There are some days that are just tailor-made for Eagles football, and December 10, 1995 was one of them.
It was a frigid 19-degree day, but the Eagles were in a hotly contested playoff race – perfect conditions to roll out the welcome mat for the oh so hated Dallas Cowboys.
The timing could not have possibly been better.
By day's end, the dreamlike scenario became a euphoric reality for Eagles fans, as their favorite team defeated the Cowboys, 20-17. It was tough. It was physical. It wasn't always pretty. But at the end of the day, it was a win over those dang Cowboys. It was exactly what Eagles fans wanted.
"It's always a celebration anytime the Eagles beat the Cowboys, no matter year it is, no matter what the scenario is, no matter who's up or who's down, when the Eagles beat the Cowboys, that's a very uplifting moment," said Eagles Hall of Fame broadcaster Merrill Reese, who was in Veterans Stadium providing another stirring radio call.
A quarter of a century later, the impact of the victory from that fateful day is still very much felt. People are still wondering exactly why Dallas called virtually the same play on consecutive downs. People can still hear Reese shout "They stop him again!" after the defense stymied running back Emmitt Smith. And who could forget the Eagles donning white jerseys at home in December, which forced the Cowboys to put on their rarely worn blue jerseys?
But the story of this game doesn't begin on gameday. Like anything else, this game needs its proper context, and that context begins all the way back in February at the Four Seasons (the hotel, not the landscaping company) in Center City Philadelphia.
A slew of media members gathered at the hotel to see Jeffrey Lurie introduce his first coaching hire during his stewardship of the franchise. That man was Ray Rhodes. Reese was in attendance for the historic announcement.
"It was a very, very big day," he described.
Rhodes' hiring was big for multiple reasons. Firstly, he was the first Black head coach in the history of the franchise and only the fourth in league history. But secondly, Rhodes brought with him a lengthy list of credentials. He was an assistant on the San Francisco 49ers' staff for all five of their Super Bowl titles, most recently in the defensive coordinator role when they won their fifth in 1994.
Once the curtain fell on the 1994 season, Rhodes was widely regarded as one of the prime candidates for a head coaching position. Philadelphia looked like the perfect destination for Rhodes – a defensive-minded coach in a city that has a deep appreciation for bone-crunching defensive units. And on that day at the Four Seasons, the Eagles officially got their man.
"It was a very welcomed addition," Reese recalled.
Defense was Rhodes' forte, but he realized the importance of a potent offense. He watched Joe Montana and Steve Young lead offensive powerhouses to titles in San Francisco with Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, and he intended on duplicating that success with longtime signal-caller Randall Cunningham by hiring a young, fiery offensive coordinator by the name of Jon Gruden.
"He's a character," wide receiver Calvin Williams said of Gruden. "Going into the season, we had given him the name 'Chucky' based on the horror film and he was very animated. When he gets up in front of the board, he's a very animated speaker, very articulate."
Williams was entering his sixth season with the Eagles and posted a career-high 813 receiving yards in 1994, including a nine-catch, 122-yard outing against Rhodes' 49ers. With the West Coast Offense being implemented in 1995, he figured he was primed for a breakout season.
To help bolster the offense, the Eagles landed free agent running back Ricky Watters, who had proven to be one of the most versatile backs in the league in San Francisco.
"We felt like with the players we had, bringing in new energy with Ray Rhodes and his defensive reputation, and then Randall (Cunningham) getting an opportunity at that time to come under a young mind like Jon Gruden that could understand him better, we felt great," Williams said.
"At least I did."
But with all of Rhodes' triumphs in San Francisco came plenty of run-ins with the Dallas Cowboys, who had risen to become the league's new dynasty in the 1990s. The path to the top of the NFC East was clear yet difficult: It had to go through Dallas. From the moment Rhodes took over as head coach, he began constructing a roster that looked to have the singular goal in mind of knocking the Cowboys off their starry perch.
Rhodes' first two picks in the NFL Draft went to the defensive side of the ball. He selected defensive end Mike Mamula with the seventh overall pick with the goal of slowing down Smith and Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. With the second pick, he selected 6-foot-3 cornerback Bobby Taylor in an effort to match the physicality of Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, who had garnered a reputation for bullying cornerbacks on a weekly basis.
That was a lot to take on for a rookie, but Taylor wasn't about to let himself nor Rhodes down. His family, well, that was a different story.
Taylor grew up in a family of Cowboys fans in Longview, Texas and had played high school playoff games in Texas Stadium. Taylor went out of his way to secure plenty of tickets for his family when he and the Eagles flew down to Texas for a Week 10 showdown with the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. However, things could not have gone worse for him and the rest of the Eagles that night.
The Cowboys crushed the Eagles, 34-12, and Irvin caught eight passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. To make matters even worse, Taylor's family was still proudly rooting for the Cowboys.
"It was kind of like covert because they obviously wanted to get tickets anytime I would come back home and anytime we played the Cowboys," Taylor said. "I really didn't even know that they were Cowboys fans until my grandmother pulled me to the side after one of our games."
"Baby, I know you want your family to experience everything that you're doing, but some of our family, they're not even Eagles fans," she said. "They want you to do well, but at the end of the day, they want the Cowboys to win."
That little message from his grandmother helped save Taylor thousands of dollars moving forward, but the loss against the Cowboys in Week 10 was indicative of a topsy-turvy first half of the 1995 season for the Eagles.
The Eagles got off to a 1-3 start with the offense averaging just 19 points per game. After an embarrassing 48-17 loss to the then-Oakland Raiders, Rhodes made a change at quarterback. Cunningham was being benched in favor of Rodney Peete, who brought veteran experience along with a better understanding of Gruden's system.
"I'm sure there were those who were fed up and frustrated by Randall Cunningham, but he also had a lot of fans," Reese remembered. "He was the most exciting quarterback in Eagles history and somebody who Sports Illustrated put on the cover and called football's ultimate weapon, so it was not a universally popular move."
"At the end of the day, we want to win," Williams said. "Regardless of what the coaches do or how they make a change, we were all on board with doing what's best for the team."
Peete's experience in the offense and the Eagles' stifling defense helped them rattle off four consecutive victories before the loss to Dallas. They then bounced back with three more wins before falling to the Seattle Seahawks, putting them at 8-5 and setting up an important rematch with the rival Cowboys.
For Taylor, it was another chance to show what he could do against Irvin. He didn't have to worry about getting tickets for family members/closeted Cowboys fans. This time, he could put all of his focus into shutting down Irvin.
In an effort to better prepare himself for the physicality Irvin was sure to bring, Taylor increased his intensity in practice leading up to the game.
Unfortunately for fellow rookie Chris T. Jones, who was playing as Irvin on the scout team that week in practice, that meant daily confrontations between him and Taylor. It was nothing personal for Taylor. It was simply his way of getting ready to fight fire with fire on gameday.
"This was my guy," Taylor said of Jones. "We hung out, we went to dinner together, been on vacations with each other, but we were literally fighting pretty much every day in practice."
Taylor wasn't the only one who upped the ante in practice that week. His energy permeated throughout the team.
"You can just tell the tempo and the atmosphere at practice leading up to the game, it was totally different," he said. "Almost like a playoff environment."
That environment extended to gameday, as Taylor noticed a lot more traffic during his commute on Interstate 76 to Veterans Stadium that morning. It was clear to Taylor that Eagles fans were more than ready to renew their hostilities toward the Cowboys.
"You just knew that the fans were going to be ready and as professionals, we needed to be ready," he said.
When the Eagles took the field, they were wearing their road white jerseys. While it was an unusual sight to see them at home in December, it was actually par for the course for the Eagles in 1995, as they had worn white in every home game that season.
According to Williams and Taylor, Rhodes was a man of habit and sometimes bordered on downright superstitious. Although not confirmed, wearing white jerseys at home might have been part of it.
The game began as a typical 1990s NFC East slugfest as the defenses were running roughshod over the offenses. The Eagles' plan on offense was to feed Watters the ball early and often. However, the Cowboys' defense held him in check to the tune of 30 yards on nine carries. The Eagles mustered only six first-half points.
Smith, on the other hand, was having yet another productive day with 98 rushing yards in the first half and a 10-yard touchdown where he carried Taylor the last five yards into the end zone.
Despite that, the Eagles were only down 10-6 late in the first half and were in possession of the ball. But the Eagles' chance to put points on the board was abruptly snatched away by Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown, who stepped in front of a Peete pass, and took it 62 yards the other way for a touchdown, increasing the Cowboys' advantage to 17-6.
Brown galloping down the Eagles sideline for a pick-six was an all too familiar sight, as he took another interception to the house against the Eagles back in Week 10. As expected, Eagles fans voiced their displeasure by loudly booing the home team as they left the field for halftime.
While there was plenty of vitriol in the stands, there was no hellfire and brimstone speech from Rhodes in the locker room. Instead, he kept his team calm and confident. According to Williams, it was the same confidence Rhodes brought into the organization the day he took over.
"If you know anything about Ray Rhodes, he's not that type of guy that's going to come in here and create an atmosphere of meekness or fear. That's not what he exuded. He just kept us calm," Williams said.
In the second half, Gruden stuck with the plan of getting the ball to Watters and he eventually found running room against the Cowboys' defense. The result was Watters finishing the game with 112 yards on 33 carries and a touchdown that made the score 17-14 late in the third quarter.
The defense rebounded in the second half by stopping Smith at every turn and never allowing Aikman to get comfortable in the pocket. The Eagles' offense eventually moved the ball back into Cowboys territory to set up a Gary Anderson 38-yard field goal to tie the score at 17 with three minutes remaining in the game.
This is when things obviously get wild.
The Cowboys started off the ensuing drive with a pair of incomplete passes to Irvin and tight end Jay Novacek. On third down, Aikman found wide receiver Corey Fleming on a 9-yard gain, setting up fourth-and-1 at their own 29-yard line.
Instead of playing the field position battle and punting, Switzer decided to put his faith in his offense to get the yard. The eternally affable John Madden, who was calling the game for FOX, disagreed with the call.
Regardless, Aikman was under center. He took the snap and handed it off to Smith. Smith headed for the left side of the line of scrimmage but was met by a host of Eagles defenders and denied a first down.
The fans at Veterans Stadium were in hysterics celebrating the stop. The players were running around the field in elation. However, the referees said the play didn't count because the clock ticked down to the two-minute warning before the snap. That gave Switzer a chance to reconsider his fourth-down gamble. Instead, he opted to go for it again.
During the break, Reese discussed the upcoming play with color analyst and fellow Eagles Hall of Famer Stan Walters. Reese figured that since the Cowboys had already gone to Smith the first time around, they would pass it, particularly to Novacek, who had proven to be a very reliable target for Aikman over the years.
Unlike Reese, the Eagles' defenders didn't have to guess. As soon as they saw how the Cowboys were lined up, they knew what was coming.
"We knew what they were going to run," Taylor said. "It was just situations in the past during the season to where other teams knew what they were going to run and they were just so good that they would pretty much say, 'Hey, we know you guys probably know the play we're going to run, but we're still going to be able be successful.'"
It was only a yard after all. So, there was Aikman under center yet again. He took the snap and once again handed it off to Smith. Smith attempted to hit a hole on the left side, but linebacker Bill Romanowski and defensive tackle Andy Harmon were there to greet him. Smith stumbled back, but before he could regain his footing, defensive end Danny Stubbs slammed him to the Veterans Stadium turf.
While Reese was on the radio shouting "They stop him again!" Madden was on television in an incredulous state after what he just saw.
"This is unbelievable! They deserve to lose," he said.
It felt like Groundhog Day for everyone watching but more so for Reese, who had seen the 1993 comedy of the same name featuring Bill Murray the day before the game. After seeing the Cowboys run virtually the same play on consecutive downs and get the same exact results, Reese referenced the film to complete another one of his memorable calls.
"I couldn't believe that Barry Switzer went with exactly the same call and got exactly the same result," Reese said.
Although everyone second-guessed Switzer's decision, going for it made perfect sense to Williams and Taylor, as a team of the Cowboys' caliber was more than capable of getting a yard, regardless of the circumstances.
"Their offensive line, if you look across were probably all Hall of Famers," Williams said. "They were all Pro Bowlers. Their quarterback was Hall of Famer/Pro Bowler. Their running back was a Hall of Famer/Pro Bowler, so why wouldn't you go for it?"
"If I was them, I would have went for it again," Taylor said.
The Eagles quickly capitalized by taking the lead with an Anderson 42-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. But a celebration of victory would have been premature, as there was still enough time remaining for the uber-talented Cowboys to hand the Eagles a heartbreaking loss in front of their home fans.
In order to accomplish that, the Cowboys set out to get the ball into the hand of not just a playmaker, but "The Playmaker" in Irvin. Taylor was up for the challenge.
On three separate occasions, the Cowboys went deep to Irvin and every single time, Taylor was there to knock the ball away. At the end of the day, Irvin finished with only three catches for 40 yards, a far cry from his first encounter with Taylor. Taylor's stellar day proved that he could not only hang with the very best the NFL had to offer, but also that his teammates could depend on him, which went a long way with Taylor.
"I just wanted to be a big player in that particular moment," Taylor said. "I didn't want the moment to be too big for me."
The game came to a fitting end for both sides, as defensive end William Fuller capped off a tremendous day for the defense by slamming Aikman to the turf for the team's fourth sack of the day. Aikman picked himself up off the ground and proceeded to yell at his teammates, putting a tattered bow on a frustrating day for the Cowboys.
It was a welcome sight and the culmination to a cold, windy, yet glorious day for Eagles Everywhere.