Under The Gun
Troy Aikman thinks the Cowboys are loaded again on offense. But can he hold up his end?
It was A pleasant morning for Troy Aikman last Thursday. He kissed his bride of one month, Rhonda, goodbye, then played in a friendly fivesome at Preston Trail Golf Club in north Dallas. He followed his round with a lunch of prime rib and trout. The day would soon get better: Troy and Rhonda would fly to Palm Springs to shop for a vacation home.
A seasoned skeptic, the 33-year-old Aikman has had good reason to be upbeat of late. Even on the field he's optimistic—about the Cowboys' rebuilt offense, new offensive coordinator Jack Reilly and recently acquired wide receiver Joey Galloway. "This is the most weapons we've had in the passing game in my 12 years here," the quarterback says.
That's all well and good, but after Dallas's 24-24 regular-season record over the last three years, questions abound about whether Aikman is fit enough to lead the team back to greatness. His quarterback rating (81.7) ranked a pedestrian 12th in the NFL during that stretch, and some of his other numbers were mediocre as well. Since the start of the 1997 season Trent Dilfer has thrown five more touchdown passes than Aikman (53 to 48), and Rich Gannon has the same completion percentage as the Dallas passer (58.2). In the team's glory years from 1992 through '96, during which time the Cowboys won three Super Bowls, Aikman completed 65% of his throws, and Norv Turner, the offensive coordinator for the first two of those titles, boasted that when Aikman is in a groove, he's the most accurate passer ever.
Thus, seeing Aikman struggle for three consecutive years was like watching Tony Gwynn hit .278. Says one teammate, "At some point Troy's got to make some plays to help us win. Last year he was at fault as much as anyone."
Aikman feels the slings and arrows. He speaks defensively about last season, and in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, Aikman knows that he's on trial in 2000. "I know in any long career there are going to be valleys," he says. "The challenge for me is to get out of that valley and get back on top. I've never been a big numbers guy. Winning has always been what's mattered to me—winning and earning the respect of my peers and coaches. When you begin to lose that, yeah, it motivates you. It's a driving force for me."
After a pause he adds, "There's something inside all of us who've played this long that says, Can you do it as well as you used to? But that's not something I feel a need to prove to others. I feel a need to prove it to myself. I certainly feel I can still play at a winning level."
According to one Dallas player, team chemistry was poisoned by the chill between Aikman and coach Chan Gailey, who was fired in January after two seasons. The player says Gailey stopped attending quarterback meetings early last season because Aikman and longtime backup Jason Garrett kept challenging his play-calling. Owner Jerry Jones became so peeved at what he considered unimaginative play selection that he asked Garrett to submit plays to Gailey before the Cowboys' wild-card playoff game against the Vikings. Garrett, the player said, gave Gailey eight pages of diagrammed plays that the quarterbacks liked. Not one was called in the 27-10 loss to Minnesota. ( Garrett, a free agent, signed with the Giants in the off-season.)
After the season, when Gailey refused Jones's demand to hire an offensive coordinator to take over play-calling next fall, Jones fired him. The owner then promoted defensive coordinator Dave Campo to head coach and hired Reilly, who had served as the Cowboys' quarterbacks coach in 1997 Ernie Zampese, who had a four-year run as the club's offensive coordinator in the mid-'90s, returns as a consultant. Free agent Paul Justin, a reserve with the Rams last season, was signed to sack up Aikman, and he brought some of the gospel of St. Louis coach Mike Martz with him. Dallas's new offense will look much like the Rams' and Redskins' models of '99, the aim being to lighten the load on running back Emmitt Smith with a revived passing game. The Rams made a habit of throwing to their third and fourth options, and Aikman's ability to read coverages will keep every receiver in play.
By the end of last week Aikman had thrown on about 15 occasions to his wideout triumvirate of Galloway, Rocket Ismail and James McKnight. "Troy looks exactly the same," says Zampese. "The ball still comes out of there like a shot It was strange the first few times watching him throw to Galloway. The ball looked late, which isn't like Troy. But it wasn't late. Galloway's just so fast he outran it They'll learn each other and be fine."