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Original Issue

Big Changes in Big D

New coach Jimmy Johnson's game plan calls for a different brand of Cowboy football

Jimmy Johnson, the new coach of the Dallas Cowboys, rises from his table in the little Italian joint around the corner from the Cowboys' training center, and the bar comes alive. Everyone in the place has been sneaking peeks at this chubby guy from Port Arthur, Texas, who made a name for himself at the University of Miami before replacing a legend, Tom Landry. What did he eat? Caesar salad and stuffed egg-plant. Hmmm. And drink? A Heineken over ice. Must be some kind of Miami thing.

He's wearing a dark pin-striped suit, a white shirt with blue stripes and a conservative red tie—banker's clothes. Everyone checks the carefully groomed hair, the hair that was the subject of so many one-liners when the press and everyone else in town was lashing out in anger over the way Landry got dumped on Feb. 25, right after oilman Jerry Jones, who was Johnson's roommate and teammate at Arkansas, bought the Cowboys for a reported $140 million. Johnson has a ruddy, almost jolly-looking face, but the eyes are hard and penetrating.

Now Johnson is ready to leave, and the whoopees start.

"We're with you, Jimmy!"

"Give 'em hell, Jimmy!"

Then softer and grumpier, an old-timer's voice: "Just win more than three, Jimmy."

He can probably do that next fall, but don't expect a playoff season or even a winning record from the 1989 Cowboys. "There are no quick fixes," says Dallas's former offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, who last month was demoted to his current position, special projects coach, by Landry. "You could see 10 to 15 new faces on that football team."

Johnson has been on the job for less than three weeks. He has had his meals sent in to his office. He has been out to eat twice—at the Italian joint. Home is a condo rented by the team, 3½ blocks from the Cowboys' complex. His wife, Linda Kay, and their two boys are in Miami, where she is trying to sell a house the family bought seven months ago. The house was redecorated, but the Johnsons never got to live in it.

His staff consists of six of his assistants from the University of Miami, four Cowboy holdovers, offensive coordinator David Shula, who was brought in from the Miami Dolphins, and quarterback coach Jerry Rhome, who was with the San Diego Chargers. They have been working late and on weekends, trying to learn the personnel, breaking down game tapes. "You know, one of the Dallas people told me the coaching staff went home for dinner every night during the season—every night," says Johnson.

And his staff? "C'mon now," he says.

Where does he start as he attempts to cure the sick dog that was the 3-13 Cowboys? How long will it take? "We'll know more after we've gotten through one season," says Johnson. "It would be premature of me to sit here and say it will take such and such amount of time. Obviously, the key thing is personnel. This draft will probably be the most important one I'll ever have in the NFL. We pick first. I want to be in a position where, three years from now, I can say we had a great draft. But even with a great draft it's tough to change personnel overnight. From a coaching standpoint, though, there are some things I can address."

What things?

"Three big problems," he says. "The two-minute offense, our takeaway-giveaway ratio and penalties."

For three straight seasons Dallas has broken the club record for penalties: 111 in 1986, 131 in '87 and a league-high 141, three short of the NFL mark, in '88. The Cowboys, who finished with a losing record in each of those seasons, are either getting nastier or dumber. "We're not talking about aggressive penalties here," Johnson says. "Houston finished second to us with 125 last year, but a lot of those were aggressive penalties. Look here."

He pulls out a book put together by Neill Armstrong, whom Johnson has retained as research and development coach. "Thirty-four holding penalties, third highest in the league," says Johnson. "Is that aggressive? Fifteen delay-of-game penalties—the next highest team had eight. Are those aggressive penalties? What do they mean? Mentally not into it? Lack of conditioning? I won't know about that until I meet with the entire squad on March 29. It's easy to point fingers, but the only thing I'm looking at right now is how to improve, other than getting better players."

Ah, better players. As Chuck Fairbanks said when he suffered his first loss after taking over the New England Patriots, whom he had joined after an outstanding career at Oklahoma, "What am I supposed to do? I can't open a new can of players." Let's look at Dallas's players and see where the strengths and weaknesses are.

Start with defense, which used to be the Cowboys' mainstay. Last fall it gave up 43 touchdowns, third most in the league. Forget Landry's Flex defense and its old idea of wait and read before pursuing. It's gone. Johnson is a 4-3 man, as Landry was, but Johnson prefers an attacking 4-3: Hit the gaps, read on the move. He wants constant pressure. At Miami, Johnson liked to convert big linebackers into pass-rushing down linemen, as he did Daniel Stubbs and Greg Mark.

Dallas needs someone like Lawrence Taylor or Cornelius Bennett (who doesn't?) or Chris Doleman, who began his pro career as a linebacker and now plays defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys got by with only two defensive ends last year. The San Francisco 49ers alternated four, sometimes five. Jim Jeffcoat is still effective, but he's the only decent defensive end Dallas has drafted since it got Too Tall Jones 15 years ago. Jones, who's 38, carries on, with little noticeable drop-off in performance, but he'll hit the wall sometime soon. This pair plays every down, and you can't do that in the NFL today.

As for the tackles, Danny Noonan is a hand fighter who can be blocked, but he gets by in the four-man line. Kevin Brooks is a good run-stopper and is coming off a productive year, but he's injury-prone. Randy White, 36, can still rush the passer, but he can't seem to stay healthy, either.

Ron Burton is a natural inside linebacker playing on the outside. Eugene Lockhart is sturdy enough, but as a 4-3 middle man he has a lot to worry about, too much sometimes. Garry Cobb was a savior last year on the right side. He's an active pursuit guy, but he's 32. Jeff Rohrer missed the season with a back injury, and he may never play a full season again.

The secondary suffered from what Johnson's defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, says was "80 to 85 percent man coverage. We'll protect them in zones." Right cornerback Robert Williams was a sleeper, a second-year free agent who blossomed. Everson Walls, an eight-year veteran, is smart, and he still breaks to the ball well. Interestingly, one of the Cowboy coaches Johnson retained was Dick Nolan, who handles the DBs.

Dallas is in much worse shape at safety. Bill Bates is John Madden's favorite character, and 15 years ago he would have fit in. But NFL offenses have a way of dealing with slow, tough-guy strong safeties these days. They put a fast back on the wing and let the safety try to stay with him. Bates would be a fine linebacker in the nickel, in which he has less ground to cover, but his lack of speed hurts him in the base defense. The new Dallas coaches can't understand why Vince Albritton, an aggressive strong safety, was left unprotected in the current free-agency period. He'll probably be signed by someone else. Free safety Michael Downs is an erratic tackler. He, too, is unprotected.

In short, this defense has one blue-chipper, Williams. Last year it could mount pressure on the passer only sporadically without all-out blitzing that left it vulnerable to big plays. Dallas's most pressing need on defense is a situation rusher. The Cowboys will probably try to find one with their second-round draft pick. With the first selection in the draft, they likely will select UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman.

Which brings us to the offense. The wideouts, plus Herschel Walker, are the primary strengths. Michael Irvin, who averaged a team-high 20.4 yards per catch in 1988, will be a star. The rest of the wide receivers are capable if unspectacular. We'll know whether Mike Sherrard has recovered from two years of leg injuries if another team signs him off the unprotected list. The tight ends don't include a first-rate pass catcher. But then, few teams have one.

The guards—Crawford Ker and Nate Newton, if he chops 30 pounds off his most recent weight of 338, as Johnson wants him to do—are strong. But center Tom Rafferty is 34 and about ready to pack it in, and the two 300-pound tackles, Dave Widell and Kevin Gogan, are both best suited to the strong side.

Walker, of course, is the Cowboys' most potent weapon. "Just write down 1,500 yards for him," says Hackett. He would be even better if, like San Francisco's Roger Craig, he had a booming Tom Rathman-type fullback in front of him. Timmy Newsome, who will be 31 this season, has been a fine all-purpose utility back, but he's less suited to playing the role of a classic fullback.

So how do the Cowboys fill all these needs? By shifting current personnel? Maybe, in a spot or two. The unprotected free-agent list? Johnson says he has checked it out, and "so far I haven't found anything that excites me." The draft? Well, sure. You take Aikman first, followed, if you can find them, by a 250-pound linebacker to get the passer, a Big Eight fullback, a free safety, a center and a tight end. Then you're about out of picks, and you look to next year's draft.

Now the big one: quarterback. Before considering the choices, let's back up a bit and look at three franchises that were floundering until a new coach came in and turned them around. Each went about the job in his own way, but all had one thing in common: They came up with a terrific quarterback in a hurry.

In 1959, Vince Lombardi took over a Green Bay Packer team that hadn't had a winning record in 11 years and was coming off a 1-10-1 season. But he also inherited some remarkable, if misused, talent. Six members of that squad—Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo and Ray Nitschke—are in the Hall of Fame. Seven others were past or future All-Pros. Green Bay needed a fire, and Lombardi lit it. But his most telling move was to change quarterbacks after a five-game losing streak in his first season, replacing Lamar McHan with Starr. The Packers won their last four games, to finish with a winning record. They went to the the title game the next year, and in Lombardi's third season they became NFL champs.

When Chuck Noll arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969, the Steelers had just gone 2-11-1. Within four years he had them in the playoffs. Two years after that, he led Pittsburgh to the first of four Super Bowl triumphs. Between '69 and '74 Noll put together the finest six-year run in the history of the NFL draft. In the second year he landed his future Hall of Fame quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

The 49ers had suffered losing seasons in five of their last six years before Bill Walsh arrived in 1979. He went 2-14 in his first season and won a Super Bowl title in his third. Outstanding defensive acquisitions in that third season pushed the Niners over the top, but in his first draft Walsh made sure he got his signal caller, Joe Montana.

So now we come to Johnson and the question of whether Aikman will be the equal of Starr, Bradshaw and Montana. Last fall at UCLA, Aikman wasn't the all-out, fling-it-deep quarterback that quickens the pulse, but he had slow receivers, and the Bruins employed a controlled passing attack. "I'll work him out myself," says Johnson. "The important thing is to understand what he was asked to do at UCLA. We played him when I was at Miami, and he was at Oklahoma [before Aikman transferred to UCLA]."

Yeah, big deal, three passes a game.

"No, he actually came out throwing, until we broke his leg."

What about Steve Pelluer, Dallas's incumbent quarterback? Johnson flicks on a game tape to illustrate the ineffectiveness of the Cowboys' two-minute offense. They had the ball 36 times last season with two minutes or less to play. The result: two TDs, two field goals. Johnson refuses to criticize Pelluer. "I'm not going to do any finger pointing right now," he says. But he doesn't have to; the evidence is right here on tape. Dallas has the ball a yard and a half from the Pittsburgh end zone. Pelluer rolls right, spots the tight end cutting inside, away from him, and unloads. Three Steelers in coverage draw lots for the ball. David Little, number 50, wins. "That throw should never have been made," says Johnson.

"Now, look, we get the ball again. We're still only three points down." The play is a pick, with two wideouts crisscrossing. The throw is to the outside receiver, who's open. Montana makes the play in the dark, but here the timing is off. The receivers are too close to each other. The pass sails wide. "You've got to complete that throw," says Johnson. "I can go on and on, looking at reel after reel. The opportunities were there."

It looks bad for Pelluer and good for Aikman, if he passes Johnson's personal inspection. If Aikman does wind up with the Cowboys, he'll work out of the Dolphins' pass offense: quick read, three-step drop, bing, bing, down the field. Only Dan Marino will be missing. Johnson used the Dolphin attack at Miami, and Shula will oversee it in Dallas. "The difference between our offense and the Dolphins' is that we'll hang in with our running game longer," says Johnson. "Makes sense, with a Herschel Walker, don't you think?"

The Cowboys won't turn it around this year, but they should improve. What about next year and the year after? Who knows? NFL history is littered with the corpses of hotshot college coaches—Lou Holtz, Darryl Rogers, Frank Kush, even Bud Wilkinson—who perished in the pros.

You can't always find that new can of players.