Dallas come back to haunt Johnson

AMERICAN FOOTBALL: Jerry Jones had the last laugh in the big grudge match. Matt Tench reports from Miami
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The Independent Online
It went unrecorded amid the deluge of pre-game information whether Jimmy Johnson's preparation for the visit of the Dallas Cowboys included reading Frankenstein, but it seems unlikely. It might have helped though, giving the Miami Dolphins head coach a fair idea of what was to come. Don't mess with the monster you created, as Mary Shelley nearly put it.

The last time Johnson encountered the Cowboys offense in a coaching capacity he was directing them to devastating effect against Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVIII. On Sunday night the two were reacquainted, and it will be of no consolation whatsoever to Johnson as he reflects on a heavy defeat to conclude that his new team simply could not contain the brilliant playmakers he developed at his old.

After a close, if slightly misleading first half, the Cowboys won 29- 10, a scoreline that did scant justice to their superiority, but which was more than enough to keep Jerry Jones happy. The Cowboys' owner had, with Johnson, been the focus in the build-up, because it was the first time the two had confronted one another professionally since Johnson's departure from Dallas two and a half years ago.

That separation, the subject of more analysis than a royal divorce, was really about who got the credit for the creation of the Cowboys' outstanding team (it is mischievously said of Barry Switzer, Johnson's successor, that his great coaching asset is being unfazed by Jones's high-profile presence). The problem for Johnson was that the outstanding team remained in Dallas, and his new, young outfit was simply no match for them.

In particular, they were unable to stifle Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman. Irvin has had a troubled year. He was widely vilified after a scandalous trial for cocaine possession, America never lacking in sanctimony when it comes to judging its sporting heroes. Irvin was also suspended for five games by the NFL, an absence that partly explains his team's poor start to the season.

He was here for this game, though, returning to the city where he made his name as a college player and, despite being booed every time he touched the ball, demonstrating why he remains one of the best wide receivers in the league. Aggressive, sure-handed and quick, his 12 passes, including one for a touchdown, amassed 186 yards. On this form, you felt, he would be a match for any secondary, let alone Miami's second-rate version. Their performance was typified by a catch the Dallas receiver made, 30 yards down the field without an opponent within lassoing distance.

If Irvin excelled, Aikman was even better. In his prime as a quarterback, he exuded confidence as he completed pass after pass, admittedly aided by the Dolphins' anaemic pass rush. By the end he had thrown for three touchdowns and 363 yards, with a completion rate of more than 80 per cent. "Troy played the best since I came to Dallas," Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys running back, said definitively.

Aikman, it must be reported, may be the first matchwinner to benefit from a lack of divine intervention. Before the game, in a moment of pure Florida vaudeville, a local churchman led a distinctly one-sided prayer gathering as he invoked higher power to secure a Dolphins victory and keep Dan Marino healthy.

Such sectarianism failed to move the Almighty, but it provoked a response in Nate Newton, the Cowboys' 23-stone guard, whose job it is to protect Aikman. "When that preacher only prayed for Dan Marino, and not for Troy or anybody else on our team, that fired our team up," Newton said. "He's supposed to be a Christian, and he only prayed for one side of the field? That just ain't right. That was a self-serving preacher."

As for Johnson, he left the field a subdued figure. "We got beat by a better team today," he said. At half-time, with Miami ahead 10-9, it was just possible to envisage an upset as his team prevented the visitors from penetrating the end zone, while Marino threw a couple of superb passes on the game's first touchdown drive. But the Cowboys always looked more assured, and in the second half they forced the turnovers and completed the passes just as they had done in Jimmy's day. What had been billed as "The Commotion On The Ocean" became the humiliation before the nation.

The result leaves the Dolphins in fourth place in the AFC East with vital games against New England and Indianapolis in the next fortnight. Lose those and Johnson's first season will almost certainly be judged a failure. The Cowboys, too, face a testing few weeks with Philadelphia, San Francisco and Green Bay next on their schedule.

For Jerry Jones, however, you feel the most important victory of the regular season has already been secured and, as he strolled around the Cowboys' locker room in the fierce heat of a Florida evening, there were unmistakable signs of vindication. He did his best not to look smug, but it was an unequal struggle. Nor could he resist a final dig about that controversy: "I really do hope our fans will see that there's no one person who can just absolutely create magic," he said. "The point is - and always will be - that there's no such thing as being indispensable."

Unless, perhaps, you're Troy Aikman.