Johnson finds top of hill has downside, too

PRO FOOTBALL

November 28, 1993|By VITO STELLINO

It took five years, but Jimmy Johnson finally found out what NFL life is like on Thanksgiving Day.

For the first four years, the Dallas Cowboys coach had a Midas touch. Everything he touched turned to victory. He went from 1-15 to Super Bowl champion in four seasons. Each season was better than the previous.

Johnson acted as if he thought he were the king of the mountain and would stay there.

Nobody ever savored being on top more than Johnson did. Earlier this year, he talked as if the Dallas way was the perfect way to do things. He noted he dealt directly with owner Jerry Jones. He didn't have to deal with a general manager the way the Washington Redskins and New York Giants coaches did.

Johnson gave the impression he thought he'd go 12-0 or 11-1 every year the way he did at the University of Miami.

He overlooked the fact that former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll once said that being on top in the NFL isn't like climbing a mountain. It's more like walking a tightrope. The Cowboys fell off last week when they lost two games in five days.

For the first time, Johnson can't do better than he did last year. He was 13-3 last year. The best he can do is 12-4. He's also a half-game behind the Giants and San Francisco 49ers, both 7-3, in the battle for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The road to the Super Bowl got a lot tougher for Johnson's team, especially because his two best players -- Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith -- are playing hurt.

It all happened because of an incredible stroke of misfortune at the end of the 16-14 loss to the Miami Dolphins -- Leon Lett's gaffe in touching a blocked field-goal try to give the Dolphins another chance.

It was as bizarre an ending as the NFL would ever see. But it's not unprecedented. Strange things can happen to teams on the top.

Baltimore fans with long memories know that well. For example, in 1960, the Colts were 6-3 and shooting for a third straight title when Johnny Unitas threw a touchdown pass to Lenny Moore with 14 seconds left to give the Colts a 15-13 lead over the Detroit Lions.

Remember what happened next? On the Lions' final play, Earl Morrall threw one over the middle to Jim Gibbons, who went 65 yards for a 20-15 Detroit win. NFL Films included it in its video of the five best finishes ever. The Colts then lost their final two on the West Coast, ending their quest for a third straight title.

Sixteen years later, Pittsburgh came to Memorial Stadium in search of its third straight Super Bowl title and blew out the Colts, 40-14, in a first-round playoff game.

The only problem was that Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both got hurt in that game and the Steelers lost the next week in Oakland. The Steelers still say it was the best of their teams in the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls. But that team fell short.

Those are the kinds of things that happen in the NFL. There's never a sure thing -- even for a team on top.

The gaffe

Lett wasn't the only guy to commit a gaffe at Texas Stadium on Thursday. The NBC-TV director shared in the infamy.

The TV types are so addicted to reaction shots that they switched to a shot of Jones, the Cowboys' owner, celebrating as soon as the Cowboys blocked the field-goal try.

By the time they switched back to the field, the Dolphins had the ball. NBC needed a replay to show Lett touching the ball and the Dolphins recovering it.

Maybe the TV types will learn that they should show the action on the field until the play is over.

The 30th team

The NFL insists it will select a second expansion team when it meets at a Chicago airport hotel Tuesday.

If you believe in omens, the site isn't the best one for Baltimore. It's the same hotel where Colts owner Bob Irsay trashed Baltimore at an owners meeting in March 1984 shortly before he moved and is the same one where the owners bypassed Baltimore on Oct. 26.

Baltimore goes in as the underdog not only to St. Louis, but to Jacksonville, Fla. If Baltimore can get enough support to block St. Louis, the ABB (Anybody But Baltimore) forces in the league office led by commissioner Paul Tagliabue will try to sell Jacksonville as an alternative. The Jacksonville scenario was being touted last week in Sports Illustrated and on HBO's "Inside the NFL."

Baltimore's case was supported in an article in the New York Times last Sunday, but the writer, Frank Litsky, said it was only his "perception" after talking to several owners.

Baltimore's long-shot hope is that it'll have enough support in the two committees that St. Louis won't be a "consensus" choice and the matter will be thrown open to a vote of all the owners.

In any case, Baltimore still will have a shot at getting a team to move if it's bypassed. With its lucrative deal and with $8 million in ticket sales sitting in the bank, Baltimore will draw a lot of interest from teams interested in moving.

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