Coming of Age

When the Cowboys arrived at Veterans Stadium last Saturday for a short walkthrough practice in preparation for Sunday's game against the Eagles, they found that the players' entrance was locked. It took 10 minutes to find someone with a key to let them in. Then when they reached the visitors' locker room, another locked door blocked their path, causing further delay. Finally, when it came time to leave the Vet after the workout, the wrought-iron exit gate that the Cowboy buses had to pass through was locked.

Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson had had enough by then, what with the biggest game of his three-year tenure less than 24 hours away. He jumped off the lead bus and gave a security guy the what for while the key to the gate was fetched. Were the Eagles giving the Cowboys the Red Auerbach treatment, creating little detours to distract them before a big game? No, but the Dallas players were sufficiently ticked off by all this that they were rarin' to go for Sunday's encounter.

Sometimes the NFL is not as well oiled as its image suggests, especially for teams on the road. But in a span of 22 days, ending on a windswept afternoon at the Vet, the Cowboys took care of all things great and small by sandwiching a 24-21 victory in Washington on Nov. 24 and Sunday's 25-13 win in Philly around wins at home against the Steelers and the Saints. No visiting team had won at RFK and the Vet in the same year since the Giants did it in their Super Bowl season of 1986.

Thus the Cowboys, 10-5 heading into the final week of the regular season, have officially rejoined the league's upper crust. By clinching a wild-card berth with the defeat of Philadelphia, Dallas returns to the playoffs for the first time since the '85 season. "It's the big time," said wideout Michael Irvin. "It's about time."

With quarterback Troy Aikman still hobbled by a sprained right knee, the Cowboys struggled through an atypically lousy day for backup Steve Beuerlein, who was two for 17 passing in the first half. Dallas won with its defense, which forced three turnovers and got seven sacks, and its special teams, which generated a safety and an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown by Kelvin Martin.

Johnson, who coached the University of Miami before becoming the Cowboys' head man, has been scoffed at because he has tried to build a winner by acquiring his former Hurricane players. Nine ex-Hurricanes have played for Johnson in Dallas. Of the four who remain, three had major roles in Sunday's win: defensive linemen Jimmie Jones and Russell Maryland combined for four sacks, and Irvin added to his NFC lead in receptions with five catches for 92 yards and a touchdown.

"If Joe Paterno coached in the pros and drafted a lot of Penn State guys, nobody would say anything," said Irvin. "If Lou Holtz coached in the pros and drafted a lot of Notre Dame guys, nobody would say anything. But Jimmy does it, and people talk about those ruthless convicts in Miami. Why get maligned? He's taking guys off national championship teams."

"There was never any doubt in my mind that we were doing the right things," said Johnson, relaxing in a shoe box of an office with his son-Chad after the game. "When you know you're right, you don't have doubts. And it's only going to get better." Those winds at the Vet on Sunday? They were winds of change.


In 1983, Chiefs quarterback Bill Kenney set a team record by passing for 4,348 yards during the season, Seahawk quarterback Dave Krieg threw for a team-record 418 yards in a game, Charger quarterback Dan Fouts was piloting the Air Coryell offense, and Bronco quarterback John Elway's career was just getting started. What a difference eight years makes.

Long the NFL's most wide-open division, the AFC West now hugs the ground on offense. Why? First, Marty Schottenheimer of the Chiefs, Art Shell of the Raiders and Dan Henning of the Chargers—all of whom were hired in 1989—are run-oriented coaches. Second, the AFC West no longer is stocked with top quality passers. Last weekend, the starters were Elway (and he has a sore shoulder), John Friesz of San Diego, Mark Vlasic of K.C., Jay Schroeder of L.A. and Kelly Stouffer of Seattle.

Moreover, the Chargers have gone from a mobile offensive line that averaged 271 pounds in 1983 to a plowhorse front averaging 297, and San Diego is mashing teams with huge backs Marion Butts (248 pounds) and Rod Bernstine (238). "This division's getting the same philosophy as the NFC East," says Chiefs president Carl Peterson. "Last year I specifically drafted [linebacker] Percy Snow to deal with San Diego's running game."

The Chiefs offense boasts 260-pound Christian Okoye and 242-pound Barry Word, the Raiders are breaking in 255-pound Nick Bell, and the Seahawks' 231-pound John L. Williams has been a solid performer for six years. Seattle has even used 295-pound tackle Ronnie Lee as a short-yardage blocking back.

"We played some of those teams this year—the Chiefs, the Chargers, the Raiders—and you had to soak your body for a week after those games," says Falcon cornerback Tim McKyer.

Suggestions from Upstairs

Here are four significant on-field adjustments that commissioner Paul Tagliabue would like to see addressed by the NFL's competition committee in the off-season:

•Cut the 45 seconds between plays to 40. According to statistics compiled by the league through the first 15 weeks of this season, an average of 14.35 seconds remained on the 45-second clock when the center bent over the ball and 9.42 seconds were left when he snapped it. "But some teams are milking the clock like a stall in college basketball within the confines of the 45-second clock," says Tagliabue.

•Limit situation substitutions. The commissioner thinks unlimited substitution favors the defense and takes up time that teams could be using to run plays.

•Kick off from the 30-yard line, instead of the 35. "The kickers are too damn good," says Tagliabue. Twenty-one percent of this season's kickoffs have been touch-backs, an alltime high. Tagliabue wants to see more kicks returned. "Great," says Chiefs kicker Nick Lowery. "What's next? Kicking from the 25?"

•Relax the anticelebration rule. Tagliabue admits that the league "overreacted" last March, when it banned almost all endzone celebrating and postgame fraternizing, even for prayer. Next March he's going to ask the rulemakers to lighten up.

Last year only 1% of the players on World League of American Football rosters were on loan from NFL teams. But the NFL's contribution could reach 30% next year if NFL owners approve a plan that calls for each team to donate four players to a pool that would help stock the spring league in 1992. Such an influx would mean that 112 of the 372 players on the World League teams would be from NFL rosters, and the heads of both leagues think this move would make the WLAF's game more credible. A lot of backup quarterbacks and developing players at other positions in the NFL would get added experience by playing in the WLAF, and one guy the World League really wants is Raider backup quarterback Todd Marinovich.... Nine-year-old Justin Glanville, son of Jerry, the Atlanta coach, has written Tagliabue asking for an explanation. He wants to know why he is barred from the Falcon sideline under an NFL rule that prohibits persons in the bench area who serve no "game-related function." The letter begins, "Dear Mr. Taglabo."

Stats of the Week

•Only one Lion player, kicker Eddie Murray, had been born when Detroit last played a postseason game at home, in 1957. On Sunday, the Lions, now 11-4, clinched a home playoff game by beating Green Bay 21-17.

•The Oilers had 14 players on the field for an offensive play against the Browns and, amazingly, weren't flagged. Houston won 17-14.

Game of the Week
Detroit at Buffalo, Sunday. This will be the first meeting between superbacks Thurman Thomas of the Bills and Barry Sanders of the Lions. Fittingly, the game could decide the rushing title, with the only other competition coming from Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys. But there's more. While he was a standout at Oklahoma State, Thomas helped recruit Sanders, who eventually became his successor in State's backfield. Then last season they became the first players from the same college to finish one-two in the NFL in rushing. Here's how Thomas, who will play Sunday despite a sprained left ankle, and Sanders are dominating:

networks will lose money on the NFL."

According to a second source, the provisions of the contract that added more national TV games by lengthening the regular season from 16 weeks to 17 and by expanding the postseason format have backfired for television. Instead of stimulating more advertising revenues, the extra week of games, the addition of two more wild-card playoff games and an added cable deal meant that advertising had to be sold for 15 more games—that's an increase of 840 30-second commercial spots—in the middle of a recession, when even established advertisers are cutting back. One ad executive said last week that Anheuser-Busch, for instance, used to buy six to eight spots per game on NBC's telecasts of NFL games; this year, the beer giant is buying one or two per game.

A few teams are beginning to feel the pinch of the recession in ways unrelated to TV. Although Detroit and New England are two of the NFL's most improved teams, they're nevertheless experiencing dropoffs at the gate. The Lions are fighting for the NFC Central title, but with the local automobile industry a primary victim of the recession, their attendance is down 6% and they had 11,000 empty seats at a recent home game. Also in the last two years the leases on 41 of the Silverdome's 102 once sold-out luxury boxes were not renewed, and no new full-time tenants were found for them.

Despite improving their record from 1-15 in 1990 to 6-9 and becoming fun to watch, the Pats have seen their attendance fall 3% at Foxboro Stadium, and owner Victor Kiam's personal financial difficulties have forced him to consider putting the team up for sale. Patriots CEO Sam Jankovich recently spent two days at economic seminars in Boston and came away fretting. "They said we were in for another year of tough times," he said. "The doom and gloom is not good."