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Austin Murphy
August 21, 1989
Quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh compete to be the Cowboys' starter
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August 21, 1989

A Duel In The Sun

Quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh compete to be the Cowboys' starter

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If Sam Donaldson had asked, then we would have gotten a straight answer. Is the Dallas Cowboy quarterback competition genuine or a charade? Does Steve Walsh really have a chance to beat out fellow rookie Troy Aikman, the $11 million man? Or is the Cowboys' new Arkansas-bred brain-trust of coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones just trying to jack up Walsh's market value?

Donaldson could have gotten it out of them. He sure had Jones flustered last Thursday night, live and on national TV. The NFL's newest owner gamely agreed to appear on ABC's Prime Time Live, which Donaldson co-anchors. Earlier in the preseason, Jones had made an innocent remark about how the Cowboys looked "good in the showers, but we'll have to see what they do once they get the pads on."

A hard-hitting investigative journalist, Donaldson pounced. Did Jones make a habit of watching his players shower? How did Aikman look in the shower? Somehow Donaldson elicited from a squirming Jones the observation: "Well, Troy looks good in the shower."

The studio audience roared. But its reaction was tame compared with that of Aikman's teammates. He hopes to have heard the end of the shower jokes by 1990, but he is not optimistic.

Three days later Aikman took the first snap in Dallas's preseason opener, a surprisingly easy 20-3 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Johnson insisted that no significance should be attached to the fact that Aikman started the game. Someone had to.

Three Dallas quarterbacks saw action on Sunday, but Aikman carried the day. He had the look of a sound investment, completing eight of 11 throws, including a nicely feathered nine-yarder to wide-out Kelvin Martin in the corner of the end zone. Aikman, who played the entire first half, kept his passes short, sweet and conservative. "He picked up blitzes He audibled well. He was good and calm. I was impressed," said Cowboy offensive coordinator David Shula.

Walsh, whom Jones and Johnson could not resist plucking in the NFL's supplemental draft on July 7—at the cost of Dallas's first-round pick in next year's regular draft—didn't get much help from his friends and thus had a less than auspicious debut, completing just two of eight throws in little more than one quarter. Penalties, poor field position and dropped passes marred his afternoon.

All week at practice Johnson had bent over backward to assure one and all that Aikman would not be handed the job. "This is not a formality," he said. "They know they'll get an equal chance. Steve will start next week's game, and then we'll be better prepared to make a decision."

Through it all, the curious scrutinized workouts with special intensity, like Kremlinologists studying the seating arrangements of the Politburo at the opera. On the Cowboy depth chart, the No. 1 quarterback was listed as "Aikman/Walsh"—in alphabetical order, it was explained. But who practiced with the first unit? They alternated. Ahh, here was a meaty hint: Third-string quarterback Babe Laufenberg was flashing signals from the sideline to Aikman. Next Walsh would flash them to Aikman. We were on to something now! But then there was Walsh signaling Laufenberg, followed by Aikman signaling Walsh. Confounded again.

"I really think it's going to be a coin flip," said Laufenberg after Thursday's workout. "I get the call if the coin lands on its edge."

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