Still looking like Cowboys-49ers, Part IV

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the 30 NFL teams went to training camp last July, the conventional wisdom was that the season would boil down to just one game of any real significance.

It would be the NFC title game Jan. 14 between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, with the winner surely going on to win the Super Bowl.

With that game less than a month away, the conventional wisdom apparently was right. The 49ers and Cowboys seem to be on a collision course to meet for the conference championship for the fourth straight year.

It's easy to forget that after all the hysteria the past week over Cowboys coach Barry Switzer's ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-one at his 29 in Philadelphia last Sunday.

Switzer's decision caused such a storm that you would think the Cowboys are on the verge of collapse.

Hey, this still is a team with 10 Pro Bowl players and a 10-4 record.

All the Cowboys have to do to get to San Francisco is beat the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals in their final two games and then win a first-round home playoff game -- probably against a Green Bay Packers team they've beaten five straight times the past three years.

Sure, the Cowboys' losses the past two weeks mean they'll probably have to play the 49ers in San Francisco instead of Dallas.

That's an edge for the 49ers, but San Francisco is only 2-2 in its past four home NFC title games dating to the 1989 season.

Switzer's gamble also doesn't prove he's not a good coach. Few people suggested he was a good coach before that move. Switzer never will be confused with Jimmy Johnson -- as Johnson is quick to point out -- but he was coaching a month ago when the Cowboys were favored to beat the 49ers.

Even the gamble may not have been as silly as it looked. NFL coaches tend to be so conservative that it's a good change of pace to see something risky. The Giants' Dan Reeves did virtually the same thing Sunday against the Washington Redskins and it led to victory.

The Cowboys' real problem right now isn't Switzer. It's the fact that Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin aren't playing well.

Smith has fumbled in five straight games and lost fumbles inside the 5-yard line in back-to-back games. This is a player who had touched the ball 761 straight times without losing the ball until the streak ended in September.

If anything, Switzer's gamble could help the team. The Cowboys recently have talked about how there's no joy in this season because anything less than a Super Bowl is considered a failure.

Now it's being said they can't win with Switzer as coach. That means they have something to prove -- that they can win with him.

Apology time

Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' controversial owner, apparently has had second thoughts about parading Phil Knight of Nike on the sidelines during the season-opening Monday night game at Giants Stadium when New York was honoring Phil Simms.

During a recent trip to Washington, he called Giants co-owner Wellington Mara and offered to fly to New York. "I want to talk to you about my lack of sensitivity on Phil Simms night," Jones told Mara.

Mara replied: "Jerry, there's nothing to apologize for. I took it as a compliment that an entrepreneur like you understood that to get the maximum attention, you had to come to our stage."

The franchise game

The Buccaneers moved closer last week to leaving Tampa by formally rejecting a stadium proposal that included surcharges on everything from parking to hot dogs but didn't include public funding.

The problem is the Bucs don't have anywhere to go right now. Los Angeles doesn't have a stadium proposal, and even if the Cleveland stadium proposal is a solid one -- there's some doubt about that -- Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White still is trying to keep the Browns rather than trying to lure the Bucs.

He's scheduled to meet with the members of the NFL finance and stadium committees Jan. 4; the owners meet Jan. 17 to discuss the Browns' proposed move.

Meanwhile, as the Bears ponder a move to Gary, Ind., Chicago Mayor Richard Daley already is talking to the Arizona Cardinals about replacing them.

The Cardinals, though, want a new stadium, and Chicago is offering only to renovate Soldier Field.

The teams trying to move have a problem. Only two cities in the country -- Baltimore and Nashville, Tenn. -- have stadium-funding plans in place, and the Browns and Oilers are committed to those cities.

Nashville moved a step closer to getting the Oilers when it sold 94 luxury boxes in seven working days. It had to sell 82 by Jan. 20 but quickly surpassed that goal. The city's next target is next month's campaign for club seats and permanent seat licenses.

Playoff-bound Colts?

If the Indianapolis Colts win today against San Diego and if Miami, Oakland or Denver loses, they'll clinch a playoff berth in a nonstrike season for the first time since the move to Indianapolis in 1984. They made it in 1987 with the help of two victories in strike games.

"It isn't just another game," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "We're approaching it like this is a playoff game. This is the biggest game in the history of the Colts."

The franchise has yet to win a playoff game in Baltimore or Indianapolis since Bob Irsay bought the team in 1972.

The cold facts

Bills coach Marv Levy was trying to get the Miami Dolphins thinking about the weather for today's game in Buffalo.

He told Miami reporters last week: "It's bitter cold with high winds and frigid arctic blasts. But it's not supposed to last. The weather is supposed to turn bad."

Miami has played in Buffalo only twice after Dec. 1. Both games were in 1990 -- one a playoff game -- and the Dolphins lost both.

Payback time

Even though most of the Redskins he played with are long gone, St. Louis Rams quarterback Mark Rypien doesn't hide the fact that today's game against Washington is a big one for him.

Rypien, swept out along with most other veterans in coach Norv Turner's rebuilding program, said, "There's no animosity on my part, but I definitely want to play at a level where someone might say to them, 'Told you that you should have kept Rypien.' "

Gripe time

Now that the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars have lost six straight games, the players are starting to complain publicly about the hard-driving style of coach Tom Coughlin.

"It's a dictatorship," said defensive lineman Kelvin Pritchett. "Everybody feels that if you don't follow the rules or complain about them, then you're out of here. Nobody here wants to go to Coach. Who wants to risk their job?"

Coughlin said he has an open-door policy and brushed off the Pritchett comments.

"In frustration, there were some comments made. I don't anticipate a problem," he said.

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