WITH A diamond
star pinned to the left lapel of his blue suit, Jerry Jones was waiting in the
breezeway of Giants Stadium on Sunday afternoon when the door to the visitors'
locker room swung open. In small clusters the Dallas Cowboys filed past him
toward the field' Terrell Owens, the mercurial receiver on his third NFL
marriage; Wade Phillips, the quiet coach from the league's recycling bin; Tony
Romo, the newly minted $67 million quarterback of obscure origin. When the
team's new nosetackle, Tank Johnson, appeared in the door, Jones approached his
latest reclamation project and offered some perspective on the set-to he was
about to face. "Well, here we are," the owner told Johnson. "New
York Giants, Dallas Cowboys. We're a little distance from four or five weeks
ago." That's when the Cowboys were reeling from a painful loss to the
Patriots and Johnson, who signed with Dallas on Sept. 18, had just begun
practicing with the team.
later, after Romo had tossed four touchdown passes, Owens had caught two and
Johnson had stuffed Eli Manning for a fourth-quarter sack in a 31--20 victory,
the Cowboys showed just how far ahead they are in the NFC East and, maybe, in
the entire conference. The victory raised their record to 8--1, gave them a
two-game lead (plus the tiebreaker) over the Giants, kept Dallas undefeated on
the road and set up a potential showdown for home field advantage against the
8--1 Packers in Dallas on Nov. 29.
The win also
signaled that the Cowboys have recovered from their 48--27 loss to New
England'and that they might offer a stiffer test should the two meet again in
Arizona in February. "This is why I felt Jerry brought me here," said
Owens, who finished with six catches for 125 yards, his third consecutive game
with at least 100 yards receiving. "I want to be the playmaker for this
shoving and plenty of jawing, the Cowboys handled a team that was eager for a
rematch after a 45--35 loss in Dallas in Week 1. If it's an NFL axiom that all
division games are created equal, the Giants seemed to understand that this
second meeting was more equal than others. At stake was a share of first place
and the lengthening of a six-game winning streak, which began when New York
made a goal line stand against the Redskins in Week 3 to avoid falling to 0--3.
The Giants' first-year defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, had in recent
weeks hatched a pass-rushing scheme so potent that his defensive ends started a
pool among themselves based on such stats as sacks and forced fumbles. The
Giants chose to wear their seldom-used red jerseys, one more indication that
they viewed the matchup with Dallas as extra special. "They are
beautiful," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said of the uniforms. "They
look real good when you see a swarm of red."
The scarlet swarm
never materialized. The Cowboys' offensive line mostly held at bay a Giants'
rush that had sacked Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb a phenomenal 12 times in
Week 4. Romo was sacked only twice. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 247 yards,
finding Owens in favorable matchups and capitalizing with quick strikes. With
Owens lined up one-on-one against cornerback Sam Madison down the right
sideline in the third quarter, Romo delivered a 25-yard strike that broke a
17--17 tie. T.O.'s second touchdown came with 10:58 remaining in the game, when
he sped down the middle of the field, motored past safety Gibril Wilson and
hauled in a 50-yard pass.
At that point,
many of the 78,964 fans rose from their seats and headed for the New Jersey
Turnpike. By leaving, they missed Johnson's first sack as a Cowboy, when he
spun past guard Chris Snee to take down a helpless Manning. "They're 1--3
in those jerseys," said Cowboys linebacker Kevin Burnett after the game.
"They need to throw them away."
AFTER THEIR 2006
season ended with Romo's fumble of a field-goal snap in the wild-card game
against Seattle--followed by coach Bill Parcells's departure two weeks
later--the Cowboys are off to their best start since 1995, their last Super
Bowl championship season. "I couldn't have thought we'd be 8--1," Jones
says. " Romo has exceeded what I thought he would be, and our offensive line
has advanced beyond what I'd hoped. I think this team will have more ability to
do things people haven't seen before as we go into the playoffs."
from the philosophy of the Patriots (who in recent years added perceived
problem players Corey Dillon and Randy Moss), Jones signed Johnson to a
two-year deal despite Johnson's host of legal woes. In November 2005 he was
sentenced to probation in Illinois after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun
charge. In December '06 police found unlicensed firearms in his suburban
Chicago house, and he was jailed for two months for violating probation; he
also served a concurrent 45 days on another misdemeanor gun charge. NFL
commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Johnson for eight games, and the Chicago
Bears cut him in June after a highly publicized traffic stop in Arizona, even
though he was neither booked nor charged in the incident.
gambled on players with troubled pasts before, consulted with many people
around the league on Johnson, including Goodell. "Roger thought he deserved
a second opportunity," says Jones, who needed a defensive tackle after
starter Jason Ferguson went down for the season with a torn biceps in Week 1.
The owner also spoke with his quarterbacks coach, Wade Wilson, who'd been on
the Bears' staff for the three years that Johnson was in Chicago, where, at
6'3" and 300 pounds, he made a name as a run stuffer who could slip in for
an occasional sack. "Wade said he was a good teammate," Jones says.
"With a change of environment or different circumstances, he can be who he
the game on the Giants' second possession, slapped low fives with defensive
ends Chris Canty and Jason Hatcher, crouched into his stance and immediately
drew a double team. While Johnson said he lacked stamina, he finished the game
with three tackles (including the sack), a quarterback hurry and raves from his
new teammates. "He's going to help us out in the passing game more than
people believe," says defensive end Greg Ellis.