PASADENA, Calif. -- There was an undercurrent of spy paranoia at the Super Bowl this year. The Bills and Cowboys practiced on fields at which the comings and goings of passers-by could not be easily governed, and Jimmy Johnson and Marv Levy laughed a little too uneasily about the possibility of a thin man in an overcoat photographing their double-reverse drill with an umbrella camera, or whatever.
People were jumpy about it all week. An Associated Press photographer even had his credential confiscated by a heroic security guard, and had to turn in his film to a league grump to get it back. He said he was only taking pictures of some kids watching a practice through a fence. A likely story.
In any case, the swirl of these rumors grew so powerful that the customarily indifferent players stopped talking on their portable telephones long enough to notice. Nate Newton, the Cowboys' big guard and hands-down interview star of the week,interrupted his monologue on life at 350 pounds to put it into perspective.
"I don't see where spying on us would do any good anyway," he said. "It's not like our game plan is a secret, is it? Emmitt left, Emmitt right, Emmitt up the middle. I mean, Buffalo already knows that, right?"
The answer is yes, the Bills do know the text of the Cowboys' plan for today's Super Bowl, and not because they stealthily picked some unwitting lineman's pocket. It's just that the Cowboys are as predictable as the sight of smog in the L.A. morning. They win by controlling the ball, and they control the ball with Emmitt Smith, their tireless runner.
The Bills' ability to prevent them from doing this is the single hinge on which the game will turn. Not Jim Kelly's performance. Not whether Darryl Talley did or did not get into a fight. Not whether the Cowboys can stop the Bills' no-huddle offense, or whether Nate Odomes will be too little to cover Michael Irvin. Not the dadblasted kicking game.
"Our run defense against their running game," Bills linebacker Shane Conlan said. "That's it right there. If Emmitt Smith has a good day, we're gonna have a real bad day. Otherwise, who knows?"
Here's how it works: If the Cowboys succeed in hogging the ball, the Bills' potent offense will wind up watching most of the game instead of playing. You might remember that as the Bills' formula for defeat against the Giants two years ago.
Kelly's offense should be able to move on the Cowboys' #F defense, which, though top-ranked in the league, is vulnerable to the pass. But if Kelly doesn't get many chances, and, therefore, has little margin for error, the Bills will go back to their snowy home reconciling Super strike three. Bank on it.
Can the Bills' defense stop Smith? It is tempting to say no, for the simple reason that no team has done it all year. Most opponents put eight defenders on the line and sometimes succeed for a half or even longer, but the Cowboys use Smith relentlessly behind a colossal line averaging 295 pounds, and the other guys invariably wear out.
The 49ers, lighter across the line by 15 pounds per man, certainly wore out in the NFC title game. The Bills, lighter across the line by 22 pounds per man, are a prime candidate to suffer the same fate, particularly since they are no faster than the speedy Cowboys despite being lighter.
Still, it's wrong to take the Bills, um, lightly. Their run defense was fourth in the league, much improved from when the Giants ground them down. And Bruce Smith, their big defensive bubba, is injury-free for the first time in three years. He'll have a huge game against the lesser of the Cowboy tackles, Mark Tuinei.
(Sorry about all this chalk talk, but they are getting ready to play the game, so wake up.)
There are ways that the Bills can pull this off. With big shoulders on first down, they could force the Cowboys to throw instead of hand to Smith. The less the Cowboys use Smith, the less successful they will be. (Quarterback Troy Aikman does have a hot hand, but he needs Smith to set him up.) And, of course, a couple of well-placed turnovers could really befoul the Cowboys' day.
But the Cowboys have not committed one turnover in the playoffs. They have been so consistent this season, with nary a bad game, that their coach can't help talking big. "If we protect the ball, I think we have the playmakers to win the game," Johnson said.
A coach accrues such confidence from watching his club essentially shove the ball down its opponents' throats all season, almost without exception. It isn't pretty football, but it does work. And it will today.