Super Bowl XXX (Steelers vs. Cowboys): An Ultimate Recount of the Game

Today we have Super Bowl XXX, which was held on January 28, 1996, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, between two teams who had won four Super Bowls going into this game: the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFC champion Dallas Cowboys. If you’re looking for the full story of this 1995 season, pick up my Nifty Nineties book and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about that year and the rest of the nineties.

As always, we have a pop quiz, and then homework at the end of the episode. The pop quiz question for today is similar to the last one: which player was the first to win five Super Bowl rings? The answer will come at the end of the podcast.

Prelude to Super Bowl XXX

The Dallas Cowboys came off a disheartening NFC Championship loss to San Francisco, with their eyes focused on the 49ers as the team they’d have to beat to get head coach Barry Switzer his first Super Bowl. The ‘Boys started the season 8-1 before a loss to San Francisco and their backup quarterback Elvis Grbac.

They rebounded to win their next two, but they then had two troublesome losses inside their division, including a 20-17 loss to Philadelphia. Switzer was highly criticized for going for it (twice) on fourth-and-one plays against the Eagles, something that seems so natural in today’s analytics games. The Cowboys came back with wins in their final two games to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

The divisional round game was easy for Dallas – they crushed Philadelphia 30-11. The NFC Championship Game was not so easy. Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers gave the Cowboys all they could handle, taking a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. However, the Cowboys were just too much for Green Bay to handle, and they pulled out a 38-27 victory. They were on to their eighth Super Bowl, the most in NFL history.

Running back Emmitt Smith set the NFL record by scoring 25 touchdowns in 1995, all of them on the ground. He ended up just shy of 1,800 yards. Receiver Michael Irvin had just over 1,600 receiving yards and ten touchdowns. And quarterback Troy Aikman was as accurate as ever, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes for over 3,300 yards and 16 touchdowns. This Cowboys team was stacked, as owner, Jerry Jones tried to prove to everyone that he didn’t need Hall of Fame head coach Jimmy Johnson to win a Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the AFC provided no powerhouse against Dallas. The team with the best regular-season record in the AFC, Kansas City, promptly lost their first playoff game to wild card Indianapolis on a missed field goal in a 10-7 loss. That left Pittsburgh to fill the gap. The Steelers started the season 3-4 before winning eight consecutive games to earn a first-round bye. They lost their season finale in Green Bay to end up at 11-5. The Steelers easily defeated Buffalo 40-21 in the divisional round. In the AFC Championship Game against the Colts, the Steelers survived a Hail Mary on the final play of the game to hold on for a 20-16 win. They were going to their fifth Super Bowl.

Four different quarterbacks threw touchdown passes for Pittsburgh in 1995. The starter was Neil O’Donnell, who threw for just shy of 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns. Backups Mike Tomczak and Jim Miller provided solid play behind him. And then there was “Slash” – Kordell Stewart, who could do anything – pass, run, catch, or punt.

He threw for a touchdown, ran for a touchdown, and caught a touchdown all in the same season. The main receiver was Yancey Thigpen, who caught 85 passes for just over 1,300 yards. Running back Erric Pegram led the way on the ground with 813 rushing yards; Bam Morris ran for just over 550 yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns.

Going into this game, everyone figured that Dallas would roll to yet another NFC victory in the Super Bowl. They were installed as two-touchdown favorites for the Super Bowl. But Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher had some tricks up his sleeve that he was ready to pull out against Dallas.

Super Bowl XXX: First Quarter

The Steelers kicked off to begin the game, and Aikman completed his second pass of the game to Irvin for 20 yards. Smith took his first carry for 23 yards, his longest run on a grass field all season. Receiver Kevin Williams came up short on a third-down reverse, but the Cowboys got a 42-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boniol to go up 3-0.

Pittsburgh went three-and-out after receiver Andre Hastings’s third-down catch came up short of the first down marker. The Cowboys got the ball back at their own 25. Smith started the new drive with a six-yard run, then Irvin caught one for a first down at the Dallas 39. It was now Prime Time! Deion Sanders entered the game on offense, and Aikman launched a pass downfield for him, complete for a 47-yard gain.

Next, Aikman hit tight end, Jay Novacek, for a first down inside the 3. The Cowboys then got away with what should have clearly been called offensive pass interference on a pick play that helped get Novacek wide open for a three-yard touchdown catch. No call was made by referee Red Cashion’s crew, and Dallas took a 10-0 lead.

The Steelers got something going when O’Donnell threw to receiver Ernie Mills for a first down at the 39. Morris pounded away for a six-yard gain, but on third down, Stewart was stopped just shy of the first down marker.

Cowher chose to go for it, and Stewart took the snap and executed the quarterback sneak perfectly to keep the ball. O’Donnell fired to Hastings for another first down, but the Steelers lost all those yards back when center Dermontti Dawson snapped the ball over O’Donnell’s head for a 13-yard loss. The Steelers had to punt, with Dallas up ten points after one quarter.

Super Bowl XXX: Second Quarter

Aikman completed a pair of passes to Novacek to start the next drive, including a 13-yarder. Irvin caught one for a first down at the midfield stripe, then Smith ran for five more. Next, it was fullback Daryl Johnston running for a first down. Aikman hit Smith for a short gain before Johnston caught a third-down pass a yard shy of the first down.

Switzer chose to go for it, and Johnston pounded up the middle for a first down. On the next play, Aikman threw an apparent touchdown pass to Irvin, only to have it come back on an offensive pass interference call on Irvin for pushing off. Novacek got 19 yards back on a catch, but the Cowboys had to settle for a 35-yard Boniol field goal to make it 13-0.

The teams exchanged punts, but the Steelers managed to flip field position, and they started their next drive at the 47. Defensive end Charles Haley sacked O’Donnell, but the quarterback got back most of the yards on a pass to Hastings. Cowher again went for it on a fourth-down, and Stewart got the first down on another quarterback sneak. Morris ran for a first down at the Dallas 30 at the two-minute warning.

O’Donnell then hit Mills for a first down at the 20, as Pittsburgh called timeout. A 17-yard pass to Mills put the Steelers down at the 6 with 17 seconds left. O’Donnell fired over the middle to Thigpen for the touchdown, and the Steelers cut their deficit to just six points at halftime.

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    Super Bowl XXX: Third Quarter

    Boniol kicked the opening kickoff of the second half out of bounds, and the Steelers got the ball at their own 40. Morris took a dump-off pass for a first down at midfield, then he pounded through a huge hole for 15 more yards, causing NBC announcer Dick Enberg to say, “Oh, my!” Usually, when Enberg would make that exclamation, something big would happen, but not this time. The Steelers ended up punting on the drive, and punter Rohn Stark’s kick went for a touchback.

    The Cowboys punted on their next possession, getting a 16-yard pass to Irvin but not much more. For the Steelers, Stewart took a handoff to get to the 47 for a first down. With the chance to take the lead, O’Donnell completely threw it away by throwing to defensive back Larry Brown. What made this one worse was that Brown was all by himself, with no Pittsburgh receiver anywhere nearby. Brown returned the interception to the Steelers 18. Aikman then hit Irvin for a first down at the 2, and Smith ran it in for a touchdown to make it a 20-7 game.

    The Steelers put together a nice drive, with Hastings catching a pair of passes to get to the 35. Mills hauled one in for eight yards, but then the Steelers faced fourth down again. Cowher went for it again, but this time, he called for a run by Morris. It was too predictable, and the Cowboys snuffed it out and stuffed him for a loss to turn it over on downs.

    Dallas went three-and-out, and the Steelers began to build up some momentum. O’Donnell threw a 12-yard pass to Mills, then Morris ran for about five more yards to finish up the third quarter.

    Super Bowl XXX: Fourth Quarter

    Morris pounded for a 12-yard gain to start the final quarter. O’Donnell then threw to Mills, who fumbled, but tight end Mark Bruener fell on top of it for a first down. Mills hauled in another one just shy of the first down, then Thigpen caught a pass for a first down at the 21. The Steelers may have had a chance at a touchdown, but Haley came up with a clutch third-down sack. That pushed the Steelers back to the edge of field goal range. Kicker Norm Johnson was accurate, and he nailed the 46-yard field goal to cut the deficit to ten points.

    That’s when Cowher pulled off one of the greatest sneak attacks in Super Bowl history. He went with an onside kick, which Johnson perfectly pulled off. Defensive back Deon Figures recovered the onside kick down the right sideline at his own 47. The Steelers were back in the game!

    Momentum completely swung in Pittsburgh’s favor, as Hastings made two catches for first downs to get down to the Dallas 29. Mills caught one, but he got hurt on the play and had to come out. Morris ran it twice, getting a first down, then O’Donnell hit Thigpen for a first down at the 5. O’Donnell handed off to Morris on the next three plays, and Morris walked in on the third of them for a one-yard touchdown. Suddenly the Steelers trailed by only three.

    Linebacker Levon Kirkland sacked Aikman, and the sputtering Dallas offense gave up the ball again on a punt. But two plays into the new drive, O’Donnell completely threw away the game by passing to Larry Brown once again. Just like the last one, there was no Pittsburgh receiver in the area. Brown ran it back all the way down to the Pittsburgh 5. Smith pounded in for a touchdown two plays later, and the Cowboys took an insurmountable ten-point lead, with less than four minutes left.

    After the two-minute warning, the Steelers got down to the Dallas 40 before O’Donnell threw four straight incompletions to completely end their chances. On the final play of the game, O’Donnell threw one last interception, to defensive back Brock Marion, and the Cowboys came away with their third Super Bowl championship in four years.

    Super Bowl XXX: Aftermath and Awards

    Larry Brown was named Super Bowl MVP for his two interceptions that completely changed the game. It’s hard to say if there was any other Dallas player even in the running for the award. Sure, Smith ran for two touchdowns, but he had only 49 rushing yards. Aikman was accurate, yet he had only 209 yards and one touchdown pass. Perhaps the second-best player on the Cowboys was Charles Haley, who made life miserable for O’Donnell.

    Haley won his third Super Bowl ring with the Cowboys, to go with two he had won with San Francisco. That made him the first player in NFL history to win five Super Bowl rings. Of course, the recently-retired Tom Brady blew that record out of the water, but that is the answer to today’s pop quiz question.

    The best player from this game you’ve never heard of is Dallas defensive tackle Chad Hennings. He was officially credited with two sacks. He, alongside Charles Haley and Tony Tolbert, helped lead the Cowboys’ defense to four total sacks.

    The biggest play of the game was obvious: O’Donnell’s interception to Brown on the drive in which the Steelers were trailing only 20-17. If O’Donnell could have avoided the turnover, the Steelers may have pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. O’Donnell, by the way, held the NFL record at the time for lowest interception percentage. For him to melt down in the Super Bowl with three interceptions was simply unheard of. He is an easy pick for Least Valuable Player.

    As for best player on the losing team, how about Andre Hastings, receiver for the Steelers? He came close to the Super Bowl record for receptions, catching ten passes for 98 yards. The record at the time was 11. Hastings did everything he could to help the Steelers come back, but his quarterback threw the game away.
    Finally, the biggest play no one remembers? That would be Emmitt Smith’s first touchdown run.

    It looked on replays that Smith did not score on the run. The officials gave him the touchdown, and there was no instant replay at the time in the NFL. What would have happened if the Cowboys had been unable to punch it in there? That’s a question we’ll never know the answer to.


    For this week’s homework, it’s easy: Greatest Team Ever by Ron St. Angelo and Norm Hitzges. This book looks into the reasons why the five-year span of Cowboys history from 1991 to 1995 was the best five-year stretch of any team in NFL history.

    It’s hard to argue otherwise, after seeing the statistics. Plus, the book has a foreword by Pat Summerall and an afterword by Roger Staubach.  Seriously. That’s about as good as you can possibly do in getting a foreword for your book.

    Next time, we’ll talk about my favorite team ever – the 1996 Green Bay Packers! Can they win Super Bowl XXXI over the New England Patriots for their first NFL championship since 1967? The 25-year anniversary of the game just happened recently. Come back in a couple of weeks to hear me talk about Brett Favre, Reggie White, LeRoy Butler, Antonio Freeman, and Desmond Howard. It’s sure to be a fun episode. You can find all my books at Until next time, so long!

    Lombardi Memories is a show that takes you back in time, into January or February, to the greatest one-day spectacle in all of sports. This is the every-other-Tuesday podcast that looks back at each and every one of the 50-plus Super Bowls and tells the story of who won and why.  Tommy A. Phillips is your host on this Super Journey.  He’s an author of multiple NFL books.  You can purchase below.

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    3 thoughts on “Super Bowl XXX (Steelers vs. Cowboys): An Ultimate Recount of the Game”

    1. No, this isn’t going to be this, here, Steeler-fan ranting about how my team “should have” won! Though their Dynasty was coming to a close right before our very eyes after that 2nd quarter Irvin TD was called back for he committing offensive-pass-interference (or, at the very least, their offense shutting down from there), the Cowboys were still the BETTER team than the Steelers on that day/decade! Having Aikman instead of O’Donnell is the KEY example among many, many other examples! And spotting themselves that 13-0 lead (though 17-0 would have been quite more comfortable for them) was enough of a cushion to buffer the ‘Boys from falling all the way down to defeat. And maybe their offense went on sleep-mode the rest of the way, but at least their DEFENSE still played lights-out! Haley & Co constantly in Neil O’s face forcing him to throw those INTs in the first place – isn’t that, after all, part of the game?? WHY the BETTER teams win??

      So, yes, no rants or excuses! What I’ll go into instead is the simple fact that for almost the first 30 years of the event itself, the Super Bowl was normally a real drab game! It was even worse in the ’80s & early-’90s with the final scores being even more lopsided. The NFC’s thirteen-straight-year reign from ’84-thru-’96 didn’t make things any better. But SBXXX, and the suspense that it brought us in the end, has to be seen as a ‘signal’ that things would soon change for the Big Game! The Super Bowl would soon start being a good game on a regular basis; and the NFC’s reign would end two seasons later with, “This one’s…for JOHN.”

      In the, now, 27 Super Bowls since this very Steelers/Cowboys affair (boy, how time flies), I count just FIVE that you can seriously consider to be “bad” games. And three of those are condensed into the seven SBs following this very ‘Duel in the Desert’; those three being Broncos over Falcons (SBXXXIII), Ravens over Giants (XXXV), and Buccaneers over Raiders (XXXVII). I guess you can consider those years a ‘transitional’ period for it would then be ANOTHER 11 YEARS until we have ourselves another…”bad” Super Bowl again (‘Legion of Boom’ utterly dismantling that statistically historic, Peyton-led, Broncos offense in East Rutherford)! And starting with…”this one’s for John”, the AFC is ahead of the NFC, 15-10. Not real lopsided.

      ‘Greatest Team Ever’ book (one I’d like to read, just the same) anointing the ’91-thru-’95 Cowboys as the greatest five-year-run in NFL history? In my opinion they are a very highly worthy mention! Maybe ‘2nd-place’, maybe just shy. But my choice for #1 would be the 1950-thru-’54 Cleveland Browns! In the two years that they DIDN’T go all-the-way in that stretch, they still at least made it to the League Championship Game (the ‘Super Bowl’ back then); not to mention in ’51 they losing their opener but winning their remaining 11 games to finish an outstanding 11-1 regular season mark!! Pretty difficult to ignore that.

      Again, maybe ’91-thru-’95 Dallas is ‘#2’, but maybe they’re NOT. For instance, how about the ’75-thru-’79 Steelers? Not just saying this because I’m a fan, but that ’76 campaign is a BIG non-SB-winner in their arsenal! Even bigger than Dallas’s very great ’94 non-title-campaign, I’d think. And then da ’39-thru-’43 Bears who got themselves an UNDEFEATED non-championship ’42 season to hang THEIR hats on (even bigger than ’76 Steelers)! Lombardi’s 1963-thru-’67 Packers? In ’63, despite Paul Hornung suspended the entire season for gambling, Green Bay still finished a mere HALF-game behind the Champs-to-be, Bears (super-safe to assume they beat the Giants yet again in a hypo-League Championship Game date). All a great debate just the same, and just my humble opinion in the end.

      Yes, Dallas deserved SBXXX in the end if, perhaps, barely. San Fran no longer had Deion Sanders (now, of course, a Cowboy) nor Ricky Watters among others, yet they pounded Dallas AT Dallas that regular season. Likely-enough Dallas got to the SB by ‘avoiding’ them that post-season (SF seemed to match-up well vs them lately). But SF failed to nab that top-seed in Atlanta on the final week. And then they don’t get it done at home vs Green Bay either. Really can’t at all say that they “deserved” anything more than the mere division title they won. “Last-team-standing” which ended up, indeed, being the case for Dallas and not them!

      And that Steelers team…yet another very good, hard-nosed ’90s Cowher squad! They went into Sun Devil and gave the ‘Team of the ’90s’ all they could give ’em on the Biggest Stage as opposed to each of their dismal openers (each one at home) against Dallas in ’94 & ’97! A memorable run, it was, in the Steel City in Bill Cowher’s first six seasons from ’92-thru-’97 (COWHER POWER)! But Dallas & San Fran were really the only two games in town for most of that window with Green Bay barging in at the very end! 2005 would come soon enough!

    2. Ouch! BIG mess-up! Browns didn’t win three titles within the ’50-thru-’54 period, but just TWO! That third NFL title came in ’55! And I always knew this, what was I thinking? Cut me off, lol.

      Well, just the same, those other three title/five-year-runs that I mentioned (if I’m not wrong with any of those as well, lol) seem pretty evenly debatable to me. You can also bring up the 2001-thru-’05 Pats (three titles), but their two non-championship campaigns in that stretch (9-7 and no playoffs in ’02, 10-6 and eliminated in the divisional round in ’05) are not quite as strong.


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