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Pro Football : Cowboys' Inexperience Wasn't Aikman's Fault

September 13, 1989|Bob Oates

Although the new season is barely six weeks old, counting from the first exhibition games, it seems clear that as a pro quarterback, Troy Aikman is a rare specimen.

In his first few appearances with the Dallas Cowboys, Aikman, the $11-million rookie from UCLA, has shown himself to be a new kind of big, powerful passer.

He has been playing Fran Tarkenton's game with Terry Bradshaw's arm.

A Hall of Famer, Tarkenton was a 1970s master of short-pass football. He seldom threw a bomb when the game was on the line for the Minnesota Vikings.

Bradshaw seldom threw anything else as the winning quarterback four times on 1970s Super Bowl teams. During a brilliant career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bradshaw became the National Football League's model mid-to-long-range passer.

He had a gun, as they say, and most guys with a gun use it. Which is what makes Aikman different.

Aikman doesn't roll out as consistently as Tarkenton did, but he focuses on the same short-zone opportunities.

On most plays, other passers read from long to middle to short. By contrast, Aikman apparently reads short first.

"I take what they give me," he always says, and, usually, most defenses feel compelled to give up something short while protecting their rears.

A superb athlete who can handle himself in the rush and throw the ball straight, Aikman has come into the pros with an attitude that is wholly different from that of John Elway, say, or Vinny Testaverde.

Big plays have always been Elway's goal. Most great passers have that as a goal. What Aikman has demonstrated so far is that there's another way: You can fit in, right off, doing very little very well.

Aikman's little game was good enough to win in New Orleans Sunday--as it was all last month. His problem is that he's on an inexperienced team with promising but inexperienced coaching.

New Orleans General Manager Jim Finks, commenting on the most widely discussed new quarterback in years, said after Sunday's game that worrying about Aikman spoiled the Saints' summer.

"It takes two things--the physical qualifications and mental toughness--to play (Aikman's) position in this league," said Finks, a former NFL quarterback himself. "And, physically, this guy has everything you look for in a quarterback.

"Only time will tell if any youngster has mental toughness, but Aikman impressed us (Sunday). Despite the heavy rush, he never once lost his poise."

The Saints' best defensive player, free safety Dave Waymer, said after intercepting one of Aikman's passes in the second quarter: "I guess I'll be the answer in Trivial Pursuit. I'm the first guy to get the Million Dollar Man."

Still, Waymer didn't really get him. Both of Aikman's interceptions were thrown on nothing-to-lose plays at the end of a 21-0 half and a 28-0 game. Luck is always decisive on long "Hail Mary" passes. The Rams connected, Aikman didn't.

After the first of pro football's 16 weeks, it seems probable that the league's next champion will be an NFC team, thus extending a five-year tradition.

AFC title favorites lost all four of their opening-day games to high-ranking NFC opponents.

The chart:

Chicago 17, Cincinnati 14; San Francisco 30, Indianapolis 24; Minnesota 38, Houston 7; Philadelphia 31, Seattle 7.

The losers were all on the AFC's consensus preseason list of five Super Bowl contenders, along with Buffalo, which, on the game's last play Sunday, edged unimpressive Miami of the same conference, 27-24.

The stunner was Minnesota's big game against Houston in a matchup of the clubs that presumably lead the two conferences in quantity of gifted players.

"We weren't flat," said Houston quarterback Warren Moon. "They just didn't give us any time to throw the football."

Moon absorbed seven sacks as Minnesota led in first downs, 29-11, rushing first downs, 13-4, and net yards, 343-104.

Minnesota averaged 5.4 yards a snap to Houston's 1.9.

By the end of the season, the AFC may well win the interconference series again, as it does almost every year. But at the top, it's an NFC league.

Pat Bowlen, Denver Broncos owner, has concluded that it will be a better league when Pete Rozelle steps down as commissioner.

"The (NFL's) head office (in New York) needs to be overhauled and streamlined, and brought into the modern era," Bowlen said the other day. "They've been living in the Middle Ages back there.

"Pete has tried to keep control of every department personally. That just isn't possible anymore. As a business operation, the league is 20 years out of sync."

Bowlen noted "the recent improvement in NFL Properties," the league's merchandising section, which last year came under a new overseer, owner Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Since Braman took over, Properties has tripled its profitability," Bowlen said. "What we need is a league with modern management in all departments.

"Physically, the head office looks like a rabbit warren. You can't run a modern league with one (commissioner)."

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