Jimmy Johnson knew he had to get away from Dallas. Far away. To a beach, preferably. Alone. It was Christmas Eve, a couple of hours after the Dallas Cowboys had lost to the Green Bay Packers on the final Sunday of the 1989 season. The defeat was the Cowboys' 15th in 16 weeks. After the other 14 debacles, Johnson, who was in his first year as the Dallas coach, had been able to put aside the pain, show his toothy smile and tell his team—and its anxious fans—that the Cowboys would be back at it the next week, trying to turn the corner. "Now there are no more games," recalls Johnson, "and I realize it's over. I also realize how horrible the season was."
He thought of the Bahamas. Yeah, that's the ticket. He'd go to Nassau and try to get rejuvenated. Johnson, who's divorced, didn't tell anyone where he was going, not even his confidant, his old teammate at Arkansas and the Cowboys' new owner, Jerry Jones. That night Johnson caught the last flight to Miami, got a couple of hours' sleep in an airport hotel and took the first flight to Nassau on Christmas morning. For five days he lay on the beach. And he forgot. He has not said "one and 15" since.
"I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that," says Johnson, smiling. "I can't say it. I don't ever want to say it. And I sure don't ever want to go through it again. We did what we did last year to get better players for our future. Winning a couple more ball games wasn't the goal. Getting players was. I'm glad we did it."
The Cowboys might have to do it again, because they're still not ready for prime time. They're not even Off Off Broadway yet. They're in a dinner theater somewhere outside New Haven. Since breaking camp in Austin, Texas, on Aug. 10, the Cowboys have stumbled in back-to-back preseason losses on the West Coast—28-16 to the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago and 16-14 to the Los Angeles Raiders last Saturday—and made it eminently clear that they are staring at another bleak season. Not as bleak as last fall, certainly, it only because their speed has improved dramatically. However, this looks like a 3-13 club, maybe 4-12.
The game against the Raiders at the Coliseum again brought out the black cloud that's been hanging over the Cowboys. On the fourth play, L.A. defensive tackle Bill Pickel blew past Dallas right tackle Nate Newton and sacked starting quarterback Troy Aikman, driving Aikman headfirst into the turf. The ball popped loose, but it was covered by Cowboy left tackle Mark Tuinei. On the next play Aikman, still woozy from the hit, threw a 14-yard pass to wide receiver Kelvin Martin, who was running an out pattern. Martin stopped two yards short of where Aikman threw the ball, and Raider cornerback Lionel Washington intercepted. Aikman gave chase. He could have pushed Washington out of bounds but tackled him instead. The violent falls on two consecutive plays left Aikman with a concussion and sidelined for the rest of the day. He didn't miss much.
Tailback Terrence Flagler, who has disappointed the Cowboys since they acquired him in an off-season trade with the San Francisco 49ers, tiptoed six times for eight yards. Kicker Ken Willis, signed as a free agent in April, picked up a bad snap on a field goal attempt and Garo Yepremianed a pass to Raider linebacker Arthur Walker, who ran 59 yards with the interception for a touchdown. The Cowboys didn't register a sack for the second week in a row.
When Johnson and Jones emerged grim-faced from the visiting coach's dressing cubicle an hour after the game, they could be happy only with the increased market value of second-year quarterback Steve Walsh, who had one of his best games as a pro, completing 16 of 25 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Walsh may not have the arm to throw a crisp, 25-yard sideline pattern like Dan Marino, but he's poised and should be somebody's quarterback of the '90s. Are you listening up there in Minnesota, Mike Lynn?
Did somebody say "deal"? Already in the Jones-Johnson era, all of 18 months old, the Cowboys have made 19 trades, acquired six players on waivers, added four free agents, promoted eight players off the developmental squad and signed 21 Plan B free agents. If it's possible, this is an aggressively patient team—aggressive in making deals, patient in letting them pan out—with an asterisk. If Jones and Johnson make a mistake, they lop it off. Asked after Saturday's game about Flagler's status, Jones said, "If he can't make the team, I won't bat an eye." The Cowboys are a team with one eye on this season and the other on '93, because that's about how long it'll take them to become respectable again.
Backup quarterback Babe Laufenberg, who took his lumps when he was sacked by Raider linebacker Art Jimerson in the third quarter, has a conservative view of the Cowboys' prospects in '90. "We're making strides, but they're incremental," he says. "We have to play very smart to have a chance—a chance—to win."
Here's what little progress the Cowboys have made since last season:
•In April, Dallas dealt second-and third-round draft picks to the 49ers for Flagler, defensive end Daniel Stubbs and two draft picks. Stubbs should be a solid starter, but the coaching staff has found Flagler, who was projected to start, to be sullen and a poor inside runner. Even a 69-yard kickoff return against the Raiders won't save him, unless he finishes the exhibition season with a flourish.
•The unresolved situation at running back is killing the team. After Herschel Walker was dealt to Minnesota last October, Dallas completed '89 by starting, in succession, Darryl Clack, Paul Palmer and Broderick Sargent at tailback. The Cowboys did not include one tailback among the 37 players they were allowed to protect under the Plan B free-agency system. Instead, they signed free agent Timmy Smith (the Timmy Smith who as a Washington Redskin rushed for 204 yards in the '88 Super Bowl) for a $5,000 bonus, signed Plan B free agent Keith Jones, traded for Flagler, made Emmitt Smith of Florida their first-round draft pick and traded for former Miami Dolphin Lorenzo Hampton.
Jones went down—and out for the season—with a knee injury in July. Flagler has one foot out the door, and Emmitt Smith was still unsigned as of Monday. The guys picked up, as insurance, Hampton and Timmy Smith, have looked the best, but the position remains unsettled. The player the Cowboys would love to have is the Houston Oilers' versatile back, Alonzo Highsmith. Johnson can dream, can't he?
•The offensive line is so lacking in depth that while on a jog with his staff last week at the Cowboys' temporary camp in San Diego, Johnson decided to move third-year defensive tackle Mark Walen to guard. Walen hadn't played on offense since high school.
•All three receivers who have started thus far—wideouts Rod Harris and Dennis McKinnon and tight end Jay Novacek—were signed as Plan B free agents.
•Johnson and his assistants spent most of January and March scouting college players, specifically looking for impact players on defense. But without the No. 1 pick in the draft-Dallas forfeited its 1990 first-round selection last July when it took Walsh out of Miami in the supplemental draft—the Cowboys couldn't get the lineman they needed, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy of Miami. In fact, they didn't take a defensive player until the third round, when they chose tackle Jimmie Jones of Miami.
When Jones axed Tom Landry last year and brought some managers from his oil and gas business into the Cowboy front office, the rest of the league thought, What a ruthless bumpkin. Given the sweeping changes he has made—easing out club president Tex Schramm, trading Walker, moving training camp from Thousand Oaks, Calif., to Austin—the question around Dallas is, How patient can this man be? Very patient, he says.
"I'm from the business world," says Jones, "and deals I make can take up to five years before you know if they pan out. Here's an example: In 1986 I opened an oil and gas exploration business in Calgary. I knew with the overhead and startup costs we wouldn't have positive cash flow for at least five years. We went in there prepared to spend between $15 million and $25 million a year to make it work.
"Today, we're drilling lots of holes up there and hitting some, but we still haven't recouped anywhere near our original investment. I don't know if we will. But if I let all the dry holes in my life get me down, I'd never have done it. You've just got to be tolerant of failure."
Director of player personnel Bob Ackles is a holdover from the previous regime. "Before, there was always a concern about getting screwed in a deal," says Ackles. "So we didn't make them. In 1987 we traded with the Seahawks for a tackle, Ron Essink. We gave them a fifth-round pick. Essink quit a couple of days after he got here. That just about ended trades for us. To Tom Landry, a fifth-round pick was so important. To Jimmy, he just figures he can get three of them on draft day if he really needs them."
How bad was it last year? The highlight of Johnson's days during the season occurred after practice, when the list of waived players would land on his desk. Two or three would be invited to Dallas every week, and they would play in the game that weekend, knowing only the basics of the Cowboy system. According to defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, "It was tough going into meetings with the players every week, facing [linebacker] Eugene Lockhart and [end] Jim Jeff-coat and saying, 'Hey, we've got three or four new guys. Make them a part of it. Let's bleed together on Sunday.' "
On Tuesday of Week 7, the Cowboys dealt a future eighth-round draft choice to the Detroit Lions for Palmer, who arrived in Dallas the next day. He was taken downtown by van for a late-morning physical, and on the way back to the afternoon practice, the van had a flat tire. Palmer missed the practice, so his only full workout with the team came on Thursday. Ten minutes before the kickoff of the Sunday game, against the Chiefs in Kansas City, while Palmer was taping a crib sheet of plays onto his left forearm, Johnson walked over to him in the locker room and told him, "You're starting."
Says Palmer, now in Cincinnati after the Bengals signed him as a Plan B free agent, "I was shocked. But that's how it was in Dallas. One week Joe Blockhead would come in and play. The next week it would be Willie Whoever. It was fantasy football, picking names for the week and letting the chips fall. More often than not, the chips fell on top of us."
This season the games shouldn't be as lopsided as some were last fall, if a few early signs that coaches and players are taking a fresh approach to the game are to be believed. Regular attendance at offseason workouts increased from six players in '89 to 61 this year. Wannstedt's 4-3 attack-the-gaps defense suits the pass rushers more than Landry's flex because it frees them to penetrate more effectively. "Our defense is going to have to win some games for us," says Jeffcoat. "I think it can."
Offensively, the story is less upbeat. If Walsh, who was under center for Dallas's only victory last year, is kept around, sooner or later the Cowboys will have a quarterback controversy. "I wish the situation would get resolved," says Aikman, "because it's not a healthy one for Steve or for me. Talentwise, we're better than we were. But the expectations will be different. People overlooked our mistakes last year. Now we're accountable. I'm accountable. I'm the guy who'll be picked apart if we're that bad again."
Deep down Johnson knows he's staring 3-13 in the face. He knows a good team must be built through the draft—Dallas has eight picks in the first two rounds of the next two drafts—and he knows his draft decisions will be critical. For now, there's not much he can do except work hard and wait. The other day, while sitting at an ocean-view table in a San Diego restaurant, Johnson talked about his mind-set.
"It's not whether we will succeed," he said, staring at the Pacific. "We will. It's just a matter of how long it will take."