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Jimmy Johnson knew he had to get away from Dallas. Far away. To a beach, preferably. Alone. It was Christmas Eve, a couple of hours after the Dallas Cowboys had lost to the Green Bay Packers on the final Sunday of the 1989 season. The defeat was the Cowboys' 15th in 16 weeks. After the other 14 debacles, Johnson, who was in his first year as the Dallas coach, had been able to put aside the pain, show his toothy smile and tell his team—and its anxious fans—that the Cowboys would be back at it the next week, trying to turn the corner. "Now there are no more games," recalls Johnson, "and I realize it's over. I also realize how horrible the season was."
He thought of the Bahamas. Yeah, that's the ticket. He'd go to Nassau and try to get rejuvenated. Johnson, who's divorced, didn't tell anyone where he was going, not even his confidant, his old teammate at Arkansas and the Cowboys' new owner, Jerry Jones. That night Johnson caught the last flight to Miami, got a couple of hours' sleep in an airport hotel and took the first flight to Nassau on Christmas morning. For five days he lay on the beach. And he forgot. He has not said "one and 15" since.
"I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that," says Johnson, smiling. "I can't say it. I don't ever want to say it. And I sure don't ever want to go through it again. We did what we did last year to get better players for our future. Winning a couple more ball games wasn't the goal. Getting players was. I'm glad we did it."
The Cowboys might have to do it again, because they're still not ready for prime time. They're not even Off Off Broadway yet. They're in a dinner theater somewhere outside New Haven. Since breaking camp in Austin, Texas, on Aug. 10, the Cowboys have stumbled in back-to-back preseason losses on the West Coast—28-16 to the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago and 16-14 to the Los Angeles Raiders last Saturday—and made it eminently clear that they are staring at another bleak season. Not as bleak as last fall, certainly, it only because their speed has improved dramatically. However, this looks like a 3-13 club, maybe 4-12.
The game against the Raiders at the Coliseum again brought out the black cloud that's been hanging over the Cowboys. On the fourth play, L.A. defensive tackle Bill Pickel blew past Dallas right tackle Nate Newton and sacked starting quarterback Troy Aikman, driving Aikman headfirst into the turf. The ball popped loose, but it was covered by Cowboy left tackle Mark Tuinei. On the next play Aikman, still woozy from the hit, threw a 14-yard pass to wide receiver Kelvin Martin, who was running an out pattern. Martin stopped two yards short of where Aikman threw the ball, and Raider cornerback Lionel Washington intercepted. Aikman gave chase. He could have pushed Washington out of bounds but tackled him instead. The violent falls on two consecutive plays left Aikman with a concussion and sidelined for the rest of the day. He didn't miss much.
Tailback Terrence Flagler, who has disappointed the Cowboys since they acquired him in an off-season trade with the San Francisco 49ers, tiptoed six times for eight yards. Kicker Ken Willis, signed as a free agent in April, picked up a bad snap on a field goal attempt and Garo Yepremianed a pass to Raider linebacker Arthur Walker, who ran 59 yards with the interception for a touchdown. The Cowboys didn't register a sack for the second week in a row.
When Johnson and Jones emerged grim-faced from the visiting coach's dressing cubicle an hour after the game, they could be happy only with the increased market value of second-year quarterback Steve Walsh, who had one of his best games as a pro, completing 16 of 25 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Walsh may not have the arm to throw a crisp, 25-yard sideline pattern like Dan Marino, but he's poised and should be somebody's quarterback of the '90s. Are you listening up there in Minnesota, Mike Lynn?
Did somebody say "deal"? Already in the Jones-Johnson era, all of 18 months old, the Cowboys have made 19 trades, acquired six players on waivers, added four free agents, promoted eight players off the developmental squad and signed 21 Plan B free agents. If it's possible, this is an aggressively patient team—aggressive in making deals, patient in letting them pan out—with an asterisk. If Jones and Johnson make a mistake, they lop it off. Asked after Saturday's game about Flagler's status, Jones said, "If he can't make the team, I won't bat an eye." The Cowboys are a team with one eye on this season and the other on '93, because that's about how long it'll take them to become respectable again.
Backup quarterback Babe Laufenberg, who took his lumps when he was sacked by Raider linebacker Art Jimerson in the third quarter, has a conservative view of the Cowboys' prospects in '90. "We're making strides, but they're incremental," he says. "We have to play very smart to have a chance—a chance—to win."
Here's what little progress the Cowboys have made since last season: