The Long Road Back Their batteries recharged by new coach Chan Gailey and his innovative schemes, Troy Aikman and the Cowboys seem driven to rediscover their old winning ways

June 07, 1998

Of all the aborted drives Troy Aikman has initiated over the
last two years, the one that most rattled him was the
early-morning excursion he took through north Dallas on March
25. Energized by the off-season hiring of Chan Gailey, the
offensive savant brought in to coach the Dallas Cowboys
following their disastrous 1997 season, Aikman, the star
quarterback, was in a chipper mood as he began the 25-minute
trip from his new house in suburban Plano to the Cowboys' Valley
Ranch practice facility. He was halfway to his destination when
he fielded a call from his assistant, Carol Hitt, who told him
the fire alarm at the house had gone off. "I'm sure it's
nothing," said Aikman, who hung up and kept driving.

Aikman has this thing about false alarms. One night during the
1996 season, while sleeping in his Irving home, he awoke to find
a pair of ax-wielding firemen clad in flame-retardant gear and
standing at the foot of his bed. They had been summoned by a
faulty in-house security system. There was no fire, although the
heavy-sleeping Aikman nearly required CPR.

This time, Aikman wasn't so lucky. Two minutes after the first
call, Hitt phoned again and said in a panicked voice, "You'd
better turn back right now." Aikman whipped a U-turn and sped
toward his $3.2 million dream house, which he had moved into
just five weeks earlier, after having waited two years for its
construction. No smoke was visible as he neared the place. Then
he looked up and saw something far more disquieting. "Three TV
news helicopters," Aikman says. "Not a good sign."

He can laugh about the fire now, just as he can joke about an
even scarier off-season discovery: a mole atop his left shoulder
that was diagnosed as a malignant melanoma, the deadliest form
of skin cancer. After removing the growth last month, doctors
gave Aikman a 100% chance of survival. The house survived, too,
though Aikman won't move back in for another nine months.
Aikman's off-field headaches seemingly should have compounded
the agony he endured during the '97 season. Dallas lost its last
five games en route to a 6-10 record, and Aikman, a six-time Pro
Bowl selection, finished as the NFL's 17th-rated passer.

Now here's the strange part, the development that has Valley
Ranch abuzz with excitement: In the past few months, against all
logic, Aikman has been bubblier than a Cowboys cheerleader. If
he were to sum up his off-season in a postcard, it would read:
Got skin cancer, house burned, having a wonderful time....

"This is the most positive I've seen Troy in his career," says
Dallas owner Jerry Jones, "and that's a direct result of his
appraisal of this team and the direction we're headed. He exudes
the excitement of a quarterback who's going to play on another
Super Bowl champion." Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, says "a
great weight has been lifted" off his client's shoulders. Darren
Woodson, the Cowboys' Pro Bowl strong safety, says Aikman "is
like a different man."

It's not hard to figure out the source of Aikman's happiness. He
and former Dallas coach Barry Switzer, who resigned in January
after four seasons, had a relationship that made John and Lorena
Bobbitt's look healthy. The situation was so troubling to
Aikman, who turned 31 last November, that he considered walking
away from the game after the '96 season. Now Aikman, who has
quarterbacked the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories, second
only to four-time champions Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, says
he can imagine playing "another four, five, even six years. I'd
like to finish my career with Chan. I really think he'll be here
15 or 20 years because he's the type of person this organization
can be proud of."

Since Jones hired him on Feb. 12 as Dallas's fourth coach,
Gailey has changed more than the Cowboys' offensive scheme. With
his strictly business style, he has rejuvenated and helped
reform a team whose decline was preceded by a string of
embarrassing off-field incidents. Star receiver Michael Irvin,
whose 1996 no-contest plea to a felony charge of cocaine
possession was the piece de resistance of Dallas misbehavior,
has been taking home videotapes of the Cowboys' recent minicamp
in an effort to absorb the new offense. Irvin is one of many
Dallas players and assistants aglow over Gailey, a devout
Christian who describes himself as "plain" and "boring." Says
Jones in his typically understated fashion, "Coaching the
Cowboys is one of the most visible jobs in the world. The man in
this spot will be critiqued and criticized to an incredible
degree, and I don't know that I've ever met anybody who can pass
those tests better than Chan Gailey."

One thing Gailey hasn't done, it should be pointed out, is coach
an NFL game. The Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator for
the last two seasons, he was a late entry in Dallas's 35-day
coaching derby, which included flirtations with former San
Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert, Green Bay Packers
offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis and, most intensely, former
UCLA coach Terry Donahue. Jones was serious enough about Donahue
to talk money, but negotiations broke down. (Gailey's annual
salary is a reported $500,000, which would make him the NFL's
lowest-paid coach.) "I don't know if Terry thinks money was the
issue with me," Jones says, "but it wasn't."

Jerry's son Stephen, the Cowboys' executive vice president of
player personnel, says no deal with Donahue would have been
completed until Donahue had presented a satisfactory plan for
upgrading the Dallas offense. Among other woeful numbers, the
Cowboys last year scored only 19 touchdowns in 54 trips inside
the opponents' 20, the second-worst conversion rate (35.2%) in
the league. While Dallas retained most of the assistant coaches
of a defense that ranked second in the NFL, only line coach
Hudson Houck remains on the offensive side. "Our offense had
become predictable, and Chan is imaginative, resourceful and
unpredictable," Jerry says. "Trust me. No one will wonder if I'm
calling the plays."

Gailey has received rave reviews from others, too. Steelers
coach Bill Cowher, Gailey's boss the previous four years, says,
"The one thing I can promise is he'll earn the players' respect.
They may not like him at times, but he'll always have their
respect because he'll tell it like it is."

Standing in the living room of his mansion in the Highland Park
section of Dallas last Thursday, Jones recalled a conversation
he had with Gailey at the start of the Cowboys' first minicamp,
in April: "I sidled up to him on the practice field and said,
'Chan, you're the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Take a deep
breath and smell the roses.' He just stared straight ahead and
said, real matter-of-fact, 'I'll smell the roses when we win.'"

Gailey had better hope he wins early and often. Most first-year
coaches get a one-season honeymoon; his ends Sept. 6, when
Dallas opens against the Arizona Cardinals at Texas Stadium.
Despite the fact that only six teams finished with records worse
than the Cowboys' in '97--and that Dallas's only high-profile
free-agent signee was Chris Warren, a 30-year-old running back
from the Seattle Seahawks who's projected as Emmitt Smith's
backup--Jones is talking Super Bowl. "The goal here is to win
the championship," Gailey says, "and that'll be the goal next
year, and five years from now, and 10 years from now."

Last year the Cowboys were killed by their lack of
offensive-line depth, and Jones vows, "It's a mistake I won't
make again." As upgrades he cites the signing of former Miami
Dolphins guard Everett McIver, a projected starter, and the
selection in the second round of the draft of 6'6", 350-pound
Michigan State star Flozell Adams, who could play guard or
tackle. Then there's the ultimate downgrade. Left guard Nate
Newton, who finished last season in the 390-pound range, has
discovered fitness with the same fervor with which Isaac Newton
discovered gravity. As of last week Newton (apple-eating Nate,
not apple-dodging Sir Isaac) had slimmed down to 297 pounds,
prompting long-snapper Dale Hellestrae to inquire, "Where's the
other half of you?"

Perhaps Gailey's greatest challenge will be to free up Irvin,
who, even after the addition of speedy wideout Anthony Miller,
faced constant double coverage last year. Miller was such a bust
that Dallas declined to pick up the option on his contract.
Surprisingly, except for the signing of Ernie Mills, who after
six undistinguished years in Pittsburgh caught 11 passes with
the Carolina Panthers in 1997, the Cowboys stood pat. Gailey
hopes fourth-year wideout Billy Davis will emerge as a threat to
complement Irvin, who will be moved around in various formations
in an attempt to give him breathing room. "There's a play where
Michael motions into the backfield and sets up like a back,"
Jerry Jones says. "When you see that, you'll know things have
changed with the Cowboys, that Chan's in town."

There's potential for more weirdness. Before Gailey molded him
into a standout quarterback, Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart was a
dangerous receiving threat who unnerved defenses by lining up
under center. Does Irvin have any Slash-like fantasies? "No
way," he says. "If I throw a pass, that's one less ball for me
to catch."

The man whose arm will determine the Cowboys' fate is Aikman,
one of the most precise passers in the history of the game.
After seven years in an offense requiring him to drop back and
throw to a specific spot, Aikman must not only adjust to lining
up occasionally in the shotgun for the first time since 1990,
but he must also adapt to a scheme that asks him and his
receivers to make adjustments on the fly. This can be dicey. In
Dallas's Super Bowl XXX win over the Steelers, Pittsburgh
quarterback Neil O'Donnell threw two second-half interceptions,
each the result of him and his receiver not being on the same
page.

Gailey says he has been blown away by Aikman's ability to grasp
the offense so rapidly. The truth is, after winning three Super
Bowls in four years, Aikman has been a middle-of-the-pack player
for two seasons--a span that coincided with the loss of his
security blanket, tight end Jay Novacek, whose back ailments
forced him to retire in 1997. The Cowboys hope last year's
first-round pick, 6'7", 280-pound David LaFleur, will emerge as
a viable replacement. "We're starting to establish a
relationship, but it takes time," Aikman says. "Jay and I saw
things the same, and people don't realize just how good he was."

Aikman was also unsettled by a family illness and by his
differences with Switzer over team discipline. "On some level
the frustrations I've experienced have taken away from my
performance," Aikman concedes. "It would be wrong to say Barry
was completely responsible for our struggles. I don't think I
played well, and I should receive more criticism for that." Told
of Aikman's comment, Switzer replied, "Good. He didn't play
well, and he should be man enough to assume some of the blame."

Like Aikman, Switzer appears to be experiencing newfound bliss.
He has begun an acting career that includes cameos in an
upcoming Arli$$ episode and a movie, Varsity Blues, starring Jon
Voight. Switzer's house near Valley Ranch is for sale, and he
plans to build a log cabin in the woods outside Norman, Okla.,
where he made his reputation as a rambunctious coaching icon.

Last Friday morning Switzer paid an impromptu visit to the
Cowboys' facility, wearing a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt and
jeans. The side door he approached was locked, so he began
banging on it with his fist. Finally, someone responded. It was
Gailey, who was headed to the airport for a flight to
Pittsburgh, where he was to attend the high school graduation of
his son Andrew. For a moment both men looked startled. "Chan!"
Switzer howled. "How the hell are ya?"

"Fine, Barry," Gailey replied, offering a slight smile. "Good to
see you."

Then Gailey put his head down, walked out the door and went
about his business, full steam ahead.

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. The Long Road Back Their batteries recharged by coach Chan Gailey and his innovative schemes, Troy Aikman and the Cowboys seem driven to rediscover thei winning ways [Troy Aikman--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. PICK-ME-UP Despite a house fire, a cancer scare and on-field woes, Aikman has gotten a lift from, among other things, Switzer's departure. [Troy Aikman] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON CLOSE ENCOUNTERS Partly because of a weak offensive line, Aikman fell to No. 17 among NFL quarterbacks in 1997. [Troy Aikman in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. LOOKING GOOD With a trimmed-down Newton (61) and (clockwise from upper left) Woodson, Aikman, Irvin and Smith, the Cowboys' cupboard is hardly bare of talent. [Darren Woodson, Nate Newton, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. IN CHARGE Gailey has never been an NFL head coach, but his proponents say he'll have no problem earning the players' respect. [Chan Gailey]

When Hellestrae saw Newton, he asked, "Where's the other half of
you?"

"Trust me," says Jones. "No one will wonder if I'm calling the
plays."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)