ATLANTA -- You keep waiting for them to walk out of the steak fry. The Miami Hurricanes did, and the Dallas Cowboys would, too. They don't care about their opponent. They don't care about their image. They just want to show off their brilliance, then celebrate in your face.
Is this the '87 Fiesta Bowl or the '94 Super Bowl? The coach is Jimmy Johnson. The mind-set is identical. The players are the fastest and best, flashiest and loudest. Six of the 53 Cowboys went to Miami. The rest deserve honorary degrees, not that they'd be interested.
Take Kevin Smith, a rookie cornerback from Texas A&M.; He predicted that no NFL team could beat the Cowboys if they play they way did last Sunday. Take it back? Why should he? "I've been a bulletin-board guy through college," Smith said, smiling.
Take Kenneth Gant, a special teamer from Albany State. Gant is the Cowboys' designated taunter, and the "Shark Dance" is his special creation. "Big chills come over my body," Gant said. Tom Landry would have cut him. Johnson loves him.
Heck, Jimmy's the brashest of all, unless you count ownerJerry Jones, who thinks he could coach the team himself. It's just like Miami, except the players get paid, and the only classroom is the film room. Indeed, some might argue it's just like Miami, period.
The practice format is the same, and so are the pre-game warm-up drills. Last week, the Cowboys jawed with San Francisco before introductions. It was tamer than Miami's famous pre-game rumble with Notre Dame, but what did you expect? This is the NFL.
Speed and attitude, attitude and speed. Johnson just took his program to the next level. Not every Cowboy fits the strutting mold -- Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith mostly play it straight -- but Michael Irvin is still Michael Irvin, and Ken Norton Jr. all but does the Ali Shuffle.
And so America's Team is reincarnated. The Landry Cowboys were gray automotons. The Johnson Cowboys are colorful showmen. They're not despised as much as his old Miami teams, but it's a different era. This is the age of Howard Stern. Mouthing off is socially acceptable.
Still, the Cowboys can sense the growing contempt around the NFL. Darrin Smith, a rookie linebacker from Miami, chuckled when asked if the fear and loathing was familiar. "People just really have animosity," he said. "They can't stand us."
But, rather than dread a backlash. Johnson encourages even more swagger. "I'm never really concerned about overconfidence," he said. "I try to have our players bordering on overconfidence. I like our players to be confident almost to the point of being cocky."
About the only thing Johnson hasn't done this week is guarantee a victory. He boasted that he could have won two or three more national championships at Miami (take that, Dennis Erickson). He boasted about how quickly he could take an expansion team to " the Super Bowl (take that, Jacksonville and Charlotte).
Yesterday, he spoke of his most haunting defeat, the '87 Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State -- and without naming names, blamed Vinny Testaverde. Johnson cited statistics reflecting Miami's dominance. But Testaverde threw five interceptions, and Penn State won, 14-10.
Johnson said Testaverde was injured and distracted. "Looking back, if I had to do it all over again, I would have pulled the Heisman Trophy winner off the field, put in the backup quarterback we never heard of, and we would have won the game," he said.
Finger-pointing, seven years after the fact -- take that, Vinny! Johnson will never be a diplomat, but what football coach is? Irvin recalls Landry giving him just the tiniest nod of approval after he'd score a touchdown. Johnson is far more in touch with the player of the '90s.
Indeed, Johnson says his approach is "very liberal" -- as long as the players work, as long as they win. "No doubt we're a loose team," Irvin said. "It trickles down from the top. If he was tight-jawed, we'd be tight-jawed. But he likes to have fun."
It all started at Miami, where Johnson was coach from 1984-1988. Only a five-point difference in two losses separated the Hurricanes from three straight 12-0 seasons. Back then, it was Florida State and Notre Dame. Now, it's San Francisco and Buffalo.
"There was just something about Miami," said defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who graduated from Miami in 1991 with a degree in psychology. "It's a tradition we built up in the late '80s. It's a type of mystique. All you want is to showcase yourself to the whole nation."
The nation watches, the nation cringes. Jimmy Johnson did it at Miami, and he's doing it at Dallas.
Same style, same success, same question.
Who's going to stop him?