How bad was it last year? The highlight of Johnson's days during the season occurred after practice, when the list of waived players would land on his desk. Two or three would be invited to Dallas every week, and they would play in the game that weekend, knowing only the basics of the Cowboy system. According to defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, "It was tough going into meetings with the players every week, facing [linebacker] Eugene Lockhart and [end] Jim Jeff-coat and saying, 'Hey, we've got three or four new guys. Make them a part of it. Let's bleed together on Sunday.' "
On Tuesday of Week 7, the Cowboys dealt a future eighth-round draft choice to the Detroit Lions for Palmer, who arrived in Dallas the next day. He was taken downtown by van for a late-morning physical, and on the way back to the afternoon practice, the van had a flat tire. Palmer missed the practice, so his only full workout with the team came on Thursday. Ten minutes before the kickoff of the Sunday game, against the Chiefs in Kansas City, while Palmer was taping a crib sheet of plays onto his left forearm, Johnson walked over to him in the locker room and told him, "You're starting."
Says Palmer, now in Cincinnati after the Bengals signed him as a Plan B free agent, "I was shocked. But that's how it was in Dallas. One week Joe Blockhead would come in and play. The next week it would be Willie Whoever. It was fantasy football, picking names for the week and letting the chips fall. More often than not, the chips fell on top of us."
This season the games shouldn't be as lopsided as some were last fall, if a few early signs that coaches and players are taking a fresh approach to the game are to be believed. Regular attendance at offseason workouts increased from six players in '89 to 61 this year. Wannstedt's 4-3 attack-the-gaps defense suits the pass rushers more than Landry's flex because it frees them to penetrate more effectively. "Our defense is going to have to win some games for us," says Jeffcoat. "I think it can."
Offensively, the story is less upbeat. If Walsh, who was under center for Dallas's only victory last year, is kept around, sooner or later the Cowboys will have a quarterback controversy. "I wish the situation would get resolved," says Aikman, "because it's not a healthy one for Steve or for me. Talentwise, we're better than we were. But the expectations will be different. People overlooked our mistakes last year. Now we're accountable. I'm accountable. I'm the guy who'll be picked apart if we're that bad again."
Deep down Johnson knows he's staring 3-13 in the face. He knows a good team must be built through the draft—Dallas has eight picks in the first two rounds of the next two drafts—and he knows his draft decisions will be critical. For now, there's not much he can do except work hard and wait. The other day, while sitting at an ocean-view table in a San Diego restaurant, Johnson talked about his mind-set.
"It's not whether we will succeed," he said, staring at the Pacific. "We will. It's just a matter of how long it will take."