Boy, it's going to be hell in Dallas this week.
So many choices. Do you listen to Cowboy owner Jerry Jones's radio show or watch his TV show? Do you catch coach Jimmy Johnson's TV special or wide receiver Michael Irvin's radio show? Which of the five football shows hosted by local sportswriters do you tune in? And if you take in as many as you can, how will you have time for the show hosted by two assistant coaches? If you listen to nosetackle Tony Casillas's movie reviews on the radio, does that mean you have to miss tight end Jay Novacek's daily radio diary? All told, there are 22 Cowboy-related radio and TV shows, so should you catch the two that backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein does or the one that starting quarterback Troy Aikman does? Or should you forget them both and be a loyal follower of center Mark Stepnoski's show?
No sweat. Dallas has enough fans to satisfy everybody's Nielsens. The Boys are back the way they haven't been in a good long while. Get this: Last week injured safety Bill Bates threw a little party at his ranch, which is a day's horse ride from downtown Dallas. It was cold, drizzly and miserable, and 10,000 people showed up. The line on the highway near Bates's ranch backed up six miles.
The only place more crowded than Bates's ranch has been the Cowboy locker room. Whoa, there's movie star Gary Busey, low-fivin' NFL rushing champion Emmitt Smith. And that's Hank Williams Jr. over there. Hey, Hank, are you ready for some football? Cowboys don't need to bunk out to see the stars—not when the stars come right down the tunnel. And isn't that Brooks & Dunn, the hot country duo? Course, when you put a Boot-Scootin' Boogie on people the way Dallas has this season, the world beats a two-step to your locker.
The decibels are up big-time at Texas Stadium nowadays. The era of the ermine coat and the $300 Stetson is gone. Local sports columnist Skip Bayless used to write that Cowboy fans wouldn't do the wave because they were afraid to spill the plates of p‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢tè on their laps. But the oil bust came, and then the football bust came, and a ton of season tickets went up for sale again and a lot of blue-collar plumbers and pink-collar hairdressers finally got some seats.
Then some ol' ex-Arkansas Razorback bought the team, fired God's Coach and hired some other ol' ex-Arkansas Razor-back. Next thing you knew, that 1-15 season had turned into a 7-9 and then an 11-5 and, finally, this year, a 13-3—and the place was rattling and banging like a '63 Valiant. Course, that figures. It's been a very good year for the state of Arkansas.
But nobody had seen li'l ol' Texas Stadium rock the way it did on Sunday, when the Cowboys put some serious hurt on some city folk known as the Philadelphia Eagles. Were it not for the big hole in the roof, you would have sworn Texas Stadium was a dome during the 34-10 rout. Part of the excitement was owing to the fact that the playoffs hadn't plunked down in Dallas in 10 years. The other part was owing to some of the brain-lock things the Eagles said before the game.
Tight end Keith Byars said that the Washington Redskins were going to win their divisional playoff, that the Eagles were going to win theirs and that, therefore, Philadelphia would host the NFC title game. Then Philly safety Andre Waters said of Smith, "Two of us are going to walk on the field, but only one of us is going to walk off. They're going to have to carry him off."
Whatever it was that got the Dallas fans screaming, it sure made Irving unnerving. The Eagles played flatter than Randall Cunningham's flattop. They got a field goal on their first possession, but the rest of the day the Cowboy defensive line broke Cunningham's achy, breaky heart, not to mention most of the rest of him. It is not easy to pass while looking through four arms, six legs and the earhole of your helmet. "Every time I saw somebody open for a second, the Cowboys were back in my face," said Cunningham.
The Dallas defense was No. 1 in the NFL this season, but that must have been a Pentagon secret. Not a single member of the unit is going to the Pro Bowl. If you see Cunningham this week, ask him how he would vote.
The rest of the day belonged to a good ol' boy, Troy Aikman. He passed one yard to new tight end Derek Tennell, who was signed as a free agent on Dec. 29, for the first touchdown. Then late in the second quarter he hit Novacek with a six-yard TD pass that made the score 14-3. Still, Philly might have been all right if Vai Sikahema hadn't fumbled away the ensuing kickoff. The Cowboys tacked on a field goal in the sliver of time left to go up 17-3 at halftime.
Even then the Eagles would have been in it if they had only come out in the second half and tackled Smith, who went ballistic. He rushed for 69 of his 114 yards in the third quarter, including a 23-yard walk-on-Waters TD run. That put Dallas ahead 24-3, and unless you're the Buffalo Bills, the game was pretty much over.
Cunningham had been vacuum-scaled. He had only 90 yards passing and had been sacked five times when Dallas went up 34-3 with 3:19 to play. It was the worst playoff drubbing in Philly history, and only one thing was left to do in the wake of it: ask Waters if he still meant all those nasty things he'd said about Smith.
"What can I say?" said Waters with a shrug. "Today he showed he's a great running back." So what were Smith's back-to-back rushing titles? Chopped liver?
Anyway, that's why this week should be certifiably monstrous in Dallas, as the Cowboys get ready for Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. The last time Dallas played San Francisco in the playoffs, in the 1982 NFC title game, 49er Dwight Clark made The Catch, a reception that sent the Niners off to a decade marked by Super Bowl triumphs and Maddencruiser visits. On the other hand, the result sent the Cowboys off to a decade's worth of disappointments in front of home crowds only golfers could love.
This time, though, it's Dallas that looks like a dynasty about to happen. The Cowboys have the league's youngest team, with the biggest stars (Aikman, Smith and Irvin were the most productive quarterback-running back-wide receiver combination in the league) and maybe the best management (Jones and Johnson swung 46 deals in 47 months, a whole mess of which worked). Not only that, most of these Cowboys were 14 years old at the time of The Catch. "Hey, that wasn't this team," Smith says pointedly. "That was a whole different ball club."
In the Dallas locker room after Sunday's game, Aikman, who grew up in Henrietta, Okla., wasn't worrying about any of that. He was just putting in another dip of Copenhagen when somebody asked him if that wasn't a member of the country group Shenandoah in here awhile ago. Aikman said it was. And wasn't Aikman in one of the group's videos? Aikman said he was. What was the name of it again?
Spit. Ping. Smile.
"Long Time Comin'," said Aikman.
PETER READ MILLER
Cunningham was intentionally grounded by Dallas's defense, which sacked him five times.
PETER READ MILLER
When he wasn't walking on Waters, Smith was winging through the Eagles' defense.
Tennell's first catch as a Cowboy put his new team on top 7-3.