When Troy Aikman threw the interception on Sunday that could have doomed the Dallas Cowboys' season, the eyes of Texas—and Cowboys watchers everywhere—were upon him. With the game on the line Aikman reverted to recent form against the San Francisco 49ers, who since 1994 had brought out the worst in the NFL's most-decorated active quarterback. Beyond that, Aikman, so dependable so much of the time, had blown the previous week's game against the Philadelphia Eagles by throwing an end-zone interception in the final minute, thereby denying Dallas an opportunity to attempt a game-tying field goal. Now he had seemingly delivered a repeat performance. Hoping to find wideout Deion Sanders at the 49ers' two-yard line and score a game-tying touchdown with 6:36 remaining, Aikman instead threw the ball to Niners cornerback Marquez Pope. As Aikman walked disgustedly to the sideline and pondered the specter of a 5-5 record, it seemed the whole world was watching the Cowboys' five-year run of excellence leave the field with him.
But the next thing Aikman saw was the resolute stare of right tackle Erik Williams, whose forehead bears the scars of the horrific car accident that nearly ended his career two years ago. In Williams's chocolate-brown eyes Aikman saw the wear and tear of three Super Bowl titles and the many obstacles Dallas has overcome along the road to glory. "I believe, baby," Williams told Aikman. "I believe."
And stunningly, a few seconds later, the Cowboys had added reason to believe. On the first play following the interception, 49ers quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a pass behind fullback William Floyd and into the hands of Dallas linebacker Fred Strickland at the San Francisco 15. Aikman and Williams and their offensive mates trotted back onto the field with a spring in their step. Five plays later Aikman threw a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Eric Bjornson to send the game into overtime, and then he completed all five of his pass attempts in OT to set up Chris Boniol's game-deciding 29-yard field goal.
The Cowboys' 20-17 victory was probably the most emotional regular-season triumph of coach Barry Switzer's three-year tenure. Combined with the Sunday losses of the Green Bay Packers (8-2) and the two teams ahead of Dallas in the NFC East, the Eagles and the Washington Redskins (both 7-3), the win propelled the Cowboys back into the thick of the playoff race, with a rerun of last January's NFC Championship Game between Dallas and Green Bay to be played this Monday night at Texas Stadium.
"I'm always amazed at the things this team does year in and year out to survive," Williams said after the game. "The courage and the heart we've shown and the tests this team has gone through have made our run very special. These were two championship-caliber teams going at it in an all-out battle, and the last one standing would win. It was like the Tyson-Holyfield fight."
In fact, this was more like Ali-Frazier III: a rugged match between two proud heavyweights who may be beyond their prime. Between them, Dallas and San Francisco have won six of the last eight Super Bowls, including the past four, but the Cowboys and the Niners of '96 have looked fragile on offense and have been beholden to their defenses. Sunday's game was true to form: San Francisco (7-3) jumped to a 10-0 lead and had a chance to put Dallas away. But the Cowboys knocked out quarterback Steve Young with a concussion and climbed back into the game. The question then became, Which tired defense would give first?
The answer didn't come until the overtime, when the 49ers were the ones who buckled. San Francisco had controlled the ball for all but 3:30 of the first quarter, but after that Dallas's offense was on the field for 35:50 to the Niners' 15:27. "Both teams were exhausted," said San Francisco defensive tackle Bryant Young, who spent much of the afternoon in the Dallas backfield. "I think that's as hard as both teams can play."
The clubs came in with a clear understanding of the game's implications. In the San Francisco locker room, where critics tend to be more biting than David Brinkley, you never would have known this was a team that had won three straight. The Niners were worried sick about the state of their once mighty West Coast offense, a point driven home early last week by its architect, Bill Walsh. Now an administrative assistant to the coaching staff, Walsh asked second-year offensive coordinator Marc Trestman if he could meet alone with the offensive players. The 20-minute session, which included pointed comments about Trestman's play-calling from Steve Young, wide receiver Jerry Rice and tight end Brent Jones, seemed to clear the air, though it was news to coach George Seifert. Walking down a hallway outside the meeting room, Seifert saw some of his offensive assistants and asked where the players had gone. Told they were meeting with Walsh, Seifert glared and retreated to his office.
The consensus among prominent Niners, as it was last season, is that Trestman needs to be more aggressive and imaginative with his play-calling. But Trestman can only do so much with the wounded Young at quarterback; two early-season injuries, a fractured pubic bone and a pulled groin, plus two concussions in the last three games, have rendered him tentative and vulnerable and have thrown off the offense's delicate timing. Before the game against Dallas, many voices inside the Niners' complex told Seifert that Grbac, who was coming off a bruised left shoulder, should be playing. Seifert apparently listened, informing his assistants he was prepared to yank Young against the Cowboys if Young was ineffective.
As it turned out, the Cowboys KO'd Young, and Grbac played one of the worst games of his four-year career, tossing a pair of gift-wrapped interceptions that led to 10 Dallas points. Nevertheless, Seifert will probably have to place his faith in Grbac again for this week, if not beyond. Consecutive second-quarter hits by Cowboys linebackers Broderick Thomas and Jim Schwantz and strong safety Darren Woodson gave Young at least his sixth concussion in the past several seasons, and a prolonged rest may be needed.