It's one of those things that have been clearly defined for the last 50 years of pro football: Team of the Decade. The Chicago Bears in the 1940s, the Cleveland Browns in the '50s, the Green Bay Packers in the '60s, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s, the San Francisco 49ers in the '80s—five teams that rose up and grabbed a 10-year chunk of history by the throat. And now, three ticks into the '90s, it's time to make a call: Which team will define this decade?
The New York Giants and the Washington Redskins each have a leg up with one Super Bowl victory, but somehow we just can't see either of them dominating this 10-year span. The Giants are an aging team, in the down cycle. The Skins? Consistently good, as they were in the '80s, but also showing some age. The Buffalo Bills? The Niners again? The Detroit Lions? Uh-uh.
The team of the '90s will be the Dallas Cowboys. Yes, those same Cowboys who were scorned three years ago when a pair of JJs—owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson—arrived to plot the team's destiny and then christened the new era with a 1-15 record. The same Cowboys who saw their mighty empire sink into the mire of five straight losing seasons before they finally reached the playoffs last year. Those Cowboys.
The main reason we like them is a basic one: youth—the fire of youth, young legs in December and January, when the long season has taken its toll and the injuries are mounting. The 16-game NFL regular season has turned the game into an endurance contest.
"I didn't really have a timetable when I got here in 1989," Johnson says, "but I had a commitment to use every avenue to upgrade the talent, even if it meant sacrificing a win or two. The draft, Plan B, waivers, trades—I was going to search all the ways until I found the right players to suit our style. We traded Herschel Walker, our only Pro Bowl player for the two previous seasons, for three years' worth of high draft picks. Ray Alexander had been the team's leading receiver the year before, but we released him to look at younger players. The media made jokes about all the changes our first couple of years. There was no continuity, because I kept a revolving door with players: claim some off waivers, cut three or four the next day, claim three or four a day later. If we were concerned about respectability that first year, we would have kept Walker, kept Alexander and tried to win two or three extra games. But that wasn't going to get us to the Super Bowl."
The memory of that 1-15 first season is a nightmare for Johnson, the same kind of thing Chuck Noll lived through in his rookie year (1-13), before Pittsburgh made its move; the same thing Bill Walsh experienced in his first season (2-14), before the Niners got good.
"We couldn't play with anybody," says free safety Ray Horton, 32, one of the few players who have been around for the entire Jones-Johnson era, "and we probably couldn't coach with anybody. But the coaches adjusted. They learned the pro game."
Before the 1940 season George Halas looked at his Chicago Bear team, and he saw creeping old age. So he infused the squad with new blood, starting the season with 11 rookies and eight second-year players on his 33-man roster. The average age of his team was 25 years; average experience was 3.1 seasons. It was one of the youngest teams ever to win an NFL championship, which the Bears did most resoundingly—73-0 over the Redskins—even with four rookies in the starting lineup. Gone were 20 players from the 1937 team, the last Chicago team that had played in the title game. Halas's young Bears went on to win four championships in the '40s.
In the 1950s Detroit won as many titles as Cleveland did (three), but the Browns were in the title game another four times to the Lions' one, which gives them the nod. The Browns were a maturing team when they made their NFL debut in 1950, seasoned by four years of dominance in the old All-America Football Conference. But when Paul Brown was putting together his first AAFC club, in 1946, he grabbed 25 players with no professional experience—collegians he had coached at Ohio State and guys he remembered from his service days at Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Brown knew what he was doing, and that bunch formed the nucleus of a 15-year powerhouse.
Vince Lombardi's formula in Green Bay was different. He inherited a 1-10 team that had been disorganized under predecessor Scooter McLean but was heavy in young talent. Seven members of that team eventually made the Hall of Fame. It was up to Lombardi to get them going in the right direction. The Packers had a winning season in Lombardi's first year (1959), a championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles a year later and then, a year after that, the first of their five titles in the '60s.
The draft did it for Noll in Pittsburgh. Five future Hall of Famers came out of his first four drafts, and then in 1974, his sixth year as coach, came the greatest rookie crop for one team in history: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Donnie Shell. Four Super Bowl victories in six years was the result.
In 1981, his third year in San Francisco, Walsh set the stage for the Niners' four Super Bowl wins in the '80s. He went to work on the area of greatest need—defense—and drafted three defensive backs in the first three rounds, all of whom started and eventually made the Pro Bowl. When he fortified the defense by acquiring two sturdy old pros, Fred Dean and Jack Reynolds, Walsh was on his way. And the franchise stayed on top by consistently drafting well throughout the decade.
And now the Cowboys appear ready to claim a decade as their own. The teams of the decade have had one thing in common: an All-Pro or future All-Pro quarterback already in place when they launched their run. Johnson's first draft choice in Dallas was Troy Aikman, who has already appeared in the Pro Bowl. A keynote running back was another constant. In his second year Johnson used a first pick for Emmitt Smith, who is a two-time Pro Bowl player and was the NFL's leading rusher last season.
Almost a compulsive trader, Johnson arms himself with high-round picks and uses them to deal his way up and down the board on draft day. By trading into the No. 1 spot 48 hours before the '91 draft, he landed defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who came on late last season as an inside pass rusher. Maybe he'll emerge as a real force. The Cowboys say that cornerback Kevin Smith, a first-round pick in '92, will be a terrific man-to-man cover guy. Clayton Holmes is a rookie defensive back with 4.23 speed, Darren Woodson is an oversized, 216-pound safety who can also motor, and then there are sleepers like 6'7" tight end Fallon Wacasey, a sixth-round pick in April, who blocked like a maniac in Tulsa's Freedom Bowl win over San Diego State. And they're all connected in some way to the Walker deal.
Last December, when Dallas took its young Turks to Chicago for the first playoff game in the Jones-Johnson era, it was a case of young legs versus old. The Cowboys wore down the Bears, putting together a nifty goal-line stand in the course of that 17-13 victory. "Five rookies were on the field for us during that goal-line stand," defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt says.
But the season ended with a 38-6 loss to the Lions, who exposed the Cowboys' Achilles' heel. Teams that tried to pound the ball against Dallas had problems. But spread them out and throw on them and the Cowboys were in trouble. Their game plan against Detroit's run-and-shoot was to key on Barry Sanders's running, so Lion quarterback Erik Kramer stood back in the pocket and picked them to pieces. "I kept saying to myself, They're going to run it on the next play, they're going to run it," Wannstedt says. "Pretty soon someone said to me, 'Hey, we're down by 25 points with 10 minutes left.' "
The Cowboys played every run-and-shoot team last year and lost three out of the four games. "Our cover guys were basically zone-type players," Wannstedt says. "We had only 23 sacks from our pass rush. It locked us into a certain type of coverage, and when you're playing against a wide-open offense, that's not good. Things will be different this year."
Dallas drafted for need in April, making the selections a team makes when it's thinking seriously about a run at the Big One. Four of the first five picks were for defense, including three defensive backs, and the Cowboys' second first-rounder, Robert Jones, a 236-pounder with 4.63 speed, has already been plugged into the starting lineup at middle linebacker. The defensive line, fortified by the trade for 49er pass-rush specialist Charles Haley, is deeper than it has been. And an interesting down-the-line project is end Chad Hennings, who spent the last four years in the Air Force. "Relentless," Johnson says. "We'll be alternating defensive linemen the whole game, making sure there are always fresh legs." Just as the 49ers have done for the last decade—with exceptional results.
"Are we going to make a run for it in '92? You bet we are," says Jones, the owner. "We could have traded backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein for a No. 1 pick this year or a very skilled veteran [Kansas City Chief cornerback Albert Lewis], but we turned the deals down. He stepped in and won five games for us last year. His contract is up after this season, and we could lose him in the future, but we want him in place right now."
"We're young and we're hungry, and we're developing an attitude," Wannstedt says. "But I know that we've got to go out and win a lot more games on defense than we did in the past."
The rookies were all signed when camp opened. There were some veteran holdouts, but who doesn't have them these days? Under Jones the Cowboys have had a reputation for being free spenders, but lately they have economized in strange ways. They pared their scouting department way down, and the director of college scouting, Dick Mansperger, quit when raises were frozen. Bob Ackles, the player personnel director, was let go in another financial move.
But the system is in place, and the Cowboys are young all around. They'll learn. Just watch; you'll see.
Will the Pattern Continue?
In 1959 Vince Lombardi was hired to coach the Green Bay Packers, and he led them to the NFL championship five times during the 1960s. In 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers hired Chuck Noll, and they won four Super Bowls under his direction in the '70s. In 1979 Bill Walsh took over the 49ers and won three Super Bowls in the '80s; he resigned after the 1988 season, but the team he built repeated as NFL champion the following season.
All of which leads to the fact that Jimmy Johnson replaced Tom Landry as coach of the Cowboys in 1989, and, eerily, he is on the same path as the master coaches of the past three decades. He's in the midst of transforming a downtrodden team into potentially the dominant club of the '90s.
Here is a comparison of the turnarounds of these four teams, all of which were achieved within four seasons of the hiring of the coach.
NFL championship seasons
1961, '62, '65, '66, '67
1974, '75, '78, '79
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