A GREAT RUSH OF YOUTHFUL EXUBERANCE HAS PROPELLED the Dallas
Cowboys into the Super Bowl. They were unstoppable in the second half
of their 30-20 NFC Championship Game victory over the San Francisco
49ers on Sunday, and it was their young legs -- a bunch of guys who
have yet to see their 27th birthday -- that put 20 points on the
board after intermission. But that isn't the whole story.
What really separates this team is its youthful and
unconventional approach to the game. Got a lead with the clock
winding down? Fine. Don't sit on it, make it bigger. Fourth-and-one,
with an 11-point lead and a gimme field goal if you want it? Forget
it. Go for the seven.
''That's been our style ever since I've been here,'' said
fourth-year quarterback Troy Aikman, who had a career day against the
Niners. ''It's coach Jimmy Johnson's style. Same with Norv Turner,
our offensive coordinator. Always go for it, always attack, no matter
what the score is. I'm very fortunate. It would be hard for me to go
to a ball-control, play-the- percentages type of offense.''
''Coach Johnson was the same way at the University of Miami,''
said wideout Michael Irvin, who played for Johnson when he coached
the Hurricanes. ''First get the athletes with speed and big-play
ability. Then turn 'em loose.''
Three consecutive series in the fourth quarter drove home the
message. On the first one the Cowboys were up 24-13, linebacker Ken
Norton had just cut off a San Francisco drive with an interception,
and Dallas had moved to the 49er seven. Fourth-and-one. Running back
Emmitt Smith got the call over right tackle but was stopped by
linebacker Mike Walter. Niner ball.
Nine plays (all passes) and 93 yards later, with Steve Young
running a hurry-up offense and completing eight of his throws, San
Francisco was in the end zone. The drive took 2:28 and brought the
clock down to 4:22. The Niners now trailed by four points, and the
Candlestick Park crowd, which had had little to cheer about since the
10-10 halftime score, was back into the game. What's more, Dallas's
defense was starting to sag.
Norton, the weakside linebacker, the coverage guy who stays on the
field all the time -- a player who should have made the Pro Bowl, on
a league-leading defense that had no one voted to the NFC team -- had
been on the bench when San Francisco scored. It was his replacement,
Mickey Pruitt, who had chased Jerry Rice across the goal line on his
five-yard TD reception.
The momentum had switched, all right, and when you're a coach
caught in a momentum shift, you do one of two things: You ride with
it and pray, running the ball and working the clock in the hope that
the other team won't have enough time to beat you, or you try to
switch the momentum back in your favor and put the game away. ''Coach
Johnson told me, 'Do what you have to do to win this thing,' '' said
So on first down Turner called an intermediate-range pass, a
square-in, to wideout Alvin Harper, who made the catch in front of
cornerback Don Griffin. Harper kept angling across the field as he
headed for the end zone, gaining 70 yards, down to the San Francisco
nine. One play, one more momentum switch.
''It would have been easy to say, Remember the Redskin game,
remember how we lost doing that,'' said Turner, recalling the Dec. 13
game at RFK Stadium, in which Aikman, sitting on a four-point lead
with 3:14 remaining, had tried to pass out of his own end zone, only
to have the Skins knock the ball loose and fall on the fumble for the
winning TD. ''A lot of people take the approach: Make sure you don't
lose the game. Maybe they're successful that way. I won't say it's
good or bad. It's just not our style. I like the way we do things.''
The Cowboys all but put the game beyond reach when Aikman hooked
up with his No. 3 wideout, Kelvin Martin, on a six-yard TD pass on
third-and-goal. The extra point attempt was blocked, and with 3:43
left Dallas had a 10-point lead that held up when free safety James
Washington intercepted Young's pass to Mike Sherrard.
The bold approach had paid off. The Cowboys are in the Super Bowl,
and if you look at this remarkable team, which went 1-15 only three
seasons ago, when it had a rookie coach, a rookie owner (Jerry Jones)
and enough rookie players to fill a bus, another significant fact
jumps out at you: All the big-play people Johnson has brought in
since he signed a 10-year contract in April 1989 -- Aikman, Harper,
Irvin, Norton, Smith, defensive tackle Tony Casillas and pass-rush
specialist Charles Haley -- came up big in the most significant game
of their careers. Not one of them had an off day.
It is a young team that's peaking at exactly the right time. The
Cowboys bounced back from the Redskin loss to wallop the Atlanta
Falcons 41-17 on the road. The next week they held the Chicago Bears
to 92 yards in a 27-14 win in the regular-season finale. Then they
crushed the Philadelphia Eagles 34-10 in their first playoff game.
Irvin had put up big numbers this season (78 catches for 1,396
yards), but he had dropped a few too. Not on Sunday. He was the hot
man against the San Francisco blitz. Five of his six receptions for
86 yards, most of them in tight coverage, gave Dallas first downs.
Harper, a seven-foot high jumper from the University of Tennessee,
had made a few big plays before Sunday, but he'd never had the kind
of day that he had against the Niners -- three catches for 117 yards,
including a 38-yarder that set up the touchdown that opened the
scoring in the second half. He wrestled the ball away from cornerback
Eric Davis on that one.
As usual, Smith was relentless, squirming through potential
tacklers' arms for 114 yards and a TD, adding another score on a
16-yard catch, one of seven he had for an additional 59 yards. Norton
was once again the glue that held the defense together. And Casillas
had three sacks.
Haley, a former 49er who went to the Cowboys in a preseason trade,
was something of a cause celebre during the week leading up to his
first game against his old mates -- my goodness, what would they have
ready for him? -- and he had a most interesting afternoon, indeed.
The Niners tried running at him, but that didn't work. They tried
blocking him straight up with tackle Steve Wallace, and when that
didn't work, they double-teamed him with Wallace and guard Guy
McIntyre. Two series in the second quarter, each of which ended with
San Francisco's being stopped and having to go for a field goal, only
one of which was good, defined Haley's afternoon -- and what he has
meant to the Cowboys.
On the first series Haley got a hit on Young after an
incompletion, nailed running back Ricky Watters for no gain and
forced Young out of the pocket and into a scramble that fell short of
a first down. Later in the second quarter, when the Niners had
first-and-10 at the Dallas 12, Haley split the double team and forced
Young into a Casillas sack. Then on third down he leaped high to
deflect a pass and kill the drive.
''Things got a bit heated between Charles and me,'' said Wallace.
''By the third quarter we didn't like each other at all. On one play
I came up to the line fully expecting to cut him, and Charles said,
'Congratulations on making the Pro Bowl,' so I figured what the hell
and just stayed up high with him. After the game I gave him a big
hug. I had to let bygones be bygones. But there were times when
Charles was wreaking havoc out there.''
Then there was Aikman. How would he fare against a team he had
faced only once, in a game in 1990 in which he completed just nine of
21 passes and the Cowboys were humiliated 24-6? How would he do on a
muddy field that had swallowed up Washington's Mark Rypien in San
Francisco's playoff win the week before, a surface soaked by an
additional week of rain?
| At the big press conference last Friday night, Aikman was
asked when he had last played in the mud. ''Henryetta High School in
Oklahoma,'' he said. ''The Henryetta Hens.''
After a week of intermittent showers the rain let up on Saturday,
but on Sunday morning the heavens opened again. The local NBC
telecast of the AFC Championship Game included message strips across
the TV screen: FLOOD WARNINGS FOR SAN RAFAEL, SANTA CLARA, SAN
FRANCISCO. . . . The complete roster of Sans and Santas was in
When the tarps came off the field for the pregame warmups, the
players discovered an odd mixture of lush, newly laid Bermuda grass
-- 25,000 square feet of it -- and the old Bluegrass, which was
reinforced by 14 tons of calcined clay and crushed Japanese ceramic.
The field looked like a pool table gone haywire. But George Toma, the
Kansas City Royals' turf specialist, who works for the NFL during the
playoffs (he's known as the Marquis de Sod), had worked wonders. The
field held up. No slips.
''I thought the field was going to be sloppy and trashy,'' said
Dallas guard Nate Newton, ''but it wasn't. The outside was kind of
heavy, but the middle was perfect -- like Tampa Bay's field. I'd like
to call George Toma and tell him, Man, you did some wonderful job.''
''Fixing that turf was the worst thing they could have done,''
Wallace said. ''It was too good. I didn't see Emmitt slip once the
But at 4 a.m., when Johnson woke up and saw the heavy rain, he
started tinkering with his game plan. ''I remembered something Neil
Armstrong once told me,'' said Johnson after the game. ''He said that
when he was on Bud Grant's coaching staff in Minnesota, they played
the Rams in a downpour, and they threw early, before the field really
got too chewed up. The Vikings scored twice right away, and those two
scores held up as the field became unplayable.''
So Aikman came out throwing -- four passes in the first five plays
and then, after the Niners' Alan Grant had fumbled away the punt
return at the San Francisco 26, three more passes in the next four.
That series set up the game's first score, a 20-yard field goal by
Lin Elliott. However, on Dallas's next possession the 49ers said
enough of that. They threw a couple of exotic blitzes at Aikman,
stuff they'd never shown before, and sacked him on back-to- back
By halftime Dallas had only 10 points, and both scores had been
set up by San Francisco fumbles. Then in the third quarter Aikman
took charge. On the Cowboys' first possession, a 78-yard TD drive,
he was three for four, including the 38-yarder to Harper. Dallas's
next series was possibly Aikman's finest as a pro. The 14-play,
79-yard drive ate up nine minutes and culminated in his scoring pass
to Smith, which put Dallas ahead 24-13.
Aikman completed seven of eight passes on that march, throwing
with touch when he had to, drilling it when the opening was tight.
The Niners tried blitzing backup safety Thane Gash, but Aikman
countered with hot reads and quick-release strikes delivered with
perfect accuracy and timing. His final numbers: 24 completions in 34
attempts for 322 yards and two TDs, with no interceptions.
''I've showed him 49er films,'' Turner said, ''and I really think
he's got some Joe Montana qualities. Troy's so accurate, so
competitive. And he did an unbelievable job on the hot routes against
''We worked on that so much in my rookie year, when we were
1-15,'' Aikman said. ''We had to because we saw so many blitzes. I
must have seen every one there was. If you couldn't beat it, you
didn't have a chance. Most of the break-off routes against blitzes
today were called in the huddle. We anticipated them.''
The first two rounds of the 1992 postseason were for sorting out
the Cinderellas, the inspirational teams that came from nowhere. By
the championship round one thing was clear: Come in with anything
less than a blue-chipper at quarterback, and you're a dead duck. Down
went Minnesota, with shaky Rich Gannon and Sean Salisbury, and the
Pittsburgh Steelers, with the Neil O'Donnell-Bubby Brister mishmash.
Down went the Redskins and Rypien, and the San Diego Chargers and
Stan Humphries. What remained in the title games were four Pro Bowl
QBs: Aikman and Young in the NFC, the Buffalo Bills' Jim Kelly and
the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino in the AFC.
Now it's the precision of Aikman versus the raw courage of Kelly
in Super Bowl XXVII. With this being the Bills' third straight Supe,
they are the old hands. The Cowboys are the hot team, with young legs
on the field and young ideas in the coaching department -- as the
49ers found out on a soggy Sunday in San Francisco.