Who would you rather be at this stage of the young season, Jimmy Johnson or Marv Levy?
Johnson is coaching the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, with their youth and speed, but he's playing shorthanded. Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys' two-time NFL rushing champ, is unsigned and watching the games at home in Pensacola, Fla., while the guy who handles the Dallas payroll, owner Jerry Jones, talks about the financial stability of his club. And Johnson is burning.
"What's the situation with Emmitt?" someone asked Johnson after Sunday's 13-10 loss to Levy's Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys' second defeat in as many games this season.
"Every time I hear that question I just get sick," he replied.
Levy has a three-year monkey on his back: three straight Super Bowl losses, including last January's 52-17 thrashing by Dallas. But the guys who handle the Bills' corporate decisions, new general manager John Butler and owner Ralph Wilson, made sure that all of their stars are in uniform. They gave Levy the people he needs to win with. And the Bills are 2-0.
You say you would rather be Johnson anyway, that the season is 16 games long and we've only scratched the surface? Don't be too sure. The Cowboys have now lost one game they should have won (Buffalo) and one game they should have lost (to the Washington Redskins, 35-16). It has been argued that Smith would not have helped much while the Redskins were putting together the 99-yard, third-quarter drive that broke Dallas's back, but the Smith holdout goes deeper than that.
The Cowboy locker room is a very jumpy place these days, and the mood will only get worse the longer Smith's holdout drags on. The organization's commitment to winning is being questioned by the players. There is nasty innuendo that the black running back is getting hardballed, while the white quarterback, Troy Aikman, will have his contract smoothly and lucratively upgraded when the time comes. At Texas Stadium on Sunday a banner hanging from the stands said DO THE RIGHT THING, NOT THE WHITE THING.
Johnson, who has run the football end of this organization with great purpose ever since coming to Dallas in 1989, doesn't need or deserve this sort of grief. But there it is, and he's ready to explode. On Saturday morning, the day before the game against Buffalo, he pointed to a copy of The Dallas Morning News sports section on his desk. "Look at this," he said. "The lead story's about Emmitt's holdout. The other front-page story is a rehash of our Redskin game. Does it say anywhere that we're playing the Buffalo Bills tomorrow? Oh, here it is, one line on the bottom. I'm telling you. I don't know how much more of this I can take." On Sunday he ended a lengthy postgame press conference with an awkward, sputtering silence as he was answering a routine question about the Cowboy defense.
Jones is haunted, too, by the realization that on Feb. 17, 1994, any team that is over the salary cap will have to start lopping off bodies or face penalties from the league. "It's terrifying," Jones says.
Call it naivetè, call it the very unsound business practice of spend now, worry later, but Butler and Wilson refuse to be terrified. Maybe it's because they have seen too much from the downside. Butler spent 14 months dodging mortar shells as a marine in Vietnam, and he supplemented his first coaching income, $3,500 as an assistant at the University of Evansville, by working nights at a 7-Eleven. Wilson is a charter member of the Foolish Club, the original owners of the old American Football League who spent millions battling the NFL.
During the off-season Butler restructured quarterback Jim Kelly's contract to pay him $4.1 million this year, and he handed out $13.5 million, three-year extensions to defensive end Bruce Smith and running back Thurman Thomas. Butler also made sure that all of his rookies were signed on time.
"We're over the salary cap," Butler says, "and you'd assume that the perception would be, uh-oh, time to pull back. But Mr. Wilson told me, "We'll do everything we have to do to win. There will be no pulling back.' My thinking is, let's keep the core together and make a run at it, and our owner has allowed us to do that."
So, what happens next year to the Buffalo roster when the salary cap kicks in? "I keep figuring maybe they'll change the rules or something," Butler says. "I never made a fortune in business. I'm not a genius. When I went to college, I said I'd never take something I couldn't spell, so I took P.E. I just know that you can't lose your good players and expect to win."
And on Sunday, Buffalo stole a win from the Cowboys. The brutal Texas heat—97° at kickoff and much hotter on the field—had turned the Bills rubber-legged on both sides of the ball midway through the second half. The Buffalo offense, all of whose points were set up by turnovers, produced only 14 yards in the fourth quarter. The passing attack had shut down. Kelly went back to throw twice in the final period, once firing an incompletion and once getting sacked. The Dallas pass rushers were pouring in on him.
On defense things were just as grim. Leg cramps were running through the ranks like a plague, and strange faces were shuttling in and out of the lineup. There was no rush on Aikman; he was eating up the Bill secondary with square-ins and slants to wideout Michael Irvin and tight end Jay Novacek.
And yet it was the Bills who led, 10-3. The Cowboys had killed themselves with mistakes. At the end of the third quarter, for example, Aikman directed a 52-yard, 10-play march to the Buffalo 12, but Lin Elliott's 30-yard field goal attempt was wide to the right. It was his second miss of the afternoon.
But on Dallas's first possession of the last quarter, Aikman took the Cowboys on a 98-yard, 14-play drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown run by rookie wideout Kevin Williams and tied the score at 10. Plenty of time left, and the Dallas defense took over, forcing the Bills to punt after three running plays that netted seven yards. Williams fielded the kick on his 32, fought for five yards, then was swarmed and stripped of the ball. The Bills had a first down on the Dallas 34. Six running plays brought them to the 17, where Steve Christie kicked the field goal that put Buffalo over the top.
Williams's fumble was the second that Dallas had lost in the game and its sixth of the season. In 1992 the Cowboys lost nine fumbles all year. Williams had fumbled away a punt in the Redskin game too. And where was Kelvin Martin, the sure-handed returner who handled kicks last year? In Seattle, lost through free agency. And how many free agents did the Cowboys, with the third-lowest payroll in the league, sign during the off-season? Zilch. These numbers are not lost on Johnson.
One final shot remained for the Cowboys when they got the ball with 2:49 left. Nine plays carried them from their own 20 to a second-and-four at the Buffalo 11, and the only question seemed to be how much time Buffalo would have alter the score. With 12 seconds left Aikman passed to Novacek, slanting in from the right side, and reserve safety Matt Darby, a fifth-round choice in 1992, played through Novacek, baited the ball and intercepted it on the one-yard line.
"I saw Aikman looking at Novacek," Darby said, "I knew I had to get inside him. I hit him and the ball at the same time, and it just came up to me."
The Cowboys are now playing like losers. They have committed eight turnovers this season and forced only one. There were two big plays in Sunday's game—Darby's, and Steve Tasker's terrific leaping save to down a Buffalo punt at the Dallas two-yard line—and the Cowboys didn't make either of them. They are also looking for a new kicker; Elliott has missed half of his four field goal attempts, and he blew an extra point against Washington.
With Smith sitting at home, ball control, which was the Cowboys' trademark last year when they led the NFL in time of possession, now has to be engineered by Aikman and his receivers. Derrick Lassic, the rookie running back from Alabama, is a willing worker, but on Sunday he gained only 52 yards on 19 carries, a 2.7-yard average, and he fumbled twice. The first one set up a Buffalo field goal, and the second would have been disastrous had not Lassic recovered it himself on the Dallas two. Smith is not a fumbler, a fact that was not lost either on the fans, who booed Lassic on Sunday, or on at least one Cowboy defensive player. "We'll never win with this——rookie running back," the player yelled in the locker room after the game.
"The fans showed no class," Lassic said. "But it really bothers me when one of my teammates says something like that. That hurts bad. I only heard it from one person, but it makes me wonder what everybody else is thinking."
Everyone is thinking that Jones had better get Smith back on the field. Last Friday, Jones was talking numbers, but not to Smith's agent, Richard Howell. The last Cowboy offer was $11 million over four years. How tough, Jones was asked, would it be to front-load an offer to Smith, paying the bulk of it this season, which would not count against the salary cap, and bringing the four-year package up to the $13.5 million that Thomas earns and Smith has demanded? People who know Smith say that at this point he would settle for that.
"It wouldn't be tough at all," Jones said.
So, Jerry, does that mean you would be willing to pay Thurman Thomas numbers and end this thing?
"They've asked for more," he replied. "They want a one-year contract, which is unacceptable. They're talking about quarterback numbers. If they're willing to talk about Thurman Thomas's numbers, I'd certainly listen."
"I've heard only two offers from the Cowboys, $9 million and $11 million," Howell said when told of this conversation. "If Jerry Jones is offering something higher, let me hear it from him."
And that's where it stands. The NFL's two-time rushing champion wants to be paid as much as a guy who may have led the league in combined yardage for three straight seasons but who also has a solid runner in Kenneth Davis to relieve him when he gets tired. When Smith is tired—well, there's always oxygen.
With Smith the Cowboys are Super Bowl contenders again—maybe. No team has ever begun a season at 0-2 and ended it in the Super Bowl. "I know this about Emmitt Smith," Johnson says. "He's a very proud player who won't back down from anyone on the field. And he won't back down in this thing, either."
O.K. Now who would you rather be, Jimmy or Marv?
Irvin and the Cowboys were upended by errors, like this interception by Nate Odomes (37).
PETER READ MILLER
Don Beebe's three receptions came in the first half, before the Bill passing game sputtered.
As Aikman (8) has carried Dallas's offense, Lassic has struggled and lost his teammates' confidence.
PETER READ MILLER
[See caption above.]
PETER READ MILLER
Johnson had more than just Smith to worry about after Darby (43) wrested the ball, and victory, from Novacek.
[See caption above.]