Cowboys seeking unmatched glory

JOHN EISENBERG

January 17, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN FRANCISCO -- Four teams remain in the Super Bowl tournament, but, in one sense, the verdict is already in on this NFL season. The Cowboys are coming.

Maybe they won't beat the 49ers today in the NFC championship game. Maybe it isn't their day just yet. But they'll have one, and possibly several, soon enough.

Such an announcement might be greeted with a grump in Redskins country, but the truth is self-evident. As the youngest team in the league, and already loaded with such five-star talent as Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman, the Cowboys are positioned perfectly for a long run of championship seasons.

"We all better face it," Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner said after the Cowboys dismissed his club from the playoffs by 24 points last weekend. "They're good, and they're gonna be around awhile."

That such is the case represents one of the unlikeliest turns ever to grace the sports pages, for no reason more so than, simply, it has never happened before. That is, a top NFL team has never really regained its standing after the inevitable fall.

It's true. Call the roll of famous NFL champions. The Packers are still searching for a post-Lombardi answer. Ditto the post-Unitas Colts, as well as the Browns since Otto Graham and the Dolphins since Csonka and Kiick. The Steelers have muddled around for almost 15 years since winning four Super Bowls. Mike Ditka rebuilt the Bears, but won only one Supe.

The Cowboys certainly belonged in such company, winning two Super Bowls and playing in 10 conference title games in 13 years. Then they didn't win a playoff game for a decade. So, if they succeed in the coming years in fulfilling the promise now shown, they would be the first team to sustain two separate eras of dominance.

They still have to do it, of course, no small feat, especially in an NFL that will become less predictable with free agency. Still, the wiles of owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson do much to instill confidence that it will happen, which brings us to perhaps the greatest reason the re-rise of the Cowboys is such a shocker.

Jimmy and Jerry.

Jones, if you recall, was the bright guy who bought the team four years ago and immediately and gleefully sacked Tom Landry, ending his honeymoon as it began. Early reports dismissed him as a bubbly yahoo from Arkansas, a rich innocent certain to be gobbled up by Al Davis and the other NFL sharks. A 1-15 rookie season did little to dispel such a notion.

Four years later, his franchise is the one of 28 on the cutting edge. In a league in which management generally moves cautiously and tends to copy success more than try new ideas, Jones' Cowboys have freewheelingly blowtorched their path back to the top. Make no mistake: It's a story about management tTC much as football.

Boldness has been the prevailing characteristic. Boldness as in Jones letting his coach rule personnel, a gathering of power that most owners would never allow. Boldness as in Johnson trading players and draft picks like bubble gum cards, experimenting with contingency clauses, cutting losses in a snap, trading three threes for two twos, leaving the league office wondering, "Is that legal?"

Boldness as in taking chances on talent with tarnished reputations, such as Tony Casillas and Charles Haley. Boldness as in signing draftees in the 15 minutes before the pick is announced, preventing holdouts. Boldness (and just plain smart) as in locking up Aikman and Irvin to long contracts, putting the club above the coming free-agent free-for-all.

The Cowboys have made an astonishing 47 trades in the 46 months of Jimmy and Jerry. Many have worked out well. The linchpin of the operation was, of course, the deal that sent Herschel Walker to the Vikings for half a team, or very nearly.

"That trade," Jones said recently, "allowed us to be aggressive. Even if we messed up, we could afford to with all those chips in our pocket."

Of course, shrewd deals mean little without an eye for measuring talent, which, more than sideline work, is the success of Johnson's first four years. The Cowboys were slim on skill when he arrived. Now, they're loaded. And so young.

Can it get screwed up? Sure. In pro football, a game of injuries, blueprints are always sketched in pencil. Matching moves with Joe Gibbs will always be treacherous. Things can change a lot in a year. (See: Rypien, Mark.) Already Dallas defensive whiz Dave Wannstedt is rumored to be the Giants' next coach.

Still, the Cowboys are right there. Right there on the verge of a major, 49ers-in the-'80s kind of run. Don't be surprised if it starts today, in the slop of Candlestick Park. Don't be surprised at all.

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