WASHINGTON — Washington - It's not always easy to keep your cool when everyone else around you seems to be losing theirs.
Just ask quarterback Troy Aikman.
He has been virtually in the eye of a hurricane since the Dallas Cowboys made him the first selection in the National Football League draft a year ago.
"I'm not faulting the media, but it seems like ever since I got here, there's always been distractions either on the field or off the field surrounding this football team," Aikman said last week.
The Cowboys have been a football soap opera the past two years.
To start with, Aikman arrived in the first year of the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson regime.
New owner Jones fired "The Man In the Hat" -- Tom Landry -- and hired Johnson, his good friend, to replace the "Only Coach the Cowboys Ever Had." Talk about difficult assignments. Landry went immediately to the Hall of Fame and Johnson went on the griddle. Unless he takes the Cowboys to five Super Bowls, which Landry did, he'll never be forgiven in Dallas for replacing Landry.
It didn't help that after making Aikman his first pick, Johnson took his college quarterback at the University of Miami, Steve Walsh, in the supplemental draft. That created a difficult situation for both Aikman and Walsh that still hasn't been resolved.
On the field, the team is 2-16 under Johnson. Not only does it lose, it gets ridiculed. Last year, Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants said the offense was vanilla and so simple he thought it was a trick.
Former Cowboy Drew Pearson said this year the Cowboys have a high school offense.
When the Giants beat Cowboys last week, former Cowboy Steve DeOssie sarcastically upgraded the offense a bit.
"Last year, their offense was vanilla. This year, it's more like chocolate chip," DeOssie said.
DeOssie also suggested that the Cowboys players "aren't treated like men" by Johnson. He said they were treated like "children."
Publicly, the Cowboys support Johnson. But a television station recently quoted several Cowboys, who were not identified, as being unhappy with Johnson's methods.
"I think we have excellent morale," Johnson said last week. He said if there weren't a few complaints, he might think he wasn't working the team hard enough.
Johnson made another controversial move when he yanked Aikman with 10 minutes left in the game against the Giants last week. He said he didn't want to risk the quarterback getting hurt.
That prompted Aikman to join the chorus questioning Johnson. "I will continue to say I don't think I played poorly last week," Aikman said. "I'll go along with what he has to say. That doesn't mean I have to agree with it."
Johnson brushed off Aikman's complaints by saying he'd be disappointed if a player didn't want to continue to play.
In Dallas, though, it caused a lot of speculation.
There was talk in that Johnson was showcasing Walsh for a possible trade to New Orleans. One columnist even speculated that the player Johnson may want to trade is Aikman.
That's implausible, but it shows the kind of atmosphere swirling around the Cowboys.
Aikman says candidly he's not comfortable being on the same team with Walsh.
"I don't think it's a particularly healthy situation for either one of us," he said. "Steve and I get along fine personally, but I think what makes the situation tough is that we're on the same team competing and. . . it's very difficult for either one of us to accept not starting."
Things don't get any easier for the Cowboys today when they arrive at RFK Stadium with a 3-27 mark in their past 30 regular-season games.
Two of those three victories came over Washington here -- they were Landry's last and Johnson's first -- so the Redskins don't figure to overlook them this time.
Despite all that, Aikman remains cool and upbeat. He insists things are better for him and the team than they were a year ago.
"It's been well-documented, and everybody believes we're a much-improved team this year," he said. "We feel we have a legitimate chance of winning every time we go out on the field."
Aikman is 1-12 as a starter, with the only victory coming against the San Diego Chargers in the opener this year. When the Cowboys beat the Redskins last year, Walsh was the quarterback because Aikman was out with a broken finger.
In Aikman's only start against the Redskins, last year in Dallas, he said he said he had a "pitiful day" in a 30-7 loss.
He said one of the reasons the Cowboys are better this year is that they're not bringing in new players every week.
"It was next to impossible for me to get in a good rhythm last year. Not only was I unsure of what to do, but everybody else was, too," he said.
Now he seems almost eager to go up against the Redskins. "I think it'll test the character of our team to see how we can do," he said.
Even though he's struggled, Aikman is getting good reviews. Giants linebacker Carl Banks said, "In two years, Aikman will be the best quarterback in the NFL."
Aikman said he hasn't done anything against the Giants to deserve that praise, but he has lofty goals.
"I'm not saying it boastfully, but if I don't become one of the better quarterbacks in the league, I think I'll have sold myself short," he said. "I realize football isn't a one-man game, and it's going to take some time in Dallas."
For Aikman, the toughest task may simply be to survive while playing for the Cowboys.