By then it didn't matter, but Leon Lett's premature touchdown display resulted in Buffalo's Don Beebe stripping him of the ball.

The 'Boys are Back
January 31, 1993

The newest version of the Dallas Cowboys arrived at Super Bowl XXVII from humble beginnings. Just three years earlier, the Cowboys had been a disaster, guided by a rookie coach and a rookie owner who appeared out of their league when matched against the reigning geniuses of the National Football League. The proud franchise, which once had gone two decades without a losing season, was in disarray. America's team found itself in a tailspin.

Yet the rookie coach still was convinced one thing would come true.

"I knew we would be in the Super Bowl one day," he said amid the tumult of the 1992 season, "but I just didn't know when. I was concerned that I would have enough patience and not get frustrated by the time it would take."

Maybe Jimmy Johnson believed. And maybe his boss, new Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones, believed. But it was hard to find many who would have jumped on the Dallas bandwagon in those dreary days of defeat and despair. After all, Johnson's first Cowboys team, the 1989 edition, lost 15 of 16 games.

But that same bandwagon was overloaded by the time it left the Rose Bowl, site of the 27th Super Bowl. In a rush, the Cowboys had grown from nobodies to somebodies -- 52-17 victors over the woeful Buffalo Bills to become the best team in football. What a quick and joyful ride it had been.

"I think it shows that, unless it is something very technical, that if you apply yourself hard enough and ask enough questions and stay determined enough, you can be successful in whatever you try," said Jones, who had made himself a millionaire in the insurance, banking and oil industries before be bought the Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989 for a cool $140 million.

Jones had been a starting guard on Arkansas' undefeated 1964 team, whose roster also included Johnson. The two had roomed together for road games but weren't particularly close. Jones drove a used Cadillac in college, financing the car with money he earned selling shoes and insurance. Johnson got around in a beat-up Ford and figured he'd spend his life as an industrial psychologist. Jones dreamed of becoming involved one day in pro football -- at age 21, with no money of his own, he tried to buy the San Diego Chargers -- and he always thought it would be great to run the Cowboys.

When the chance came, he quickly called Johnson, who then was coaching the Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes, winners already of one national title under his direction. Johnson agreed to a 10-year contract and the two, without one second of NFL experience, embarked on an ambitious rebuilding program. So what if Jones first had to fire Tom Landry, the only coach Dallas had known, and Tex Schramm, its founding president, and Gil Brandt, its famed personnel man. They had guided the Cowboys to five Super Bowls and fame around the world, but the two newcomers thought they had discovered a better mousetrap.

"When they first came into the league, there were people who thought they could take advantage of them," New York Jets General Manager Dick Steinberg said. Jones, who was serving as his own general manager, and Johnson, the two country bumpkins, quickly gave teams the chance to use and abuse them. But 46 trades later, only ones who were victimized lived outside Dallas. The Cowboys wheeled and dealt their way to the top of the heap, beginning with a landmark trade that sent running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota in 1989 for a gaggle of draft choices and players. That trade eventually helped Dallas draft running back Emmitt Smith, but just as important, it established a tone and direction for the franchise. Here was a team willing to dump its most marketable player. Who else had such guts?

"I really didn't think it was that much of a gamble," Johnson said. "We knew weren't going to be very good in 1989 and we needed a lot of help. It made sense to take our best player and try to get as much in turn for him as we could. We just wanted to build up draft choices and depth and try to get better. It was like going to the dentist 20 times to make sure you wind up with a good set of teeth."

That's why Johnson and Jones could tolerate that 1-15 record. They expected to be awful. That's why they were satisfied with 7-9 in 1990 and happy with 11-5 and a playoff victory in 1991. They had put together the youngest team in the league -- and one that improved the fastest. The pieces for future success were in place, particularly young stars like Smith, quarterback Troy Aikman and receiver Michael Irvin.

At the same time, Johnson was building the team his way. Instead of hiring veteran NFL assistants, he put together a staff of mainly assistants from his days at Miami. Instead of relying on large, physical players, he concentrated on quickness, speed and athleticism.

"Playmakers, that's what we want," he said. The Cowboys were built around aggressive defense and special teams and a conservative offense that didn't make mistakes. Just nine players from Landry's last team were on the 1992 playoff roster. That is how total the reworking of the Cowboys had been.

Dallas, which hadn't been to a Super Bowl in 14 years, once led the league in merchandise sales. But the Cowboys had slipped to No. 15 before Jones bought the team. They rose to No. 2 in 1992. They had stopped selling out at home before the sale, but played before capacity crowds in all 16 games, home and away, during the '92 season.

"I would say we are America's team again," Jones said.

Still, even Jones thought his team was a year away. San Francisco seemed superior during 1992, but the Cowboys weren't paying any attention. In the NFC title game, they took on San Francisco on the 49ers' home turf, Candlestick Park, yet still came away with a convincing 30-20 victory. The Cowboys were the inexperienced bunch, yet they had just one turnover in the game, compared with four for the stunned 49ers.

"People keep saying we are too young, but I'm not sure how much experience has to do with it," Aikman said. "We just are trying to make sure we don't waste opportunities when we have them. If that means playing and winning the Super Bowl this season, then that is what we should do."

As young as the Cowboys were, they still had to carry around the burden as favorites in Super Bowl XXVII, in part because their opposition was the Buffalo Bills, who already were carrying around the baggage of two straight defeats in this championship. Besides, the American Football Conference had gone eight years without a Super Bowl victory, which also didn't say much for Buffalo's chances this time around.

But the Bills weren't listening. Forget those two losses, they said. Forget especially the embarrassing defeat to Washington, 37-24, in Super Bowl XXVI, when they bickered better than they played.

Before that game, defensive end Bruce Smith had complained about racially charged letters from Buffalo fans, and halfback Thurman Thomas had proclaimed himself the league's best running back and groused that he didn't get enough respect or attention even though he had been the consensus choice for NFL Most Valuable Player. Then Thomas couldn't find his helmet for the opening offensive series of the game and Smith couldn't find his way to quarterback Mark Rypien and the Bills couldn't find a way to stop the Redskins.

But these were the new, more mature Bills. They had lost the AFC East title to Miami and had trailed Houston by 32 points in a wild-card playoff game before rallying for a 41-38 overtime triumph. Ensuing victories over Pittsburgh and Miami had given them confidence and momentum. And they had all that Super Bowl experience, even if it was mostly bad.

"I think this team is more mature," Bills Coach Mary Levy said. "They have overcome more controversial circumstances. I think they have gained some experience."

Said linebacker Darryl Talley: "I don't ever think about losing. You can't let what happened in the past eat at you. We're more mature. We know what we're getting ourselves into (during the week before the game). If we play the same football we've been playing, well, we've been a pretty good football team. I can't say it is going to be different this time. We're going to be showcased again. We just have to play well this time."

The Bills had plenty of incentive. They already were being compared with the ultimate Super Bowl losers, the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos. Only the Miami Dolphins previously had played in three straight Super Bowls, and no one had ever lost three in a row.

"I've told our team we're going to do what we want to do -- win it all," Levy said. "But we've got to do it the hard way. It's a special challenge. You can take an almost greater sense of pride if you're successful having done it that way."

The Bills spent Super Bowl week showing off their new manner. Thomas, who had a running debate with the media the previous year, wound up passing around miniature helmets, having a good laugh at himself. Quarterback Jim Kelly talked about how time was running out for him, how he had to win a Super Bowl before he would be considered a great quarterback. Smith was mellow, and not a bickering word was heard from anyone.

The only mini-furor involved Talley, who reportedly had a confrontation in a nightclub with a bodyguard employed by Magic Johnson. Talley and the bodyguard supposedly traded punches, but everyone involved denied there was an incident.

"Our guys have ridden the waves very well," Levy said in the hours before the start of the game. "Tactics and strategy are important in battle, but if the soldiers lack heart and courage, they won't be able to put the tactics and strategy into effect. There is not one thing that is going to distract our football team.

"We're not going to send our team on the field with any inhibitions. We want them to have fun and let it all hang out. If we win, we'll celebrate like mad."

Maybe, after all, this Super Bowl would be different for Buffalo. The Bills still had the great talent, particularly standouts like Kelly, Smith, Thomas, Talley and receiver Andre Reed. "If all of their great players play well at the same time, they have a good shot," Raiders safety Ronnie Lott said. "In the first two (Super Bowl) games, not all of their best players had their best game."

Indeed, in the final days before Super Bowl XXVII, the Bills picked up steady support. The conventional line was, the Cowboys would panic under the heavy pressure of the Super Bowl glare and make mistakes. The cool Bills would capitalize on the turnovers, and their no-huddle offense would wear down the Cowboys' defense, even if it had finished ranked No. 1 in the league. It might become a shootout, but Buffalo's superior offensive firepower would prevail.

Someone, however, forgot to fill in the Cowboys. If they felt any pressure, it never showed. If they were supposed to perform poorly because of inexperience, it never happened. If they were supposed to yield to the crushing power of the no-huddle, it didn't transpire. Instead, the Cowboys used the Super Bowl to showcase their impressive balance, quickness and steadiness. They were a team mature beyond its years, a well-coached, consistent outfit that peaked exactly at the right time.

"That's what Coach Johnson preached all year long, that we wanted to play our best game in our last game," guard Nate Newton said. "And that is what happened."

Instead of putting up a new and improved effort, the Bills in turn crumbled to one of the most embarrassing efforts in Super Bowl history. By the fourth period, they had fallen apart. Holding onto the ball for more than a down became a major accomplishment. Their nine turnovers were a Super Bowl record, and their margin of defeat was the third largest in the game's history. It was a pathetic effort, a performance that left them stunned.

"Hurts like hell," Talley said. "I saw it with my own eyes. I couldn't believe it. We just didn't tackle well. We lost together, as 47 men."

Dallas gave a virtuoso performance, reflecting everything Johnson teaches. The defense shut down the no-huddle with aggressiveness and opportunistic play that created the turnovers. The offense made two mistakes (both were lost fumbles late in the fourth quarter) but otherwise was conservative and relentless. And the special teams, after having an early punt blocked, were solid.

"Our guys played with a lot of confidence, but we've played that way all year," Johnson said. "I felt we had the best ball team (going in). When you turn the ball over that many times, you are going to have problems. It just snowballs."

But Johnson told his team the night before the game that things would be decided by Buffalo turnovers. He told them that their superior quickness would force mistakes, but he was confident they would not commit many errors themselves. Talk about being prophetic.

Still, he must have wondered about that speech during the early moments of the game. Cowboys punter Mike Saxon was kicking from his own 16-yard line when Steve Tasker, Buffalo's special-teams standout, broke in alone and blocked it. The ball went out of bounds.

"Our special-teams coach felt that we had a chance to block a kick, and it worked," Levy said. "Tasker just did what he does best."

While the Bills applied pressure to the right side of the Dallas line, Tasker sneaked past center Dale Hellestrae and ran by blocker Robert Jones to make the block. Four plays later, Thomas cut off right tackle and into the end zone, giving Buffalo a 7-0 lead. It was a sweet score for Thomas, who had gained only 13 yards against Washington the previous year.

Buffalo then began its self-destruction. On the Bills' next possession, Kelly, under intense pressure, tried to throw to tight end Pete Metzelaars. But James Washington stepped in front of the poorly thrown ball and returned it 15 yards to the Buffalo 47. Aikman then completed two key passes, a 20-yarder to Irvin over the middle and a 23-yard scoring strike to tight end Jay Novacek, who had broken open in a seam of Buffalo's zone defense.

"They were playing a soft, deep zone," said Aikman, who wound up as the game's Most Valuable Player after completing 22 of 30 passes for 273 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. "So we concentrated on going underneath. I went into the game telling myself not to force anything, to take what was there and not make something out of nothing. We had been playing within ourselves, and I wanted to keep it that way. We were out of sync for a while early in the game, but once we settled down, things went well."

But things weren't going well for the Bills. On the ensuing kickoff, Buffalo was penalized for an illegal block, putting the ball at the Bills' 10. On first down, defensive end Charles Haley lined up far to the right of Bills tackle Howard Ballard. Haley quickly blew past Ballard and slammed into Kelly, knocking the ball into the air. It eventually was caught by Cowboy Jimmie Jones, who returned it two yards for the touchdown. Only 15 seconds had elapsed between scores, the quickest pair of touchdowns in Super Bowl history.

"That was just a great athletic play by Charles Haley," said Dallas defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, working his last game before taking over as coach of the Chicago Bears. Jones said he visualized all week "about making an interception. I had just visualized the run being longer." Technically, it was a fumble, but the result was the same: Dallas 14, Buffalo 7.

Kelly watched the replay on the stadium screen, shook his head and laughed. No use thinking that a nightmare was beginning again. If he only knew it was going to get worse.

On the first series of the second quarter, a 40-yard pass to Reed over the middle quickly got the Bills to the Dallas 4. On second down from the 1, Thomas was stopped for no gain. On third down, backup halfback Kenneth Davis appeared to be close to scoring, but linebacker Ken Norton popped into the hole and stood him straight up for no gain.

"I've made some big hits in goal-line stands before, but not like this one," Norton said. "Seven points would have really hurt us at that point. I came across and met him straight on in the hole. We both were driving our legs as hard as we could, and I was just the stronger man on the play."

Fourth down. Levy called for a passing play that had Kelly rolling to his right against Dallas' goal-line defense. But Wannstedt, unsure of what Buffalo would do, sent in his regular defense. The Buffalo players saw the substitutions, and some figured a timeout would be called. Levy said he signaled for one, but none of the players on the field saw him.

"I was surprised, and I know a lot of players were," Thomas said of the play sequence. "You can't question the coach's call. You just try to execute it. But we should have known at the time when they brought in their regular defense that we should have gone with a different play."

Kelly wanted to pass to Thomas, but he had been cut off. So he looked deep into the end zone for Metzelaars. But safety Thomas Everett cut in front of the tight end and intercepted the pass. Turnover No. 3, a costly one.

"It was a bad play against the defense they had in the game," Levy acknowledged.

On Buffalo's next possession, Norton rushed in on a blitz. He was blocked but still made his way to Kelly, banging into his side and twisting down the back of his knees. Kelly immediately grabbed his right knee, which had been injured in the final regular-season game. He had sat out two playoff contests before returning against Miami in the AFC title confrontation. This time, he wouldn't be coming back.

"It hurt right away," Kelly said. "There was more ligament damage. I knew I couldn't play." In came Frank Reich, who had engineered that record-setting 32-point comeback against Houston and also had been the starter in the playoff victory against Pittsburgh. Reich had been sharper than Kelly, so his presence might have been a plus for Buffalo. But it didn't turn out that way.

Reich was effective at first. A 38-yard pass to Reed and two runs by Davis set up a first down at the Dallas 12. But the Dallas defense held again, stopping Thomas up the middle on a third-and-one play from the 3. This time, Levy opted for a field goal, a 21-yarder by Steve Christie that made it 14-10.

Buffalo had been trying to control Aikman with that soft zone. The Bills finally switched tactics near the end of Dallas' next possession. It cost them dearly. On a third and 10 from the Buffalo 19, the Bills covered Irvin man-to-man. Aikman saw it and immediately looked to his No. 1 receiver, who turned cornerback Nate Odomes around on a fake move, then cut over the center of the field. He pulled in the pass for a touchdown and a 21-10 lead.

"I knew I had to wait my turn until they decided to cover us with 'man,'" Irvin said. "As long as they stayed in the zones, we had to go underneath to our tight ends. That's what they were giving us."

Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner went into the game convinced "our receivers could beat them in man coverage. We thought we had an advantage there. If we got it enough, we thought we could score some points. We just have some really good people at our receiver spots."

That became apparent immediately. On the first play after the touchdown, Thomas took a screen pass and cut inside. Defensive lineman Leon Lett knocked away the ball and Jones recovered at the Buffalo 18. On the next play, Irvin made a leaping grab of a pass at the 2 and then leaned into the end zone for another score. There were only 18 seconds between TDs this time. And the rout was on.

It got much, much worse in the second half. A 40-yard pass from Reich to Don Beebe pulled Buffalo within 31-17. But Aikman was growing in confidence with every pass. He found receiver Alvin Harper for a 45-yard score early in the fourth period, then, two plays later, Reich's pass intended for James Lofton was picked off by Everett and returned 22 yards to the Buffalo 8. Following an Aikman sack, Smith bounced off left guard from the 10 and sprinted into the end zone. Dallas, 45-17.

Had enough? Not yet. Reich fumbled a high snap in the shotgun, Norton picked it up and ran nine yards for the Cowboys' final touchdown. It should have been worse. Later, Reich was sacked and fumbled. Lett recovered and began a long journey to the end zone. He started to celebrate just before crossing the end line. As Lett held out the ball after rumbling 64 yards, Beebe raced in and knocked it into the end zone. It rolled out of bounds for a touchback.

"I learned not to celebrate too soon," Lett understated.

As for the Bills' collective psyche, well, it took a beating.

"Emotionally, it hurts more than physically," Kelly said of the trouncing. "You think, 'Why? Why do we deserve to lose the way we did today?' I'm at a loss for words. It's really hard to describe the feeling. Very disappointed."

Said dejected center Kent Hull: "My high school team never turned it over nine times."

"I feel as much deep disappointment as I can," Levy said. "I don't feel any despair. And I'd be an awfully poor leader if what I did was despair. I feel very badly for the players. But we will get some rest and go back to work and try to get our team even better. The disappointment will eventually pass. The biggest defeat you can have is to crawl into a shell and say, 'Well, that's it, I tried and we're not going to make it.'"

To make it in any future Super Bowls, the Buffalo Bills likely would have to beat Dallas. The Cowboys know they are loaded for future runs at the title, but they also realize that they had taken full advantage of this opportunity.

"I want a ring with a diamond bigger than a headlight," Irvin said. "I want diamonds the size of my Mercedes headlight. I want to stick my arm out the window to signal a turn and have my diamond shine brighter than my headlights."