Cowboys surprise critics by having shot at playoffs

TALLER IN THE SADDLE

December 16, 1990|By Vito Stellino

Tom Landry, a man who never wastes words, had a rather terse evaluation of the Dallas Cowboys a year ago when they were struggling through a 1-15 season.

"It will take some time before they are to where they can compete," Landry said.

Landry wasn't exactly an unbiased observer. He had been fired by new owner Jerry Jones after 29 years of being the only coach the Cowboys ever had.

But Landry's sentiments weren't exactly unusual.

A lot of people were scoffing at the Cowboys a year ago.

Jimmy Johnson, who was Jones' college roommate, was being ridiculed for everything from his hairstyle to his offense.

Despite his 52-9 record at the University of Miami, he was being called a college coach who didn't understand how to coach in the pros.

Linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants said Johnson's offense was so simple that he thought it was some kind of a trick.

A lot has changed in a year.

As the 6-7 Cowboys prepare to play the Phoenix Cardinals today, they know that if they win their last three games, they'll be in the playoffs this year.

Sure, the playoffs are watered down this year -- three wild-card teams from each conference now make it instead of two.

But it still would qualify as the first time a club has made the playoffs the year after having the worst record in the National Football League since the Baltimore Colts went from 2-12 in 1974 to 10-4 in 1975.

The turnaround has been so abrupt that Johnson finds himself answering skeptics that he's raised expectations too high too quickly and will now be compared with Landry's legacy of 20 straight winning seasons and five Super Bowl appearances.

"We'd have high expectations next year regardless," he said. "High expectations next year are a given, and it's ridiculous to say we won too many too fast. I'll deal with next year next year."

Johnson is serious about making the playoffs this year even though he's a long shot even if the Cowboys beat Phoenix. They have to travel to Philadelphia next week.

"I'd be severely disappointed [if we don't make it]," he said. "I'd not be happy."

The Cowboys have done a lot of things right lately. They traded up in the first round to draft running back Emmitt Smith. Combined with quarterback Troy Aikman, he's a key to the offense of the future. They've also stockpiled draft picks in the Herschel Walker and Steve Walsh deals and have five first-round picks the next two years.

Even Jones, who was dubbed "[Bob] Irsay with a twang" last year for the clumsy way he fired Landry, is acting as if he understands how to run a club.

He now admits he blew it by attending the first news conference when the firing of Landry was announced and he slammed the table and said Johnson was worth five No. 1 draft picks and five Heisman Trophy winners.

"[Former president] Tex Schramm should have come in the room and basically said there has been a deal between Bum Bright and Jerry Jones, but what we're here about tonight is that Tom Landry will no longer be the coach of the Dallas Cowboys after 29 years. I shouldn't have even been on the same podium with that deal," Jones said.

Now that the Cowboys are inching close to respectability, the real question is whether they can take the next step.

Is this year a fluke because teams have underestimated them?

Even Landry has to admit things look a lot better than they did a year ago.

"You can say they're on the right course, based on the performance this year," he said.

But Landry knows how tough it will be once teams take the Cowboys seriously.

"You just don't know yet how the league is accepting the Cowboys," he said. "Are they respecting them? With a team everybody says shouldn't do this or that, you play more to their level and they play more to your level."

The Cowboys' record includes two victories over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They also beat the San Diego Chargers when coach Dan Henning tried a fake punt with the lead in the fourth quarter and they beat the Los Angeles Rams with the help of a critical fumble by Cleveland Gary. They beat Washington when the Redskins virtually didn't show up.

It gets tougher starting today. As do the Cowboys, the Cardinals have a modest three-game winning streak (the two streaks are the longest in the league) and they beat the Cowboys, 20-3, in the first meeting.

"We underestimated the talent Phoenix has," Johnson said of the first game.

They can't afford to do that today. "As far as I'm concerned, it's as important a game as I've had as coach of the Cowboys," Johnson said. "If we get beat by Phoenix today, I can become a dumb coach in a hurry."

The Cowboys hope to show today how smart Johnson has become.

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