As celebratory gestures go, it was pretty wimpy, something you might see a trio of triumphant tax attorneys do in court. Near the end of the Dallas Cowboys' 37-7 spanking of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's season opener at Three Rivers Stadium, Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders and Jerry Jones—the three brashest symbols of Cowboys braggadocio—shared a hug that seemed to underscore Dallas's new touchy-feely personality. "I'm proud of you both, the way you've responded to your challenges," said Jones, the owner bent on cleansing the Cowboys' image.
"It's good to be together," Irvin, the reformed receiver, and Sanders, the consecrated cornerback, answered in unison. Gomer Pyle and his cousin Goober would have had no problem chilling with this crew.
The good vibes were merited. In a matchup of supposed Super Bowl contenders, the Cowboys had just brutalized the Steelers, sending a message that could be felt as far away as Green Bay. "The scary thing is, we can play a lot better," coach Barry Switzer said as he walked off the field. "We weren't hitting on all cylinders, but we still made a statement today."
For the first time in a long while, perhaps since the Cowboys' Super Bowl XXX triumph over the Steelers 19 months ago, Dallas's on-field behavior made for more compelling theater than its off-the-field transgressions. On a day that will be remembered for the aerial brilliance of Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman, the Cowboys scored their most lopsided victory since a 35-0 drubbing of the New York Giants in their 1995 opener. "We're more focused around here than we've been in a long time, and that starts at the top," said Darren Woodson, the Cowboys' All-Pro safety. "This was strictly business."
Everything is relative; against Pittsburgh. Dallas may have been strictly business, but Irvin still punctuated both his touchdown catches with animated gestures, and Sanders, on the heels of his recent fervor for Christianity, reacted to his 38-yard punt return in the third quarter by leaning back, spreading his hands and projecting his reverence skyward. Had Steelers punter Josh Miller not tripped up Sanders at the Pittsburgh 27, Prime Time might well have gone over the top. "If I had scored," Sanders said, "oh, my God—I might've climbed up the goalpost and tried to give the Lord a high five."
Sanders may be the Cowboys' self-anointed archdeacon, but the "spiritual leader," in Woodson's words, is Irvin, who caught seven passes for 153 yards. When Rod (no relation) Woodson sees what Irvin did to Pittsburgh cornerbacks Donnell Woolford and Chad Scott, he'll be grateful he left the Steelers and signed with the San Francisco 49ers in the off-season. The only thing more humbling than getting abused by Irvin is hearing him brag as it's happening, and Irvin had far more to shout about than did the 60,396 fans at Three Rivers.
"Strictly business? No, it was more like we got back to having fun," Irvin said. "It's got to be that way because if we take this game and make it like work, that kills our spirit. If we play to have fun, then our natural abilities take over. And when our abilities take over, I don't care who we're playing—I like our chances."
Last season the Cowboys' inability to throw the ball was their undoing. Dallas began 1996 with three defeats in five games while Irvin served a league-imposed suspension following his no-contest plea to a felony charge of cocaine possession. The Cowboys' season ended in the NFC playoffs with a 26-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers, in which Irvin left the game during the offense's first series with a sprained shoulder, Sanders was sidelined by a shot to the head, and Aikman threw three interceptions. All three men have said they contemplated retirement in the months following that debacle, prompting Pittsburgh running back Jerome (the Bus) Bettis to wonder, "Is there anyone on that team who didn't almost retire?"
The Steelers, who play the same 3-4, zone-blitzing defense as the Panthers, saw an entirely different Dallas passing attack from the one that fizzled against Carolina. Aikman, whom fantasy football participants normally avoid like week-old sushi because of his modest passing totals, threw for 295 yards and four touchdowns, the latter tying a career high. He came alive two plays into the second quarter of a blah game by finding wideout Anthony Miller over the middle for 31 yards. Three plays later Miller, signed in June after the Denver Broncos waived him for salary-cap purposes, scored the game's first points on a 12-yard pass.
Even with Pittsburgh shutting down Emmitt Smith (26 carries, 69 yards), Miller's speed was enough to open up the field for Irvin. On the Cowboys' next drive Irvin froze Woolford with a stutter-step and blew past him while Aikman pump-faked strong safety Carnell Lake. The result: a 42-yard touchdown strike down the right sideline. With 42 seconds left in the half Irvin schooled Scott, a first-round draft pick from Maryland, and caught a 55-yard bomb down the left sideline. That set up a 52-yard field goal by first-year kicker Richie Cunningham, and it was hopping at Arnold's.