The Folks who watched the Dallas Cowboys trim the San Francisco 49ers 26-17 at Texas Stadium on Sunday got to see one of the rare sights of this strange season: star wars at the quarterback level. The Cowboys' Troy Aikman and the 49ers' Steve Young waged a spirited duel. Aikman ran a Joe Montana show, working the ball underneath, bringing the defensive backs up with short stuff and then burning them deep. Young fought to bring his team back, moving the Niners down the field but ultimately falling short.
Cherish it, because it just doesn't happen anymore. Where have they all gone? Dan Marino, Randall Cunningham, Bobby Hebert, Chris Miller and Jeff Hostetler are down with injuries or are battling them. Montana is functional but fragile. Bernie Kosar has been benched. Warren Moon was benched, and then unbenched out of necessity. Then there are the ranks of the struggling, and what a roster that is: Jim McMahon, Mark Rypien, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Everett and last year's twin Cinderellas, Stan Humphries and Brett Favre. Jeff George is a head-scratcher. Boomer Esiason has had fourth-quarter miseries in his last two outings. Wade Wilson was doing fine until the Pittsburgh Steelers undressed him on Sunday. And on and on.
Oh, a few are still performing at a high level—Montana, Phil Simms, John El-way, Jim Kelly, Young at times—but you will notice that they all have one thing in common. They are over 30. There is only one, repeat one, quarterback in his 20's who has a Pro Bowl look, and that's Aikman, who will turn 27 on Nov. 21.
Ever since the Cowboy offense became whole in Game 3 when Emmitt Smith returned after a contract holdout, Aikman has been on a tear. "That's what I call the start of our season," says Dallas middle linebacker Ken Norton. "When Emmitt walked through the door. To me, we're 4-0."
Without Smith the Cowboys were 0-2; now they are 4-2. Aikman began each of Smith's first three games by completing nine of 10 passes and finished with a 75% completion rate or better each time. O.K., that was against the Phoenix Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts. How would he handle the San Francisco defense, which has struggled at times but still knows how to play?
Aikman wound up at 60% against the 49ers—21 completions in 35 attempts for 243 yards—with 12 of those completions, for 168 yards and a touchdown, going to Michael Irvin (page 72), who had a career day. And that's the other part of the story, the mesh between Irvin and Aikman, and Irvin's switch from burner to serious possession receiver. If a quarterback doesn't have a guy he can always go to, he's nowhere.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, along with offensive-line coach Hudson Houck, had spent time with the Los Angeles Rams, and Turner brought L.A.'s system with him: Push the ball upfield, stretch the defense. It's the old Air Coryell scheme, taught to the Rams in the late '80s by Ernie Zampese, who was Don Coryell's first lieutenant with the San Diego Chargers. To make it go, you need a strong-armed passer (Aikman certainly qualifies), a pair of wideouts who can get upfield (Irvin and Alvin Harper), a sturdy line and a tight end with the smarts to work underneath and sit down at the first-down marker (Jay Novacek).
But against the Niners, Turner had something different in mind. "They do a nice job of taking away the one guy they have to take away," he said, "and the guy they'll want to take away is Irvin. We'll have to try something different with him. We'll have to work him underneath."
How do you tell a thoroughbred like Irvin that he's going to be pulling the wagon for a while? How do you make it work? "He's a big target," said Turner. "He's tough. He fights for the ball. Just watch him in practice, flying around, competing, always working to get the ball. That's why he has those big days."
On Sunday he showed what it means to be a possession receiver: Of the 12 passes Irvin caught, 10 picked up first downs. The other two, for eight and nine yards, were on first and 10. He caught the Cowboys' only touchdown pass, on a 36-yard fade route down the left side at the end of the third quarter. On the drives leading to Dallas's other touchdown, a one-yard run by Smith midway through the second quarter, and to three of Eddie Murray's four field goals, Irvin's catches picked up the final first down.
And Aikman, being patient, waiting until he had the defensive backs playing man coverage and crowding up before he unleashed the rockets, worked an offense that ran 46 plays to the Niners' 22 in the first half. At intermission, though, he had only a 16-10 lead. Each team had scored a cheap touchdown, but every other advance was honestly attained, two high-powered offenses marching up and down the field. The game had only one punt before halftime, by San Francisco.
The lead changed hands twice in the third quarter. San Francisco led 17-16 after a five-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Young throwing a 12-yard strike to tight end Brent Jones. Dallas answered with Irvin's touchdown catch. Then, at 23-17, the game turned for keeps.
Early in the fourth quarter Young brought the Niners from their own 17 to third-and-goal on the Dallas six. The call was a shoot route to Jerry Rice, sprinting to the sideline, with Young rolling to his right, an awkward move for a lefthander. A bit of the pregame hype had involved the personal duel between Rice and Irvin—star wars at the wideout level—but on this day it was no contest. Rice was a nonfactor. Through three quarters he had caught only two passes for 25 yards. He would add five more catches, but they would come in the last four minutes with the Cowboys ahead by nine points and giving up the underneath stuff. Now, down close to the goal line, Rice was the man, on a route Young said afterward "should have been called to the left...we didn't practice it going to the right side."
"So why didn't you get out of the play and go to something else?" he was asked.
"Couldn't," he said. "The whole formation was set up that way."
Rolling to his right, Young caught his foot on the turf and slipped. His pass sailed high over Rice's head. On fourth down, holder Klaus Wilmsmeyer fumbled the snap on a field goal attempt. The Cowboys recovered the ball and drove for the field goal that put the game away.
That march began with a weird play. Aikman threw deep to Harper down the left side, near the Niner bench. The pass was incomplete, but side judge Mike Carey, who was trailing the play, went down. Someone on the 49er sideline had bumped him. The team was penalized 15 yards. "Never in my life have I seen that happen," said NFL director of officiating Jerry Seeman, who was at the game.
It was a bitter day for Young, who has had more than his share of them. He put up some good numbers—24 for 33, 267 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions—but seven of the completions came when the Niners were down by nine. And that incompletion to Rice near the goal line was disastrous.
For Aikman, young, talented and on a roll, bitterness may yet come. Yes, it's another contract thing. Aikman's salary is the 31st-highest among NFL quarterbacks. Imagine. He's still working under his original six-year, $11.2 million deal, with one more year to go after this one. It is a contract his agent, Leigh Steinberg, says that he never would have signed had Cowboy owner Jerry Jones not promised to renegotiate it if Aikman accomplished something impressive—like winning a Super Bowl. Now, says Jones, the contract will be examined in December, "when I'll have a better feel for the lay of the land around the league, the TV contract, the salary cap, the whole situation."
"I've taken what they paid me and never said a word," Aikman says. "I'm not going to start now. But December? When we're in the hard part of the season? It's a funny time to start looking at a contract."
How does he feel watching Marino, Cunningham, Moon, all the sturdy troopers taking such a hammering? "I've been there," he says. "I went through that my first two years, when I was banged up all the time. The way I look at it, I'm reaping the benefits now after paying my dues. It's funny. Last year was my only season when I played the whole year without getting hurt. The knock on me used to be that I wasn't durable. Now someone just told me I'm tied for third on the list for consecutive starts by a quarterback, behind Everett and Young."
Let's hope that Aikman, a young quarterback star in a league that has none other, keeps that streak alive.