UNDER THE GUN
Troy Aikman thinks the Cowboys are loaded again on offense.
But can he hold up his end?
It was a pleasant morning for Troy Aikman last Thursday. He
kissed his bride of one month, Rhonda, goodbye, then played in a
friendly fivesome at Preston Trail Golf Club in north Dallas. He
followed his round with a lunch of prime rib and trout. The day
would soon get better: Troy and Rhonda would fly to Palm Springs
to shop for a vacation home.
A seasoned skeptic, the 33-year-old Aikman has had good reason
to be upbeat of late. Even on the field he's optimistic--about
the Cowboys' rebuilt offense, new offensive coordinator Jack
Reilly and recently acquired wide receiver Joey Galloway. "This
is the most weapons we've had in the passing game in my 12 years
here," the quarterback says.
That's all well and good, but after Dallas's 24-24
regular-season record over the last three years, questions
abound about whether Aikman is fit enough to lead the team back
to greatness. His quarterback rating (81.7) ranked a pedestrian
12th in the NFL during that stretch, and some of his other
numbers were mediocre as well. Since the start of the 1997
season Trent Dilfer has thrown five more touchdown passes than
Aikman (53 to 48), and Rich Gannon has the same completion
percentage as the Dallas passer (58.2). In the team's glory
years from 1992 through '96, during which time the Cowboys won
three Super Bowls, Aikman completed 65% of his throws, and Norv
Turner, the offensive coordinator for the first two of those
titles, boasted that when Aikman is in a groove, he's the most
accurate passer ever.
Thus, seeing Aikman struggle for three consecutive years was
like watching Tony Gwynn hit .278. Says one teammate, "At some
point Troy's got to make some plays to help us win. Last year he
was at fault as much as anyone."
Aikman feels the slings and arrows. He speaks defensively about
last season, and in this what-have-you-done-for-me- lately
world, Aikman knows that he's on trial in 2000. "I know in any
long career there are going to be valleys," he says. "The
challenge for me is to get out of that valley and get back on
top. I've never been a big numbers guy. Winning has always been
what's mattered to me--winning and earning the respect of my
peers and coaches. When you begin to lose that, yeah, it
motivates you. It's a driving force for me."
After a pause he adds, "There's something inside all of us
who've played this long that says, Can you do it as well as you
used to? But that's not something I feel a need to prove to
others. I feel a need to prove it to myself. I certainly feel I
can still play at a winning level."
According to one Dallas player, team chemistry was poisoned by
the chill between Aikman and coach Chan Gailey, who was fired in
January after two seasons. The player says Gailey stopped
attending quarterback meetings early last season because Aikman
and longtime backup Jason Garrett kept challenging his
play-calling. Owner Jerry Jones became so peeved at what he
considered unimaginative play selection that he asked Garrett to
submit plays to Gailey before the Cowboys' wild-card playoff
game against the Vikings. Garrett, the player said, gave Gailey
eight pages of diagrammed plays that the quarterbacks liked. Not
one was called in the 27-10 loss to Minnesota. (Garrett, a free
agent, signed with the Giants in the off-season.)
After the season, when Gailey refused Jones's demand to hire an
offensive coordinator to take over play-calling next fall, Jones
fired him. The owner then promoted defensive coordinator Dave
Campo to head coach and hired Reilly, who had served as the
Cowboys' quarterbacks coach in 1997. Ernie Zampese, who had a
four-year run as the club's offensive coordinator in the
mid-'90s, returns as a consultant. Free agent Paul Justin, a
reserve with the Rams last season, was signed to back up Aikman,
and he brought some of the gospel of St. Louis coach Mike Martz
with him. Dallas's new offense will look much like the Rams' and
Redskins' models of '99, the aim being to lighten the load on
running back Emmitt Smith with a revived passing game. The Rams
made a habit of throwing to their third and fourth options, and
Aikman's ability to read coverages will keep every receiver in
By the end of last week Aikman had thrown on about 15 occasions
to his wideout triumvirate of Galloway, Rocket Ismail and James
McKnight. "Troy looks exactly the same," says Zampese. "The ball
still comes out of there like a shot. It was strange the first
few times watching him throw to Galloway. The ball looked late,
which isn't like Troy. But it wasn't late. Galloway's just so
fast he outran it. They'll learn each other and be fine."
Maybe it's good for the Cowboys that Aikman feels challenged.
Even with the acquisition of Galloway (Jones overpaid for him,
trading two first-round draft picks to the Seahawks for a
receiver who's never proved he can go over the middle
repeatedly), the Cowboys will start the season no better than
the NFC East's No. 2 team, behind Washington. Dallas is short on
Super Bowl talent, though Jones maintains his team will be in
the hunt as long as Aikman is under center. Wishful thinking?
The man on trial doesn't think so.
"I can't leave the game the way I've played, the way we've
played, the last few years," Aikman says, "and I won't."
BILLICK STANDS PAT
Banks the Man In Baltimore
The Ravens finished last season a hard-charging 8-8 and seemed
only an offensive player or two away from challenging the Titans
and the Jaguars for supremacy in the AFC Central. Baltimore
signed free-agent tight end Shannon Sharpe and used its two
first-round draft choices on Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis
and Florida wideout Travis Taylor. But coach Brian Billick will
go into this season with a pair of question marks at quarterback.
Billick opted to retain Tony Banks, who was erratic in his 10
starts last season, as his starter entering training camp and to
sign perennially disappointing Trent Dilfer as his backup.
Billick likes what he has seen. "Tony's demeanor is 180 degrees
different than last year," Billick says. "He's confident,
working like a leader, and I've made this point to him: This is
the first time in all his years playing quarterback--through
junior college, Michigan State, the Rams and the Ravens--that
he's had the same coordinator and quarterbacks coach and system
two years in a row. When someone is teaching you how to throw an
out pass differently eight years in a row, it's going to show up
"What sold me on Trent is the fact that he had two 21-touchdown
years playing in a pretty conservative offense. I think he'll
prove a lot of people wrong."
Watters May Be Out of a Job
Seahawks running back Ricky Watters could become a salary-cap
casualty when teams start releasing high-priced veterans on June
1. Watters, with his emotional outbursts, hasn't endeared
himself to coach Mike Holmgren. Even if Watters sticks, look for
rookie first-round pick Shaun Alexander to cut into his playing
Coach Jeff Fisher, whose contract expires after the 2000 season,
and the Titans are miles apart on an extension. Don't be
surprised if Fisher hits the open market in January.