“THE BOUNTY BOWL”: Famous Chapter in Cowboys-Eagles Rivalry

A former NFL coach who played a key part in one of the most famous chapters in the Cowboys-Eagles storied rivalry passed away in June. Former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan died at age 82. The past several years he battled cancer and recently was confined to a wheelchair following a severely debilitating stoke. Buddy’s son, Rob, is a former Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. Rob’s twin brother, Rex, is the current Bills’ head coach. Rob joined brother Rex’s coaching staff in Buffalo this season.


Photo Credit: Ft Worth Star Telegram

But Buddy’s history with the Cowboys pre-dates Rob’s time on the Dallas coaching staff.

Buddy coached 26 years in the NFL and is best known as the architect of the Chicago Bears “46 Defense” which won Super Bowl XX following the 1985 regular season. His success as the Bears defensive coordinator led the Eagles to hire him as head coach in 1986. Ryan’s tenure in Philadelphia sparked a new level of vitriol in the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry within the NFL East.  The most famous incident came during the 1989 season, the famous “Bounty Bowl” games.

On Thanksgiving Day 1989, the Cowboys hosted the Eagles in a game at Texas Stadium.  Rookie head coach Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys got creamed by the Eagles, 27-0. But the memorable part of the afternoon was the postgame comments by Johnson who accused Ryan and the Eagles of placing a $200 “bounty” on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas (who had been cut by the Eagles earlier that season). Johnson also claimed there was an Eagles’ $500 bounty on Cowboys rookie quarterback Troy Aikman.


Photo Credit: Dallas Morning News

“I have absolutely no respect for the way they played the game, I would have said something to Buddy, but he wouldn’t stand on the field long enough,” Johnson told reporters during his postgame press conference. “He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room.”

When told of Johnson’s remarks, Ryan replied: “I resent that. I’ve been on a diet, I lost a couple of pounds, and I thought I was looking good.”

Ryan, of course, also denied the allegations of any bounty, saying game film would “show Small (Eagles linebacker Jessie Small) had no intention of hurting Zendejas.”

The play in question was the opening kickoff of the second half. Instead of blocking three Cowboys players who ran downfield to tackle the kick returner, linebacker Jessee Small ran past the three Cowboys players in coverage and targeted Zendejas, hitting him on the side of the helmet. Zendejas staggered off the field, wobbly as he made his way to the Cowboys’ bench.

Kicker Luis Zendejas of the Dallas Cowboys sits on the ground and shakes out the cobwebs after getting decked at the beginning of the third quarter of the Dallas Cowboys vs Philadelphia Eagles NFL football game on Nov. 23, 1989. The Thanksgiving Day game came to be known as the Bounty Bowl. 11272014xSPORTS

Photo Credit: Dallas Morning News

As for Aikman, he was the victim of a late-hit by linebacker Britt Hager. The late hit led to a skirmish between the two teams. Eagles defensive tackle Mike Pitts was ejected from the game as a result of the skirmish.

The game was dubbed by media as “The Bounty Bowl”.

Two weeks later, the Cowboys and Eagles met in a rematch which was quickly dubbed “Bounty Bowl II”. The game on December 10th was held in Philadelphia. CBS, which broadcast the game, promoted the event with Old West-style “Wanted” posters. The Eagles won 20-10.

During the game, Eagles fans pelted the field (and specifically Jimmy Johnson) with snowballs and beers. When Eagles defensive lineman Jerome Brown, standing along the Eagles bench, tried to stop fans from throwing objects onto the field, he was hit by a snowball. Even the CBS broadcasters (Verne Lundquist & Terry Bradshaw) were getting hit. As the game ended and Johnson was escorted from the field by police, the snowballs (and other objects) continued to rain down from the stands.

Years later, the then future-governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, admitted that he was a spectator at that game and took part in throwing snowballs. Rendell has bet another fan $20 that he couldn’t throw a snowball all the way to the field. When the fan’s snowball hit the field, Rendell had to pay-up on his lost bet.


Photo Credit: PhillySportsPast.com

As for Buddy Ryan, Bounty Bowls I and II were not his first foray into controversy with America’s Team. Two seasons earlier, back in 1987, Ryan and his Eagles team were easily defeating the Cowboys. Near the end of the 4th quarter, rather than run out the clock, Ryan directed his quarterback to fake a “kneel down” and – instead of taking of knee – the QB threw a pass to the end zone. The pass was not completed, but it did draw a penalty for pass interference. Rather than kneeling down on the next play, Ryan had the quarterback hand off to running back Keith Byars who scored a rub-it-in-their-face touchdown for the Eagles.

After that game, Ryan admitted that the “fake kneel down” and running up the score against Tom Landry was “payback” for a game earlier in the season in which the Cowboys kept their starters in the game against Eagles’ replacement players.

As for long-time Cowboys fans who remember the struggles of the Cowboys’ teams in the late 1980’s, Buddy Ryan will be remembered as the coach who placed the bounty on the kicker and the quarterback. Luckily, both Zendejas and Aikman avoided serious injury. But the legend of the bounties will continue to live in Cowboys’ lore.