Before the sun rose over Texas Stadium on Monday morning, the
Decision had already taken on a life of its own. Around office
watercoolers and on Dallas's drive-time radio talk shows it was
being derided as the worst coaching decision in Cowboy history:
Dallas coach Barry Switzer's directing his offense to go for a
first down on fourth-and-a-foot at the Cowboy 29, with two
minutes left in Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at
Dallas tailback Emmitt Smith pounded into the right side of the
Eagle defense and was stopped cold by linebacker Bill Romanowski
and defensive end Daniel Stubbs. Four plays later,
Philadelphia's Gary Anderson kicked a 42-yard field goal to win
the game 20-17. The loss, coming one week after a humbling 24-17
defeat by the Washington Redskins, was the Cowboys' third in
five weeks and threatened to unhinge a team that only a month
ago seemed a lock to reach the Super Bowl.
Afterward, Switzer tried to defend his call, saying that the
winds inside the frigid stadium would have prevented Dallas from
getting off a decent punt. "I wanted to make a foot so we could
control the ball," he said, with barely controlled rage. "If we
kick into the wind, they're going to come back and kick a field
goal to win the game anyway."
But as Switzer's critics were eager to point out, the decision
was dumb for several reasons. For one thing, it sent a message
to Switzer's ailing defense that he does not trust it at crunch
time. For another, even a poor punt into the wind likely would
have traveled 30 yards, which would have forced the Eagles to
begin a drive in their own territory. What's more, Smith had
been stopped on the very same off-tackle run only moments
before, but the play had been nullified because an official had
blown his whistle at the snap to signal the two-minute warning.
In his second year with the Cowboys, Switzer is 2-4 in the month
of December and 0-3 against the San Francisco 49ers, and he has
found himself glowering at questioners in postgame press
conferences while defending flawed coaching decisions in all
four of Dallas's losses this season. Though the Cowboys, at
10-4, still share the second-best record in the league with the
Niners and the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are in jeopardy of
losing home field advantage in the NFC playoffs to San Francisco.
Philadelphia's victory was its first in three seasons over the
Cowboys, and it moved the 9-5 Eagles to within a game of Dallas
in the NFC East. It also moved Eagle coach Ray Rhodes to offer a
blunt assessment of his rival's sideline acumen: "I would have
punted. Believe me, I don't think you'll see that [call] again."
Jimmy Johnson, who was replaced by Switzer on the Dallas
sidelines, ridiculed the decision on the Fox postgame show, and
later Sunday night he added another jab at his former team off
the air, saying, "One problem is that Barry doesn't have anyone
on his staff to say, 'What are you, nuts?'"
In the Cowboy locker room after the game, Smith, who was held to
10 yards rushing in the second half after gaining 98 yards in
the first, sat stunned before trying to answer questions about
the Decision. Finally, the best he could do was to apologize for
wasting the media's time. His sixth fumble of the year, with
11:14 left in the game and with Dallas clinging to a 17-14 lead,
had been just as costly as his failed fourth-down attempt. The
Cowboys had had a first down at the Philadelphia five when
linebacker William Thomas forced the fumble that was recovered
by safety Mike Zordich. "I don't know anything," said Smith, who
had handled the ball 704 straight times in the regular season
without losing a fumble before this year. "I'm not sure about a
lot of things right now."
Nor was Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, whose frustration boiled
over into a tantrum directed at left tackle Erik Williams, after
Aikman was sacked on the game's final play with the Eagles
rushing only three linemen. Aikman also endured a dreadful
second half, completing only six of 22 passes for 45 yards, and
while he defended the fourth-down call right after the game, he
later expressed a broader misgiving about the Cowboys. "I don't
know where this football team is right now," he said. "I'm
concerned about what's going on within the organization. And
that is something we have to take care of."
Dallas owner Jerry Jones stood by Switzer, saying he understood
and supported the Decision. On Monday afternoon he said, "There
is absolutely no possibility--absolutely none--that I will replace
Barry Switzer after the season." But Jones simply cannot afford
any more screwups. He mortgaged the Cowboys' future to buy
himself a third Super Bowl championship this year, paying nearly
$40 million in signing bonuses to players such as defensive
lineman Charles Haley, who is out for the season after back
surgery; wide receiver Michael Irvin, who had one catch in the
second half against the Eagles; defensive ends Tony Tolbert and
Leon Lett, who combined for zero sacks on Sunday; and cornerback
Deion Sanders, who has only two interceptions since joining
Dallas in October. It was fifth-year cornerback Larry Brown, not
the Neon one, who picked off a Rodney Peete pass just before the
half on Sunday and returned it 65 yards for the touchdown that
put the Cowboys in front 17-3.
After the game Sanders was busy steering the blame for Dallas's
demise away from Switzer and the defense. "You'd better not
point the damn finger at the defense," he said. "You can talk
about Deion, his momma, his daddy, his wife and his kids, but
don't say a damn thing about the defense."
Sanders's TV commercial for pizza, which also features Jones,
suddenly took on a new spin: Hey, Deion, do you want to lose to
Washington at home or on the road? Both. Can your once proud
team be beaten by Niner quarterback Elvis Grbac or Philly passer
Rodney Peete? Both. And do the Eagles now have a better offense
or defense than the Cowboys? Both.
Rhodes, in his first season with Philadelphia, has patched
together a fine unit with players like free-agent end William
Fuller, rookie cornerback Bobby Taylor--who batted down two
passes in the final moments on Sunday before a wide-open Irvin
could close in on them--and Stubbs, who was out of football a
year ago after having been cut by the Cincinnati Bengals. "It
all comes down to respect on that fourth-down play," said Stubbs
early Sunday evening. "Twice in a row you run the same play at
us. That's a total lack of respect for our defense. But earning
respect is something a lot of us are used to doing over and over
again around here."
On the fateful play Stubbs was shoulder-to-shoulder with linemen
Ronnie Dixon and Kevin Johnson. At this time last year, Dixon
was driving a 60-ton cement truck six days a week, 500 miles a
day through North Carolina after being cut by the New Orleans
Saints. Johnson was stacking cases of Old Grand Dad in his
father's Los Angeles liquor store after the Minnesota Vikings
had let him go. With the NFL plagued by underachieving,
multimillion-dollar free agents, Rhodes may have found the
remedy by seeking out hungry, unemployed players. Stubbs, Dixon
and Johnson have combined for 84 tackles and 12 sacks this
season, and after holding Dallas to 196 total yards, the Eagle
defense now ranks third in the league.
Says Rhodes, "When a guy gets a second chance to play football
instead of driving a truck all day or packaging booze, you'd
better believe that guy will give you everything he's got."
In marked contrast to the bickering and self-doubt plaguing the
Cowboys, the Eagles coalesced after a dismal 1-3 start that
included a 48-17 drubbing by the Oakland Raiders. Players like
Fuller, center Raleigh McKenzie and safety Mark McMillian calmly
spoke to their teammates about pride and about playing up to
their potential. Philadelphia proceeded to win seven of eight
games before a 26-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks a week before
the Dallas game.
Like his free-agent gambles, the most important decision Rhodes
has made has really paid off. In Week 4 he benched quarterback
Randall Cunningham in favor of Peete, who had spent five
undistinguished seasons with the Detroit Lions and was a backup
in Dallas last year. Though his interceptions (nine) still
outnumber his touchdown passes (six), Peete is 8-2 as a starter.
And tailback Ricky Watters, Philly's priciest free-agent pickup,
has been paying huge dividends after a slow start, rushing for a
career-high 1,186 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns--and even
making an occasional block. Watters ran for 112 yards and a
touchdown on Sunday and got stronger during the afternoon as
Smith wore down.
"We grew up as a team today," Watters said after the game.
"There were times when we had a chance to quit, to lay down. But
there are a lot of guys on this team who have never beaten the
Dallas Cowboys. This is what I came here for. Those fourth-down
stands by our defense were something to behold. Something I will
never, ever forget."
And something Dallas may find difficult to overcome.