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Cowboys Are Again Living the America's Team Dream

September 07, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

IRVING, Texas — Sometime during "The Chan Gailey Show"--which followed "Cowboy Insider", which followed "Cowboys Special Edition with Jerry Jones" on the Dallas/Fort Worth airwaves Sunday morning--the voices started to meld.

If you closed your eyes and listened, Gailey (the new Dallas Cowboy coach) started to sound like Jones (the irrepressible Cowboy owner), only a little less slick and refined.

All of the Cowboys, even the ones without the Southern accents of Jones and Gailey, are sounding alike. They spent the past week chafing over predictions of their mediocrity and boldly dared to mention the Super Bowl as a possible destination for their team. And after the season-opening 38-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Texas Stadium, they uniformly cautioned against inferring too much from the first game of the Gailey Era.

The Jerry Jonesification of the franchise is complete. It took Jones three hires, but now the Cowboys are as one, united in his vision.

In Jimmy Johnson they had a coach who won but didn't defer enough of the glory to Jones. In Barry Switzer they had a coach who won (for a while) with the talent accumulated by Johnson, but didn't command the respect of the players.

Now they have Gailey, a man who know what he's doing and knows what he's saying--namely, things that sound good to Jones.

After the Cowboys dominated the Cardinals to earn their first victory since Nov. 16 and end a losing streak at five games--10 if you count the winless exhibition season--Gailey said, "We don't need to break our arms patting ourselves on the back. We played better, but we haven't arrived."

That tied in nicely with a happy Jones' statement: "I'm going to reserve my real optimism until we get on down the line."

Quarterback Troy Aikman said, "I'm not going to get too excited. We had a pretty good first game last year."

The Cowboys opened the 1997 season with a 37-7 victory at Pittsburgh, beating a team that went on to reach the AFC championship game. Then Dallas finished 6-10.

This game came at home against the Cardinals, who haven't won a playoff game since 1947 and aren't about to end that run.

Arizona really doesn't have anything. People keep saying that quarterback Jake Plummer reminds them of Joe Montana. Well, Plummer does have dark hair and wears No. 16. And even if Plummer was the next Joe Montana, he doesn't have a receiver who reminds anyone of Jerry Rice or Dwight Clark. Nor does he have a line that will protect him.

The Arizona defense was the second-worst in the NFC against the run last year, and Sunday the Cowboys exploited the Cardinals for 183 rushing yards and 439 total yards. It didn't hurt the Cowboys that they didn't have to face Arizona's All-Pro defensive lineman Eric Swann for most of the game. He and Cowboy offensive lineman Erik Williams were ejected in the first quarter after they got into a little scuffle following a play.

Without Swann, the Cowboys ran at will and Emmitt Smith racked up 122 yards. The offensive line gave Aikman plenty of time (left tackle Larry Allen in particular dominated Cardinal defensive end Simeon Rice), allowing Aikman to complete 22 of 32 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns.

The one time the Cardinals almost got to Aikman, he escaped for a 23-yard gain, only two shy of his career-long run. Aikman, who had never scored more than one rushing touchdown in a season, had two Sunday.

But the best thing the Cowboys had going for them was wide receiver Michael Irvin. Gailey was smart enough to realize this.

Irvin has spent so much time in trouble and in court the past couple of years that it's easy to overlook his performance on the field. Any drop-off in Cowboy results can't be attributed to him; his numbers last season were consistent with his lifetime averages.

Sunday he caught nine passes for 119 yards. Plus he did it against Aeneas Williams, one of the few cornerbacks who ranks up there with Deion Sanders when it comes to pass coverage and number of vowels in his first name.

Gailey lined Irvin up on the right side, then the left side. He called a screen pass for Irvin to get the ball in his hands. He even used him as a decoy, as Aikman faked to him before throwing down the middle to a wide-open Ernie Mills for a 30-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. "We'll continue to use Michael in a lot of different areas and a lot of different ways," Gailey said.

Gailey just might have a new use for Sanders. Not on offense, but on the training staff.

In the first half, fellow cornerback Kevin Smith was injured and Sanders--an ordained minister--knelt over him and placed his hand on Smith's shoulder. It must have worked, because Smith made it back to the field.

Deion did the same thing for an official, side judge Doug Toole, who collapsed in the sweltering heat in the third quarter. With help from Deion he was back on his feet.

"Oh man, I was laying hands," Sanders said.

Even after this start, it wouldn't be smart to put money on the Cowboys' winning a championship. But you can't say they don't have a prayer.

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