Of Fire and Brimstone

If you're a Dallas Cowboys fan, it's likely that you've sought shelter from the 15 years without a Bling by huddling under the umbrella that the 90's dynasty team provides and harkening back to a time when winning was almost a foregone conclusion. These days, the Cowboys seem to find ways to lose rather than the reverse. I think often about that 90's team. I often use the things I learned from that group in my work life. For instance, when Charles Haley talks about how players had to "sacrifice" for the good of the team, somewhere in that comment is a very John Wooden-esque maxim underlying it. It's difficult not to think there wasn't a ton of luck involved in that confluence of things that led to what many called the greatest team ever. Could they have become a dynasty without the help of the Minnesota Vikings front office? When I think about the triplets and Deion and the O-line and Novacek and Ken Norton Jr. and Bill Bates, there are tons of stories behind THE story. But when I think about that team, I always find myself coming back to the same place. I find myself thinking about a dynamic duo of sorts...and it isn't who you might think.


There's no denying Jimmy Johnson was the Fire that fueled the vision of what ‘could be' when he decided to leave South Florida and come take over a moribund Cowboys team. Jimmy had an everyday passion that no other NFL coach could muster up even for a single game. We're currently being carpet-bombed with Lombardi "stuff" via the HBO special and the play and the book and, well, you get the picture. Lombardi's passion was enviable. He and Jimmy shared that and an indefatigable desire to win. But what he and Jimmy also shared was an unparalleled work ethic. That's where, I believe, the most interesting comparisons begin. You may find coaches in the modern era who had passion like these two. You may also find coaches who had that desire to win. But you would be hard pressed to find those personalities who were so big and so bright, but also so methodical in their approach to accomplishing the tasks in front of them. Now, I would suggest that the times each man operated in asked something different of them. Lombardi needed no one else to execute his plan to win. I believe he operated in a time where player egos and multi-million dollar rookies never entered the equation. On the other hand, Jimmy needed a logical extension of himself on the field. He needed a personality almost as big as his own; someone who shared that same passion. But most important, Jimmy needed someone who possessed that same work ethic.


Enter Michael Irvin. Interestingly enough, Irvin was drafted prior to Jimmy's arrival, but it would be difficult to argue that the Playmaker would have become the player he became without Jimmy's sideline presence. No, Michael was the cornerstone in Jimmy Johnson's foundation for the plan to build a winner. Again, the times being what they were, Jimmy needed a highly-touted player, who could garner the respect of the younger players, but also had Jimmy's ear, to set the tone on the practice field, in the locker room and on the playing field. Irvin was all of those things and more. Irvin possessed a trait that enveloped the entire team. He had a nastiness about him. He didn't just want to win. He wanted to physically and psychologically beat down his opponent and make them FEAR him. Before long you could see that the whole team was imbued with that sentiment. It was manifest in Erik Williams' head slap and Charles Haley's sacks and Larry Allen's lead blocks and Moose Johnston's blitz pickups. Irvin wasn't a coach on the field. He wasn't the cerebral nexus of the roster. That was Troy Aikman's job. But neither Troy nor Emmitt possessed the kind of gravitas that Irvin intrinsically had. He was the emotional leader of the team and most important, he extended Jimmy past the sideline, thus enabling his dream to become a reality.


The times have changed again. The idea of winning with big ego players, regardless of their talent level, as the core of the team has not proven successful. Instead, the new model suggests that you need a cerebral coach leading a no-nonsense approach to the game, an attention to detail that eliminates the possibility of players making mental mistakes and a locker room comprised of team-first athletes ready to do whatever is asked of them. But the thing you still need, and this is a tribute to the greatness that was Michael Irvin, is a nastiness in the way you play the game. But that's not how this iteration of the Cowboys handles their business. This team if soft and cuddly. This team isn't anything like that.

If you want to be a winner, on a stage as grand as the NFL, you need to have that killer instinct. I see it in some coaches. Sean Payton has it. Mike Tomlin has it. Bill Bellichick has it. Those guys are not happy when they win 45-3 because they thought they left points on the field and allowing the other team to get down close enough for the Field Goal was a failure in and of itself. They pursue perfection knowing that, while they cannot achieve it, they can find measures of excellence along the way. That was how Lombardi approached it. That was how Jimmy approached it.

When I hear Jason Garrett say, "In the end, we did close them out" after a 33-30 nail-biting win over the hapless Redskins, I can't help but wonder if Jimmy Johnson truly had the big impact on him that Garrett says he had. Where's that killer instinct? When I hear that some players aren't selling out, I wonder where that killer instinct is. When I see guys like Bigg not living up to his Bigg paycheck, I ask myself, "where is that killer instinct?" No, this team needs an emotional overhaul and a return to a culture that revolves around a killer instinct that was once the foundation of the team.

So as Dallas tries to resurrect itself, once again, this offseason, one has to wonder what it will take to bring back the Fire and Brimstone that characterized the greatness of that 1990's dynasty. Is Jason Garrett the kind of leader who can help us get that back? Is it someone else? Does Dallas have a roster with selfless players who can regain that nastiness? Can this organization rebuild a culture that is desirous not of winning, but of mauling and forcing their opponents to fear them?


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