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Back to Earth
Michael Silver
September 21, 1998
The new-look Cowboys played a lot like the old ones in a humiliating loss to the Broncos made worse by the fracture sustained by Troy Aikman
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September 21, 1998

Back To Earth

The new-look Cowboys played a lot like the old ones in a humiliating loss to the Broncos made worse by the fracture sustained by Troy Aikman

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Before examining the Dallas Cowboys' tenuous state, we take you back to the day when Mike Shanahan called an audible and Chan Gailey swam for his life. During a vacation on Maui in the late 1980s, Gailey was cajoled into making his maiden scuba dive by Shanahan, a fellow Denver Broncos assistant coach at the time, and John Elway, the Broncos' star quarterback. After teaching Gailey some basic hand signals during a 15-minute prep session, Shanahan and Elway led their apprehensive companion about 35 feet below the surface and then entered a dark cave without him. Seconds later Shanahan darted out of the cave and flashed a Shark! signal to Gailey, who didn't stick around to discover that Shanahan was only joking. "He shot up so fast it was amazing," Shanahan says. "I almost had to come up for air myself, I was laughing so damn hard."

The anecdote merited further review after Shanahan-coached Denver rolled to a 42-23 victory over Gailey-coached Dallas on Sunday at Mile High Stadium. Gailey's second game as the coach of America's Team was a full-fledged disaster. Call it Jaws 2: With Shanahan having crafted a mind-bending game plan and Elway executing it with precision, the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos brought Gailey's brief honeymoon to a resounding end. As halftime approached, with Denver leading 28-17 and 75,013 fans screaming for more carnage, Gailey faced triple trouble:

?He learned that quarterback Troy Aikman would miss four to eight weeks after suffering a broken left clavicle minutes earlier, leaving little-used six-year veteran Jason Garrett to run Gailey's intricate offense.

? Denver was marching to its fifth touchdown in as many first-half possessions, a display of cutting-edge football that would produce 379 total yards in the first two quarters and a pair of embarrassingly easy scoring dashes by halfback Terrell Davis.

?Ashen-faced Dallas owner Jerry Jones was hurriedly descending from his luxury box to meet Gailey in the locker room.

Once the intermission began, Gailey didn't panic. Instead, he impressed his boss, his assistants and his players by calmly assessing the situation. "We can do one of two things," Gailey told the Cowboys. "Pack it in or play every snap from here on out. Let's collect ourselves and execute the way we know we can."

Dallas didn't storm back into the game, but it displayed enough effort and proficiency to emerge with some semblance of dignity—even as the Broncos reminded the Cowboys how drastically the NFL order has changed since Dallas won its third Super Bowl in four years to cap the 1995 season. As rattled as Jones was by what had happened on the field, he collected himself after the game was over and, as is his custom, tried to put a positive spin on the misery. "I'm human, and it was ugly," he said, "but we'll find a way to tighten up our defense, and I assure you, Chan's offensive system is working."

Since Gailey, a former Pittsburgh Steel-ers offensive coordinator, was hired to replace Barry Switzer last February, he has been lauded for his innovative schemes, even-keeled demeanor and structured approach. In a bit of the sort of revisionist history that typically follows coaching changes, the player-friendly Switzer is now being indirectly dissed by Cowboys who celebrate Gailey for infusing Dallas with energy and discipline. Some have gone so far as to applaud Gailey for removing the Ping-Pong table that was a fixture outside the locker room at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility. "I guess we don't have time for leisure anymore," second-year linebacker Dexter Coakley said last Friday. "When you come to Valley Ranch, it's all about business."

During lunch breaks last season, Coakley was one of a handful of Dallas defenders who routinely sneaked into the defensive team's meeting room, where they'd turn on the video projector, turn off the lights and catch more than a few winks. "It was a foolproof system," Coakley says, "because eventually the meeting would come to us, so there was no way we could ever be late. And it looked like we'd been studying. Now everything's so scheduled, down to the minute, that we don't even have time to think about a nap."

One possible explanation for Sunday's debacle: Coakley and his defensive mates chose the first half to catch up on their sleep. The Broncos have a superb offense, and Shanahan, who leaned heavily on multiple-receiver formations that spread the defense and created mismatches, had the Cowboys looking dazed. Still, this was ridiculous. No Dallas team had given up so many points (35) in a first half, and it had nothing to do with turnovers or field position. Denver, with Elway completing 11 of 13 passes before intermission, including touchdown tosses of 38 and 23 yards to tight end Shannon Sharpe, averaged 13.5 yards per first-half play. It scored on drives of 84, 80, 59, 80 and 80 yards. "For a brief second out there," Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders said, "I could've sworn we were playing the old Los Angeles Lakers, with Magic running the break."

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