It's not that the first one was easy. They're never easy.
They're not now, and they weren't then. They weren't before then.
Winning the Super Bowl is incredibly difficult. It requires the expenditure of time and treasure beyond the wherewithal of most teams. Beyond the wherewithal of every team but one, every single year.
When the Cowboys won the Super Bowl for the first time, in 1971 (January of 1972), there was elation. But even more there was relief. The franchise was 12 years old. From the depths of expansion, created out of whole cloth, it took seven years to make the playoffs (the real playoffs, not the long-gone so-called Playoff Bowl). It took another five to get to what by then had been named the Super Bowl. And they lost Super Bowl V in Miami to the Baltimore Colts on a disputed call and a last-gasp field goal.
The frustration was palpable. The enduring memory of the Cowboys' first Super Bowl appearance is of a furious Hall of Famer-to-be Bob Lilly disgustedly flinging his helmet what seemed like half the length of the Orange Bowl turf.
When they made the Super Bowl again the next year, and handily dispatched Miami 24-3 in New Orleans, there was elation. (One of the enduring memories of that one is of Lilly postgame in the locker room brandishing a victory cigar almost as big as he was.) But even more, there was relief. More than a decade's frustration was popped like an overinflated balloon.
So they're never easy. And they're all good. All exceptional. But winning back-to-back is really, really hard. So the celebration at AT&T Stadium of the 25th anniversary of the Cowboys' 1993 team, the one that capped the only consecutive championships in club history, deserves special reflection.
There have been 52 Super Bowls. There have been eight back-to-back winners: Green Bay in the first two, Miami in VII and VIII, Pittsburgh in IX-X and again in XIII-XIV; San Francisco in XXIII-XXIV, the Cowboys in XXVII-XXVIII, Denver in XXXII-XXXIII and New England in XXXVIII-XXXIX.
The point of that list? It happened five times in the first 24 years of the game. Three times since. None in the past 14 seasons. Expansion, free agency and the salary cap have made consecutive championships as plentiful as unicorns. So what the 1993 Dallas Cowboys did was remarkable. And it was even more remarkable because of the way it started.
Twenty-five years in the rearview mirror, the 1993 championship season can be divided into a few memorable sections, and the first one is that they started 0-2. Not coincidentally, they also started the season without Emmitt Smith, the 1992 NFL rushing champion (no team had ever won the Super Bowl with the league's leading rusher before the Cowboys and Emmitt that year).
Common parlance now is that Smith held out of training camp and the start of the season in 1993. "I did NOT hold out," Smith has said firmly many times. "I didn't have a contract to hold out from."
In any case, the Cowboys did not have Smith to start the season. His teammates knew it felt different without him in training camp, but business is business, and no one thought Smith would not be there for the season opener in Washington.
Until he wasn't.
Ring of Honor safety Darren Woodson recalled, "We always thought they'd make a deal. We thought, When it's time, Emmitt will show up. But the story of camp was him not being there. We were just missing that cog. Then we got close to the opener and we had to face that, 'Huh, I guess he's NOT going to show up.'"
Fullback Daryl Johnston, Smith's personal protector, remembered being aware of precedent, especially after they lost that opener in Washington, 35-16.
"You heard the historical data," Johnston said. "No team had ever started 0-2 and won the Super Bowl. Without Emmitt, we had lost a key component. I mean, how did they think we were going to replace him?"
Whether Smith's absence was the reason or not, things got a little dire when the Cowboys lost the second game, their home opener, a rematch with Super Bowl foe Buffalo, 13-10. That game was made most memorable by what happened after it.
In a seething postgame locker room, volatile defensive end Charles Haley put his helmet through the wall. He happened to do that in the vicinity of owner Jerry Jones, which gave rise to the urban myth that Haley had thrown his helmet at Jones. That apparently was not the case ("I wanted to throw MY helmet through the wall," quarterback Troy Aikman said, "because I missed a touchdown pass that would have won the game.")
But it was indicative of the team's mind-set. Pro Bowl guard Nate Newton remembered seeing the incident and thinking, "Charles put that helmet through the wall right when Jerry was there, and I almost thought it was scripted. But you know, Jerry just looked at him. He never flinched. We didn't know if we had a problem, or a man with a problem."
In any event, Smith was signed before the next week's game in Phoenix, but not because Haley got Jones' attention in a way 0-2 had not.
"It did NOT have an impact on getting the contract done," Jones said definitively. "It WAS, however, a vivid example of how a high-profile contract negotiation can affect all of the parties involved: the player, his teammates, the coaches and everybody in the organization. There was enough frustration to go around for everybody in that room on that day."
And Aikman recalled Smith having a limited role against the Cardinals in his first game back, which the Cowboys won, 17-10, and then had their first of two bye weeks that season. That was on Sept. 19. They didn't lose again for two months.
Besides specifics, the one thing everyone involved remembered is how things changed in general having won the championship in a 1992 season that just seemed magical. And it wasn't just the players facing what felt like a constant target on their backs.
"Winning our second championship was a more difficult coaching job because of all the things we had to overcome," said head coach Jimmy Johnson. "Not only the obvious target on our back every week, we got off to a bad start without Emmitt and with a lot of changes on the coaching staff. The players had to be driven more because of the human nature of complacency and assuming we were going to win. No one was quite as hungry, and everyone's expectations were higher."
The players' recollections endorse how well Johnson knew his team.
Woodson: "Coming off the (1992) Super Bowl, the city was alive. I felt like with our talent, we matched up well with everyone. We were on pace to go back."
But it turned out to be twice as hard.
Newton: "Every team we played was coming after us. It didn't matter if they were in it or not. Every game was a dogfight. We were celebrated. In 1992, we didn't know what we didn't know. In 1993, the media – even a smaller media than today, even with no Twitter – they started grading us on style points. We're the champions. That last win wasn't pretty enough. We didn't know how hard teams would be coming at us.
Aikman: "It was just a different year. In 1992, we thought we were good. We were coming off that group's first playoff run. In 1993, we KNEW we were good."
After the first bye, with Smith in tow and the world back on its axis, the Cowboys regrouped.
"We understood we had no wiggle room," Johnston said. "Jimmy did a great job of laying out the priorities. One, get in the playoffs. Two, win the division. Three, get a bye. Four, get home field. But we had to do it week-to-week. We had a bigger vision, but we really had to focus on every game because of how we started. The staff kept us week-to-week."
And then, after beating Green Bay and the Colts, the arch-nemesis 49ers came to Texas Stadium. The Cowboys won, 26-17, to head into the second bye.
"That was big," Johnston said. "That was our rival. That game sling-shotted us."
"It gave us our swagger back," said Woodson. "We were tougher than they were, and we knew it. They were talented. We were talented and tougher."
The Cowboys had their swagger back, but they had another hiccup to overcome. They came out of the second bye with three more wins to get to 7-2, but Aikman was injured in the second game with the Cardinals and couldn't play in Atlanta. With newly signed Bernie Kosar at quarterback, and Smith leaving in the first half with an injury after just one carry, the Cowboys lost, 27-14. Four days later, on Thanksgiving, in a memorable game played in the sleet, ice and slush, a wayward blocked field goal turned into a fumble and gave Miami a heartbreaking 16-14 win. Suddenly Dallas was 7-4 and at a crossroads.
"At that point," Aikman said, "we knew we had to win out. I remember it was a big bump in the road, and we knew what had to happen. Jimmy made it clear. We had to run the table."
And they did. The Eagles, at Minnesota, at the Jets and the rematch with Washington. It came down to the season finale – Jan. 2, 1994 against the Giants at the Meadowlands.
The Emmitt Game
The 16th game of the season was for all the divisional marbles. The winner was going to fulfill the first three of those items on Johnson's checklist: make the playoffs, win the division, get a bye. The loser was going to be in, but was going to have to play on the road in a wild-card game the next week. Aikman has never been vague about that choice.
"We were so beat up," he said. "If we had lost that game to the Giants, we had zero chance of winning the next week. And I feel sure the Giants felt the same way. We were confident. I never would have guessed it would have been that close."
It was a typical January day in the Meadowlands.
"Cold as everything," Woodson said, and you can hear him shiver all over again at the memory. "They would open the doors in the end zone and the wind would blow like crazy. We knew it would be a slugfest, and it was. It came down to physical domination. I remember Rodney Hampton running downhill all day (the Giants' big running back had 30 carries for 114 yards). Man, you had to have your big-boy pads on. I was drained after that game. Sore everywhere."
Newton remembered, "We needed to be home. Then Emmitt separated his shoulder, and he wouldn't quit. Jimmy tried to tell him, 'Be smart.' Emmitt stood up to Jimmy, though. 'Don't make me a decoy,' he told him. 'Let me run.' And Jimmy said, 'All right.' We understood, teams could not play up to our level."
But the Giants did for most of the day. The Cowboys led 13-0 at halftime, but New York fought back and kicked a field goal to force overtime with 10 seconds left.
Aikman: "The wind was so strong, if we had won the toss, we were actually going to take the wind. Thankfully, the Giants won the toss and took the ball."
New York started at its own 19-yard line. They ran eight plays, made one first down and punted from their 30. The Cowboys started at their 25 and ran 11 plays: Smith run, pass to Smith, pass to Smith (first down), Smith run, pass to Johnston, Lincoln Coleman run, pass to Smith, Smith run, Smith run, Smith run, Smith run. None of his runs in that drive was for more than 7 yards.
With 10:44 gone in overtime, Eddie Murray's 41-yard field goal with the wind was good. The Cowboys' radio announcer croaked, "God bless you, Eddie Murray. They'll always remember the day Emmitt Smith carried them with one arm."
The Cowboys won the game, 16-13, and the NFC East, and got a bye and home field advantage.
"After the game," Aikman said, "[Giants quarterback] Phil Simms ran up to me and said, 'I have to know. If you'd won the toss, would you have taken the ball or the wind?' I told him, 'Phil, we'd have taken the wind.'"
The Cowboys took their bye and beat Green Bay in the divisional game at home. Coming to Texas Stadium next for the NFC Championship Game: the San Francisco 49ers. A rematch of the 1992 conference title at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
In those days, the visiting team in the conference championship was mandated to arrive in the host city 48 hours beforehand and hold a news conference. With the 49ers in town, Johnson called in to a popular radio show hosted by Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway.
"Put it in 3-inch headlines," Johnson said on the air. "We will win the ballgame."
In response at his news conference, 49ers head coach George Seifert famously said, "Well, the man's got a pair. I don't know if they're brass or papier-mache. We'll find out pretty soon."
"They are definitely not papier-mache," Johnson responded.
What did the players think of their boss putting them on such a public spot?
"My first thought," Aikman chuckled, "was that he must've gotten into the Heineken early. I wasn't crazy about the comments. I mean, why poke the bear? But I will say this: I think it put some doubt in their minds. 'Man, they're really confident.' They had to react."
Johnston agreed: "I think it made them a little uncertain. They woke up to those 3-inch headlines the next morning. They had to be thinking, 'What does he know? Why are they so confident?'"
Woodson, on the other hand, reacted like most of the defensive players.
"We loved it," he said. "You've got to remember, those guys on offense, Troy, Emmitt, Michael [Irvin], Daryl, [Mark] Stepnoski, those guys had been around a few years. I was 24 years old, in my second year. Most of the guys in our DB room were like that. We were young and dumb. We believed what Michael always said: You better not let us in the tournament because once we are in the tournament, we're winning it."
The game itself was upstaged by a near-brawl in the moments before kickoff. Cornerback Kevin Smith went berserk on 49ers All-Pro wide receiver Jerry Rice in the tunnel leading up to the introductions. Woodson saw the whole thing up close.
"Kevin [whose nickname was 'Pup'] went up to Rice in warmups, trying to shake his hand," said Woodson. "Jerry turned his back on him. He said Pup had spit at or near him earlier. Anyway, Kevin went off. He was cocky, now. He had the true mentality of a corner.
"We came back together as a group and Pup was cussing him then. Then we were all together in the tunnel and Pup got up in Jerry's face. 'You blankety-blank, you ain't nothing. You ain't going to see a blankety-blank ball all blankety-blank day.' Jerry just lost it. I really think Pup got in his head."
Rice was held to 83 receiving yards and no touchdowns as the Cowboys won, 38-21. They were on their way to the Super Bowl again.
In its wisdom, the NFL had decided to implement two bye weeks during the season and no dead week between the championship games and the Super Bowl. So the Cowboys and Bills had to head immediately to Atlanta. But Aikman had sustained a concussion in the showdown with San Francisco.
"If we'd had today's rules, he would not have played in that game," one Cowboys official said.
Super Bowl week was frantic. It felt rushed. And then the game was upon them.
The Bills led at halftime, 13-6, but walking into the halftime dressing room, Aikman remembered, "The way the stadium was configured, you could see them going into their locker room. There was just something in their body language that didn't look right to me. I thought it looked like they didn't think they could beat us. I said that to a few guys."
Johnston: "Buffalo did a good job. They gave us some real issues with our between-the-tackles running game. But when we got in the locker room, Jimmy was so calm. He said, 'Hey, everything's fine. We know exactly what they're doing. Get off your feet, and in a few minutes we will present to you how we're going to win.' I think that halftime might have been Jimmy's best coaching job ever."
Woodson called it, "The weirdest halftime ever. But in the second half, we turned it up. The game slowed down for us. The adjustments came easy."
What Johnson remembered: "I knew this game would be more difficult because we only had one week to prepare for Buffalo's no huddle offense. At halftime, I told the team the defense had started to take control after the initial surge, and offensively, we were going to go out and play power football. Troy wasn't as sharp as usual because he'd been injured late in the season. I used some colorful language to call on our offensive line to assert themselves. We let them, and Emmitt put us back in control."
That was music to the ears of linemen like Newton: "Jimmy just said, 'Get your heads up. You all block down play-side. Nate, you're going to pull and we're going to run power right and get Emmitt in a zone.' And that's what happened. Jimmy, Troy, Emmitt, they weren't going to let us lose."
They were aided by two huge takeaways by safety James Washington, who could have been the MVP if Smith wasn't. Washington's work was what sealed it in Aikman's mind.
"When he got those turnovers, it was like they were expecting it," he said. "We got the momentum and then we had them."
Don't ask them which Super Bowl they preferred, though.
"They're all awesome," Aikman said. "1992 was what dreams are made of. 1993 was more like a lesson in life. We overcame a lot."
And the radio announcer finished the game by saying, "Dallas, your Cowboys are still champions."
Happy 25th anniversary.