You heard it as you walked into Texas Stadium on Sunday before the Dallas Cowboys squashed the New York Giants 31-9. You heard it at halftime when Tom Landry was inducted into the Cowboys' Ring of Honor, when he officially made his peace with owner Jerry Jones, the man who had fired him nearly five years ago. You heard it throughout the afternoon when the cash registers jingled as more and more Cowboy trinkets were sold.
America's Team. It's back, the label that set everyone's teeth on edge, that made the Cowboys hated by 27 other NFL teams, that bespoke an arrogance that could be repaid only on the field. America's Team? Well, we'll see.
Maybe it was the sheer magnitude of the day that inspired the Cowboys. Or perhaps it was the wealth of ironies that surrounded this game. The Giants are the team that gave Landry his start, and now they are coached by Dan Reeves, who apprenticed under the Man in the Hat. And all the while the attention of the football world was focused on a game 1,500 miles away, in which the Miami Dolphins' Don Shula would try to become the winningest professional coach of all time—the greatest ever, people were saying—while here in Texas they knew there had never been a better one than their own Tom Landry.
And maybe it was the fact that despite their five straight victories since Emmitt Smith had signed his contract and rejoined the club, the Cowboys remained a "yes, but" team. Yes, they were beating people, and Troy Aikman was the hottest quarterback in football and Emmitt was breaking tackles with his usual abandon and the wide receivers were simply out of this world. But the Cowboys were, uh, a bit soft against the run. And real he-men, particularly in the state of Texas, don't have that notation on their résumés.
The Philadelphia Eagles had shoved them around at times the previous week. And two weeks before that, the San Francisco 49ers had gained yards up the middle. Now here came the Giants, the NFL's No. 1 rushing team, who, if nothing else, will test your manhood against the run, not with tricky stuff—cut blocks and misdirection and the like—but with straight-ahead power.
"They just buckle their chin straps and tell you they're coming right at you, try to stop them," Cowboy backup linebacker Bobby Abrams, an ex-Giant, said last week. "That's the kind of football I like, the clash of the titans."
The Giant running game looks a lot like the kind of show Bill Parcells ran in the team's Super Bowl days. He stockpiled offensive linemen in the draft—heavy-legged drive-blockers to carry his offense through the NFC East, in which four-man lines and miserable late-season weather make a running game essential.
Reeves, in his first year as the Giant coach, was intelligent enough to realize that you don't change a team overnight, you fit it to your personnel. There was some speculation at first as to whether Reeves would bring to the Meadowlands some Dallas-style trickery or the wide-open, John Elway-type, gadget-loaded attack he had coached in Denver. But as the season unfolded, there were the Giants banging away behind those big bubbas up front, amassing the largest ratio of running plays to passes (269 to 186) in the NFL, plus a 5-2 record, which had the fans excited again after the deep gloom of the two years under Ray Handley.
The Cowboys, who had climbed from their 0-2 Emmitt-less start into a tie with the Giants for the division lead—and who were certainly playing the best ball in the league—had spent a week answering one question: How would a defense that had shown some softness inside cope with the rolling thunder of the Giants' attack?
Feeling the heat most acutely was Ken Norton. Last year he was the leader of the defense, an outside linebacker on the weak side, with terrific pass-coverage instincts and great pursuit ability. He should have made the Pro Bowl but didn't. This would be his year.