NFL at 100: Cowboys took control in the '90s as sport grew

Posted at 8:54 PM, Nov 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-08 21:54:56-05

Here's a look at the 1990s, the NFL's eighth decade:


After going 19 years without adding any teams, the NFL became the first major professional sports league in North America to reach the 30-franchise mark when the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars joined in 1995 for $140 million expansion fees. That evened the six divisions at five teams apiece.

The Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and New York Jets made up the AFC East. The AFC Central experienced the most significant shift, when the Jaguars joined the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens the following year. The Oilers departed Houston in 1997 for Tennessee, adopting the Titans nickname in 1999. Cleveland struck an agreement with the league to retain Browns records, colors and other keepsakes and rejoin the league as the 31st team. The Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and Seattle Seahawks found new hotels for their annual road game against the Raiders, who fled Los Angeles in 1995 for the franchise's roots in Oakland.

The Rams did the same that year, leaving the country's second-largest city without a team, and landed in St. Louis to make the San Francisco 49ers the only club west of the Rocky Mountains in the not-so-aptly named NFC West that the Panthers were assigned to as new Sun Belt rivals of the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. The tradition-rich NFC Central stayed steady with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Arizona Cardinals, who broadened their name in 1994 beyond Phoenix to reflect their residence in the desert city's sprawling suburbs, were the geographic outlier in the NFC East with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.


On their way to finishing 1-15 in 1989, the Cowboys made one of the most lopsided trades in pro sports history by sending running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings for a bundle of high draft picks and serviceable players that accelerated a dynastic resurgence in Dallas. Behind their Hall of Fame trio on offense, quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin, the Cowboys won Super Bowls after the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons.

The NFC took eight of the 10 championships during this decade of dominance. The 49ers won one with Steve Young at quarterback, after moving on from four-time Super Bowl winner Joe Montana. The Packers, behind three-time NFL MVP Brett Favre, finally passed the Cowboys and Packers and hoisted the trophy after the 1996 season. Their repeat bid was thwarted by John Elway and the Denver Broncos, whose back-to-back titles were the only ones that went to the AFC.

The Buffalo Bills, buoyed by Thurman Thomas carrying the ball and Bruce Smith harassing the passer, sure had a case to be the team of the '90s, but they infamously lost four straight Super Bowls to the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys, twice. The Rams came out of nowhere, just like their former grocery-bagger and Arena Football League quarterback Kurt Warner, to win it all after the 1999 season.


The star power at quarterback was never higher. As Montana, Elway, Jim Kelly (Bills) and Dan Marino (Dolphins) wound down their Hall of Fame careers, fellow enshrines Aikman, Favre and Young came into their own. Warner and Warren Moon (Oilers, Vikings) were also Hall of Famers who stood out during that decade.

As the passing prowess increased around the league, wide receivers like Jerry Rice (49ers), Cris Carter (Vikings) and Tim Brown (Raiders) helped take statistics for that position to new levels. Running backs were still highly valued, mostly durable and especially productive, with Emmitt Smith leading the list that included peers like Thomas, Barry Sanders (Lions) and Marshall Faulk (Rams). Reggie White (Packers), Derrick Thomas (Chiefs) and Bruce Smith led a big wave of star pass rushers.


Johnson won the first two titles with the Cowboys. Levy, though he never got that ring, led the Bills to four straight AFC championships. Mike Holmgren took over the Packers in 1992 and steered one of the NFL's all-time winningest franchises back to greatness. Their fiercest division rival of that decade was the Vikings, who were a perennial playoff team under Dennis Green's guidance. Green's defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy, became the main man for the Buccaneers in 1996 during an era when opportunities for black head coaches began to increase. Mike Shanahan's offense turned running back Terrell Davis loose and helped send Elway out a winner with those for two titles the Broncos.


Jan. 3, 1993: Moon and the Oilers built a 35-3 lead in Buffalo in the third quarter of their wild card round playoff game, only to watch the Bills storm back with five straight touchdowns, four of them scoring passes by backup Frank Reich, who had taken over recently for the injured Kelly. The Bills won 41-38 in overtime and the next two games on the road to reach their third of those four straight Super Bowls.

Jan. 17, 1999: The Vikings team that set what was then the all-time record for most points in a season rode a resurgent Randall Cunningham at quarterback and a game-changing rookie wide receiver in Randy Moss to a 15-1 record in 1998, reaching the NFC championship game as a heavy favorite at home against the Falcons. They were on the verge of a 10-point lead just before the 2-minute warning at the Metrodome, when Gary Anderson kicked a 38-yard field goal wide left, his first miss of the season. The Falcons tied the game and won in overtime to reach their first Super Bowl.


White's decision to leave the Eagles for the Packers was a major landmark for the players, the first of 298 unrestricted free agents to switch teams on the open market in 1993 after a federal court ruling paved the way for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The playoffs expanded from 10 teams to 12 teams with an additional wild card spot in each conference in 1990. That coincided with a $3.6 billion television contract that began that year, the largest to date in industry history. That season also saw the inclusion for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger of a bye week for each team, extending the schedule to increase the value of the TV deals.

Seven new stadiums opened from 1995-99, signaling a building boom of luxury-focused, super-sized facilities that stretched into the next two decades, with the Jaguars, Panthers, Redskins, Ravens, Buccaneers, Browns and Titans breaking in new venues.

After an initial experiment with instant replay was scrapped after the 1992 season, the eye in the sky returned for good in 1999 to allow coaches to challenge up to two plays per half, with a team charged a timeout if a contested call was not overturned. Officials took control of reviews in the final two minutes of each half.


The 2-point conversion after touchdowns, used in the college game and in the AFL during the 1960s, was adopted in 1994. Browns punter Tom Tupa scored the first one on a fake kick, when he took the hold and carried the ball into the end zone. He scored on three such 2-point plays that year.


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