Emmitt Smith, who rushed for a game high 129 yards, runs the ball in Dallas’ 38-10 opening week victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Texas Stadium on September 6, 1998 (photo- Getty Images).
With the 2018 NFL season still months away, we’re looking back at Cowboys’ game from the past in our weekly review of some of the contests from season’s past. In this week’s edition, we look at game one of the short-lived Chan Gailey era as the Cowboys took on divisional rival Arizona in the first game of the 1998 campaign.
After being among the NFL’s most dominant teams from 1991 through 1996, the Cowboys took a major step backward in 1997 going 6-10 and missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The slide cost coach Barry Switzer his job, leading to the hiring of former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Chan Gailey as the fourth head coach in Cowboys’ history. With a veteran and talented roster and Gailey’s offensive scheme, which included some concepts from the halcyon days of Tom Landry’s Cowboys, there was optimism in Dallas that the team’s absence from the playoffs would be temporary.
Only occasionally contending, the Arizona Cardinals were truly the red-headed step-child of the often rugged NFC East. In 1998 however, the Giants, Eagles and Redskins all struggled, leaving the Cards as the primary challenge for Dallas for divisional bragging rights. Led by playmaking quarterback Jake Plummer and featuring talented players like Eric Swann , Rob Moore and Larry Centers, the Cardinals entered the season hoping to make their mark.
MEN OF TROY
The 1998 Cowboys had stability at the game’s most important position, as future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman was back for his 10th season in a Cowboys’ uniform. Although there were some early game growing pains as Dallas and Aikman tried to put Gailey’s offense into high gear, the star quarterback ended up having a memorable opening day.
Aikman threw for 256 yards and two scores, and ran for 43 yards and two touchdowns as the Cowboys offense opened the season with a bang. Aikman joined Don Meredith (12/8/1963 in a 24-19 loss to Pittsburgh) and Roger Staubach (11/10/75 in a Cowboys’ loss to Kansas City) as the only quarterbacks in team history with multiple rushing touchdowns in a game.
SAME AS IT EVER WAS
Virtually every season, it was the same old song for the Cardinals when they visited Texas Stadium. For most members of the Cards, success at the Cowboys’ facility was a once in a lifetime proposition as they more often than not found themselves wondering what went wrong.
On this steamy early September day in the Lone Star State, the Cowboys won for the seventh straight time (and 21st time in 25 games) when playing the Cards at home. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the visitors would eventually get revenge on a cold January day with a surprising 20-7 win over the Cowboys in the 1998 NFC Wid Card Playoffs.
CHAN THE MAN
Chan Gailey’s tenure in Dallas lasted only two year as, but his teams certainly put up some good results when playing at home. The Cowboys’ rout of Arizona was one of 13 Dallas would earn in 16 regular season games at Texas Stadiumn under Gailey. Most of the victories at home were not particularly close, as the Cowboys prevailed by 10 or more points in nine of the 13 wins.
The new coach’s team also did something unique in the 1998 season, winning all eight of its regular season contests against NFC East foes.
ERN-ING HIS KEEP
Veteran wide receiver Ernie Mills was the only Cowboy who had played in a Gailey offense prior to 1998, and he showed in the opening game that familiarity can breed success at times.
Mills helped jump start the Cowboys’ offense in the second quarter of the, catching a key pass for a first down on the Cowboys’ first touchdown drive and then scoring on a 30 yard strike from Aikman later in the period to give Dallas a 14-0 lead.
The crafty Mills finished with four catches for 78 yards and a score in the game in route to 28 catches, four touchdowns and a sparkling 17.1 yards per catch in 1998 before his season was cut short by a horrific injury in game 11 against Seattle. In the 11 games in which Mills suited up for the Cowboys, they were 8-3. In the five other contests, Dallas won only two of them.
Emmitt Smith’s 129 yards rushing got his 1998 season off on the right foot, and the Cowboys’ commitment to the running game proved to be a positive in the NFC East winning season. The Florida product had seven 100 yard plus games on the year, and nine more the following season in Gailey’s offense. All this was after he posted a career low of two games in which he rushed for 100 plus yards (Smith would also have two 100 plus games in his final season with Dallas in 2002).
Dallas sacked Plummer only twice on the game, but put fairly consistent pressure on the Cardinal’s signal caller. With its sack leaders from 1996 (Shante Carver with six and Tony Tolbert with five) no longer on the squad, it was up to other Cowboys to pressure the quarterback. Kavika Pittman and back-up Hurvin McCormack would trap Plummer in the game. Pittman’s six sacks would lead Dallas in 1998, with McCormack’s five being the second highest total.
AT ANOTHER LEVEL
Perhaps the most exciting play in the game came late in the first quarter when Cardinals’ punter Scott Player drilled a long punt that Deion Sanders turned into a must-watch moment.
Making the rest of the players on the field look like they were running in quicksand, the explosive Sanders dashed up the left-sideline for a 43 yard return that electrified the crowd. On the year, Sanders’ 15.63 yards per punt return would lead the NFL.
Sanders’ mark trails only Dwayne Harris’ 16.09 per return average from 2012 in Cowboys’ history (minimum 20 punt returns on the year).
Game color analysts Bill Maas and Ronnie Lott both emphasized how in pre-game discussions, Cowboys’ wide receiver Michael Irvin reported how he had focused on coming into 1998 in the best shape of his life. Even though he was covered on virtually every play by excellent Cards’ cornerback Aeneas Williams, the noticeably slimmer Irvin was open all game. The Playmaker caught nine passes for 119 yards on the contest, the most catches in a game against Arizona in his career.
NEW SPOT, SAME RESULTS
Cowboys’ all-world offensive lineman Larry Allen was moved to left tackle by Gailey prior to the start of the 1998 season, and the Sonoma State product excelled at that spot in the contest. Showing both power and speed, Allen was equally effective blocking on power runs or getting out in front of receivers on screen or short pass plays.
Dallas’ big opening day win injected the Cowboys and their fans with optimism that took away the bitter taste of a six game losing streak that ended the disappointing 1997 season. The Cowboys would win 10 games to capture the division title.
Arizona bounced back from the big defeat, and from a bitter 35-28 loss to Dallas at home later in the year, to win nine games and earn a wildcard playoff spot. Their playoff win over the Cowboys on the road would avenge their two losses during the regular season, and give the Cards hope that the Cowboys’ dominance of them was coming to an end.