Steve Beuerlein was a quarterback in exile a year ago, forced to dress in street clothes each Sunday as the Los Angeles Raiders made a bumpy tour of the NFL playoffs.
The Dallas Cowboys also spent the postseason in playoff purgatory -- outside looking in, that is, -- after learning the importance of having an NFL-caliber backup quarterback.
That Beuerlein found the Cowboys and together they found the playoffs is one of this season's intriguing subplots. Theirs was a marriage born as much of necessity as convenience.
Banished to the bench after a bitter contract dispute with the Raiders' Al Davis, Beuerlein needed to get away from L.A. The Cowboys, having missed the playoffs because Babe Laufenberg couldn't carry Troy Aikman's clipboard, needed a competent No. 2 man. After much discussion, a deal was struck last August: Beuerlein to Dallas for a fourth-round draft choice.
When Aikman went down in the playoff stretch for the second straight year, that deal turned out to be a steal. Beuerlein quarterbacked the Cowboys to a five-game winning streak in December. And Beuerlein is scheduled to make his first playoff start today when the Cowboys (11-5) visit the Chicago Bears (11-5) in an NFC wild-card game, even though Aikman is able to play.
Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson leaves himself open to criticism should the Cowboys lose in Chicago with their second-string quarterback. But he defends the move by saying that Aikman has not recovered completely from a partial ligament tear in his right knee, suffered Nov. 24 in Washington.
"Obviously, if Beuerlein had not played as well as he's playing, we'd be playing Troy at less than 100 percent because he'd give us the best chance to win," Johnson said. "Steve Beuerlein playing well is what's kept Troy from playing right now. If Troy were 100 percent, it'd be a different story, but he's not."
Beuerlein, a third-year veteran out of Notre Dame, is 4-0 as a starter for the Cowboys and pulled out a 24-21 victory over the then-unbeaten Redskins in relief of Aikman. At the time Aikman went down, Beuerlein had thrown all of five passes in the previous year and a half -- all in cameo roles with the Cowboys. In five games since then, he has thrown for 883 yards, five touchdowns and only two interceptions.
Beuerlein has been so steady at quarterback that until he threw his first interception last week against the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas had gone 15 quarters and 272 offensive plays without a turnover.
The Cowboys insist they knew what they were getting. "When Coach Johnson went out and got him, he knew he was getting a proven winner," said offensive tackle Nate Newton.
Said Beuerlein: "I expect to be successful. I'm not surprised. I'm upset if I'm not successful. I wouldn't be in this business if I couldn't deal with pressure. This is the kind of pressure I like."
Beuerlein says he understands his role with the Cowboys. He knows the starting job belongs to Aikman when Troy is healthy. And Beuerlein says that someday, he wants the chance to start again. But he did not make waves in Los Angeles, and so far hasn't in Dallas, either.
"I'm not a rock-the-boat kind of guy," Beuerlein said. "The worst thing would be to have someone unhappy about their role and draw attention to that and divide the team. That's not healthy for a playoff team.
"I want to play more than anything. I want to be the starter. Obviously, I want to be one again somewhere in the future. I think I'm good enough to be a starter, but I also realize that's not going to happen at this point."
Because Beuerlein has been sensitive to Aikman's status, there is no quarterback controversy in Dallas the way there was when Aikman and Steve Walsh vied for the starting job. What helped this situation is the friendship the two quarterbacks struck when Aikman played at UCLA and Beuerlein was a backup with the Raiders.
"This is a totally different situation," Aikman said. "Steve Walsh and I came here together. Steve and I are still friends, but because of the competition between us, it kept us from being great friends. The way he [Beuerlein] has handled things has helped."
In Chicago today, Beuerlein will have to deal with an uncomfortable wind chill index and an aroused Bears defense that was humiliated in Monday's 52-14 loss at San Francisco.
But the Cowboys have playoff assets of their own. They offer a balanced attack, with the NFL's leading rusher in Emmitt Smith and the league's leading receiver in Michael Irvin. Plus, they were able to win in playoff-type circumstances at Washington and Philadelphia late in the year.
"The quality and strength of schedule we played helps us more than anything else," Johnson said.
The performance of Beuerlein, though, was what made the difference once Aikman was hurt. A year ago, they lost Aikman and failed to make the playoffs. This year is a different story.
Said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, "I don't think we'd be in the playoffs without Steve Beuerlein."
Tale of two teams
Tracking the Bears and Cowboys over the past 7 seasons:
BEARS-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- COWBOYS
Year Record -- Playoff status-- -- -- -- Record Playoff status
1985 15-1 Won Super Bowl-- -- -- -- -- --10-6 Lost to Rams in 2nd rd
1986 14-2 Lost to Redskins, 2nd rd-- -- --7-9 out of playoffs
1987 11-4 Lost to Redskins, 2nd rd-- -- --7-8 out of playoffs
1988 12-4 Lost to 49ers, NFC title game-- 3-13 out of playoffs
1989 6-10 out of playoffs-- -- -- -- -- --1-15 out of playoffs
1990 11-5 Lost to Giants, 2nd rd-- -- -- -7-9 out of playoffs
1991 11-5 in wild-card round-- -- -- -- -11-5 in wild-card round