The ’90s Cowboys won three Super Bowls with plenty of distractions.
How does a team do that?
We have grown accustomed to dysfunction spelling defeat and the first sign of a distraction turning into a death sentence for the NFL locals.
Daryl “Moose” Johnston played fullback on those last three Cowboys Super Bowl winners (’92-93, ’95), back when a “bad year” meant reaching the NFC championship game and losing it (’94).
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“There was never any smooth sailing,” DJ said. “But the thing that helped us with distractions was the leadership we had.”
The L-word has all but vanished at Valley Ranch.
Bill Parcells never embraced the notion since he handled all matters silver-and-blue. Now along comes Wade Phillips, hired because he wasn’t Bill Parcells, and the players celebrate the fact that they are “treated like men” (euphemism for “inmates running the prison”).
And we’re still asking, “Who can be the leader(s) on this team?”
Johnston, a Fox network game analyst, raised the question during the Cowboys’ inexplicable collapse at St. Louis last Sunday.
“I’m a strong believer that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals character,” Johnston said during the telecast. “[This team] is teetering right now ... it’s that critical and it’s slipping that quickly.”
Johnston’s on-field analyst partner, Tony Siragusa, chimed in that Tony Romo should step up as team leader.
Johnston — unsure if the L-word is a part of Romo’s core makeup — suggested Jason Witten.
Either way, simply put, a team leader must: 1.) police the locker room, 2.) challenge the players and 3.) command respect for doing both tasks.
“Because it becomes mentally draining on a team to answer questions [i.e., Pacman Jones, Tony Romo, Terrell Owens] and not be able to focus on the game plan,” Johnston explained during the telecast. “Instead, you’re talking about this other nonsense.”
DJ gets to stay home this Sunday as part of the Fox crew at Texas Stadium for Cowboys-Buccaneers.
Strange as it may sound, Cowboys’ problems on the periphery closely correspond with Cowboys’ successes on the field.
Go 13-3 ... wheels fall off.
Win three Super Bowls ... can’t get your players off the police blotter.
“The ’92 season was about as smooth as you could get,” Johnston said of the Cowboys’ first of three Super Bowl titles during the decade. “Then ’93 started out with Emmitt [Smith] in a contract holdout and missing the first two games [both losses].
“So, we found ourselves in a critical position, in a really deep NFC East, and that made that [’93 Super Bowl run] challenging. But then, in ’94, it came to a head. We had issues pretty much from ’94 on.”
For example, leading up to Halloween of the ’94 season, Pro Bowler Erik Williams drove his car into a wall, and landed himself in the hospital with a season-ending knee injury.
That same night, in a separate vehicular mishap, Cowboys’ rookie defensive end Shante Carver rolled his truck. Just shaken up.
Troy Aikman suffered a concussion barely 36 hours earlier when he was hit by Arizona linebacker Wilber Marshall, and was forced to leave the game.
“Just another week for the Cowboys,” deadpanned Irvin, whose drug and legal problems wouldn’t surface for another 18 months.
But Irvin knew how to be both a part of the problem and a part of the solution.
“Michael was one of the distractions, but he also was very good on the field and in the locker room,” Johnston said. “We needed him ... because he would challenge us.”
Owens vs. Irvin
The current Cowboys, without a vocal leader, per se, could use some leadership by committee.
“Sure, why not?” Johnston replied. “You’ve got to try something.”
You can almost hear the bell go off inside DJ’s brain.
“Or ... if somebody can get to Terrell Owens and say, ‘Terrell, just put a little bit more positive spin on it,’.” Johnston said. “This is your fiery guy, your emotional guy. Take that passion ... and just tweak it a bit.”
First rule of thumb for a team leader: Don’t use the sideline TV camera to jaw at a teammate after he commits a error — physically or mentally.
“The thing that people don’t understand is that the guy who makes a mistake is the last person who needs to be told that he just made a mistake,” Johnston explained. “It would be huge if T.O. could just be a little more positive.
“And now you would have a Witten and a Romo, maybe an Andre Gurode and a Marion Barber.”
Leadership by committee isn’t anything new.
“Charles Haley was another one,” Johnston said. “Erik Williams was our tough guy on Sunday afternoons. Troy was ‘the perfectionist’ who shouldered all the burden. We had so many different guys to look to when things got rough.
“And people forget ... we had some lousy games, too.”
The major difference between Owens and Irvin?
“Michael challenged us — but he never got into just one guy’s face,” Johnston said. “He’d pace up and down the bench, calling out all 10 guys ... 11 including himself.
“It was always a ‘we’ with Michael. You’d hear him and you’d get behind him. That’s a leader.”
Do like The Jimster
A visitor to Valley Ranch is more apt to find a portrait of George Allen hanging in the hallway than a leader in the locker room.
“I just don’t know if they have that now,” Johnston said of his old team.
Enter Wade Phillips, into the conversation.
“The head coach is the one guy who can’t be somebody he’s not,” Johnston explained. “That’s why, as head coach, you’ve got to be ‘the jerk’ from the get-go. You can always ease off.
“It’s harder to come in and be the ‘good guy,’ then ramp it up all of a sudden. Yeah, Wade has kind of put himself in a position by having the reputation he has and carrying himself the way he does.
“That’s not a knock him. Just for whatever reason, he doesn’t have that angst in him.”
But most NFL coaches not named Lombardi, Brown, Landry or Halas usually will be challenged by a veteran team.
First rule of thumb for a head coach: Start out tough, then ease up.
“That’s what Jimmy did,” Johnston said of Jimmy Johnson, who came into the NFL from the University of Miami. “He came in and put the hammer down for a year-and-a-half. Then, when he started to ease off, that’s when it got really, really good.”
The Jimster was famous for using the media to get his messages across to the players.
“Absolutely ... that’s a skill,” Johnston said. “[Eagles coach] Andy Reid is fantastic at it. There’s a little quid pro quo in our business. Andy will tell [network broadcasters] something to use in a game, then say, ‘I’d like this to get out. But it doesn’t mean as much coming from me as it would coming from one of you guys.’.”
It’s a tactic Wade Phillips doesn’t seem interested in playing. But it works.
Another tactic that works is Good Cop/Bad Cop. All Phillips needs now is a Bad Cop on his staff.
“That’s got to be either the head coach or a coordinator,” Johnston said. “It can’t be a position coach ... it can’t trickle down that far.”
Curious ‘Moose Calls’
In 1998, ESPN the Magazine Web site readers voted Johnston as having the fifth-best all-time sports nickname:
1. Magic Johnson.
2. Oil Can Boyd.
3. Night Train Lane.
4. Refrigerator Perry.
5. Moose Johnston.
“It was always a fun nickname to have,” Johnston said. “I’d get a ‘Moose Call’ at The Vet [in Philly] or at RFK [in Washington, D.C.] and think, ‘Wow, these people are nuts,’ because it wasn’t the safest place in the world to be cheering for the opponent.”
He can remember getting a few other ill-timed Moose Calls — a few even at Texas Stadium.
“Several times,” said Johnston, “we’d get inside the 5-yard line and we’d be in the huddle, and you could hear, ‘Moooooose.’ Emmitt would look over at me and say, ‘It might help if there was actually a play for the fullback to carry the ball inside the 5.’ We’d walk up to the line of scrimmage — laughing.”
Moose retired after the 1999 season with 22 touchdowns — eight rushing, 14 receiving.
Emmitt retired five years later with 164 rushing TDs — still an NFL record.