Johnson, Aikman form balanced attack

January 08, 1993|By Mike Fisher | Mike Fisher,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

IRVING TEXAS — IRVING, Texas -- Could the Dallas Cowboys' oddly coupled Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman actually be forming a happily-ever-after union?

"He's the type of quarterback that fits my personality perfectly," said Johnson, whose words paint a vivid portrait:

Johnson is the hot-air balloon. Aikman is the ballast.

"A quarterback who stays in control is an asset for me, because I can be, well, emotional, etc.," said Johnson, for whom "et cetera" might be a catch-all phrase covering intense, overzealous, obsessed and nuts.

Except for their passion for success and their talent for football, there is almost nothing similar about Johnson, the 49-year-old firebrand coach,and Aikman, the 26-year-old fireballing quarterback.

From head (Johnson's hair looks shellacked, Aikman's looks uncombed) to toe (Johnson's a dress-shoe man, Aikman's a boot guy) the two would seem to be something less than compatible.

"Every quarterback in the league isn't necessarily an extension of his coach," Aikman said. "You don't have to be best buddies. But you've got to be on the same page. And Coach Johnson and I are."

Johnson says the same differences that in the past have caused conflicts now are contributing to a quarterback-coach chemistry that might be necessary for championship-level success.

"The more I'm around Troy, the more I respect his ability to keep things on an even keel and stay focused," said Johnson, who joined the Cowboys in 1989, the same year Aikman was the team's No. 1 draft pick. "He's accustomed to handling big games, to handling the media, to whatever the situation is. He's been tremendous."

This is high praise from Johnson, who in the past has been reluctant to shower accolades on his sometimes-stoic, two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. Maybe that was part of a Johnson motivational plan, or maybe it was the result of the strained relationship between them.

But now, as Aikman prepares for the first postseason start of his career Sunday against a Philadelphia Eagles team that has been a nemesis, Johnson cannot say enough positive things.

Asked if Aikman, considering his 0-0 record in the playoffs and his 1-6 record against Philadelphia, might be intimidated by the Eagles, Johnson replied forcefully:

"Not one iota," he said. "Anyone who thinks Troy Aikman might be intimidated by anything is proving they don't know Troy Aikman."

There might always be a wall that separates Johnson from Aikman. It was constructed by Johnson four years ago, when he drafted Aikman, then spent another No. 1 pick on another quarterback, Steve Walsh, who had won a national championship under Johnson at the University of Miami.

It continued as much because of their stubbornness as because of their dissimilarities. But it has come down in bits and pieces over time. Aikman has labored to make it so. So has Johnson.

"We had our differences that first year because I removed myself from having a close relationship because of [the presence of both] him and Steve," Johnson said. "I didn't want to show favoritism. That caused for a strained relationship then. But since the Walsh trade, it's been all upward as far as our relationship goes."

The relationship was smoothed somewhat in 1990, when Walsh was shipped to New Orleans. And it improved greatly in '91, when Norv Turner was hired as offensive coordinator and immediately hit it off with his quarterback.

But mostly, Johnson and Aikman, two of the pivotal figures in that 1-15 season four years ago, are motivated by the Super Bowl victory that would complete the franchise's bottom-to-top ascent.

And to do it, they need each other.

"What happened with us is probably pretty common," said Aikman, who is 24-8 in his past 32 starts, a record that parallels Johnson's meteoric 29-11 string that has pushed the coach's pro mark to 33-33. "In any case, it takes time to get to know and to understand each other."

Statistically, Aikman's progress has been remarkably steady. His touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio during the four years went from 9-to-18 in '89, to 11-to-18 in '90, to 11-to-10 last year to 23-to-14 this season. Those numbers, combined with his 63.8 percent passing and his 3,445 yards, helped Aikman to a career-best quarterback rating of 89.5, second only to Steve Young.

"He's done it all this year," Johnson said. "He's gone the entire year performing at a high level. I don't mean a statistically; I

mean in terms of performance. He's been tremendous."

Johnson noted that upon reflection, many of his University of Miami quarterbacks shared Aikman's calm demeanor. In the case of the Hurricanes, the bonding of hot coach and cool quarterbacks might have been by design. It would seem the pairing of Johnson and Aikman was based on talent, not personality.

"Maybe," Johnson said. "But it's also possible that certain personalities draw themselves together. I've always liked having quarterback who could play off my personality."

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