Switzer enters the last chance saloon

SUPER BOWL XXX: Dallas are near-certainties for tomorrow's big game, but their coach is labelled a bonehead. Matt Tench reports
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On a freezing December afternoon in Philadelphia, the Dallas Cowboys were attempting to make progress from deep within their own territory. The game was in its closing stages and, having dominated the first half, the Cowboys had been thwarted for much of the second by an Eagles side giving its best show of the season.

The scores were now level and as the Veteran's Stadium faithful bayed for Cowboy blood, another Dallas possession appeared to be coming to a premature conclusion. After three downs the visitors were at their own 29-yard line and needed another foot to keep the drive alive.

At which point Barry Switzer made the most famous call of the 1995 season.

With possession swapping after four downs if 10 yards are not made, a kick seemed inevitable. Switzer, however, chose to punt in a different sense. The son of a Mississippi riverboat gambler, he staked everything on his offense making the extra inches, ignoring the dangers of ceding the ball within field goal range.

Emmitt Smith rushed but was baulked. But just as the Philly faithful began a frenzied celebration, the play was called back. An official had blown the whistle before it started to signal the two-minute warning.

Switzer had been saved from his recklessness but then, to mass incredulity, he once again chose to gamble. John Madden, the doyen of television commentators, made no attempt to hide his disbelief. "What in the heck is going on?" he blurted out. The Cowboys ran the same play, were again stopped, and four downs later the Eagles kicked the winning field goal.

In the television studio, Switzer's predecessor, Jimmy Johnson, could hardly contain his glee. Johnson, whose attitude to his successor makes Mrs Thatcher's view of John Major appear positively benign, insisted that a punt was the only option. "You do that in high school, college and the pros," he said, a pointed reference to Switzer's lack of NFL experience before taking over the Super Bowl champions.

Switzer's Decision (it took less than 24 hours to acquire proper-name status) became the talk of the league. Afterwards, he justified it on the grounds that a punt would have been into the wind, and the Eagles would have had a reasonable chance of driving for the winning field goal. The Cowboys players and owner, Jerry Jones, rallied round the head coach, but few were convinced. On Dallas radio talk-shows, it was acclaimed as the worst coaching decision in franchise history, and one columnist even called for Switzer's head. Just about the only support came from Brent Kreider, an assistant professor of economics at Virginia University, who produced an equation which suggested the coach was correct, a contribution that can have done nothing to advance public confidence in the reliability of mathematical proofs.

For Switzer, the Decision symbolised a turbulent season. His Cowboys rebounded from the Philadelphia defeat and go into Sunday's Super Bowl in Phoenix against the Pittsburgh Steelers as unbackable favourites. But as the teams gathered in Phoenix this week, the talk has tended to be of the brilliance of the Cowboy players - and the boneheadedness of their coach.

The reasons for this stretch way beyond the Decision, and back to Jones's decision to hire Switzer. In five years, Jones and Johnson had built the Cowboys into the sport's most talented team. When their relationship ended in a messy divorce, Jones is said to have remarked that anybody could guide the two-time Super Bowl champions back to the big game. An unkind view is that Jones then sought to prove the point by appointing a nobody.

Although highly successful in college, Switzer had left Oklahoma five years earlier amid allegations of rules violations. Charismatic but hardly revered, he was in the highly unusual position of inheriting a team that needed no adjustments to continue its success "Leave well alone," was Johnson's acerbic advice before Switzer's first game.

Switzer, whose style was anyway more relaxed than the driven Johnson's, adopted a low profile in his first year and navigated the Cowboys to the NFC Championship game where they lost to the Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers.

As the Cowboys prepared for this season, Switzer made a conscious decision to take firmer control. "I told you a year ago that it was your team," he said to his players. "What I'm telling you today is now it's my team."

Which was a bit rich because everybody knows that the Cowboys are really Jerry Jones's team, and therein lies Switzer's biggest problem.

Any successor was going to have to put up with Jones's all-pervading presence, but the complexities of the relationship between owner and head coach, allied to the continual questioning of Switzer's abilities, have made this a difficult season for the Cowboys. "When we win a game, we are supposed to win it. When we lose, it's always a game we were supposed to win," Troy Aikman, their quarterback, said.

One of Switzer's lighter moments came after defeating Green Bay in the NFC Championship game a fortnight ago. After the victory Aikman, who is widely reported to have his own misgivings about Switzer's style, gave his head coach a game ball, and the players made a point of supporting their coach.

All the same, reports that the Cowboys must prevail tomorrow for Switzer to keep his job persist. Jones insists this is not so, but given the premium he has put on another Super Bowl, and the perceived gulf between the sides, defeat in Phoenix would be regarded as a catastrophe in Cowboy country, and maybe one that required a lynching.

The Cowboys should win, and win handsomely, but of one thing we can be sure. If they get a fourth and short inside their own 30-yard line, Barry Switzer will punt the ball away.