Hard to believe, but it has been a quarter century since the eternally youthful-looking Troy Aikman was a rookie quarterback in Dallas, taking his lumps as the No. 1 overall pick on a woefully overmatched 1989 Cowboys team that went 1-15. I caught up with the 2006 Hall of Fame inductee and three-time Super Bowl champion on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, before he and his Fox broadcast partner, Joe Buck, called the Seahawks-Eagles game. Never hesitant with his opinions, Aikman told me to fire away, and I complied with questions that ranged from J.J. Watt’s MVP candidacy to Jim Harbaugh’s anticipated demise in San Francisco to his thoughts on the Cowboys’ playoff chances.
SI.com: With Dallas getting that long-awaited ninth win last Thursday night in Chicago and now being assured of a winning season for the first time since 2009, give me your up-to-the-minute temperature reading on whether the Cowboys make the playoffs. Did that win move the needle for you?
Aikman: No, no, not that win. Not against Chicago. I think they’re a good team. The Cowboys are a really good team. Their defense has been better obviously than we thought. The offense has been what we expected them to be, with the commitment they made to running the ball. They’re a legitimate team, but I think it’s going to be challenging for them to make the playoffs. Chicago though, Chicago’s terrible. So that didn’t really sway my opinion of the Cowboys.
The big game that’s going to determine what happens to Dallas is next week, here in Philadelphia. But it’s going to be tough for them. I don’t think Arizona wins the division, because I think Seattle wins the NFC West. And then it’s Detroit and Arizona and Dallas fighting for the two wild cards, possibly Philadelphia depending on whatever happens in the [NFC East]. But right now the Eagles have the leg up in that division.
It’s crazy, but 10-11 wins may still not get Dallas into the playoffs. How would that look? They go 8-8 for three years and just miss out and then finally get to 10 wins and don’t make it? If they win one more game they’re at 10 wins, and it doesn’t happen too often that 10 wins doesn’t get you in the playoffs. But that could happen.
SI.com: The J.J. Watt for MVP talk is steadily building. Are you of the mindset that it’s beyond the gimmick stage for people to be considering him an MVP candidate? Is that a legitimate debate at this point, a defensive player being a potential MVP?
Aikman: I think the fact that he’s being talked about in that manner speaks volumes for him and the year he’s having. He’s amazing. It’s like a defensive player being considered for the Heisman Trophy. I don’t begrudge him any award, but to me, someone who touches the ball on every play and has as big an impact on the outcome of a game as a quarterback or a running back does, if it’s close as to who you’re looking at, I think you have to go with the offensive guy.
SI.com: Conventional wisdom the past few weeks has coalesced around the notion that we’re looking at a Green Bay-New England Super Bowl pairing. Are you buying it?
Aikman: Uh, yes. We had Green Bay a few weeks ago [against the Eagles] and I felt that they were the best team in the NFC. I think they’re the best that I’ve seen this season. Seattle wasn’t Seattle until recently, but right now, yes, I think Green Bay’s the best in the NFC and regardless of what happened last week at Lambeau [Field], someone had to win, someone had to lose. I think New England’s the best team in the AFC.
Aikman: You know what, my governess is the one who actually gave it to me and I’m not sure where she came up with it. I try to eat as healthy as possible and she told me about and I’ve been eating it every since. And it’s been a big hit. Oh, it got a huge, huge response on Twitter.
SI.com: Any insights on why your broadcast partner, Joe Buck, seems to be a lightning rod for criticism from some people? He’s at the top of his profession and yet there seems to be a lot of haters out there when it comes to his work. What gives?
Aikman: I don’t know the answer to that, as to why. I really don’t. He’s an amazing talent at what he does. I think people that appreciate the business all understand that, but until you’ve worked alongside him and really seen what gets thrown at him and how he handles it, you probably can’t appreciate it. He’s the best I’ve been around. I know that.
SI.com: So is the beard here to stay? It was a Movember thing, right? But I see it has made it into December.
Aikman: Yeah, and Movember was the longest I had ever gone. I’d never gone more than 10 days before without shaving. So I shaved it for the UCLA jersey retirement last Friday, but my girlfriend likes it so I’m growing it back. That’s all the reason I need, right?
SI.com: By the way, why did it take UCLA so long to retire your No. 8 jersey? You haven’t played in the college ranks for 26 years now.
Aikman: You know what, I think [former Bruins head coach] Terry Donahue said it best that day. He said if it took them that long to retire [former UCLA two-sport star] Jackie Robinson’s number, then I’m just happy to be alive and be a part of it. Everybody else can come after they did that.
SI.com: So do you believe Seattle has its mojo back and has worked through whatever Super Bowl hangover stuff it had to deal with for most of the season? Can they make another Super Bowl run?
Aikman: Well, we get a better barometer this week [a 24-14 win over the Eagles]. They’ve been outstanding on defense six out of the last seven games, with quarterbacks not throwing for 200 yards against them. But they’re facing an offense today. Arizona offensively has been dismal since Carson Palmer went down and San Francisco has been struggling. So I’m a big believer in Seattle and what they have and who they are and what they represent, but they get a better test today. I think we’ll have a much better opinion of them after this game.
SI.com: Are you of the mindset that while there’s obviously tension and some dysfunction between the front office and the head coach in San Francisco, the 49ers better be careful what they wish for if they want Jim Harbaugh gone?
Aikman: Absolutely. And I’ve been there. Hey, I’ve said it, if you’re going to get rid of a coach, you better have a succession plan going forward. I’ve been a part of a team that got rid of coaches and then didn’t know who came next. If you’re going to say, 'Hey, you know what? This guy’s impossible and we’re going to get someone else,' well I don’t know who you’re going to get that’s going to do a better job than Jim Harbaugh’s done.
Is he difficult? Yeah, he’s difficult. Has he won? He’s won everywhere he’s been. And to me, if it makes people uncomfortable because of his style, then so be it. But having been a part of something that was really good and then see egos get involved, and not being able to carry on what we had started, I’d be real careful if I was San Francisco when they start making that decision.
SI.com: You obviously recognize some echoes in San Francisco’s situation of the Jimmy Johnson-Jerry Jones divorce in Dallas in early 1994, after you and the Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Aikman: Yeah, and the disappointing thing to me was that, and I’m asked this a lot -- and I really don’t look back much or live in the past -- but people always wonder what it may have been like for us if Jimmy and Jerry had been able to stay together. The disappointing thing to me was right around Pro Bowl time every year there were always players who were disappointed because they felt they had Pro Bowl years and didn’t get elected.
And Jimmy every season would get up in front of the team and he’d name the Pro Bowl guys, and then knowing there were some guys who were frustrated, he’d say, "Hey, look, it’s not about the Pro Bowl. It’s not about individual honors. If our team has the success we hope to have they’ll be enough credit to go around for everybody." I’d hear that speech in my sleep. But at the end of the day you know what? As great as we were, there wasn’t enough credit to go around. There wasn’t enough credit to go around between Jerry and Jimmy, the two leaders of our team. And I think that’s the most disappointing part of it all.
SI.com: When you think of teams that have had the good fortune to have streaks of success at the quarterback position, teams like Green Bay with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers come to mind, and Indianapolis going from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. San Francisco also had that when you played, with Joe Montana to Steve Young. But does Dallas belong in that pantheon as well, with Roger Staubach to Danny White to you, with a little bit of a gap in there?
Aikman: When I look at it I’ve never really looked Dallas at that way, because there have been those gaps, between Roger and then the years we put together when I was there. But I definitely believe what happened in San Francisco and what happened in Green Bay are examples of that kind of run. And I don’t know if those fans who have been a part of that, they almost get spoiled, because they don’t know any different. Unless you’ve been to one of these other cities and lived through the lean times. Look at Indianapolis, where Andrew Luck jumps in after one bad year without Peyton.
But with the way Aaron Rodgers is playing in Green Bay, he’s not been fully appreciated. People have crumbled under that kind of pressure before, having to take over for Favre in that town. It’s hard. When you can step in for a guy like that and the fans aren’t still reminiscing about that other guy, you’ve really accomplished a lot. All those guys have. And Luck hasn’t been as accomplished up to this point as Aaron or Steve Young was, but it sure looks like he’s on his way.