PITTSBURGH -- Imagine what the score would have been if the Dallas Cowboys had not been in disarray, torn to shreds by a free-agency exodus and a coaching change forced by an ego clash with the owner, a team ready to disintegrate right on Fox.
The Cowboys put all those fears (hopes for Cowboy-haters) to rest yesterday, crushing the Pittsburgh Steelers, 26-9, in front of 60,156 at Three Rivers Stadium.
By day's end, Barry Switzer had gone where no Cowboys coach had gone -- into the winner's circle in his debut. Switzer, trying to take the Cowboys where no football team has gone -- to three consecutive Super Bowl titles -- proved himself a super genius by doing what fired Jimmy Johnson did in coaching the Cowboys to consecutive Super Bowl titles.
Smith obliged, rushing for 171 yards and one touchdown on 31 carries. The defense was no less dominant. A healthy-again Charles Haley, the veteran defensive end, contributed four of the Cowboys' nine sacks of Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell.
Johnson and his hair spray are gone, but he did not take Smith with him, and he did not take the homing device that causes Aikman's passes to settle so softly into the white gloves of Michael Irvin, who seldom needs to break his stride.
Aikman, given more than enough time by his line to read not only defenses but Tolstoy, completed 21 of 32 passes for 245 yards and one touchdown. Irvin caught eight passes for 139 yards. Jay Novacek, Aikman's security blanket, had six receptions totaling 53 yards.
How 'bout that new coach, players?
"Barry has a great team," said Smith, unshaken by a recurrence of elbow bursitis. "That's all I can say. Barry has a great team."
The players are taking the credit, which is fine with Switzer. If trying to prove the players, not Johnson, deserved the credit for the two Super Bowl victories motivates the players, that makes Switzer's job easier.
With most of his coaching staff intact, Switzer's main role is motivational. The best way to do that, of course, is to create an enemy outside the opponent. Create a monster and give it fangs. This being the '90s, the most expedient monster usually is the media.
"You guys were looking at us like we were diseased or something, ready to jump on somebody and spread it all over the NFL," Smith said.
To stoke the defensive fires, Switzer told his players that they get treated like dirt.
"I challenged them and told them they get no respect at all," Switzer said. "I told them all everybody does is talk about Michael and Emmitt and Troy. You don't hear anything about the defense. They don't talk about you."
Through three quarters of football, the Steelers had gained 48 yards, minus-1 through the air.
Switzer inherited a team that had lost seven starters, including linebacker Ken Norton Jr., defensive tackle Tony Casillas and defensive lineman Jimmie Jones.
How would they stop the run without those three players?
Quite well, so far. Barry Foster gained just 44 yards on 14 carries.
Haley's four sacks were the most by a Cowboy since Ed "Too Tall" Jones had four in a game in 1987.
Switzer pounded the no-respect theme into his defense's heads, and the Cowboys pounded the Steelers all day long.
O'Donnell, a former Maryland quarterback, took the Steelers into Dallas territory, all the way to the 38. Then the Cowboys kicked them out of their yard. O'Donnell was sacked on the next three plays for a total of 25 yards in losses. Haley got the first two, Jim Jeffcoat the next.
O'Donnell said: "That was the best defense I played against in my life. Tough day, know what I mean?"
Smith gained 83 yards in the second quarter, as the Cowboys stretched a 3-0 lead into a 16-3 gap.
Dallas ...... 3 .. 13 .. 0 .. 10 .. 26
Pittsburgh .. 0 ... 3 .. 0 ... 6 ... 9