The Path Back To The Top: 1990s Dallas Cowboys A team whose past could very well be the Seahawks future
Just seven teams have repeated as Super Bowl Champs in NFL history. This series will examine how teams similar to the 2013 Seahawks fared the following season. Some flourished. Some failed. We will explore the keys to their success and their failure and look for clues for what lies ahead for this 2014 Seahawks team.
Stop me if you have heard this story before. A college coach who has taken his team to national championships and leaves for a job atop a struggling NFL franchise. The coach is met with skepticism about how well a college coach can transfer his success to the NFL. His first season does little to dispel that belief, as the team loses. His team improves the next year, but still finishes 7-9. The team finds its stride in the coaches third season, finishing 11-5, but loses painfully in the divisional round. In his fourth season, the coach leads his team to a 13-3 record, beats their arch rivals in the NFC Championship, and then destroys a prolific AFC offense in the Super Bowl. They do it all with a punishing run game, a ball control passing attack and a shutdown defense. Meet the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s, and their once-college coach, Jimmy Johnson.
It is harder to find differences between the ascension of these two teams than it is to find similarities. Carbon paper would have trouble creating a copy of this fidelity. From Johnson and Pete Carroll's second season on, the results are just about identical. Carroll and the Seahawks went 7-9, then 11-5 (losing in the divisional round), then 13-3, and a Super Bowl win. As you will see later, the similarities do not end there.
The 1992-1993 Cowboys are one of only three teams I have found to get to the Super Bowl with their coach for the first time, win it, and then go back and win it again the next season. The other two are Vince Lombardi's Green Packers in 1967-68 and Chuck Knoll's 1974-75 Pittsburgh Steelers. Even Bill Walsh took three seasons to get back and win another one.
How did the Cowboys build that championship team? How did they win three Super Bowls in four years? Is there reason to believe the Seahawks could continue to retrace the Cowboys steps? Let's dive in and see.
The easy way to explain the dominant stretch of football from the early 90s Cowboys is to point a finger in the direction of the Minnesota Vikings. Every NFL fan is taught the story of the leagues most infamous lopsided trades. Herschel Walker was a dominant running back who Johnson inherited. In the midst of a 1-15 season, Johnson decided things were bad enough that only a blockbuster deal would turn the tide. He was able to get a bushel of draft picks and a handful of players.
The combination of players and picks turned into names like Emmitt Smith, Alvin Harper, Dixon Edwards, Darren Woodson, Issic Holt and, indirectly, Russell Maryland. That talent certainly helped to fuel the Cowboys rise to power, but saying the trade was the reason the team became great is far too simplistic.
Draft quality was outstanding even before the Walker trade. Johnson's first draft included Troy Aikman first overall, but also included Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski, and Tony Tolbert. It even included another future star in Steve Wisniewski, but in one of Johnson's few unwise moves, he traded Wisniewski immediately to the Raiders. Getting those extra picks from the Vikings was one thing, but Johnson deserves credit for turning those extra picks into quality choices.
His 1991 draft included a ridiculous 18 picks. This was back when the draft went 12 rounds. Still, the Cowboys came away with Maryland, Harper, Edwards, Godfrey Myles (a starter at linebacker), Erik Williams (starting tackle), Leon Lett, and Larry Brown.
John Schneider would have loved to have as many kicks at the can as Johnson and crew did back then. Seahawks fans have become accustomed to late-round magic from Schneider who wants at least nine draft picks each year. Teams in the 90s were often getting between 12 and 18 choices. The Dallas 1992 draft was considered a success, even though they really only hit on three out of fifteen picks. Schneider has no such luxury.
A key difference between the Cowboys of that era and the current Seahawks was the different free agency rules that were in play. Dallas began their run when "Plan B" free agency was still the law of the land. Plan B free agency rules stated that teams could protect 37 of the 47 players on their roster. It was not until 1993 that free agency, as we now know it, was put into place. Players and owners spent years in court battles before owners finally relented and struck a collective bargaining agreement that, among other things, allowed the players up to 64% of league revenues.
"What is truly at stake here? We believe the entire professional sport will be affected, and no question, it would be the destruction of the National Football League that we know today." - Frank Rothman, attorney for the owners, closing argument against free agency in 1992
Even the turbulence of free agency and swapping out the quality of Johnson at coach for the dreck that was Barry Switzer in 1994 could not derail the Cowboys from getting back to the top in 1995. They have won two playoff games since.
The construction of the Seahawks was draft-centric, like the Cowboys. They had the choice to spend money in free agency, but nearly all of their core players outside of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were home-grown.
The puzzle Schneider and Carroll will need to solve for is how the Cowboys managed to have a remarkable 12 starters on their 1995 Super Bowl team on the roster back in 1991. We have seen the Seahawks front office move to lock up players like Bennett, Doug Baldwin, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor for at least a couple more years. They need to lock up core talent like Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner while getting young talent that played a smaller role last year to step forward in this year and beyond to have the kind of continuity the Cowboys enjoyed. A tough, but far from impossible, task.
People who say dynasties are not possible in the free agency era are wrong. They are certainly harder, but the Seahawks roster (26.4) was younger when it won its first Super Bowl than the Cowboys (27.0), and there is a path forward that keeps that team together.
Style of play
The similarities between the Seahawks and the 90s Cowboys do not stop with how they were constructed or even their records and path to their first Super Bowl title. These teams played a very similar style of football. Take a look at the high level numbers for the 1992 Cowboys team compared to the 2013 Seahawks:
These two teams scored at roughly the same rate, gained and surrendered yards at essentially the same efficiency, and were both dominant in terms of scoring differential. Take the comparison deeper, and the teams look even more like a mirror image of each other.
Both teams fit the profile of a run-first, efficient passing offense. They paired that with a stout defense to win the title. This Dallas team, unlike the 2010 Packers or even the 2001 Patriots, did not change course after winning their first Super Bowl. New England and Green Bay chose to ride their young stud quarterbacks the following season and lost the balance that helped them win it all. New England eventually righted the ship and got back to a strong running game, but the Packers took nearly four years to do the same. Dallas put up very similar numbers in 1993-95. Their four-year averages stay pretty near where they started.
The one year in this stretch that Dallas did not win a Super Bowl was the only one where their balance got out of whack. They rushed 54% of the time in 1994, compared to 49% of the time in each of the other three seasons. Their yards per carry were way down into the mid 3-yard mark instead of up over 4.2 like the other years.
An efficient rushing attack that is central to the offense was foundational to their run. When Pete Carroll talks about winning formulas in football that he has studied throughout history, you can be sure this Cowboys team was on his list.
The assumption we started with was that the 1990s Dallas Cowboys dynasty was built on the back of the Herschel Walker trade. The real bounty from the Walker trade were draft picks that still needed to be used wisely in order to fulfill their value. Johnson and the front office managed to draft an amazing 15 starters in their first four drafts. That included seven Pro Bowlers. Yes they had some high picks like Aikman and Maryland, but they hit on a lot. Consider that Schneider, Carroll and the Seahawks may actually best those numbers.
Their first four years of drafting has produced 18 starters, five of which are Pro Bowlers. Players like Luke Willson, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bowie, K.J. Wright, Christine Michael and more, all could reach Pro Bowl status in the coming years. So if the question is not about talent accumulation, and we have seen it certainly is not about a style of play difference, the real challenge becomes whether the Seahawks can sustain their level of play and talent level for the same period of time the Cowboys did.
Seattle has to battle free agency in a way that the Cowboys did not, but their roster management has already allowed them to lock up much of their core, and now the salary cap is rising substantially in each of the next two seasons. No team has been in a situation like Dallas was in terms of winning young and having real options to keep the roster together until this Seahawks team.
Dallas became a dynasty by drafting smart, running first, and playing great defense. They proved a young team playing with this formula can win their first championship and come back and do it again the next year. Seattle is the closest thing the NFL has seen to that Cowboys team in 20 years. The bar is set at three rings in four years. The Seahawks have met, and exceeded, every bar those Cowboys set so far. Buckle up. The DeLorean is about to hit 88 MPH. What was, is once more.
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