If Sam Donaldson had asked, then we would have gotten a straight answer. Is the Dallas Cowboy quarterback competition genuine or a charade? Does Steve Walsh really have a chance to beat out fellow rookie Troy Aikman, the $11 million man? Or is the Cowboys' new Arkansas-bred brain-trust of coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones just trying to jack up Walsh's market value?
Donaldson could have gotten it out of them. He sure had Jones flustered last Thursday night, live and on national TV. The NFL's newest owner gamely agreed to appear on ABC's Prime Time Live, which Donaldson co-anchors. Earlier in the preseason, Jones had made an innocent remark about how the Cowboys looked "good in the showers, but we'll have to see what they do once they get the pads on."
A hard-hitting investigative journalist, Donaldson pounced. Did Jones make a habit of watching his players shower? How did Aikman look in the shower? Somehow Donaldson elicited from a squirming Jones the observation: "Well, Troy looks good in the shower."
The studio audience roared. But its reaction was tame compared with that of Aikman's teammates. He hopes to have heard the end of the shower jokes by 1990, but he is not optimistic.
August 20, 1989
Three days later Aikman took the first snap in Dallas's preseason opener, a surprisingly easy 20-3 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Johnson insisted that no significance should be attached to the fact that Aikman started the game. Someone had to.
Three Dallas quarterbacks saw action on Sunday, but Aikman carried the day. He had the look of a sound investment, completing eight of 11 throws, including a nicely feathered nine-yarder to wide-out Kelvin Martin in the corner of the end zone. Aikman, who played the entire first half, kept his passes short, sweet and conservative. "He picked up blitzes He audibled well. He was good and calm. I was impressed," said Cowboy offensive coordinator David Shula.
Walsh, whom Jones and Johnson could not resist plucking in the NFL's supplemental draft on July 7—at the cost of Dallas's first-round pick in next year's regular draft—didn't get much help from his friends and thus had a less than auspicious debut, completing just two of eight throws in little more than one quarter. Penalties, poor field position and dropped passes marred his afternoon.
All week at practice Johnson had bent over backward to assure one and all that Aikman would not be handed the job. "This is not a formality," he said. "They know they'll get an equal chance. Steve will start next week's game, and then we'll be better prepared to make a decision."
Through it all, the curious scrutinized workouts with special intensity, like Kremlinologists studying the seating arrangements of the Politburo at the opera. On the Cowboy depth chart, the No. 1 quarterback was listed as "Aikman/Walsh"—in alphabetical order, it was explained. But who practiced with the first unit? They alternated. Ahh, here was a meaty hint: Third-string quarterback Babe Laufenberg was flashing signals from the sideline to Aikman. Next Walsh would flash them to Aikman. We were on to something now! But then there was Walsh signaling Laufenberg, followed by Aikman signaling Walsh. Confounded again.
"I really think it's going to be a coin flip," said Laufenberg after Thursday's workout. "I get the call if the coin lands on its edge."
Walsh won 23 of 24 games for Johnson at Miami over the last two seasons. Still, his first reaction to the news that his college coach had selected him in the supplemental draft was "Why?"
Probably because Jones and Johnson—known collectively as JJ—wanted to turn a fast profit on him. They hoped to win back their 1990 first-round pick and skim a defensive starter or two in the bargain. The Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins. Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers all expressed serious interest, but no deal could be struck.
Thus, in a season full of the unfamiliar—no Tom Landry, Gil Brandt, Tex Schramm or Danny White, all of whom were nudged out—Dallas fans will draw comfort from a familiar custom: a quarterback controversy. The Cowboys did not invent the quarterback controversy, but they have perfected it. In the early '60s it was local boy Don Meredith versus Eddie LeBaron, the weather-beaten former Redskin. After Meredith vanquished LeBaron, Meredith was vanquished by Craig Morton. Next came a duel between Morton and Roger Staubach in the early '70s. Once Staubach prevailed, there was a lull in the action until 1984, when Danny White and Gary Hogeboom went toe-to-toe.
The principals in this year's quarterback showdown, like most of those in the past, have behaved with dignity. "It's not like we hate each other," says Walsh. "But you sure want to do better than the other guy at all times."
After missing a week of camp while his agents pounded out a four-year, $4.1 million contract, Walsh had a rough couple of practices, but then he started clicking. In an intrasquad scrimmage on his fourth day in camp, he converted 7 of 8 passes for 58 yards. In a scrimmage against the Chargers three days later, after Aikman failed to put the team in the end zone, Walsh marched the offense 74 yards for a TD, throwing six completions in six attempts.
In that scrimmage, one play in particular had people talking. On third and long, Charger free safety Vencie Glenn cheated in, hiding behind linebacker Billy Ray Smith. Glenn blitzed and was immediately in Walsh's face. Coolly, as if he had been born for such emergencies, Walsh flicked a rope to Martin for a 14-yard gain.
Walsh's teammates looked at him a little differently after that. Johnson and the six assistants he brought with him from Miami did not. "All Steve did just then was what Steve has done for the last two years," said offensive line coach Tony Wise, who had also coached the line at Miami. "I don't understand why people are surprised."
The differences between Aikman and Walsh are pithily summed up by quarterback coach Jerry Rhome, who was the Chargers' offensive coordinator last year: "If you sat down to build an NFL quarterback, Troy is what you'd come up with. He's 6'3", 220, great arm strength—everything's perfect. And Steve—I like his mind."
Not that Aikman is dense, or Walsh ungainly on his feet. "Watch," says Walsh. "I'll be typecast as the smart one, and he'll be typecast as the one with all the athletic ability. I happen to be a decent athlete, and Troy happens to be pretty bright."
Indeed, Aikman's ability to digest the Cowboys' Manhattan telephone directory-sized playbook—actually it's a hodgepodge of six different playbooks assembled by Dallas's new coaches—is a testament to his brainpower. Nonetheless, at 6'3", 195 pounds, Walsh looks more like an intramural quarterback than a pro. He makes up for his lack of speed (4.9 in the 40) and his average arm strength with superlative anticipation and touch.
"Great quarterbacks have come in a lot of different packages," says Laufenberg. "Dan Fouts will probably go down as one of the best ever, and probably 80% of the quarterbacks in the league today have stronger arms than he had. Fran Tarkenton was 5'10"; Joe Theismann was six feet. Jim Plunkett was 36 years old and had no mobility, and he got to a Super Bowl. It doesn't matter what route you take, as long as you get there. Money's money, you know?"
And $15 million is quite a sum to pay a couple of fresh-faced quarterbacks. As Jones sees it, however, signing Aikman was as important for p.r. as for TDs. Average attendance fell to a 24-year low at Texas Stadium last season, when Dallas finished 3-13, the worst record in the league. "Troy Aikman helps restore the Cowboy image," says Jones. "He's got this winning aura. I can't help smiling when he so much as jogs from one practice field to the other." To say nothing of the jog from the dressing room to the showers.
Dallas's image will be further polished by the presence of a Shula on the staff. David Shula, who had been in charge of the Dolphins' passing game for the last five years, will call the plays for the Cowboys. David was said to have had a tense relationship with Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, whose name has been on the lips of many Dallas fans this summer.
That's because they hope either Aikman or Walsh will become the next Marino—the last NFL quarterback to thrive as a rookie, in 1983. Both Walsh and Aikman will almost certainly enjoy long and distinguished pro careers—"just not on the same team," as Walsh says. But the odds are stacked against either of them excelling this season. For various reasons, including the multitudes of defenses they now face and the complexity of their own playbooks, quarterbacks struggle as rookies.
Furthermore, as Shula points out, "Dan had a better surrounding cast [than Aikman or Walsh will]. That Dolphin team had just gone to a Super Bowl (after the '82 season]. These guys were 3-13 last year." In particular, Marino had a better offensive line to keep hostiles away from his young body. Cowboy quarterbacks were sacked 35 times in 1988 and twice on Sunday.
"We'd like to have an experienced, mature NFL quarterback, but we don't have that luxury," says Johnson, neglecting to mention that he is largely responsible for that void. White retired, at the club's urging, in July, and the most conspicuous no-show in camp has been last year's starter. Steve Pelluer, who's currently unsigned and seeking to double his former salary of $302,000. His absence seems to have cost Johnson little sleep. Pelluer piloted the Cowboys to a dreadful 8-19 record in 27 starts (although he was by no means solely to blame for all those losses). Also, Johnson resents Pelluer's request "to be paid like a starter even if he doesn't earn the starting job."
Pelluer can read the writing on the wall better than he can read opposing defenses. After watching JJ draft two of the top quarterbacks in the country, he asked to be traded. Pelluer's absence has left Dallas with Laufenberg, who joined the team as a free agent this year, and the young guns.
To help the players learn a new system—and to help Aikman get in some extra work—Johnson created a three-week "voluntary quarterback school," in addition to the three minicamps the club conducted in the off-season. To Johnson, spoiling a few summer vacations was a small price to pay for returning the franchise to glory, but the players weren't exactly thrilled.
Voluntary quarterback school was a double misnomer because, first, it was for everyone, not just quarterbacks, and second. Johnson made it clear that those who didn't attend would have tenuous futures with the organization. Defensive end Kevin Brooks and Pelluer decided to skip quarterback school. Brooks found himself traded to the Broncos. Pelluer will probably never play for the Cowboys again.
On July 10, the first day of the team's second minicamp, Johnson had the squad run 16 110-yard sprints. To a track and field athlete, that's a moderate workout. To an NFL interior lineman, it's an invitation to hyperventilate. After 10, one player was down, gasping, "Coach, I got asthma."
"Asthma, my ass!" screamed Johnson. "This isn't the asthma field! The asthma field is over there!" Johnson had the fallen player removed from his sight.
Johnson and Aikman have known each other ever since Aikman was a sophomore at Henryetta (Okla.) High. Aikman made an oral commitment to attend Oklahoma State, at which Johnson was then the head coach, but Aikman ultimately accepted a scholarship to Oklahoma instead. Johnson was also present in Norman on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 1985, when Hurricane defensive tackle Jerome Brown broke Aikman's leg. Jamelle Holieway took over the starting job after that, and Aikman decided to transfer to UCLA, though Johnson tried to woo him to Miami. "Didn't like the city," says Aikman.
Aikman hardly behaves like a multimillionaire. Look in as he sits on the floor of his dorm's living room at the Cowboys' training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., leaning against a wall. The room has no chairs. Aikman's roommate, rookie fullback Daryl Johnston, is in the bedroom writing home, and Aikman doesn't want to disturb him. Aikman has been described as dull, but Laufenberg says he's misunderstood. "He's just shy," says Laufenberg.
Aikman didn't mind the quarterback school or the minicamps. In fact, he seems to have enjoyed them. "They were an opportunity to learn the offense in a relaxed atmosphere," he says.
The biggest difference Aikman has noticed between college and the pros is how much easier it is for NFL defensive backs to disguise their intentions. "Because the hash marks are narrower in the pros, the ball's always closer to the middle of the field," he says. "So if you're a defensive back, you can wait a lot longer before committing to a certain part of the field." As a result, NFL quarterbacks must read defenses as they drop back. "In college I was making a lot of presnap reads," says Aikman. "It was much easier."
In passing situations, NFL defensive coordinators will put in seven or even eight players in the defensive backfield. "You've got two seconds to find the receiver who is in single coverage," says Laufenberg. "If you don't, you're on your back. So far Troy's making all the right reads."
As is his competition. After those first couple of shaky practices, Walsh narrowed the gap between himself and Aikman with startling quickness. Johnson seemed unconcerned by Walsh's 2-for-8 performance on Sunday. "We stuck him with tough field position, and he played with a lot of second-teamers," said Johnson. "Steve will get the whole first half next week. He'll bounce back."
Is the quarterback competition still a dead heat? "Absolutely," he said.
Although it might not happen soon enough to suit Cowboy fans, Aikman or Walsh will eventually help Dallas regain its winning ways. Which one of them will it be? Ultimately, it doesn't matter which. Money's money.