Jones, Johnson don't mince moves or feelings to return Cowboys to top

REBUILT IN SUPER STROKES

January 24, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

The news hit Dallas and the pro football world like a thunderclap.

On Feb. 25, 1989, an obscure Arkansas oilman named Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys, fired Tom Landry, hired his college roommate, Jimmy Johnson, and announced he was now running the team from "socks to jocks."

Jones promised that the Cowboys would win.

"There is no substitute for winning. I know that's a cliche, but we must win. We will win. Winning is the name of the game," he said that infamous night.

He also promised Johnson would win.

"What he brings to the table with the Cowboys is worth more than if we had five first-round draft choices and we were getting together the last five Heisman Trophy winners," Jones said.

It's difficult to underestimate how shocking it all was at the time.

"This is like [Vince] Lombardi's death," former pro football commissioner Pete Rozelle said of Landry's firing.

It wasn't long before Jones was pushing out Tex Schramm and calling the team's cheerleaders the "pick of the litter."

In a few weeks, Jones had trashed one of America's great sports institutions. A team that had one president (Schramm), one coach (Landry) and one chief scout (Gil Brandt) for 29 years. A team that became so popular it had become known as America's Team.

When the team, which went 3-13 in Landry's last year in 1988, sank to 1-15 in Johnson's first year in 1989, the demise seemed total.

It turned out, though, that it wasn't the death of the Cowboys. It turned out to be a rebirth.

Today -- one day shy of three years and 11 months from the day Jones took over -- the Cowboys will fly to Los Angeles to play in Super Bowl XXVII.

Jones said the Cowboys would win and they have. They have pulled off one of the great turnarounds in pro football history.

Jones does concede now that his handling of the Landry firing was something of a public relations fiasco. "Jimmy would have still been my coach. But I should have been more sensitive," Jones said.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would have understated and downplayed having bought the team and I wouldn't have done with Coach Landry what I did. I wouldn't have mentioned Jimmy's name at the time, although I don't think anyone would have been misled. But Coach Landry is the most important figure in the team's history and I wish he was willing to be a part of all this."

For the record, Landry says he has "no hard feelings," but his actions speak louder than his words. His schedule was too busy when Jones suggested he be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor.

Jones and Johnson never looked back, though.

They brought a new style to the traditional NFL. They weren't afraid to wheel and deal. They made 46 trades to revamp the team.

"When you're at the bottom, you have to be aggressive, take risks. We took risks and it worked out," Johnson said.

Not that Johnson and Jones didn't have some help. The Schramm-Landry team didn't leave the cupboard bare. They already had drafted wide receiver Michael Irvin -- who had played for Johnson in college -- and Landry's 3-13 record had earned the Cowboys the first pick in the 1989 draft.

The Cowboys also got some luck.

The Cowboys had the first pick in Johnson's first draft because Green Bay upset the Phoenix Cardinals late in the season to finish 4-12 and drop to the second pick. With that pick, the Packers wound up with Tony Mandarich. With the first pick, the Cowboys got that year's franchise quarterback, Troy Aikman.

Two years before, when Tampa Bay had the first pick, the franchise quarterback was Vinny Testaverde, who has never lived up to his billing.

In Johnson's first draft, he also got a fullback, Daryl Johnston, on the second round, a starting guard, Mark Stepnoski, on the third round and a starting defensive end, Tony Tolbert, on the fourth round.

It was a solid draft and Johnson now had a young quarterback, Aikman, and a young receiver, Irvin, with worlds of potential.

He didn't have much else except for running back Herschel Walker. Johnson had one more thing going for him: the faulty dTC judgment of Mike Lynn, who was then running the Minnesota Vikings.

On Oct. 12, 1989, Johnson and Lynn swung a deal that explains why Dallas is in the Super Bowl and Lynn no longer is in football.

Lynn gave up five players and seven draft picks -- three No. 1 choices, three No. 2 picks and a third-round choice -- for Walker. Lynn believed Walker was the last building block for a championship.

Johnson then used all those picks to make a series of trades that are almost impossible to follow, but remade the team.

The two key trades, though, were moving up four spots in the 1990 draft to take running back Emmitt Smith and trading up to get the first pick in the 1991 draft to select defensive lineman Russell Maryland.

When the Cowboys beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game last week, Smith rushed for 114 yards and Maryland was so quick that Guy McIntyre held him and was called for a penalty that wiped out a touchdown pass.

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