Beware the wounded animal.
The Dallas Cowboys were a desperate, wounded team, sitting at
1-3 in September and ready to tumble from their championship
perch. They won their next three games, but two of them were
struggles against Philadelphia and Atlanta, games that could
have gone either way. Heading into Miami for the superhyped
Commotion by the Ocean against Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins, the
Cowboys really didn't know where they stood.
"I never talk about my weight, but I'll tell you right now that
it's 329, lightest it's been in years," left guard Nate Newton
said last Saturday night. "I've been trying real hard to get it
down. Why? Because I don't want people saying that the offensive
line pooped out from lack of stamina. I don't want to be the guy
who screwed up. All the stars on this team are feeling that. We
all know that Emmitt Smith's not right, that he could use a week
off. But he won't take it because he doesn't want people saying
that he cost us a win. No one wants to be the guy who screws up."
"The team is tired," offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese said
the same evening. "Mentally fatigued. All the pressure to win
another Super Bowl; it's not fun anymore. We're just hanging on
until the end of the year, when it's a short season."
November 4, 1996
In Miami the Cowboys were facing a team with youth and purpose.
Everyone in the Dolphins' locker room downplayed the most
heavily hyped angle--Jimmy Johnson versus his old boss, Jerry
Jones--but it was there nonetheless. It was probably the biggest
game two 4-3 teams will ever play.
Someone asked Johnson at his Friday press conference how he felt
about being the underdog, and he smiled and said, "They have how
many All-Pros? We might not have any Pro Bowlers, but we have
guys who went to all-star games in college."
How prophetic. He had Dan Marino, of course, but it was Dan and
the Kiddie Corps, with five rookies starting, three of them on
defense. Johnson also had another rookie up his sleeve,
third-down halfback Jerris McPhail, whom he planned to surprise
the Cowboys with. McPhail would run downfield and stretch the
defense, and that would give Marino one-on-one matchups that he
could use to exploit an old and tired team.
The thing that worried Johnson, though, was the way his defense
had fallen into the habit of giving up big plays. Seattle had
killed Miami with them three weeks earlier. So had Philly the
week before the Dallas game. Johnson decided to have his defense
play soft against Troy Aikman and give up the underneath stuff
but make him earn everything he tried to get deep.
For a while his plan worked. The Cowboys put up huge numbers in
the first half--248 yards on 37 plays--but they were down 10-9,
thanks to screwups in the red zone. But then the war of
attrition began. Aikman, afforded terrific protection by his
offensive line, picked the Dolphins to pieces after
intermission. He killed them with short square-outs, especially
to Michael Irvin, who finished with 12 catches for 186 yards. It
was like stealing. The killer came when Aikman looked off a
safetyman and busted a zone coverage for a 61-yard completion to
Marino, under a heavy rush and never in sync with his young
receivers, couldn't answer. At the end the scoreboard read
29-10, Dallas. An aroused veteran team, loaded with superstars,
had risen up and played to its level.
"We had a lot of things on offense we never even got to,"
Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston said, "like crossing patterns
and things designed to mess up their coverages. We didn't have
to. We just stuck to the out-patterns."
Miami was exposed as a team trying to match talent with youth,
and it just didn't work. "I missed tackles, I played terribly,"
said middle linebacker Zach Thomas, who has been the eye-catcher
among Johnson's rookies. "I was so high--you know, with all that
pregame talk--that I tried to make too much happen. After the
first quarter I ran out of energy."
One of the few Cowboys whose numbers were modest was Smith--22
carries, 74 yards. The Dolphins sacrificed some of the pass rush
to make sure they shut Smith down, and they paid for it. There
was one scary moment late in the first half when Smith's right
leg was bent back under him on a tackle, the kind of play where
they say on TV, "Here's the replay, but we advise you not to
watch." He limped off. Two plays later he was back on the field.
"I thought the ankle was broken at first," Smith said after the
game. "But by the time I got to the sideline I was O.K. You do
what you have to. You play."
It's called handling the pressure, and on this Sunday the
Cowboys were the masters.