With three games to go, their season already is a qualified success. They have sextupled their victory total of last year and are one game from .500. They even are entertaining distant thoughts of postseason play and have regenerated their fans' support. Jump-started it, in fact.
Poor Jimmy Johnson. Poor Dallas Cowboys. If only they could end this season now before it gets any better. Because if it does -- and chances are it will, if it isn't too good already -- next season will be one full of expectations far higher than reasonable for a rebuilding team like this one.
Rome wasn't built in a day. The Cowboys will not have rehabbed in one year. But another victory, a .500 finish or -- dare it be said -- a playoff berth certainly would make it look that way. Then, any record or achievement in 1991 equal to or less than this season would be considered a failure.
Ask no less of a coaching authority than Tom Landry, who preceded Johnson. "Everyone will expect more next year," he said. "I don't think there's any question about that. It shouldn't be that way, but obviously, it will be because they're creating a lot of optimism today.
"But you can't judge rebuilding progress in one season. It takes you three or four years to judge rebuilding progress."
Some, of course, will argue the former coach's perspective is clouded by the fact that he wanted three or four years to reconstruct the team before he was swept out by owner Jerry Jones' regime. But Landry did build the Cowboys from nothing over about six years.
Others will argue that the Cowboys in 1989, the first rebuilding year under Johnson, were not as bad as that 1-15 record seemed to indicate. They will point to games that the team could have -- or should have -- won. Like the 35-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, in which the Cowboys, playing at home, surrendered a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Or the 17-14 home loss to the Miami Dolphins, who also scored their go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Or the game at Phoenix that the Cowboys led most of the way until they let Tom Tupa throw a 72-yard touchdown pass in the closing moments of the Cardinals' 17-point fourth quarter. But the Cowboys did lose those games; they were 1-15, not 4-12.
So, today's 6-7 is a major, if not miraculous, improvement. If only they could end this season now before it gets any better. Chances are it will.
The three games left on the Cowboys' schedule are against bird teams. But only the Philadelphia Eagles are flying high. The other two -- the 4-8 Phoenix Cardinals and 3-9 Atlanta Falcons -- have clipped wings. So the Cowboys appear almost assured of finishing .500, with twice as many victories as they had the previous two seasons combined. Expectations for 1991 will be greater -- playoffs or bust? -- even though the Cowboys' success this season will bring them tougher opponents next year in the National Football League's weighted scheduling format.
The Cowboys would not be the first team over-challenged by its turnabout. Just last summer, the Baltimore Orioles were confronted with the same predicament. In 1988, they finished dead last in their division with one of baseball's worst records. In 1989, they turned things around, holding the American League East lead much of the season and fighting for the pennant into the last weekend.
The Orioles lost. But their phenomenal reversal stoked anticipation for 1990. This year, however, the team finished closer to the bottom than the top, losing more games than it won. It appeared that the 1990 Orioles had regressed. In fact, they simply were ahead of their time in 1989.
This season, the Cowboys are well on their way to producing what could be improvement great enough to create an illusion. "You hit .500 in this business," Landry said, "and, when you do, you're considered to be one player or one play away from making the playoffs. It's not fair, but fairness doesn't enter into this."
Poor Jimmy Johnson. Poor Dallas Cowboys.