Before examining the Dallas Cowboys' tenuous state, we take you
back to the day when Mike Shanahan called an audible and Chan
Gailey swam for his life. During a vacation on Maui in the late
1980s, Gailey was cajoled into making his maiden scuba dive by
Shanahan, a fellow Denver Broncos assistant coach at the time,
and John Elway, the Broncos' star quarterback. After teaching
Gailey some basic hand signals during a 15-minute prep session,
Shanahan and Elway led their apprehensive companion about 35 feet
below the surface and then entered a dark cave without him.
Seconds later Shanahan darted out of the cave and flashed a
Shark! signal to Gailey, who didn't stick around to discover that
Shanahan was only joking. "He shot up so fast it was amazing,"
Shanahan says. "I almost had to come up for air myself, I was
laughing so damn hard."
The anecdote merited further review after Shanahan-coached Denver
rolled to a 42-23 victory over Gailey-coached Dallas on Sunday at
Mile High Stadium. Gailey's second game as the coach of America's
Team was a full-fledged disaster. Call it Jaws 2: With Shanahan
having crafted a mind-bending game plan and Elway executing it
with precision, the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos brought
Gailey's brief honeymoon to a resounding end. As halftime
approached, with Denver leading 28-17 and 75,013 fans screaming
for more carnage, Gailey faced triple trouble:
--He learned that quarterback Troy Aikman would miss four to
eight weeks after suffering a broken left clavicle minutes
earlier, leaving little-used six-year veteran Jason Garrett to
run Gailey's intricate offense.
--Denver was marching to its fifth touchdown in as many
first-half possessions, a display of cutting-edge football that
would produce 379 total yards in the first two quarters and a
pair of embarrassingly easy scoring dashes by halfback Terrell
September 20, 1998
--Ashen-faced Dallas owner Jerry Jones was hurriedly descending
from his luxury box to meet Gailey in the locker room.
Once the intermission began, Gailey didn't panic. Instead, he
impressed his boss, his assistants and his players by calmly
assessing the situation. "We can do one of two things," Gailey
told the Cowboys. "Pack it in or play every snap from here on
out. Let's collect ourselves and execute the way we know we can."
Dallas didn't storm back into the game, but it displayed enough
effort and proficiency to emerge with some semblance of
dignity--even as the Broncos reminded the Cowboys how drastically
the NFL order has changed since Dallas won its third Super Bowl
in four years to cap the 1995 season. As rattled as Jones was by
what had happened on the field, he collected himself after the
game was over and, as is his custom, tried to put a positive spin
on the misery. "I'm human, and it was ugly," he said, "but we'll
find a way to tighten up our defense, and I assure you, Chan's
offensive system is working."
Since Gailey, a former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator,
was hired to replace Barry Switzer last February, he has been
lauded for his innovative schemes, even-keeled demeanor and
structured approach. In a bit of the sort of revisionist history
that typically follows coaching changes, the player-friendly
Switzer is now being indirectly dissed by Cowboys who celebrate
Gailey for infusing Dallas with energy and discipline. Some have
gone so far as to applaud Gailey for removing the Ping-Pong table
that was a fixture outside the locker room at the Cowboys' Valley
Ranch practice facility. "I guess we don't have time for leisure
anymore," second-year linebacker Dexter Coakley said last Friday.
"When you come to Valley Ranch, it's all about business."
During lunch breaks last season, Coakley was one of a handful of
Dallas defenders who routinely sneaked into the defensive team's
meeting room, where they'd turn on the video projector, turn off
the lights and catch more than a few winks. "It was a foolproof
system," Coakley says, "because eventually the meeting would come
to us, so there was no way we could ever be late. And it looked
like we'd been studying. Now everything's so scheduled, down to
the minute, that we don't even have time to think about a nap."
One possible explanation for Sunday's debacle: Coakley and his
defensive mates chose the first half to catch up on their sleep.
The Broncos have a superb offense, and Shanahan, who leaned
heavily on multiple-receiver formations that spread the defense
and created mismatches, had the Cowboys looking dazed. Still,
this was ridiculous. No Dallas team had given up so many points
(35) in a first half, and it had nothing to do with turnovers or
field position. Denver, with Elway completing 11 of 13 passes
before intermission, including touchdown tosses of 38 and 23
yards to tight end Shannon Sharpe, averaged 13.5 yards per
first-half play. It scored on drives of 84, 80, 59, 80 and 80
yards. "For a brief second out there," Cowboys cornerback Deion
Sanders said, "I could've sworn we were playing the old Los
Angeles Lakers, with Magic running the break."
Instead, Dallas was obliterated by the breakaway running of
Davis. After Aikman countered an early Denver touchdown with a
36-yard scoring strike to Ernie Mills with 6:17 left in the first
quarter, Davis gained 122 yards on his next two carries. During
his touchdown runs of 63 and 59 yards, which featured nice
cutbacks and excellent blocking, he didn't have to break a single
tackle. The Broncos' offensive linemen seldom speak for the
record, but after Sunday's game one of them gave an anonymous
condemnation of Dallas's performance. "A lot of it was the game
plan," he said. "We were in the huddle saying, 'Can you believe
everything we're trying is working?' But the bottom line is
they're just not very good. They're not nearly the team they once
There were some mitigating factors, primarily the sprained left
knee that limited the effectiveness of the Cowboys' best
defensive lineman, tackle Leon Lett. But no one in Dallas's front
seven played well before halftime, and the man who normally
cleans up the mess, All-Pro strong safety Darren Woodson, had an
atypically rank game. The Cowboys figured that putting Woodson in
the box, or near the line of scrimmage, would help contain Davis
(23 carries, 191 yards, three touchdowns). Woodson might as well
have been in the press box. He was squashed by Denver right
tackle Harry Swayne on Davis's second touchdown sprint, and he
struggled dropping back on pass defense, getting beat on Sharpe's
first touchdown catch and incurring a pass-interference penalty
on a fourth-down play near the end of the half. The Dallas
defensive backs were caught flat-footed by 6'5" wideout Ed
McCaffrey, who made five catches for 117 yards and showcased his
deceptive speed. "They spread us out," Woodson said, "and we just
didn't match up."
Predictably, the man responsible for those matchups, Dallas
defensive coordinator Dave Campo, saw things differently. "We
were failing to execute things we've been working on since
training camp," he said.
Whether it was Campo's adjustments--he changed some zone coverages
to counter the Broncos' multiple-receiver sets, for example--or
the players' improved concentration, the Cowboys settled down at
the start of the second half and forced the Broncos to punt on
their first two possessions. But their comeback hopes were in the
hands of the 32-year-old Garrett, whose only big NFL moment came
when he led Dallas to a Thanksgiving Day victory over the Green
Bay Packers four years ago. During the off-season the Cowboys
decided to elevate Garrett to the backup position filled the last
three years by Wade Wilson, who was not re-signed. Now, beginning
with this Monday night's road game against the New York Giants,
Garrett, who completed 14 of 19 passes for 113 yards on Sunday,
will see a huge increase in job-related stress. His backup is
second-year man Mike Quinn, a onetime Gailey pupil in Pittsburgh
whom the Cowboys signed last week after the Indianapolis Colts
had waived him.
Given the quarterback's increased options in Gailey's scheme, it
seemed inevitable that Aikman would become Acheman. Normally as
averse to running as Colin Powell, Aikman stunned observers by
taking off five times for 43 yards and two touchdowns in the
Cowboys' season-opening, 38-10 victory over the Arizona
Cardinals. On Sunday, with 10:33 remaining in the second quarter,
Aikman left the pocket and headed upfield on consecutive plays.
On his second run he lunged for a first down and landed on his
left shoulder just as Denver defensive end Marvin Washington fell
on top of him. Suddenly the Cowboys were facing their longest
stretch without Aikman since he started winning Super Bowls.
Gailey knew what he was getting into when he chose to work for
Jones, whose relentless optimism produces a tremendous amount of
pressure. As he strode across the Mile High Stadium grass before
Sunday's game, Jones conceded his team would probably struggle
against the Broncos. But he ended on an upbeat note, saying,
"Unless we get deflated by an injury or an unforeseen
circumstance, we should have a grasp of Chan's offense by
midseason, and then we'll be a contender. My fondest hope would
be to play well enough today that we can leave here with our
arrow pointed up."
Afterward, in a shell-shocked Cowboys locker room, Jones nodded
grimly when reminded of his earlier statement. "By taking off and
running," he said, "Troy gave us a chance to build some character
over the next four weeks."
Now it's up to Gailey to keep the Cowboys afloat. If he can't, he
might find himself flashing that shark signal.
"They're just not very good," said one Bronco. "They're not
nearly the team they once were."