The 49ers had suffered losing seasons in five of their last six years before Bill Walsh arrived in 1979. He went 2-14 in his first season and won a Super Bowl title in his third. Outstanding defensive acquisitions in that third season pushed the Niners over the top, but in his first draft Walsh made sure he got his signal caller, Joe Montana.
So now we come to Johnson and the question of whether Aikman will be the equal of Starr, Bradshaw and Montana. Last fall at UCLA, Aikman wasn't the all-out, fling-it-deep quarterback that quickens the pulse, but he had slow receivers, and the Bruins employed a controlled passing attack. "I'll work him out myself," says Johnson. "The important thing is to understand what he was asked to do at UCLA. We played him when I was at Miami, and he was at Oklahoma [before Aikman transferred to UCLA]."
Yeah, big deal, three passes a game.
"No, he actually came out throwing, until we broke his leg."
What about Steve Pelluer, Dallas's incumbent quarterback? Johnson flicks on a game tape to illustrate the ineffectiveness of the Cowboys' two-minute offense. They had the ball 36 times last season with two minutes or less to play. The result: two TDs, two field goals. Johnson refuses to criticize Pelluer. "I'm not going to do any finger pointing right now," he says. But he doesn't have to; the evidence is right here on tape. Dallas has the ball a yard and a half from the Pittsburgh end zone. Pelluer rolls right, spots the tight end cutting inside, away from him, and unloads. Three Steelers in coverage draw lots for the ball. David Little, number 50, wins. "That throw should never have been made," says Johnson.
"Now, look, we get the ball again. We're still only three points down." The play is a pick, with two wideouts crisscrossing. The throw is to the outside receiver, who's open. Montana makes the play in the dark, but here the timing is off. The receivers are too close to each other. The pass sails wide. "You've got to complete that throw," says Johnson. "I can go on and on, looking at reel after reel. The opportunities were there."
It looks bad for Pelluer and good for Aikman, if he passes Johnson's personal inspection. If Aikman does wind up with the Cowboys, he'll work out of the Dolphins' pass offense: quick read, three-step drop, bing, bing, down the field. Only Dan Marino will be missing. Johnson used the Dolphin attack at Miami, and Shula will oversee it in Dallas. "The difference between our offense and the Dolphins' is that we'll hang in with our running game longer," says Johnson. "Makes sense, with a Herschel Walker, don't you think?"
The Cowboys won't turn it around this year, but they should improve. What about next year and the year after? Who knows? NFL history is littered with the corpses of hotshot college coaches—Lou Holtz, Darryl Rogers, Frank Kush, even Bud Wilkinson—who perished in the pros.
You can't always find that new can of players.