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THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : Switzer Keeps the Cowboys on Winning Track--Honest

October 22, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE

IRVING, Tex. — Barry Switzer shuffles toward his desk at the Dallas Cowboys' training complex. He grimaces and lowers himself gingerly into his chair.

The room is filled with a deep sigh, the kind that accompanies the end of a tortuous journey. Some days for Switzer, crossing his office is that journey.

It's his lower back. There is a pain there as big as Texas. A nerve thing. Doctors have already cut him once. Standing on artificial turf for four hours on a Sunday can be agony.

How does he handle the pain?

"Whiskey," Switzer says. "I drink plenty of whiskey."

In his six months as coach of the Cowboys, Switzer has done this sort of thing time and again.

The leader of the two-time defending NFL champions is approached in search of wisdom.

His inquisitors are knocked backward with honesty.

Switzer is watching film of last week's 24-13 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. When he gets excited, he stamps his feet and says, "Whoo-eeeh," then pushes the rewind button over and over.

Because he never played or coached in the NFL before, he is asked whether he knows what he is watching.

He answers, as usual, by explaining what he doesn't know.

"See all those linemen there?" he says, pointing to the green-shirted Eagles. "Don't know any of those guys. Hell, no. I know quarterbacks, running backs, guys like that. But those linemen. Hell, no."

He laughs.

"You know, I can't even tell you which teams are in what divisions in the other conference, that AFC," he says. "Now, I know the names of all the teams over there. I think. I just can't tell you where they go."

Why does he say such things? Why acknowledge ignorance of everything from the playing rules to opponents' names?

Why on earth did he leave the field for several minutes late in a recent game against the Washington Redskins, missing several key plays, and then later admit he was using the bathroom ?

No coach in the history of the game has ever acknowledged leaving the field to use the bathroom.

"What did you want me to do, make a mess?" Switzer asks.

The answers to several such questions finally became clear last weekend, when, after one quarter, his team had gained six yards, had no first downs and no pass completions, and trailed the Eagles, 7-0.

The Cowboys didn't quit. They only played harder until they had shed their funk, then manhandled perhaps the second-best team in the league.

The Cowboys didn't quit because their coach has them believing, as Jimmy Johnson once did, that they are incapable of quitting.

They believe this, because they believe everything else Switzer says.

After all, what kind of person would lie about not knowing the length of the halftime intermission?

It is this honesty that has convinced most of his players that he is doing a good job.

The biggest risk of the 1994 NFL season is working.

Switzer is doing a good job.

"Barry has done exceptional," said Troy Aikman, another Cowboy who shoots straight. "He has been very honest, very up front. The players have responded to that.

"Right or wrong, there is nothing artificial about him. And we appreciate that."

Told of those comments, Switzer reacted in his typical smooth fashion.

"Troy said that? Really?" Switzer said. "What else did he say?"

He was told that Aikman endorsed Switzer's habit of talking to individual players, catching guys in hallways and in front of soda machines and in deserted end zones.

Whereas Jimmy Johnson delivered a weekly theme to the entire team every Wednesday, Switzer passes it along bit by bit, player by player, one on one.

"He has struck us as a guy who really wants to get to know his players, what makes them tick," Aikman said. "Jimmy sort of kept his distance."

As coaches go, however, there is no comparison between Switzer and Johnson, nor will there ever be. For players of the modern era, Johnson is still the best NFL coach breathing.

And Switzer is still, well, not responsible for the Cowboys' league-leading defense. Or their powerful offense.

He only calls the short-yardage and kicking plays.

His halftime speech last week consisted of, "OK, boys, let's go out in the second half and pour it on."

And yes, he has left his team four times on Saturday nights to watch his son play college football. No coach in recent memory has acknowledged doing that once.

"Barry has no real point of reference right now, and so the things he does leave him open for criticism," Aikman said. "But it's refreshing."

And it's working. His light but apparently sincere touch is keeping the Cowboys, with a 5-1 record, on a course for history.

For Switzer is fulfilling his sole requirement as curator of what is currently the NFL's most important treasure.

He is not messing things up.

COACH'S CORNER

It's not quite midseason, but rating the league's coaches is the sort of fun that lasts all year.

The five best:

1. Bobby Ross, San Diego Chargers--No team plays harder or makes fewer mistakes. He might be the best active coach, period.

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