The Folks who watched the Dallas Cowboys trim the San Francisco 49ers 26-17 at Texas Stadium on Sunday got to see one of the rare sights of this strange season: star wars at the quarterback level. The Cowboys' Troy Aikman and the 49ers' Steve Young waged a spirited duel. Aikman ran a Joe Montana show, working the ball underneath, bringing the defensive backs up with short stuff and then burning them deep. Young fought to bring his team back, moving the Niners down the field but ultimately falling short.
Cherish it, because it just doesn't happen anymore. Where have they all gone? Dan Marino, Randall Cunningham, Bobby Hebert, Chris Miller and Jeff Hostetler are down with injuries or are battling them. Montana is functional but fragile. Bernie Kosar has been benched. Warren Moon was benched, and then unbenched out of necessity. Then there are the ranks of the struggling, and what a roster that is: Jim McMahon, Mark Rypien, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Everett and last year's twin Cinderellas, Stan Humphries and Brett Favre. Jeff George is a head-scratcher. Boomer Esiason has had fourth-quarter miseries in his last two outings. Wade Wilson was doing fine until the Pittsburgh Steelers undressed him on Sunday. And on and on.
Oh, a few are still performing at a high level—Montana, Phil Simms, John El-way, Jim Kelly, Young at times—but you will notice that they all have one thing in common. They are over 30. There is only one, repeat one, quarterback in his 20's who has a Pro Bowl look, and that's Aikman, who will turn 27 on Nov. 21.
Ever since the Cowboy offense became whole in Game 3 when Emmitt Smith returned after a contract holdout, Aikman has been on a tear. "That's what I call the start of our season," says Dallas middle linebacker Ken Norton. "When Emmitt walked through the door. To me, we're 4-0."
Without Smith the Cowboys were 0-2; now they are 4-2. Aikman began each of Smith's first three games by completing nine of 10 passes and finished with a 75% completion rate or better each time. O.K., that was against the Phoenix Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts. How would he handle the San Francisco defense, which has struggled at times but still knows how to play?
Aikman wound up at 60% against the 49ers—21 completions in 35 attempts for 243 yards—with 12 of those completions, for 168 yards and a touchdown, going to Michael Irvin (page 72), who had a career day. And that's the other part of the story, the mesh between Irvin and Aikman, and Irvin's switch from burner to serious possession receiver. If a quarterback doesn't have a guy he can always go to, he's nowhere.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, along with offensive-line coach Hudson Houck, had spent time with the Los Angeles Rams, and Turner brought L.A.'s system with him: Push the ball upfield, stretch the defense. It's the old Air Coryell scheme, taught to the Rams in the late '80s by Ernie Zampese, who was Don Coryell's first lieutenant with the San Diego Chargers. To make it go, you need a strong-armed passer (Aikman certainly qualifies), a pair of wideouts who can get upfield ( Irvin and Alvin Harper), a sturdy line and a tight end with the smarts to work underneath and sit down at the first-down marker ( Jay Novacek).
But against the Niners, Turner had something different in mind. "They do a nice job of taking away the one guy they have to take away," he said, "and the guy they'll want to take away is Irvin. We'll have to try something different with him. We'll have to work him underneath."
How do you tell a thoroughbred like Irvin that he's going to be pulling the wagon for a while? How do you make it work? "He's a big target," said Turner. "He's tough. He fights for the ball. Just watch him in practice, flying around, competing, always working to get the ball. That's why he has those big days."
On Sunday he showed what it means to be a possession receiver: Of the 12 passes Irvin caught, 10 picked up first downs. The other two, for eight and nine yards, were on first and 10. He caught the Cowboys' only touchdown pass, on a 36-yard fade route down the left side at the end of the third quarter. On the drives leading to Dallas's other touchdown, a one-yard run by Smith midway through the second quarter, and to three of Eddie Murray's four field goals, Irvin's catches picked up the final first down.