FRISCO, Texas – That the Cowboys are on the precipice of qualifying for the NFC playoffs heading into the final game of the season with potentially a 7-9 record reminds me of Dec. 31, 1990, nearly 30 years ago to the date.
When spending New Year's Eve with the 7-9 Dallas Cowboys. Well, OK, maybe a dozen or so at Cowboys Sports Café in Valley Ranch, mere blocks away from the team's headquarters.
For a very important watching party.
And my, how times have changed since there are some these days not so excited about the Cowboys potentially winning the NFC East with a 7-9 record to become just the third team with a losing record in a non-strike season to qualify for the NFL playoffs – knowing the Cowboys must first defeat the New York Giants in a noon game Sunday to reach 7-9 and then needing the Philadelphia Eagles to defeat 6-9 Washington in the nationally-televised 7:20 p.m. start to prevent the Cowboys from finishing in a potential 7-9 tie for first in the NFC East that they would lose because of WFT owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Yep, there I was, covering this event for the Dallas Times Herald at what was unofficially the team hangout. The rookie Emmitt Smith was there. So was Michael Irvin and Nate Newton and Eugene Lockhart and James Washington.
Here was the deal: The Cowboys needed the 5-10 Los Angeles Rams to defeat the 7-8 New Orleans Saints in order to qualify as the third wild-card team and become the first team in NFL history to go from 1-15 to the playoffs the next season.
See, the Cowboys already had beaten the Saints earlier in December, 17-13, so if the two teams finished in a tie, the Cowboys owned the head-to-head tiebreaker and would go on to meet the NFC North champion Chicago Bears in a first-round playoff matchup.
This had been a remarkable season for the Cowboys, coming off four consecutive losing seasons, including 3-13 in 1988 in Tom Landry's 29th and last season as head coach and then the 1-15 first-year of the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson regime. After starting off 3-7, the Cowboys went on a four-game winning streak with the likes of Michael, Emmitt, Troy, Nate, Ken Norton Jr., Mark Tuinei and them. All they had to do at 7-7 was win one of the final two games and they were in.
Couldn't do it, mostly thanks to Aikman suffering a season-ending separated shoulder in the first quarter of the Philadelphia game. In came backup Babe Laufenberg, and things didn't go so well, Babe completing just 13 of 36 passes for 140 yards with four interceptions, the Cowboys losing, 17-3.
But they had another chance the following Sunday in Atlanta, Laufenberg starting his first game since Game 6 in 1988 with San Diego. Yet another loss, 26-7, to the Falcons on a rain-soaked, torn-up field thanks to the Peach Bowl played on Saturday. Babe was blitzed into submission, completing just 10 of 24 passes for 129 yards, two interceptions, one returned by, uh, Deion Sanders 61 yards for a touchdown, and sacked three times.
Babe was hit so hard so many times, my line about the game was the Falcons "pounded Laufenberg harder than round steak."
But even at 7-9, Dallas still had a chance, thus the parallel to the final weekend in 2020 for the Cowboys.
There probably was at least 100 people packed in Cowboys Café. The Monday Night Football game was being projected onto a big screen. The game, too, was on all the TVs. Even ABC had a TV crew there to cover the event and whatever reaction from the players. After all, these were the Cowboys.
And you should have heard the place when the Rams recovered from a 17-3 deficit to tie the game at 17-17 with just 1:17 remaining in what was the finale of 224 regular-season games that year. The Cowboys had a chance.
But wouldn't you know it, Saints quarterback Steve Walsh, who was traded by the Cowboys to New Orleans earlier in the season, drove the Saints into field goal range in the final seconds. Unreal, the Rams blocked Morten Andersen's 29-yard attempt. The Cowboys still had life. The crowd by then on New Year's Eve was juiced.
But with only two seconds left in the entire 1990 season, there on the field was a flag. Offsides Rams. And, of course on the re-kick from 24 yards out, Andersen drilled the winner, Saints 20, Rams 17, giving the Saints an 8-8 record and the final wild-card berth.
And there was no solace for the 7-9 Cowboys, saddled with their fifth consecutive losing season.
"That's the hardest football game I've ever had to watch," Lockhart was quoted as saying.
The Cowboys were left to only bemoan what if. What if the Rams had not been offsides. What if the Rams had won in overtime. And the big what if: What if Troy Aikman hadn't separated his shoulder.
"I don't wonder about what if," Johnson had said earlier that Monday afternoon. "I know what if. If Troy Aikman is healthy we would have won both (games)."
But never had the ol' consolation saying of wait 'til next year been more fitting, the Cowboys of the 1990s taking off that next season, qualifying for the next six playoffs from 1991-96 while winning their three Super Bowls in a four-year span.
To think how meaningful that 7-9 season nearly was.
Who knows? Maybe the second 7-9 possibility is a charm. If the Cowboys get there. We'll see.
And that there is my final shot for 2020.