As celebratory gestures go, it was pretty wimpy, something you
might see a trio of triumphant tax attorneys do in court. Near
the end of the Dallas Cowboys' 37-7 spanking of the Pittsburgh
Steelers in Sunday's season opener at Three Rivers Stadium,
Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders and Jerry Jones--the three brashest
symbols of Cowboys braggadocio--shared a hug that seemed to
underscore Dallas's new touchy-feely personality. "I'm proud of
you both, the way you've responded to your challenges," said
Jones, the owner bent on cleansing the Cowboys' image.
"It's good to be together," Irvin, the reformed receiver, and
Sanders, the consecrated cornerback, answered in unison. Gomer
Pyle and his cousin Goober would have had no problem chilling
with this crew.
The good vibes were merited. In a matchup of supposed Super Bowl
contenders, the Cowboys had just brutalized the Steelers,
sending a message that could be felt as far away as Green Bay.
"The scary thing is, we can play a lot better," coach Barry
Switzer said as he walked off the field. "We weren't hitting on
all cylinders, but we still made a statement today."
For the first time in a long while, perhaps since the Cowboys'
Super Bowl XXX triumph over the Steelers 19 months ago, Dallas's
on-field behavior made for more compelling theater than its
off-the-field transgressions. On a day that will be remembered
for the aerial brilliance of Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman,
the Cowboys scored their most lopsided victory since a 35-0
drubbing of the New York Giants in their 1995 opener. "We're
more focused around here than we've been in a long time, and
that starts at the top," said Darren Woodson, the Cowboys'
All-Pro safety. "This was strictly business."
Everything is relative; against Pittsburgh, Dallas may have been
strictly business, but Irvin still punctuated both his touchdown
catches with animated gestures, and Sanders, on the heels of his
recent fervor for Christianity, reacted to his 38-yard punt
return in the third quarter by leaning back, spreading his hands
and projecting his reverence skyward. Had Steelers punter Josh
Miller not tripped up Sanders at the Pittsburgh 27, Prime Time
might well have gone over the top. "If I had scored," Sanders
said, "oh, my God--I might've climbed up the goalpost and tried
to give the Lord a high five."
Sanders may be the Cowboys' self-anointed archdeacon, but the
"spiritual leader," in Woodson's words, is Irvin, who caught
seven passes for 153 yards. When Rod (no relation) Woodson sees
what Irvin did to Pittsburgh cornerbacks Donnell Woolford and
Chad Scott, he'll be grateful he left the Steelers and signed
with the San Francisco 49ers in the off-season. The only thing
more humbling than getting abused by Irvin is hearing him brag
as it's happening, and Irvin had far more to shout about than
did the 60,396 fans at Three Rivers.
"Strictly business? No, it was more like we got back to having
fun," Irvin said. "It's got to be that way because if we take
this game and make it like work, that kills our spirit. If we
play to have fun, then our natural abilities take over. And when
our abilities take over, I don't care who we're playing--I like
Last season the Cowboys' inability to throw the ball was their
undoing. Dallas began 1996 with three defeats in five games
while Irvin served a league-imposed suspension following his
no-contest plea to a felony charge of cocaine possession. The
Cowboys' season ended in the NFC playoffs with a 26-17 loss to
the Carolina Panthers, in which Irvin left the game during the
offense's first series with a sprained shoulder, Sanders was
sidelined by a shot to the head, and Aikman threw three
interceptions. All three men have said they contemplated
retirement in the months following that debacle, prompting
Pittsburgh running back Jerome (the Bus) Bettis to wonder, "Is
there anyone on that team who didn't almost retire?"
The Steelers, who play the same 3-4, zone-blitzing defense as
the Panthers, saw an entirely different Dallas passing attack
from the one that fizzled against Carolina. Aikman, whom fantasy
football participants normally avoid like week-old sushi because
of his modest passing totals, threw for 295 yards and four
touchdowns, the latter tying a career high. He came alive two
plays into the second quarter of a blah game by finding wideout
Anthony Miller over the middle for 31 yards. Three plays later
Miller, signed in June after the Denver Broncos waived him for
salary-cap purposes, scored the game's first points on a 12-yard
Even with Pittsburgh shutting down Emmitt Smith (26 carries, 69
yards), Miller's speed was enough to open up the field for
Irvin. On the Cowboys' next drive Irvin froze Woolford with a
stutter-step and blew past him while Aikman pump-faked strong
safety Carnell Lake. The result: a 42-yard touchdown strike down
the right sideline. With 42 seconds left in the half Irvin
schooled Scott, a first-round draft pick from Maryland, and
caught a 55-yard bomb down the left sideline. That set up a
52-yard field goal by first-year kicker Richie Cunningham, and
it was hopping at Arnold's.
Dallas's happy day continued in the second half when Aikman, on
second-and-11 from the Steelers' 15, lofted a pass to the deep
left corner of the end zone. Scott had inside position on Irvin
and leaped for the ball, but it sailed just over his fingertips.
Irvin, probably the NFL's most physical receiver, put a body on
Scott while snatching the ball out of midair and falling with
his feet barely inbounds.
Cunningham's extra point made it 24-0, and that effectively took
the Bus out of service. Bettis (15 carries, 63 yards) ran well
early on, but Kordell Stewart, making his first NFL start at
quarterback, struggled against the Cowboys' barrage of blitzes
and forced several balls into coverage. He finished 13 of 28 for
104 yards, with an interception and a garbage-time touchdown; a
more telling statistic was his 1-for-11 efficiency on third down.
The Steelers believe that Stewart will adapt quickly to his new
role and that their shoddy performance on defense was an
aberration. "I like this football team, crazy as it sounds,"
coach Bill Cowher, who has been a master at guiding the Steelers
through early-season crises in recent years, said afterward.
Still, Pittsburgh generated no pass rush on Aikman, and after a
5-0 preseason its self-esteem took a beating. "The one thing
that would be devastating is if we get beat badly," Bettis said
last Saturday as he sat in the plush house he recently purchased
a few miles north of Pittsburgh. "If we play them tough and
lose, it's no big deal. But if we lose by, like, 21 points, it
could stay with us all season."
One person who won't stay with the Cowboys all season is
Sanders, who on Monday rejoined the Cincinnati Reds, at least
until Dallas's game this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
The Reds may be curious to see how Sanders's back injury, which
kept him from playing baseball for 11 games in August, withstood
the rigors of a football game. On one scary second-quarter play
Sanders leaped to break up a pass intended for Charles Johnson
and landed hard on his head and neck. He remained on the ground
for nearly a minute while the Pittsburgh crowd, in a
heartwarming gesture, cheered wildly.
On Sunday the Cowboys looked good enough to compete with the
Super Bowl-champion Packers, whom they have defeated seven
consecutive times over the past four seasons, and make a run at
their fourth NFL title in six years. The common perception is
that anything less than a Super Bowl crown will mean an end to
Switzer's four-year tenure as the Cowboys coach; in the wake of
his arrest for possession of a .38-caliber gun at Dallas-Fort
Worth International Airport last month, several reports
suggested he is a lame duck.
Jones certainly isn't distancing himself from Switzer. On
Saturday night they sat side by side in a restaurant on the
bluffs overlooking Pittsburgh, wearing matching Super Bowl XXX
rings and gazing down at Three Rivers while a couple of dozen
family members and friends mingled. Later, Jones addressed
Switzer's job status. "When the arrest happened, I was so mad I
felt a burning sensation shoot through my body," he said. "I was
mad that I had to go through the same old trauma again. But mad
at the man himself? He's pretty difficult to stay angry at for
too long. We've known one another 35 years, and anyone who
thinks he knows what the future holds doesn't understand the
depth of that relationship."
It's far too early to tell whether this story will have a happy
ending, but at the very least the Cowboys can close the book on