Reality check lifted Dallas, Irvin says SLOW START, FANTASTIC FINISH

January 20, 1994|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

The Dallas Cowboys, who are just two victories away from carving another niche for themselves in NFL history, may wind up turning a lemon of a start into a lemonade finish.

Not only can they become the fifth team to win back-to-back Super Bowls, but they also can become the first team to start 0-2 and win the Super Bowl.

If wide receiver Michael Irvin is right, the 0-2 start wasn't an obstacle.

It was a wake-up call that is one of the reasons theCowboys are playing the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC title game at Texas Stadium for a berth in this season's Super Bowl.

As the Cowboys attempt to join the Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, who did it twice, and the 49ers as the only teams to win two Super Bowls in a row, Irvin said yesterday that the 0-2 start was a "reality check."

Not only did it persuade owner Jerry Jones to come up with the money to sign running back Emmitt Smith, but it also wiped out the complacency that has hampered so many Super Bowl champions.

"Losing those first two games was definitely a blessing, not only from the standpoint of getting Emmitt in, but it was reality busting us in the face. People tend to pat you on the back [when you're the champion], and you start believing the pats on the back. We got busted in the mouth, and it was the best thing that happened this season," Irvin said.

The Cowboys lost the first two games to the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills, but then reeled off seven victories in a row, including a 26-17 victory over the 49ers.

After losing two games in five days, to the Atlanta Falcons (when Smith carried just once before going out with an injury) and the Dolphins (on the Leon Lett gaffe), the Cowboys started rolling again and bring a six-game winning streak into this game.

Irvin, though, isn't taking a second Super Bowl trip for granted even though the Cowboys beat the 49ers, 30-20, in last year's NFC title game, before beating them again this season.

"It's tough to beat a team three times in a row. It's tough. These guys are ready to play football. If they play like they played last week and we play like we did last week, we'll be in trouble. Even the maids at their practice facility must have done a great job last week. Our day wasn't so great," he said.

The 49ers blew out the New York Giants, 44-3, and the Cowboys were sloppy in a 27-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers last week.

One of the few Cowboys who had a good day last week was Irvin, who caught nine passes for 126 yards and a touchdown.

Since Smith, who carried only twice in the second half, still was bothered by his separated shoulder, the Cowboys put more emphasis on their passing game, and Irvin was Troy Aikman's main target.

It could be the same story this week, although Irvin said that Smith's shoulder is much better.

"Last week, they were saving Emmitt, but it's been healing and he's still got another three days," he said.

In any case, a game against the 49ers brings out the best in Irvin, because he knows Jerry Rice is on the other side.

When the teams played in October, Irvin caught 12 passes for 168 yards, and Rice had seven catches for 82 yards.

Irvin ducks questions about the comparisons with Rice.

"I'm not answering the questions about me and Jerry Rice, because Rice is a great receiver. He's the best receiver ever to play the game," he said.

Irvin is content with the plaudits of coach Jimmy Johnson, who also coached him at the University of Miami.

"He's a tremendous competitor and loves to play in the big game. He's a guy who in the 10 years that I've been with him has improved every single year," Johnson said.

L If there's one area where he tops Rice, it's in personality.

An outgoing type, he's the only Cowboy to have his own television show in Dallas.

Leigh Steinberg, who represents Aikman, but not Irvin, said: "Jerry Rice has the excellence, but he's never quite made the conversion [into marketability]. I feel like I know Michael Irvin just by watching him on television. He seems like a fun guy."

Irvin, who's noted for his big smile and brash attitude, said, "I am having fun. I enjoy everything I do."

It was typical of Irvin that when he scored Sunday, he handed the ball to a fan sitting in the ground floor wheelchair section.

The fan happened to be rooting for Green Bay, but Irvin said: "I enjoy the pleasure I get from the fans. It kind of hypes you, seeing the fans enjoy the game. It was nothing premeditated. I caught the ball and he was there and I gave him the ball. I could see in his eyes he was just happy to be there. I appreciate the fans being there. I'm happy to perform."

When Irvin was asked if he thinks a second trip to the Super Bowl would be better than the first one, he said: "I don't know. I haven't experienced that yet. It was a great feeling last year. It's something I'll never forget. It took awhile to sink in. I don't know if it'll be better the second time around. I haven't gotten there yet. If I do, I'll be sure to let you know."

He's also sure to do it with a big smile.

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