Before the sun rose over Texas Stadium on Monday morning, the Decision had already taken on a life of its own. Around office watercoolers and on Dallas's drive-time radio talk shows it was being derided as the worst coaching decision in Cowboy history: Dallas coach Barry Switzer's directing his offense to go for a first down on fourth-and-a-foot at the Cowboy 29, with two minutes left in Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium.
Dallas tailback Emmitt Smith pounded into the right side of the Eagle defense and was stopped cold by linebacker Bill Romanowski and defensive end Daniel Stubbs. Four plays later, Philadelphia's Gary Anderson kicked a 42-yard field goal to win the game 20-17. The loss, coming one week after a humbling 24-17 defeat by the Washington Redskins, was the Cowboys' third in five weeks and threatened to unhinge a team that only a month ago seemed a lock to reach the Super Bowl.
Afterward, Switzer tried to defend his call, saying that the winds inside the frigid stadium would have prevented Dallas from getting off a decent punt. "I wanted to make a foot so we could control the ball," he said, with barely controlled rage. "If we kick into the wind, they're going to come back and kick a field goal to win the game anyway."
But as Switzer's critics were eager to point out, the decision was dumb for several reasons. For one thing, it sent a message to Switzer's ailing defense that he does not trust it at crunch time. For another, even a poor punt into the wind likely would have traveled 30 yards, which would have forced the Eagles to begin a drive in their own territory. What's more, Smith had been stopped on the very same off-tackle run only moments before, but the play had been nullified because an official had blown his whistle at the snap to signal the two-minute warning.
In his second year with the Cowboys, Switzer is 2-4 in the month of December and 0-3 against the San Francisco 49ers, and he has found himself glowering at questioners in postgame press conferences while defending flawed coaching decisions in all four of Dallas's losses this season. Though the Cowboys, at 10-4, still share the second-best record in the league with the Niners and the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are in jeopardy of losing home field advantage in the NFC playoffs to San Francisco.
Philadelphia's victory was its first in three seasons over the Cowboys, and it moved the 9-5 Eagles to within a game of Dallas in the NFC East. It also moved Eagle coach Ray Rhodes to offer a blunt assessment of his rival's sideline acumen: "I would have punted. Believe me, I don't think you'll see that [call] again."
Jimmy Johnson, who was replaced by Switzer on the Dallas sidelines, ridiculed the decision on the Fox postgame show, and later Sunday night he added another jab at his former team off the air, saying, "One problem is that Barry doesn't have anyone on his staff to say, 'What are you, nuts?' "
In the Cowboy locker room after the game, Smith, who was held to 10 yards rushing in the second half after gaining 98 yards in the first, sat stunned before trying to answer questions about the Decision. Finally, the best he could do was to apologize for wasting the media's time. His sixth fumble of the year, with 11:14 left in the game and with Dallas clinging to a 17-14 lead, had been just as costly as his failed fourth-down attempt. The Cowboys had had a first down at the Philadelphia five when linebacker William Thomas forced the fumble that was recovered by safety Mike Zordich. "I don't know anything," said Smith, who had handled the ball 704 straight times in the regular season without losing a fumble before this year. "I'm not sure about a lot of things right now."
Nor was Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, whose frustration boiled over into a tantrum directed at left tackle Erik Williams, after Aikman was sacked on the game's final play with the Eagles rushing only three linemen. Aikman also endured a dreadful second half, completing only six of 22 passes for 45 yards, and while he defended the fourth-down call right after the game, he later expressed a broader misgiving about the Cowboys. "I don't know where this football team is right now," he said. "I'm concerned about what's going on within the organization. And that is something we have to take care of."
Dallas owner Jerry Jones stood by Switzer, saying he understood and supported the Decision. On Monday afternoon he said, "There is absolutely no possibility—absolutely none—that I will replace Barry Switzer after the season." But Jones simply cannot afford any more screwups. He mortgaged the Cowboys' future to buy himself a third Super Bowl championship this year, paying nearly $40 million in signing bonuses to players such as defensive lineman Charles Haley, who is out for the season after back surgery; wide receiver Michael Irvin, who had one catch in the second half against the Eagles; defensive ends Tony Tolbert and Leon Lett, who combined for zero sacks on Sunday; and cornerback Deion Sanders, who has only two interceptions since joining Dallas in October. It was fifth-year cornerback Larry Brown, not the Neon one, who picked off a Rodney Peete pass just before the half on Sunday and returned it 65 yards for the touchdown that put the Cowboys in front 17-3.