You heard it as you walked into Texas Stadium on Sunday before the Dallas Cowboys squashed the New York Giants 31-9. You heard it at halftime when Tom Landry was inducted into the Cowboys' Ring of Honor, when he officially made his peace with owner Jerry Jones, the man who had fired him nearly five years ago. You heard it throughout the afternoon when the cash registers jingled as more and more Cowboy trinkets were sold.
America's Team. It's back, the label that set everyone's teeth on edge, that made the Cowboys hated by 27 other NFL teams, that bespoke an arrogance that could be repaid only on the field. America's Team? Well, we'll see.
Maybe it was the sheer magnitude of the day that inspired the Cowboys. Or perhaps it was the wealth of ironies that surrounded this game. The Giants are the team that gave Landry his start, and now they are coached by Dan Reeves, who apprenticed under the Man in the Hat. And all the while the attention of the football world was focused on a game 1,500 miles away, in which the Miami Dolphins' Don Shula would try to become the winningest professional coach of all time—the greatest ever, people were saying—while here in Texas they knew there had never been a better one than their own Tom Landry.
And maybe it was the fact that despite their five straight victories since Emmitt Smith had signed his contract and rejoined the club, the Cowboys remained a "yes, but" team. Yes, they were beating people, and Troy Aikman was the hottest quarterback in football and Emmitt was breaking tackles with his usual abandon and the wide receivers were simply out of this world. But the Cowboys were, uh, a bit soft against the run. And real he-men, particularly in the state of Texas, don't have that notation on their rèsumès.
The Philadelphia Eagles had shoved them around at times the previous week. And two weeks before that, the San Francisco 49ers had gained yards up the middle. Now here came the Giants, the NFL's No. 1 rushing team, who, if nothing else, will test your manhood against the run, not with tricky stuff—cut blocks and misdirection and the like—but with straight-ahead power.
"They just buckle their chin straps and tell you they're coming right at you, try to stop them," Cowboy backup linebacker Bobby Abrams, an ex-Giant, said last week. "That's the kind of football I like, the clash of the titans."
The Giant running game looks a lot like the kind of show Bill Parcells ran in the team's Super Bowl days. He stockpiled offensive linemen in the draft—heavy-legged drive-blockers to carry his offense through the NFC East, in which four-man lines and miserable late-season weather make a running game essential.
Reeves, in his first year as the Giant coach, was intelligent enough to realize that you don't change a team overnight, you fit it to your personnel. There was some speculation at first as to whether Reeves would bring to the Meadowlands some Dallas-style trickery or the wide-open, John Elway-type, gadget-loaded attack he had coached in Denver. But as the season unfolded, there were the Giants banging away behind those big bubbas up front, amassing the largest ratio of running plays to passes (269 to 186) in the NFL, plus a 5-2 record, which had the fans excited again after the deep gloom of the two years under Ray Handley.
The Cowboys, who had climbed from their 0-2 Emmitt-less start into a tie with the Giants for the division lead—and who were certainly playing the best ball in the league—had spent a week answering one question: How would a defense that had shown some softness inside cope with the rolling thunder of the Giants' attack?
Feeling the heat most acutely was Ken Norton. Last year he was the leader of the defense, an outside linebacker on the weak side, with terrific pass-coverage instincts and great pursuit ability. He should have made the Pro Bowl but didn't. This would be his year.
A 99-yard drive by the Washington Redskins in this season's opener began to change all that. It helped convince coach Jimmy Johnson and his defensive assistants that Robert Jones, who had had a creditable season as a rookie middle linebacker in '92, wasn't the answer. Norton would step into the meat grinder inside, and his place would be taken by a University of Miami rookie named Darrin Smith.
"People said I was sacrificing a Pro Bowl shot by moving into a new position," Norton says, "but if you want to be considered the leader of the defense, you should play in the middle."
The week before the Giant game Norton tore the biceps in his right arm against the Eagles—and never left the game. Johnson, later commenting on Norton's condition, said, "He tore the biceps muscle from the bone. I felt it on the plane home, and I could feel a hole in there.... There is some pain, but Ken won't have any problem functioning as a tackier."
Which shows that coaches have a very high threshold—for other people's pain.
An MRI showed a tear in "mid-substance" of the tendon, but it was not torn away from the bone. Norton had a choice: either to have the arm surgically repaired and miss the season or to tough it out and probably lengthen—and complicate—his postseason rehab time. He chose the latter, was on the field when the Giants lined up for their first snap and was part of the mob that swarmed Dave Meggett when he was stopped for no gain on third-and-one two plays later.
Meanwhile, with the line giving him all the time he needed, Aikman connected on his first 10 passes, throwing underneath the two-deep zone or going deep. By halftime Smith had 60 of his 117 yards rushing. The Cowboys ate up more than half of the opening quarter on their first possession, which produced a field goal. Their next possession ended with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Aikman to wideout Alvin Harper. By the time the first quarter ended, the Cowboys had all the points they needed (10), but just for good measure they added seven more on their first play of the second quarter—a 50-yard pass to Harper, with Aikman standing back there forever, surveying the unfolding patterns.
It was gorgeous football for Cowboy fans, a bit of everything, even a 46-yard Harper-to-Michael Irvin option pass off a reverse in the fourth quarter. "I tried not to laugh when that was called in the huddle," said left guard Nate Newton, the leader of an offensive line that must surely rate as the best in the league. "We'd tried it six times in practice. Six quackers—three intercepted, two incomplete, one caught out of bounds. But today was one of those days when everything worked."
On defense the Cowboys attacked the Giant running game with speed, luring New York backs into gaps that looked enticing but closed in a hurry, and pursuing hard from the backside. Maybe the old Philly defenses that smashed people in the mouth and stuffed them at the point of attack would sneer at such tactics, but on Sunday they were effective. The Giants rushed for 118 yards, 42 of them in the last quarter after the score was 31-6.
The big difference in the two teams, though, was that Aikman had protection, and Giant quarterback Phil Simms (and later Kent Graham) did not. "The thing about the Cowboys' defense," Simms said last Saturday, "is that you never get a cheap play. They make you work every drive."
And in order to work you've got to have time, and Simms was under constant pressure. He banged up his elbow in the first half, took another hard shot in the second and finally gave way to Graham in the fourth quarter. Protection had also been a problem in the Giants' 10-6 loss to the Jets the week before. Left tackle Jumbo Elliott suffered a pinched nerve in his neck earlier in the season, making him vulnerable to the power rush. The injury still bothered him Sunday, and replacing him in the second half with Eric Moore, who had hardly played all year, didn't help any.
The Giants were also hurt by their lack of downfield speed, a shortcoming exposed on their longest play of the day, Simms's 47-yard completion to wideout Chris Calloway in the second quarter. After the catch, Calloway broke away from the pursuit and then, mysteriously, slowed to make a cut with no one in front of him. He was caught from behind. Failure in the red zone was a problem, as it had been against the Jets. The book on the Giants must now read, Get them in long yardage and they can be had.
It would have been a perfect day for the Cowboys except for one jarring note: As Aikman was sprinting away from defensive end Keith Hamilton with 9:30 left in the third quarter, his left hamstring popped and he was through for the day. He may be out for another week.
Said Aikman, "I'd never pulled anything, so I don't know what the rehab is like. The docs told me it wasn't serious."
"Why don't you call Joe Montana and find out what to do about it?" someone said.
"I didn't call him when I had a bad back, so I don't think I'll call him now, either," Aikman replied.
So for a week the Cowboy fortunes are in the hands of 27-year-old Jason Garrett, whose father, Jim, is a Dallas scout. Jason was once going to be Columbia's greatest quarterback since Sid Luckman, Paul Governali or Marty Domres, but he went to Princeton when his coach—his father—resigned under fire as Columbia's coach.
And the Phoenix Cardinals, next on the Cowboys' agenda, are licking their chops at the prospects of a shot at the club that has revived the old America's Team thing. In September, when the Cowboys were 0-2 and Emmitt was back home in Florida, when Dallas pass rusher Charles Haley was knocking holes in locker room walls in frustration and owner Jerry Jones was the stingiest guy in Texas, everyone was writing Dallas off. On Sunday, Jones stood on the podium with Landry and everyone cheered. They forget quickly when you're 6-2.