Barry blew it

It was three NFC championship games ago. I was standing in the driveway of the Cowboys' San Francisco hotel--one day before Dallas beat the 49ers.

Charles Haley was standing nearby, waiting for cough medicine.
None that tastes bad, he told his wife, in a fine rendition of the man-who-has-a-cold whine. "Cherry," he added.

It was weird to see the big man, one of the NFL's fiercest pass rushers, standing there with a runny nose, actually looking a bit vulnerable.

It feelt a little uncomfortable --kind of like seeing grownups cry when you were a kid.

That's how it felt watching Sunday's end to the divine run of the Dallas Cowboys.

So much of it was painfully awkward.
That ludicrous play-calling at the end of the first half.
Emmitt Smith lying there cursing in pain, treated to all the dignity of a dead collie on Stemmons Freeway, as more cameras than trainers rushed to examine the carnage.

And the head coach--the team's "leader"--costing his own players a critical 15 yards because he lost it and bumped the ref.

Troy Aikman, who always looks a bit boyish--despite the constant contemplative frown he wears, consistent with his load of responsibility--actually looked like a hurting grownup Sunday.

What happened?
San Francisco is a dadgum talented football team. So are the Cowboys. The Cowboys were also the best big-game team in football.

So while losing was a possibility, a talented team playing against another talented team does not usually fall apart unless something goes terribly amiss.

Blame a lot of it on poor preparation--and blame a load of that on Barry Switzer.

Five turnovers make a game. And all kinds of things make five turnovers--including poorly guided practices.

The Cowboys didn't look like the Cowboys Sunday. They looked like a fancy car running on fumes--a great football team operating on champions' instincts. And that just isn't enough, because one can't run past the hungry San Francisco 49ers without a man in charge. This team, with enough heart to struggle back from a first-quarter nightmare, was beaten by sub-Johnson coaching.

This week brings the big and inevitable hangover of "what ifs" and "if onlys" for Cowboys, their critics, and their fans.

The cosmic questions are these:
What if it hadn't rained?
And what if Barry Switzer had never been born?

It does no good to say that several members of the party in blue, after executing their own high-profile screwups, played like three-peaters. The Aikman-to-Irvin TD pass late in the first quarter kept it all from becoming a rout. Earlier in the day, each of those two--who had kept this team together emotionally much of the season--had committed a critical turnover.

Yet both kept connecting against the odds stacked high by those three first-quarter turnovers.

Emmitt played hard until his good hamstring finally flopped. Jay Novacek and Kevin Williams found ways around the Niners' top-notch defenders. Deion Sanders, in fact, looked mortal now and then Sunday.

All-in-all, they gave the 49ers 21 points pretty much as they left the hotel lobby. And they still came back and made a game of it.

Barry Switzer got physical on the field, bumping into a referee--and collecting a 15-yard-penalty for his team.

Barry also tried to coach--but seemed rather unprepared for the task, like a suc-cessful six-man football coach stepping in to try to lead Odessa Permian to the state championship.

Barry has his fans. But the entire season has been rife with quiet lockerroom talk about the lack of leadership--about how Barry's lack of intensity toward practice, and everything else, would hurt this team in the end.

No need to whisper anymore. A few muddy hours at Candlestick Park spoke buckets.

The game was rife with unanticipated moves by the 49er coaches--which the Cowboy coaches were slow to counter. Deion Sanders covering Alvin Harper was only the first.

And it was filled with dubious play-calling.
You can criticize offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese and defensive chief Butch Davis until John Madden's little yellow marker runs dry. But Switzer is the man in charge--the man who's supposed to make sure that all the other grownups, both coaches and players, are prepared.

"We came out thinking we were going to run the ball," Aikman told reporters after the game. "We didn't play as well as we wanted, but it wasn't for lack of effort."

Can you remember a big-game occasion during the Johnson era when Aikman admitted his team had been thrown for a loop by an opposing team's shift in strategy--or an opening game plan that didn't work?

They looked plain unprepared.
It was so different just a year ago, preparing for the Super Bowl. You just knew those guys weren't coming home without a second ring as they drank and ate their way around LA. They partied with stars. They graced magazine covers. They got the babes. When things were that good, it didn't even seem to matter that there were always all these people from Arkansas hanging around.

Now it matters a lot that there always seem to be peculiar voices from Oklahoma influencing Barry Switzer's psyche.

Sunday, when reporters asked him what happened, he ranted like a maniac about the muddy field. Funny, Johnson's team walked onto that same field--only messier--two years ago and walked away NFC champs. Funny, didn't the 49ers play on the same field on Sunday?

Then there was the matter of his close encounter with the ref. "Sure it's a mistake," Switzer said. "I gave them 15 yards.I contributed to us getting beat, no question.

"But if..."
No buts, Barry. Time to accept your considerable share of the blame.
The amazing Cowboys reign is over.

Free agency threatens to shuffle the lineup. Alvin Harper may well be gone. Haley hung it up forever, announcing his retirement after the game. Plenty of other players will be gone. Fingers will be pointed. Accusations will be made.

The good memories will fade like a scene at a high school prom.
Dallas fans must now face, without diversion, so much alone: a county commissioner serving his duties on work release; a rotten baseball season; a joke of a hockey year and Newt and Dick all day every day on CNN until the end of time.

Sure, everyone's been spoiled. But it's not half as much fun when the Cowboys lose.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Johnson is making millions, sipping Heineken on a yacht off the Florida Keys and laughing his self-serving butt off.

He has a boat named "Three Rings." He has a restaurant to open this week named "Three Rings."

That's one more ring than these Dallas Cowboys will get.

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Jennifer Briggs