a linebacker. So Campo devised a defense that had a safety moving up into the linebacker area. "Our goal will be to create confusion in the middle of the field," Campo said before the game. "We'll never give him the middle like he's had recently."
Late in the first quarter, Favre proved the wisdom of Campo's strategy. With Cowboy safety Darren Woodson clogging the middle, Favre tried to force a screen pass underneath to fullback Dorsey Levens. Defensive tackle Leon Lett stuck out his massive arms and picked it off. Three plays later Dallas scored on a four-yard pass from Aikman to Irvin for a 14-3 lead.
Still, the Cowboys knew there were risks in their clog-the-middle scheme, and Favre exposed them twice within the next three minutes. With 2:20 left in the quarter, Cowboy cornerback Larry Brown, with no safety behind him to help out, lost a step to speedy wide receiver Robert Brooks, who beat Brown for a 73-yard touchdown. On the Packers' second play of the second quarter, Favre found a Dallas linebacker in single coverage on tight end Keith Jackson, and the quarterback threw a 24-yard strike to Jackson that put the Pack up 17-14.
But as the half progressed, Smith began to wear down the Packer defense. He had already carried 10 times in the first quarter, and he was getting even busier. "Twenty-two carries by halftime?" he said later. "I thought I might have 25 for the game."
"They said, 'We're going to run the ball. Try and stop us,' " Green Bay linebacker George Koonce said after the game. "And they still shoved it down our throats." On Dallas's second possession of the second quarter, Smith carried six times on a 13-play drive that ended with a Chris Boniol field goal, which tied the score at 17.
Green Bay was reeling, and on the next series, disaster struck. After a one-yard pass from Favre, Brooks was driven out of bounds by Woodson. Brooks slammed into Packer receivers coach Gil Haskell, whose head bounced hard off the artificial turf. The game was halted for 10 minutes while Haskell was attended to and removed by ambulance. "One of my best friends is lying there on the ground, unconscious," Holmgren said later, "and suddenly the game lost all its meaning." As of late Monday, Haskell remained in serious condition at Baylor University Medical Center with a fractured skull.
Understandably, that Packer drive stalled. But Craig Hentrich pinned the Cowboys back at their one with a 57-yard punt.
Aikman told his team in the huddle, "We've got to get out of this hole." They did, on the first play of the drive, a 25-yard sprint off tackle by Smith. He also carried on the next two plays, as well as the last three plays of the 11-play drive, blasting into the end zone from a yard out behind right guard Larry Allen for a 24-17 halftime lead.
With Aikman and Smith alternately picking apart and steamrollering the Packer defense, the Pack might well have folded. But back came Favre, leading a 52-yard drive that ended in a 37-yard Chris Jacke field goal, and a 79-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown catch by Brooks with just over five minutes left in the third quarter. Entering the fourth quarter Green Bay led 27-24, but the Packer defense was tiring. They had already been on the field for 62 plays, and Smith was now gaining yardage at will. His five-yard touchdown run five plays into the fourth quarter made the score 31-27. Still, Favre had more than 12 minutes left to regain the lead.
On first down at the Dallas 46, Favre was flushed out of the pocket by Lett. Thinking wideout Mark Ingram was about to stop, Favre threw to him. But Ingram kept running, and Brown intercepted the pass. On the ensuing Cowboy series, Smith's third touchdown of the day put the game out of reach.
After all the shouting and hugging, Smith showered and dressed as nimbly as an aerobics instructor. Nothing in his carriage hinted that he had just rushed 35 times in a savage game on the hard carpet of Texas Stadium. Smith appeared to be made of iron. "Once you get past 25 carries," he said, "you're running on empty. You just go. Every time I got up, it just seemed like they handed it to me again."
Smith's premonition had been right. It was a very good day. Judging by the bounce in his step as he left the stadium on Sunday night, Super Bowl XXX might be even better.