Of all the aborted drives Troy Aikman has initiated over the last two years, the one that most rattled him was the early-morning excursion he took through north Dallas on March 25. Energized by the off-season hiring of Chan Gailey, the offensive savant brought in to coach the Dallas Cowboys following their disastrous 1997 season, Aikman, the star quarterback, was in a chipper mood as he began the 25-minute trip from his new house in suburban Piano to the Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility. He was halfway to his destination when he fielded a call from his assistant, Carol Hitt, who told him the fire alarm at the house had gone off. "I'm sure it's nothing," said Aikman, who hung up and kept driving.
Aikman has this thing about false alarms. One night during the 1996 season, while sleeping in his Irving home, he awoke to find a pair of ax-wielding firemen clad in flame-retardant gear and standing at the foot of his bed. They had been summoned by a faulty in-house security system. There was no fire, although the heavy-sleeping Aikman nearly required CPR.
This time, Aikman wasn't so lucky. Two minutes after the first call, Hitt phoned again and said in a panicked voice, "You'd better turn back right now." Aikman whipped a U-turn and sped toward his $3.2 million dream house, which he had moved into just five weeks earlier, after having waited two years for its construction. No smoke was visible as he neared the place. Then he looked up and saw something far more disquieting. "Three TV news helicopters," Aikman says. "Not a good sign."
He can laugh about the fire now, just as he can joke about an even scarier off-season discovery: a mole atop his left shoulder that was diagnosed as a malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. After removing the growth last month, doctors gave Aikman a 100% chance of survival. The house survived, too, though Aikman won't move back in for another nine months. Aikman's off-field headaches seemingly should have compounded the agony he endured during the '97 season. Dallas lost its last five games en route to a 6-10 record, and Aikman, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, finished as the NFL's 17th-rated passer.
Now here's the strange part, the development that has Valley Ranch abuzz with excitement: In the past few months, against all logic, Aikman has been bubblier than a Cowboys cheerleader. If he were to sum up his off-season in a postcard, it would read: Got skin cancer, house burned, having a wonderful time....
"This is the most positive I've seen Troy in his career," says Dallas owner Jerry Jones, "and that's a direct result of his appraisal of this team and the direction we're headed. He exudes the excitement of a quarterback who's going to play on another Super Bowl champion." Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, says "a great weight has been lifted" off his client's shoulders. Darren Woodson, the Cowboys' Pro Bowl strong safety, says Aikman "is like a different man."
It's not hard to figure out the source of Aikman's happiness. He and former Dallas coach Barry Switzer, who resigned in January after four seasons, had a relationship that made John and Lorena Bobbitt's look healthy. The situation was so troubling to Aikman, who turned 31 last November, that he considered walking away from the game after the '96 season. Now Aikman, who has quarterbacked the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories, second only to four-time champions Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, says he can imagine playing "another four, five, even six years. I'd like to finish my career with Chan. I really think he'll be here 15 or 20 years because he's the type of person this organization can be proud of."
Since Jones hired him on Feb. 12 as Dallas's fourth coach, Gailey has changed more than the Cowboys' offensive scheme. With his strictly business style, he has rejuvenated and helped reform a team whose decline was preceded by a string of embarrassing off-field incidents. Star receiver Michael Irvin, whose 1996 no-contest plea to a felony charge of cocaine possession was the piece de resistance of Dallas misbehavior, has been taking home videotapes of the Cowboys' recent minicamp in an effort to absorb the new offense. Irvin is one of many Dallas players and assistants aglow over Gailey, a devout Christian who describes himself as "plain" and "boring." Says Jones in his typically understated fashion, "Coaching the Cowboys is one of the most visible jobs in the world. The man in this spot will be critiqued and criticized to an incredible degree, and I don't know that I've ever met anybody who can pass those tests better than Chan Gailey."
One thing Gailey hasn't done, it should be pointed out, is coach an NFL game. The Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator for the last two seasons, he was a late entry in Dallas's 35-day coaching derby, which included flirtations with former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert, Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis and, most intensely, former UCLA coach Terry Donahue. Jones was serious enough about Donahue to talk money, but negotiations broke down. (Gailey's annual salary is a reported $500,000, which would make him the NFL's lowest-paid coach.) "I don't know if Terry thinks money was the issue with me," Jones says, "but it wasn't."
Jerry's son Stephen, the Cowboys' executive vice president of player personnel, says no deal with Donahue would have been completed until Donahue had presented a satisfactory plan for upgrading the Dallas offense. Among other woeful numbers, the Cowboys last year scored only 19 touchdowns in 54 trips inside the opponents' 20, the second-worst conversion rate (35.2%) in the league. While Dallas retained most of the assistant coaches of a defense that ranked second in the NFL, only line coach Hudson Houck remains on the offensive side. "Our offense had become predictable, and Chan is imaginative, resourceful and unpredictable," Jerry says. "Trust me. No one will wonder if I'm calling the plays."