The Cowboys were a dynasty.
Well, almost. All they needed to assure their legacy was a victory in Super Bowl XXX over the Steelers.
Dallas already had pieced together back-to-back Super Bowl victories in the 90's, and a third title in four years would put them in rarified air. The Steelers, 11-point underdogs heading into the game, were viewed by many in the media as calves whose only purpose for being in the game was to be mercifully slaughtered at the hands of the Cowboys on their way to immortality.
But the game didn't exactly play out that way for the Cowboys. Inspired by Rod Woodson, the only player in NFL history to return in the same season from a torn-ACL injury, Pittsburgh's defense overwhelmed Dallas' powerful offense in the second half. The Steelers' offense played inspired football too, scoring 10 unanswered points late in the game to pull to within three points.
Unfortunately for Steelers fans, the Steelers made one too many mistakes to pull off what would have been the greatest Super Bowl upset since the Raiders shocked the defending champion Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. Dallas survived 27-17 for what would be their final world championship of the 1990s.
Even after seeing them win two Super Bowls since that game, Super Bowl XXX is still the game I remember best. Time hasn't erased the memory I have of watching the Steelers battle the greatest team I had ever seen at that stage in my young life. While it didn't last terribly long, the anticipation and feeling that my team could actually beat Dallas in the game was something I'll never forget.
I couldn't stand the Cowboys then, but two decades later, after watching a re-broadcast of one of their games on NFL Network recently, I couldn't help but marvel at them. Watching that offense in its heyday was like watching a high-powered machine plow through a field of minions. Their defense was just as devastating and blessed with both top-tier talent and unmatched depth.
They were before my time but I get a similar feeling watching highlights of the 1980s 49ers and, obviously, watching clips of the 1970s Steelers, in my opinion the greatest football team ever assembled. That opinion is supported by the fact that Pittsburgh had to beat other elite teams in order to win four Super Bowls in a six-year span. Pittsburgh faced Don Shula's Dolphins, John Madden's Raiders (five years in a row), Bud Grant's Minnesota Vikings (Super Bowl IX), Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowls X and XIII) and Bum Phillips' Oilers (twice). Their final Super Bowl win was over a Los Angeles Rams team that won their division seven consecutive years.
San Francisco had to get past Bill Parcell's Giants (two Super Bowl wins in five years) and Joe Gibbs' Redskins (three Super Bowl wins in 10 seasons) in the 1980s, while the Cowboys had to deal with Steve Young's 49ers (Super Bowl XXIX champs), Marv Levy's Bills (four straight Super Bowl appearances), and Brett Favre's Packers (two Super Bowl appearances and a victory in Super Bowl XXXI) in the 90's.
With the inception of free agency and salary caps, there just aren't teams of that caliber anymore.
But there also aren't teams today like the 1970s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who once lost 26 consecutive games. There isn't a team today like the 70's Saints, who compiled a 35-91-3 record during quarterback Archie Manning's 11 seasons. There's no team today like the old Arizona Cardinals that posted one winning season during the period 1976-1997. And let's not forget the 90's Bengals, who posted a 52-108 record for the decade.
It has been a decade since the Patriots matched Dallas by winning three Super Bowls in four seasons. Since then, there have been two sixth-seeds win Super Bowls and one nine-win regular season team (ironically, the Cardinals) reached a Super Bowl. Twenty-four teams have made the playoffs this decade, with each team in the NFC North, South and West divisions making the post season at least once during that span.
This year's AFC North is a good example of the parity existing in today's NFL. The Bengals, last year's division winner, are 2-0 thus far and looking to reach the post-season for the fourth consecutive season, but still looking for their first playoff win in nearly 25 years. After winning the division and the AFC crown in 2010, the Steelers are coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons. The Ravens have made the playoffs three times this decade, winning Super Bowl XLVII but then falling to an 8-8 record last season. The Browns, the only AFC North team not to make the playoffs this decade, are optimistic after defeating a perennially-strong Saints team.
Today's parity has generated more excitement for more fan bases. Almost every fan base could argue its case this past off-season for their team winning this year's Super Bowl. Eight games in Week 1 were decided by a touchdown or less. You could argue that the NFL has never been more competitive from top to bottom.
While all of this is surely good for the NFL, what about the dominant teams that played football at a level that was truly entertaining to watch? Where are the great teams that we'll tell our kids we were lucky enough to see in person? When will we see another team that can be compared to Chuck Noll's Steelers or Vince Lombardi's Packers or Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys?
This brings us to the question of whether or not today's parity is good for the NFL. My answer is that, while I enjoy watching more-competitive football games each week, there's nothing quite like watching your team trying to knock off a dynasty in a game you'll remember for years to come.