A great rush of youthful, exuberance has propelled the Dallas Cowboys into the Super Bowl. They were unstoppable in the second half of their 30-20 NFC Championship Game victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, and it was their young legs—a bunch of guys who have yet to see their 27th birthday—that put 20 points on the board after intermission. But that isn't the whole story.
What really separates this team is its youthful and unconventional approach to the game. Got a lead with the clock winding down? Fine. Don't sit on it, make it bigger. Fourth-and-one, with an 11-point lead and a gimme field goal if you want it? Forget it. Go for the seven.
"That's been our style ever since I've been here," said fourth-year quarterback Troy Aikman, who had a career day against the Niners. "It's coach Jimmy Johnson's style. Same with Norv Turner, our offensive coordinator. Always go for it, always attack, no matter what the score is. I'm very fortunate. It would be hard for me to go to a ball-control, play-the percentages type of offense."
"Coach Johnson was the same way at the University of Miami," said wideout Michael Irvin, who played for Johnson when he coached the Hurricanes. "First get the athletes with speed and big-play ability. Then turn 'em loose."
Three consecutive series in the fourth quarter drove home the message. On the first one the Cowboys were up 24-13, linebacker Ken Norton had just cut off a San Francisco drive with an interception, and Dallas had moved to the 49er seven. Fourth-and-one. Running back Emmitt Smith got the call over right tackle but was stopped by linebacker Mike Walter. Niner ball.
Nine plays (all passes) and 93 yards later, with Steve Young running a hurry-up offense and completing eight of his throws, San Francisco was in the end zone. The drive took 2:28 and brought the clock down to 4:22. The Niners now trailed by four points, and the Candlestick Park crowd, which had had little to cheer about since the 10-10 halftime score, was back into the game. What's more, Dallas's defense was starting to sag.
Norton, the weakside linebacker, the coverage guy who stays on the field all the time—a player who should have made the Pro Bowl, on a league-leading defense that had no one voted to the NFC team—had been on the bench when San Francisco scored. It was his replacement, Mickey Pruitt, who had chased Jerry Rice across the goal line on his five-yard TD reception.
The momentum had switched, all right, and when you're a coach caught in a momentum shift, you do one of two things: You ride with it and pray, running the ball and working the clock in the hope that the other team won't have enough time to beat you, or you try to switch the momentum back in your favor and put the game away. "Coach Johnson told me, 'Do what you have to do to win this thing,' " said Turner.
So on first down Turner called an intermediate-range pass, a square-in, to wideout Alvin Harper, who made the catch in front of cornerback Don Griffin. Harper kept angling across the field as he headed for the end zone, gaining 70 yards, down to the San Francisco nine. One play, one more momentum switch.
"It would have been easy to say, Remember the Redskin game, remember how we lost doing that," said Turner, recalling the Dec. 13 game at RFK Stadium, in which Aikman, sitting on a four-point lead with 3:14 remaining, had tried to pass out of his own end zone, only to have the Skins knock the ball loose and fall on the fumble for the winning TD. "A lot of people take the approach: Make sure you don't lose the game. Maybe they're successful that way. I won't say it's good or bad. It's just not our style. I like the way we do things."