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The Long Road Back
Michael Silver
June 08, 1998
Their batteries recharged by new coach Chan Gailey and his innovative schemes, Troy Aikman and the Cowboys seem driven to rediscover their old winning ways
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June 08, 1998

The Long Road Back

Their batteries recharged by new coach Chan Gailey and his innovative schemes, Troy Aikman and the Cowboys seem driven to rediscover their old winning ways

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Gailey has received rave reviews from others, too. Steelers coach Bill Cowher, Gailey's boss the previous four years, says, "The one thing I can promise is he'll earn the players' respect. They may not like him at times, but he'll always have their respect because he'll tell it like it is."

Standing in the living room of his mansion in the Highland Park section of Dallas last Thursday, Jones recalled a conversation he had with Gailey at the start of the Cowboys' first minicamp, in April: "I sidled up to him on the practice field and said, 'Chan, you're the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Take a deep breath and smell the roses.' He just stared straight ahead and said, real matter-of-fact, 'I'll smell the roses when we win.' "

Gailey had better hope he wins early and often. Most first-year coaches get a one-season honeymoon; his ends Sept. 6, when Dallas opens against the Arizona Cardinals at Texas Stadium. Despite the fact that only six teams finished with records worse than the Cowboys' in '97—and that Dallas's only high-profile free-agent signee was Chris Warren, a 30-year-old running back from the Seattle Seahawks who's projected as Emmitt Smith's backup—Jones is talking Super Bowl. "The goal here is to win the championship," Gailey says, "and that'll be the goal next year, and five years from now, and 10 years from now."

Last year the Cowboys were killed by their lack of offensive-line depth, and Jones vows, "It's a mistake I won't make again." As upgrades he cites the signing of former Miami Dolphins guard Everett McIver, a projected starter, and the selection in the second round of the draft of 6'6", 350-pound Michigan State star Flozell Adams, who could play guard or tackle. Then there's the ultimate downgrade. Left guard Nate Newton, who finished last season in the 390-pound range, has discovered fitness with the same fervor with which Isaac Newton discovered gravity. As of last week Newton (apple-eating Nate, not apple-dodging Sir Isaac) had slimmed down to 297 pounds, prompting long-snapper Dale Hellestrae to inquire, "Where's the other half of you?"

Perhaps Gailey's greatest challenge will be to free up Irvin, who, even after the addition of speedy wideout Anthony Miller, faced constant double coverage last year. Miller was such a bust that Dallas declined to pick up the option on his contract. Surprisingly, except for the signing of Ernie Mills, who after six undistinguished years in Pittsburgh caught 11 passes with the Carolina Panthers in 1997, the Cowboys stood pat. Gailey hopes fourth-year wideout Billy Davis will emerge as a threat to complement Irvin, who will be moved around in various formations in an attempt to give him breathing room. "There's a play where Michael motions into the backfield and sets up like a back," Jerry Jones says. "When you see that, you'll know things have changed with the Cowboys, that Chan's in town."

There's potential for more weirdness. Before Gailey molded him into a standout quarterback, Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart was a dangerous receiving threat who unnerved defenses by lining up under center. Does Irvin have any Slash-like fantasies? "No way," he says. "If I throw a pass, that's one less ball for me to catch."

The man whose arm will determine the Cowboys' fate is Aikman, one of the most precise passers in the history of the game. After seven years in an offense requiring him to drop back and throw to a specific spot, Aikman must not only adjust to lining up occasionally in the shotgun for the first time since 1990, but he must also adapt to a scheme that asks him and his receivers to make adjustments on the fly. This can be dicey. In Dallas's Super Bowl XXX win over the Steelers, Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O'Donnell threw two second-half interceptions, each the result of him and his receiver not being on the same page.

Gailey says he has been blown away by Aikman's ability to grasp the offense so rapidly. The truth is, after winning three Super Bowls in four years, Aikman has been a middle-of-the-pack player for two seasons—a span that coincided with the loss of his security blanket, tight end Jay Novacek, whose back ailments forced him to retire in 1997. The Cowboys hope last year's first-round pick, 6'7", 280-pound David LaFleur, will emerge as a viable replacement. "We're starting to establish a relationship, but it takes time," Aikman says. "Jay and I saw things the same, and people don't realize just how good he was."

Aikman was also unsettled by a family illness and by his differences with Switzer over team discipline. "On some level the frustrations I've experienced have taken away from my performance," Aikman concedes. "It would be wrong to say Barry was completely responsible for our struggles. I don't think I played well, and I should receive more criticism for that." Told of Aikman's comment, Switzer replied, "Good. He didn't play well, and he should be man enough to assume some of the blame."

Like Aikman, Switzer appears to be experiencing newfound bliss. He has begun an acting career that includes cameos in an upcoming Arli$$ episode and a movie, Varsity Blues, starring Jon Voight. Switzer's house near Valley Ranch is for sale, and he plans to build a log cabin in the woods outside Norman, Okla., where he made his reputation as a rambunctious coaching icon.

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