Big D in Cowboys: a different team

JOHN EISENBERG

January 29, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOS ANGELES -- Back in the days when the Cowboys showed up for the Super Bowl just about every year, they were nothing if not a lightning rod for opinion. The Steelers won twice as many titles, but the Cowboys were the team you cheered for or against. Their personality stirred debate, like John McEnroe's.

They were cool and sleek, but emotionless and vain. They were beautiful and successful, but arrogant and egocentric. Deciding whether to root for or against them was one of those calls that made a statement. Were you an elitist or a populist?

Now, with the Cowboys back in the Bowl after a decade of defeat, once again it is time to decide whether you're for or against them. But please understand that these Cowboys have almost nothing in common with the elegant elitists of old.

"We have changed the fundamental personality of the franchise," new owner Jerry Jones said yesterday.

It's not necessarily better, just different, completely so. Reflexive Cowboy-haters, be warned: In their new incarnation, da 'Boys are, well, almost tacky instead of snooty.

The old owner, Clint Murchison, was a silent little man of means who never flinched. Jones is a hand-shakin', deal-makin', rear-hustlin' salesman. He talks all day, and would stamp an ad on anything if it meant a couple extra bucks. (Who wouldn't these days?) He even stitched a supermarket ad into the field at an exhibition game.

The old regime would rather have lost to the Redskins than scrape up cash like that. Standards, you know.

Then there's the new coach, Jimmy Johnson, as different from Tom Landry as a coach could be.

Landry, of course, was the cold, brilliant icon whose personality defined the Cowboys. He dressed impeccably, won with brains instead of brawn and never got excited about it, as if emotion was somehow cheap. He was all class, but irritatingly superior from the other sideline.

Johnson? Well, first of all, he's got that five-dollar haircut, so you know he's not trying to big-time you. And he is the opposite of cold, a fist-pumper who demands that his players work up a lather. "He believes in enthusiasm, as do I," Jones said.

Landry was Hall of Fame innovative, but conservative as a play-caller and personnel man, furiously loyal to veterans. Johnson, loyal only to winning, starts rookies and litters the field with kids who won't be back if someone better comes along. He's also the most aggressive play-caller in the league.

His average Cowboy is completely different: mouthier on the field, obscure off it, and just a babe.

Actually, Johnson's Cowboys are built more along the lines of the evil Raiders, with a dependence on speed and strut, and a willingness to take on other teams' troublemakers. Three -- Charles Haley, Tony Casillas and Thomas Everett -- start on defense.

Appropriately, the home atmosphere at Texas Stadium has evolved from country-clubbish to full-scale redneck bar. Not coincidentally, beer has been served only since Jones bought the team. The old Cowboys seemed to think that was too common.

"There's probably a more emotional appeal on our part to get the fans involved," Jones said, "instead of telling them to just sit back and be entertained."

That's the nut there: The new-model Cowboys engage the public. They're the populists now, not the elitists.

Their fans used to applaud a touchdown as though it were a symphony crescendo, and snicker when other teams' fans face-painted and ripped off shirts in sub-zero weather. Now, Cowboys fans are as goofy as anyone. A pep rally before the NFC title game drew 69,000. "It was never like this before," wrote longtime Dallas columnist Blackie Sherrod.

Part of that owes to timing. The old Cowboys' Dallas was maybe the cockiest city on Earth, where J. R. Ewing lived and every Texan thought his world was bigger and better. Then the banks and oil prices crashed and the college football teams all went crooked, and there was no place left for arrogance or vanity.

In any case, it looks as if the new Cowboys are going to end up winners like the old ones, that being at least one shared characteristic. The old Cowboys went to five Super Bowls. But they won only two, and tailed off with a sense of disappointment. "We should have done better," Roger Staubach said recently. The new Cowboys could start changing that part of the legacy Sunday, in their first Super Bowl. That, of course, would be the only difference that really counts.

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