Super Bowl XXVIII will go down in history as a blowout, because that's what a 30-13 score looks like when you read it in the record book five or 10 years later. But the score won't come close to telling the story. The Buffalo Bills, short-enders for the fourth straight year, had the Dallas Cowboys on the ropes on Sunday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, and they let them escape.
The Bills have now lost two Super Bowls that they should have won, the first and fourth in this series of consecutive defeats, and have lost the other two most convincingly. Sunday's defeat was the most disheartening because the Cowboys were a struggling team in the first half; Dallas was ready to be put away. The Cowboys' quarterback, Troy Aikman, seven days removed from a severe concussion, was having difficulties. Emmitt Smith's favorite running play, the lead draw, was getting stuffed. Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly was picking Dallas apart with his short, meticulous passes, and the Cowboy defense was on the field far too long—41 snaps in the first half—against the Bills' no-huddle offense, which literally takes your breath away.
Buffalo had the ball and the lead, 13-6, to open the third quarter, and the game had arrived at the point where usually someone either steps up to win it or someone does something to lose it. This time both happened.
James Washington, a 29-year-old reserve safety (sidebar, page 33), turned the game around with two terrific second-half plays, to go with another big one he had made in the first half. Buffalo's All-Pro running back, Thurman Thomas—and this is the sad part—was the guy who blew it with his second fumble of the game.
In the first half, with the scored tied at 3, Thomas had taken a shovel pass from Kelly and had dropped the ball when Washington hit him at midfield. The Cowboys had taken over and driven for Eddie Murray's second field goal, a 24-varder, which had put Dallas ahead 6-3.
Thomas's second fumble, on the third play of the second half, sucked the life out of a team that had taken a lead and an unexpected feeling of confidence into the locker room at intermission. On first-and-10 at the Bill 43, Thomas took a handoff, slipped through the left side for three yards and was met by defensive tackle Leon Lett, who slapped the ball loose. Washington grabbed the fumble and took it 46 yards to the end zone to tie the score 13-13. Washington's third big play of the game, an interception at the beginning of the fourth quarter, set up the Cowboy touchdown that put the game away.
The story of this strange Super Bowl began a week earlier in a darkened room at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, where Aikman lay in an eerie, semiconscious twilight. He had been knocked unconscious by the right knee of 300-pound San Francisco 49er defensive end Dennis Brown in the third quarter of the Cowboys' 38-21 win that afternoon in the NFC title game. "It was scary," says Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, who spent most of that night at his client's side. "We sat there, he and I, alone in the dark, and his head was kind of in a cloud. He kept asking me the same questions over and over, and finally I wrote the answers out on a piece of paper."
By 4 a.m. Aikman was beginning to function. Seventeen hours later he was standing at a podium at a press conference in the Cowboys' hotel in Atlanta, answering questions about things he had trouble remembering. Yes, Aikman confirmed, in the hospital he had asked the same questions over and over. And, yes, on the sideline he had turned to injured center Mark Stepnoski, on crutches and in civvies, and asked him why he wasn't playing. No, Aikman said, he didn't have a headache. But, he admitted, he hadn't been sleeping too well. And true, he had offered some weird answers to routine questions in the hospital. "A real Abbott and Costello routine," he said, and everyone laughed. "I'll be fine," he said.
Fine? Not exactly. After Dallas's Wednesday practice, the first full workout following the 49er game, Aikman was troubled by headaches. "Bad headaches, really bad," Steinberg says. "He was having trouble sleeping, too."
In boxing, when a fighter takes a 10 count, he is not permitted to get back into the ring for as long as 90 days in some states. In football it's called "getting your bell rung," and a week later the guy is back in uniform—if the game is big enough. On Super Sunday there was Aikman, lining up under center for the first Cowboy snap, although he wasn't the same Aikman who had riddled the Green Bay Packers for 302 yards and three touchdowns in Dallas's first playoff victory, or who had completed 14 of 18 against the Niners before getting conked. In the Super Bowl he was just a tiny bit off on his reads and on his deliveries, especially the short stuff against a defense that was intent on shutting down his wideouts, Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper.