No surprise, but Cowboys look like team for the ages


IRVING, Texas -- So, the Cowboys beat the bejeebies out of the 49ers yesterday in the NFC championship game. What do you want me to say? That it was surprising? That someone out there was surprised that the best team in the league smacked around the second-best team? Sorry. No one could have been too surprised.

We are living in the age of the Cowboys. For better or worse. If their supremely cocky, 10-gallon shtick bothers you, sorry, you're out of luck. It is a Texas thing in the NFL right now. This is the Cowboys' hour. Their day. Their time to mark their names in bold print on the long time line of pro football.

Such was the case a year ago. Such was the case yesterday. Suchwill be the case in Sunday's Super Bowl, in which the Cowboys will beat the poor, noble Bills by something like 17 points.

The Cowboys are the Mona Lisa. Everyone else is just a painting.

They're the best team to hit pro football since the classic 49ers teams of the late '80s. The evolutionary wheel has stopped at their feet.

It is now the age of Troy Aikman, not Joe Montana. The age of Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, not Jerry Rice and John Taylor. The age of Jimmy Johnson, not Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs or Bill Parcells.

"It's a very, very good team, one of the best you'll see," said backup quarterback Bernie Kosar. "There is outstanding talent. It is extremely well-coached. There is a sharp front office. The whole package is there."

The magnitude of their superiority is such that they can stumble across the usual bumps in the road that bring down teams -- a marquee holdout (by Emmitt Smith), an 0-2 start, contract problems, key injuries (to Smith and Aikman) -- and still wind up back on top.

"We've been through a lot this year," Johnson said. "That's what makes this particularly satisfying."

Such is the level of their skill that they thrive, not choke, on a seemingly crazy promise of victory from their coach. Of course, Johnson knew exactly what he was doing when he guaranteed a Cowboys victory on Thursday. His bright-lights players thrive on challenges. They're at their best when stirred to a resonating emotional pitch. Otherwise they get bored and go flat, as they did against the Packers the week before.

Johnson's guarantee took care of that problem. The 49ers thought they were building to a peak. "I thought we were totally psyched," linebacker Mike Walter said. But the wound-up Cowboys blew them away from the first hit. It made for pleasant viewing if you like your basic Roman-style barbecue.

In front of a roaring, youthful, chicken-fried crowd, the Cowboys played a first half so dominating that they left the field with their arms raised in exultation. They scored touchdowns on four of five possessions, and failed on the fifth only because of a dropped pass in the end zone. The dangerous 49ers offense was limited to seven points.

"The first half was excellent," said Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner. "Everything was working."

Indeed. The massive offensive line was opening huge holes and giving Aikman plenty of time to throw. Smith was twisting and darting and driving, showing no signs of pain in his famously sore shoulder. Aikman was almost perfect, coolly delivering accurate passes in all directions to a half-dozen different receivers. The 49ers' defense was, simply, overmatched.

"As a coach, that's the kind of performance you live for," Turner said.

Their level of performance dropped when Aikman took a knee to the head on the first series of the second half and left with a mild concussion, not to return. The 49ers scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 14 points, then put the Cowboys in a 3rd-and-9 hole. With Aikman out, the possibility of a comeback suddenly seemed real.

But Kosar hit Irvin on a tough square-out pattern for a dozen yards and a first down -- "as big as any play in the game," Johnson said -- and the offense took off on a long touchdown drive that sealed the outcome.

Only the Cowboys have a backup quarterback as accomplished as Kosar.

When it was all over, the 49ers trudged up the tunnel at Texas Stadium with long faces and little to say.

"Obviously," coach George Seifert said, "they're a great team. They've got wonderful athletes. They're extremely well-coached. Basically, they exploded on us."

In another day, another year, another time, maybe things will be different. Johnson's predictions will backfire. The Cowboys' cockiness will get shoved back in their faces. The shattering din will give way to quiet. It's inevitable. It's what happens in sports. Things go in cycles. Teams rise and fall.

But that is down the road. The Cowboys aren't thinking about it now. Why should they? They're in their prime. They're in their element. They're young, strong, sure. Everyone is watching. Everyone is admiring. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong, they're the top, baby.

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