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Sunday, March 13, 2005 

How 'bout that Cowboy?

This is part three of a four part look at the quarterbacks behind the modern NFL dynasties.

It is tough to compare Troy Aikman and Jim Kelly. Both QBs had a great running back behind them, though Emmitt Smith gets an edge over Thurman Thomas in their respective primes. But Dallas had a much better offensive line, and could control the game on the ground and using their defense. Buffalo relied on Jim Kelly to outscore the other team. Comparing their career statistics is bit misleading, since Kelly began his career in the USFL while Aikman's career was cut short by a series of concussions.

GP Comp Att Pct Yds TD INT
Aikman 165 2898 4715 61.5 32942 165 141
Kelly 160 2874 4779 60.1 35467 237 175

I was surprised how eerily similar these numbers are. Kelly has a big edge in TDs and a better TD-INT ratio, but I would have thought the difference in completion percentage and yardage would have been larger (in Aikman's and Kelly's favor, respectively).

Kelly was the starter from the minute he arrived in Buffalo from the USFL. The Bills were coming off back-to-back 2-14 seasons and proceeded to go 4-12 with Kelly in 1986. But Marv Levy was hired 9 games into the season and slowly turned the team around. The addition of Thomas in 1988 put the Bills over the top and made them a consistent playoff team. Together with Andre Reed, they provided a great offensive supporting cast for the "K-gun" offense which featured the no-huddle and a quick strike offense.

By comparison, the Dallas Cowboys were an overnight success. After falling to 3-13 in 1987, new owner Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry and brought in Jimmy Johnson, whose brash personality was Landry's polar opposite. The team bottomed out at 1-15 in his first season, but that gave the Cowboys the right to draft two top QBs - Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft, and Troy Aikman in the regular draft as the top pick. The two QBs battled for the starting job in 1989, as Aikman struggled to complete 52.9% of his passes and was intercepted 18 times while throwing just 9 TDs). Aikman got the job as the Cowboys went 7-9, but Johnson got the biggest prize of all when he traded RB Herschel Walker to the Vikings in mid-season and walked off with a basketful of draft choices. Of course, the real prize came in the following draft, when the Cowboys selected RB Emmitt Smith.

Jim Kelly's best chance for a Super Bowl win came in his first try after the 1990 season. A close win over the Dolphins followed by a 51-3 rout of the Raiders made the Bills favored to win Super Bowl XXV. But the Giants defense coached by Bill Belichick shut down Kelly while Bill Parcells' game plan worked to perfection. With Kelly on the sidelines, RB Ottis Anderson controlled the clock. Still, the Bills could have won, but Scott Norwood missed the potential game winner at the final gun for a 20-19 loss. The following year added more frustration, as Buffalo lost to unheralded Mark Rypien and the Washington Redskins 37-24.

But in 1992, the Bills felt that the third time would be the charm, even though they failed to win the AFC East for the first time in five years. Backup QB Frank Reich had come off the bench to rally the Bills in their Wildcard Game against the Houston Oilers, sparking the largest comeback in playoff history and a 41-38 overtime win. Lopsided wins against the Steelers and Dolphins followed, but they were still underdogs in the Super Bowl. Their opponents were Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys had made the playoffs for the first time in 6 years in 1991, but got trounced in the second round by the Lions 38-6. In 1992, the Cowboys won the NFC East, and defeated the Eagles and 49ers to reach the Super Bowl. Aikman was superb in the big game, completing 22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and 4 TDs on the way to winning MVP honors. Dallas built a 28-10 halftime lead en route to a 52-17 rout.

After three straight Super Bowl losses by the Bills, nobody was surprised the next season when Dallas was heavily favored to win the rematch in Super Bowl XXVIII. But the Bills built a 13-6 halftime lead, and it looked like Jim Kelly might get his ring. Then Emmitt Smith took over, and the Cowboys shutout the Bills 24-0 in the second half and romped 30-13 for their second straight title. Smith got the MVP this time, as Dallas was conservative and Aikman was less impressive than his Super Bowl debut the year before (19-27, 207, 0 TD, 1 INT). This was the end of the line for the Bills, who never even reached the AFC Conference championship game again.

But Aikman and the Cowboys were far from finished, even though Jimmy Johnson left the team after the season. With Barry Switzer at the helm, the Cowboys lost to the 49ers in the 1994 NFC title game, in which Aikman threw for 380 yards and 2 TDs but was intercepted 3 times. Aikman got back to the top the following season, as the Cowboys defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX 27-17. Neither offense played well, and Aikman had unimpressive numbers again (15-23, 209, 1 TD, 0 INT), but the Cowboys became the first team to win 3 Super Bowls in 4 years.

Both Aikman and Kelly struggled with injuries in the final years of their careers, and Aikman never returned to the NFC Conference championship game after his last Super Bowl either. Troy Aikman never gets his due alongside Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, mostly because of Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys defense, but Aikman's composure and sure-handed leadership made him the perfect QB for the turbulent Cowboys of the 1990's.

QB Super Bowls Won (or Lost)
Aikman 27, 28, 30
Kelly 25, 26, 27 ,28
Note: MVP in bold

Note on References: All statistics taken from Pro Football Reference and the The Pro Football Encyclopedia, Macmillian, 1997.

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