Beware the wounded animal.
The Dallas Cowboys were a desperate, wounded team, sitting at 1-3 in September and ready to tumble from their championship perch. They won their next three games, but two of them were struggles against Philadelphia and Atlanta, games that could have gone either way. Heading into Miami for the super-hyped Commotion by the Ocean against Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins, the Cowboys really didn't know where they Stood.
"I never talk about my weight, but I'll tell you right now that it's 329, lightest it's been in years." left guard Nate Newton said last Saturday night. "I've been trying real hard to get it down. Why? Because I don't want people saying that the offensive line pooped out from lack of stamina. I don't want to be the guy who screwed up. All the stars on this team are feeling that. We all know that Emmitt Smith's not right, that he could use a week off. But he won't take it because he doesn't want people saying that he cost us a win. No one wants to be the guy who screws up."
"The team is tired," offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese said the same evening. "Mentally fatigued. All the pressure to win another Super Bowl; it's not fun anymore. We're just hanging on until the end of the year, when it's a short season."
In Miami the Cowboys were facing a team with youth and purpose. Everyone in the Dolphins' locker room downplayed the most heavily hyped angle—Jimmy Johnson versus his old boss, Jerry Jones—but it was there nonetheless. It was probably the biggest game two 4-3 teams will ever play.
Someone asked Johnson at his Friday press conference how he felt about being the underdog, and he smiled and said, "They have how many All-Pros? We might not have any Pro Bowlers, but we have guys who went to all-star games in college."
How prophetic. He had Dan Marino, of course, but it was Dan and the Kiddie Corps, with five rookies starting, three of them on defense. Johnson also had another rookie up his sleeve, third-down halfback Jerris McPhail, whom he planned to surprise the Cowboys with. McPhail would run downfield and stretch the defense, and that would give Marino one-on-one matchups that he could use to exploit an old and tired team.
The thing that worried Johnson, though, was the way his defense had fallen into the habit of giving up big plays. Seattle had killed Miami with them three weeks earlier. So had Philly the week before the Dallas game. Johnson decided to have his defense play soft against Troy Aikman and give up the underneath stuff but make him earn everything he tried to get deep.
For a while his plan worked. The Cowboys put up huge numbers in the first half—248 yards on 37 plays—but they were down 10-9, thanks to screwups in the red zone. But then the war of attrition began. Aikman, afforded terrific protection by his offensive line, picked the Dolphins to pieces after intermission. He killed them with short square-outs, especially to Michael Irvin, who finished with 12 catches for 186 yards. It was like stealing. The killer came when Aikman looked off a safetyman and busted a zone coverage for a 61-yard completion to Irvin.
Marino, under a heavy rush and never in sync with his young receivers, couldn't answer. At the end the scoreboard read 29-10, Dallas. An aroused veteran team, loaded with superstars, had risen up and played to its level.