January 2, 2010
The Cardinals are the oldest NFL franchise, but not the most successful. Formed as the Morgan Athletic Club in Chicago in 1899, they were named the Racine Cardinals in 1901 (for the street where their playing field was located) thanks to the purchase of some faded maroon jerseys that were declared to be “cardinal red”. The team was a charter member of what became the NFL in 1920 and became known as the Chicago Cardinals. They won a championship in 1925, before there was such a thing as a postseason, and they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1947 title game. But since that game, with moves to St. Louis and Phoenix (where they were first known as the Phoenix Cardinals before regionalizing the name to Arizona) along the way, they had appeared in four playoff games, losing all of them.
On January 2, 1999 the Cardinals appeared in an NFC Wild Card playoff against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium. Arizona had finished the 1998 season with a 9-7 record, putting them a game behind the division-winning Cowboys in the NFC East and qualifying them for the postseason for the first time since 1982. Under Head Coach Vince Tobin, the Cards boasted some young talent, starting with QB Jake “the Snake” Plummer (pictured above). WR Frank Sanders led the conference in pass receptions with 89, and along with WR Rob Moore provided a solid receiving tandem. RB Adrian Murrell ran for over a thousand yards (1042) and FB Larry Centers was an excellent receiver out of the backfield. The defensive line, which included DE Simeon Rice and the talented but oft-injured DT Eric Swann, was good and the secondary anchored by CB Aeneas Williams had talent.
Dallas had been as visible in the postseason over the course of over thirty seasons as the Cardinals hadn’t been. Most recently, they had won three Super Bowls in four seasons (1992-93, ’95) and had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1990 the previous year. But they had bounced back in ’98 under new Head Coach Chan Gailey to win the division at 10-6. They depended on their veteran nucleus of QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith, and WR Michael Irvin on offense and DT Leon Lett , CB Deion Sanders (who missed several games with a toe injury), and SS Darren Woodson on defense.
The Cowboys had dominated the Cardinals in recent play, beating them in the nine previous games at Texas Stadium and 16 of 17 overall, including both meetings during the ’98 season.
The Cardinals made a big play in their second possession of the game as Plummer threw to Frank Sanders for 59 yards, setting up a 12-yard score on a shovel pass to Murrell. There was no further scoring until 19 seconds before the end of the half, as Chris Jacke kicked a 37-yard field goal to put the Cardinals up by a 10-0 score. Dallas had twice come close to getting on the scoreboard, but Richie Cunningham missed a 37-yard field goal attempt and, with a fourth-and-one situation on the Arizona nine yard line, Emmitt Smith was stopped for no gain.
Early in the second half, Murrell took off on a 74-yard run that set up a three-yard TD pass from Plummer to Centers. After Jacke kicked a 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, the score was 20-0 before Dallas finally scored on a six-yard pass from Aikman to WR Billy Davis after Deion Sanders had returned a punt 41 yards. It was too little, too late, with only 3:33 remaining in the game. The final score was 20-7 as Arizona came up a winner in the postseason for the first time in over 50 years.
Jake Plummer showed poise under pressure, completing 19 of 36 passes for 213 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Adrian Murrell (pictured below) led all runners with 95 yards on 12 carries. Rob Moore led the team with five pass receptions, for 41 yards, while Frank Sanders (pictured above left) gained the most yards (72) on his three catches.
For the Cowboys, Troy Aikman went to the air 49 times and completed 22 for 191 yards and a TD, but with three interceptions. Emmitt Smith had an ordinary game (for him) with 74 yards on 16 rushing attempts. WR Patrick Jeffers was the most productive receiver with 7 catches for 92 yards.
It was a frustrating day for Aikman, who said afterward, “It’s not the outcome we were expecting. They just clamped down on us.” Coach Gailey echoed the sentiment, saying “Arizona made big plays, and we didn’t. The defense hung in there, but we had too many dropped passes and penalties to hurt them on offense.”
On the other side, a happy Larry Centers said about winning at Texas Stadium, “This has been a house of horrors for us. This is great to finally get it off our back."
The win didn’t foreshadow a turnaround for the franchise, however – the Cardinals lost decisively the next week in the divisional playoff game against Minnesota, 41-21. Jake Plummer would ultimately prove too erratic to consistently lift the offense, the team fell back to 6-10 the next season, and Vince Tobin would be gone before the 2000 campaign was concluded. Arizona did not return to the playoffs again until the 2008 season.
The game did signal a period of decline for the Cowboys, who just made the postseason as a wild card entry with an 8-8 record in 1999 before missing out altogether the next three years.