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THE NFL
Peter King
December 23, 1991
Coming of Age
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December 23, 1991

The Nfl

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YEAR

NFL'S TOP RUSHERS

YARDS

COLLEGE

1991

1. Sanders, Lions

1,440

Okla. Slate

2. Thomas, Bills

1,407

Okla. Slate

3. Smith, Cowboys

1,403

Florida

1990

1. Sanders, Lions

1,304

Okla. State

2. Thomas, Bills

1,297

Okla. Slate

3. Butts, Chargers

1,225

Fla. State

Coming of Age

When the Cowboys arrived at Veterans Stadium last Saturday for a short walkthrough practice in preparation for Sunday's game against the Eagles, they found that the players' entrance was locked. It took 10 minutes to find someone with a key to let them in. Then when they reached the visitors' locker room, another locked door blocked their path, causing further delay. Finally, when it came time to leave the Vet after the workout, the wrought-iron exit gate that the Cowboy buses had to pass through was locked.

Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson had had enough by then, what with the biggest game of his three-year tenure less than 24 hours away. He jumped off the lead bus and gave a security guy the what for while the key to the gate was fetched. Were the Eagles giving the Cowboys the Red Auerbach treatment, creating little detours to distract them before a big game? No, but the Dallas players were sufficiently ticked off by all this that they were rarin' to go for Sunday's encounter.

Sometimes the NFL is not as well oiled as its image suggests, especially for teams on the road. But in a span of 22 days, ending on a windswept afternoon at the Vet, the Cowboys took care of all things great and small by sandwiching a 24-21 victory in Washington on Nov. 24 and Sunday's 25-13 win in Philly around wins at home against the Steelers and the Saints. No visiting team had won at RFK and the Vet in the same year since the Giants did it in their Super Bowl season of 1986.

Thus the Cowboys, 10-5 heading into the final week of the regular season, have officially rejoined the league's upper crust. By clinching a wild-card berth with the defeat of Philadelphia, Dallas returns to the playoffs for the first time since the '85 season. "It's the big time," said wideout Michael Irvin. "It's about time."

With quarterback Troy Aikman still hobbled by a sprained right knee, the Cowboys struggled through an atypically lousy day for backup Steve Beuerlein, who was two for 17 passing in the first half. Dallas won with its defense, which forced three turnovers and got seven sacks, and its special teams, which generated a safety and an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown by Kelvin Martin.

Johnson, who coached the University of Miami before becoming the Cowboys' head man, has been scoffed at because he has tried to build a winner by acquiring his former Hurricane players. Nine ex-Hurricanes have played for Johnson in Dallas. Of the four who remain, three had major roles in Sunday's win: defensive linemen Jimmie Jones and Russell Maryland combined for four sacks, and Irvin added to his NFC lead in receptions with five catches for 92 yards and a touchdown.

"If Joe Paterno coached in the pros and drafted a lot of Penn State guys, nobody would say anything," said Irvin. "If Lou Holtz coached in the pros and drafted a lot of Notre Dame guys, nobody would say anything. But Jimmy does it, and people talk about those ruthless convicts in Miami. Why get maligned? He's taking guys off national championship teams."

"There was never any doubt in my mind that we were doing the right things," said Johnson, relaxing in a shoe box of an office with his son-Chad after the game. "When you know you're right, you don't have doubts. And it's only going to get better." Those winds at the Vet on Sunday? They were winds of change.

Grounded

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