Aikman tempts Johnson to gamble Cowboys QB may play hurt


DALLAS -- At the moment, Jimmy Johnson rolls trained dice. It's a do-no-wrong kind of groove, an automatic seven-come-11. Or maybe even 11-come-five by today. Remarkable.

This is a situation where the wise ones stack their chips behind his, and let the bundle ride until the fever subsides.

But if that's your theory, also be prepared to play for high stakes. Based on what was heard last week at Valley Ranch, Johnson may be ready to take a rather monumental gamble.

Is Troy Aikman's knee worth the risk? Hot hand or not, it won't be house money Johnson shoves on the table if he brings Aikman back, as expected, for a tuneup today against Atlanta.

Aikman is Johnson's money. Better yet, he's the franchise's money. Something like the playoffs comes around once a year. Something like Aikman appears on the NFL quarterbacking scene maybe once every 10 years.

Johnson obviously can smell postseason blood. He has a team that might stun its way through a couple of playoff rounds. And if he makes it that far, who knows what could happen. Without question, not one other NFC playoff qualifier is looking Dallas' way and saying, "Boy, I want a shot at them."

None of this matters, however. Aikman's damaged knee has to be preserved for the future at all costs. The current playoff venture is not worth that. Johnson, of course, fully agrees with this assessment. But armed with an optimistic medical report, he is leaving the Aikman options wide-open. In fact, you get the hint Johnson wants Aikman starting again as early as the first round of the playoffs.

No, the Cowboys certainly aren't desperate at quarterback. Steve Beuerlein's performance speaks for itself. But in moving to the next level, does Johnson see Aikman at the controls?

On Wednesday, when it was announced that Aikman was one of four Cowboys voted to the Pro Bowl, Johnson said that Troy "is back and ready to go." But then he hedged a bit by adding that Aikman "could get playing time" today against the Falcons.

If he's "back and ready to go," then obviously Aikman will be subbing for Beuerlein at some point today. If so, how Aikman handles himself after a 3 1/2 -game absence would determine the starter the next week.

It seemed last Sunday in Philadelphia that Johnson was close to making a third-quarter switch to Aikman if Beuerlein's accuracy problems had continued on the first series of the second half. Johnson says that wasn't the case.

But Aikman also had not taken a practice field snap after Wednesday of the previous week. His knee was too sore. Starting Tuesday, he began testing that knee again. And if it holds up this time, Aikman will resurface for Atlanta.

Whatever the case, he won't be at full strength the remainder of the season. His mobility certainly will not be the same. The doctors, however, have told Johnson and Aikman that no further damage will come to the knee by playing on it.

What that doesn't mean, of course, is that extra hits won't occur on a knee that prevents Aikman from moving as usual. And if one of those blows resulted in something like reconstructive surgery, permanently hampering Aikman, then Johnson goes from the hot hand to the hot seat.

Again, is it worth the risk?

Aikman: "Nothing, not even winning the Super Bowl, is worth having your career end. But there are never any guarantees in this business. Who knows what might happen? I don't look as far down the road as other people might. I'd like to be a part of what's happening now."

That Johnson is dealing with a willing Aikman is no shocker. Aikman took immense pride in being voted to the Pro Bowl. But he also said the personal honor didn't make up for not being on the field when Michael Irvin set the franchise receiving record or when the Cowboys clinched a playoff spot.

For those who think Aikman's knee should be nearly perfect before he plays again -- which might mean next year -- Troy gives a hard stare. He wants out there, and Johnson is probably ready to take the gamble.

Yes, betting against a Johnson roll is difficult. But what if those dice suddenly went cold?

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