Eagles prepare for war today against rapidly maturing Cowboys

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- Moments after last Sunday's playoff-clinching win, the Philadelphia Eagles gathered around their locker room TV.

Several players already had shed their uniforms and were knotting towels around their waists. A few others, including Reggie White, still had their shoulder pads on. No one was talking. Everyone was watching.


Someone had tuned in the National Football League highlights show on ESPN. The Eagles gathered around, hoping to see themselves pounding Green Bay, 31-0.

Instead, they got a sobering look into the future.


"Let's go to Dallas," the announcer said as the tape rolled.

There was Dallas safety James Washington intercepting three Phoenix passes. There was quarterback Troy Aikman throwing a touchdown pass to Michael Irvin. There was Dallas rookie Emmitt Smith scoring and scoring and scoring and. . .

The Eagles watched in silence. When the final score flashed on the screen Dallas 41, Phoenix 10 cornerback Eric Allen responded with a soft, "Oooooooh. . ."

Make no mistake, the Cowboys got the Eagles' attention.

"I knew they'd be a better team than they were last year," safety Andre Waters said, shaking his head, "but I'm shocked they got it together this fast. Hey, they're GOOD."

Forget the Cowboys.

Meet the Nowboys.

Dallas ride the NFL's longest current winning streak (four games) into Veterans Stadium on today to face the Eagles. Only one game separates the two teams in the National Football Conference East. The Eagles are 8-6, Dallas is 7-7 and closing fast.


"I think we're making some people nervous," veteran Cowboys safety Bill Bates said Wednesday. "The big thing is, we feel much better about ourselves. We've gone from the absolute rock bottom to a team with real confidence.

"We're not a great team yet," Bates said, "but we're getting better week to week. We're getting closer to where we want to be."

Where the Cowboys want to be, obviously, is the NFC wild-card round next month.

Dallas hasn't made the playoffs since 1985 and hasn't won a postseason game since January 1983. The high horse the Cowboys once rode is buried in a storage closet along with the whole "America's Team" image. It doesn't fit anymore.

This is a different Dallas team: young, hungry and, at the moment, very dangerous.

The question everyone is asking is: How?


How did coach Jimmy Johnson transform last year's sorry, 1-15 bunch into a team that can clinch a playoff spot by beating the Eagles today? It is one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NFL history.

Johnson deserves most of the credit. He tore apart the Dallas roster and rebuilt it with young talent. He traded a mopey Herschel Walker to Minnesota for a ton of high draft picks. He stuck with Aikman even though the quarterback lost 14 of his first 15 NFL starts.

Johnson dipped deeply into the Plan B pool and signed 16 free agents this season. Three of those players are starting for Dallas: Washington at strong safety, Tommie Agee at fullback and Jay Novacek at tight end. Novacek is having an All-Pro season, with 54 receptions.

Johnson reshaped his offense by packaging two high draft picks (a No. 1 and a No. 3) and shipping them to Pittsburgh for the rights to Smith, a slashing 5-foot-9, 200-pound halfback. The rookie rushed for four touchdowns last Sunday, which tied the single-game Dallas record held by Calvin Hill.

One piece here, one piece there. Jimmy Johnson gathered them and carefully fit them into place.

He clenched his teeth and rode out this season's bumpy 3-7 start. He resisted the urge and the fans' prodding to keep shuffling the deck.


Johnson made it clear he liked this team. He wanted to give it a chance to develop some chemistry and, he hoped, find its stride.

The Cowboys have done just that in posting consecutive victories over the Rams (24-21), Washington (27-17), New Orleans (17-13) and Phoenix. Those four wins match the combined total for the 1988 and '89 seasons in Dallas.

Today, Johnson brings his Nowboys to Philadelphia knowing that a win over the Eagles puts him in the playoffs and draws him even with his verbal sparring partner and nemesis, Buddy Ryan.

It is a fascinating scenario, especially now that the roles are reversed.

In the '70s, the Eagles were the pesky underdogs and Dallas was the haughty lord of the division. Now, the Cowboys have all the psychological chips: the memory of last year's snowball attack at the Vet, the scars of 1-15 (still fresh), the quest for redemption and respect, etc.

It doesn't guarantee Dallas will win today, but it does mean that Randall Cunningham, Keith Jackson and company will have to peel the Cowboys off their throats to win themselves.


It is an unpleasant prospect, and you got the feeling, watching the Eagles stare at the Dallas highlights last Sunday, that they understood.

"Yeah, I think we're going to have a war," Waters said, looking looking ahead to this game. "It was a war when we played 'em in Dallas [winning, 21-20, in October], so this will be more of the same."

Many Dallas observers believe the last Eagles game was a turning point for Johnson's program.


Well, the Cowboys reacted angrily to blowing a 20-14 lead in the final minute. To a man, they felt they should have put the Eagles away.

Coming close, they said, didn't count for diddly.


It was a significant step for a team that last season was quick to rationalize its losses ("Well, we're making progress. . ."). Suddenly, that wasn't good enough anymore. The Cowboys had a new focus and a new bottom line: winning.

It took a while for people to notice. The Redskins walked into Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving with their guard down and paid dearly. "We didn't give the Cowboys the respect they deserve," Washington cornerback Darrell Green said.

"I think we're a good football team," Johnson said the other day. "I think we can go out now and if we play error-free ball, we can beat good football teams. We don't have to rely on the other team giving us anything."

The offense has keyed the Dallas surge. Through the first 10 weeks, the Cowboys averaged just 12.5 points a game. In this four-game winning streak, the Cowboys have more than doubled that figure (27.3).

The difference, Johnson says, is better personnel (Smith, in particular) and more continuity.

Last season, Johnson shuffled players in and out of town so fast, they hardly had time to open a playbook. He brought in former Temple running back Paul Palmer on a Thursday and started him against Kansas City Sunday. Palmer had a play sheet taped to his wrist before the game.


"Fantasy football," Palmer called it. He wasn't far off.

The constant turnover kept the Cowboys from making progress last season, but Johnson was looking ahead. He wanted to find a core group of players worth keeping, then build around that nucleus in '90 and, hopefully, let the team take shape.

Johnson made a few moves on the offensive line this season shifting Nate Newton to tackle, putting John Gesek at guard and watched the unit jell. He put Smith, a training camp holdout, in the starting backfield in Week 5. Irvin's return from a sore knee added speed to the receiver corps.

Assistant coach David Shula was criticized for his conservative play-calling early in the season, but he was keeping things basic for Aikman until the rest of the offensive package was complete.