I respect greatness. That fact explains why I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan. During my formative childhood years, I embraced the Cowboys as my football team. They excited me. Stars filled their roster. Their history included several of the most important individuals in professional football history. They looked sharp in their white uniforms. They were on television every week and played at home each Thanksgiving. They won five Super Bowls—including three of the first four that I remember watching. In short, they were the team to follow if you were a native Texan. They made the state proud. Winning does that. But winning is a blessing and a curse. It brings many bandwagon fans. And that’s the irony and defines my experience as a Cowboys supporter. I love the team but loathe their fans. The team won my heart but the fans test my patience. In the end, I support the team quietly, and prefer watching them alone without the annoyance of other Cowboy fans.
Stars get attention. The 1990s Dallas Cowboys had plenty of them. They had big time playmakers on offense. Troy Aikman stood behind center. He was young, good looking, and threw a tight spiral. He hung in the pocket and took big hits. Ultimately, concussions derailed his career and forced an early retirement. But, as long as Troy remained behind center, Cowboys fans knew they were never out of a contest. Aikman had the ability to spread the field. He could bring the team back from any deficit. He threw a great deep ball but had touch on short passes over the middle. He could do it all. He put it together in his fourth season (1992—while leading the Cowboys to their third Super Bowl title) and went on a great four year run. He became the best field general in the game. While his statistical numbers often looked ordinary, he minimized mistakes. He knew what it took to win. Aikman recognized that the other two offensive stars had the ability to make plays. He knew his role and executed it to perfection. Great quarterbacks make their receivers look good. Hall of fame receivers make great quarterbacks look like studs.
Michael Irvin was a hall of fame receiver. He was fearless. He was big. He threw his body around. At 6’2”, 207 pounds, Irvin knew how to impose his will on smaller cornerbacks. He used his size to get position and often made catches over the middle amidst a sea of defenders. He was the self proclaimed “Playmaker” and knew how make the tough catch as well as spread the field and create separation to allow Troy to throw deep. He caught one ball after another. In his prime, he was a perennial thousand yard receiver—seven times in eight years from 1991-1998. He caught plenty of touchdowns too—65 total. When he caught a couple balls, you knew it was gonna be a long game. On forty-seven occasions, he caught over a hundred yards worth of receptions. His playoff record was just as impressive. He played his best under the bright lights. Irvin collected 87 postseason receptions—second all time to Jerry Rice.
Aikman and Irvin gave the Cowboys a potent passing game. Emmitt Smith gave them the best rushing attack in football. Smith ran hard. He broke tackles. He eluded linebackers. He made people shake their heads. At 5’9”, many doubted if he would cut it in the NFL. Smith began proving his critics wrong when he burst on the scene. He had five consecutive 1400 yard seasons. He had a bruising style and a take no prisoners approach. No game symbolized that better than when the Cowboys traveled to the Meadowlands to take on the New York Giants on January 2, 1994. The two bitter rivals played a nail biting game. Smith was a man on a mission. On his nineteenth carry of the day, Emmitt broke free and gained forty-six yards. Giant safety Greg Jackson wrestled the Cowboys running back to the ground. Smith landed awkwardly and separated his right shoulder. Observers doubted he could continue. But, continue he did. Grimacing through excruciating pain, Smith took thirteen additional carries and gained fifty-nine more yards. The Cowboys prevailed. Smith ran for 168 yards. His courage and tenacity showed all opponents just what Dallas was made of.
Several other key parts made up the 1990s Cowboys. Charles Hayley gave the defense attitude and gave opposing quarterback’s nightmares. The team had a man who created pressure and caused the offense fits. If the quarterback had protection, he had to fit his ball through an excellent secondary anchored by Deion Sanders. The term shut-down corner best describes Sanders. He effectively eliminated half the field. Quarterback threw at his receiver at their own peril. They understood that unless they threw a perfect ball, Sanders would likely intercept the pass and threaten to return the ball to the end zone. His play changed games. His persona, along with Haley, gave the Cowboys D an edge and an attitude. Plenty of offensive stars gave that side of the ball attitude. Quiet Jay Novacheck often got lost in the limelight. But, he played a pivotal role as the team’s tight end. He often served as an extra blocker to protect Aikman and occasionally ventured downfield as a reciever. Troy knew that Novaceck had nimble hands and the quarterback often turned to the burly tight end on critical short yardage passes. Time after time, Novacheck hauled in the pass and moved the chains.
These men served as key components of the Cowboys roster. They helped lead the team to three Super Bowl titles in the mid 1990s. The Cowboys were back. They were America’s Team once again.
That is the term given to the franchise during the 1970s. The Cowboys had a great team and had a nationwide following. But they seemed unable to win the big game. They seemed like the Boston Red Sox—perpetually unable to win the big game. In the 1960s, they lost two NFL Title games to the Green Bay Packers. The next decade brought additional heartache. They lost two memorable Super Bowls to the Pittsburgh Steelers (SB X and XII). No moment defined the team’s futility under the bright lights than in the third quarter of that second SB defeat to the Steelers. Down by a touchdown, quarterback Roger STaubach drove the team down the field. On third-and-three, he found future hall of fame tight end Jackie Smith wide open in the end zone. Staubuch delivered a bullet. Verne Lundquist, the Cowboys radio announcer described the moment: “Roger back to throw, has a man open in the end zone…caught! Touchdown…DROPPED! Dropped in the end zone, Jackie Smith all by himself. Aw, bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America. (emphasis-mine)”
Many fans perceived the Cowboys as the perpetual bridesmaid. They never quite seemed able to get over the hump. Yet, they drew thousands of fans from all over the country. NFL Films, the propaganda organ that made video productions showing the greatness of professional football, noticed this shift. A cameraman came up with a nickname to describe a season in which, yet again, they fell short. He called Dallas, “America’s Team.”
The term caught on. It stuck too. It fit perfectly. After all, Roger Staubach led the team. Staubach attended the Naval Academy and famously spent five years in the service before beginning his professional career. His military background, coupled with his penchant for leading the team on valiant last minute comebacks, had many label Staubach, “Captain America.” The Cowboys also had the most recognizable coach in the league. Tom Landry wore his trademark fedora and sported a suit on the sidelines. He looked polished. His team adopted this professional style. They played a disciplined brand of football —noted by their adherence to the Flex Defense— and became perennial winners.
The team also played in Texas Stadium. This mammoth facility was state of the art when it unveiled in 1971. It had a famous hole in the roof. Then Cowboys owner insisted that this was to keep his fans dry in the event of rain. Cowboys linebacker D.D. Lewis had a different idea. His claim became conventional wisdom: “”Texas Stadium has a hole in its roof so God can watch His favorite team play.”
Dallas also wore the white jersey—with silver pants and blue socks. They were the exception. Most team wore dark uniforms at home and sported white ones on the road. The Cowboys wore white most of the time. Only rivals—famously the Redskins—would wear white on their homes and force the Cowboys to put on their dark (navy) jerseys. The Cowboys uniform has class. It looks good. It appears sharp. It catches one’s eye in much the same way as the Yankee pinstripes get the attention of all baseball fans. The Cowboys look like they’re going to win and often do.
They also appeared on television every week. It seemed like they always had a marquee time slot. They were on Monday Night Football every year. Rivalry games with Washington, New York, and Philadelphia provided compelling drama. Each November, the Cowboys hosted a Thanksgiving Game. They became a part of this fall tradition. Every year, friends and family came together for food, fellowship, and football. I often ate while the Detroit Lions played the noon game and after spending plenty of time in conversation with others, turned my full attention to the Cowboys football at 3:15. It was always must-see TV.
Legendary players, sustained excellence, and constant media attention made the Dallas Cowboys the most loved NFL franchise. As with any successful team, many jump on the bandwagon. Fans want to associate themselves with winners. Many become obnoxious in their praise. Fan is short for fanatic. The most intelligent person can become myopic when discussing their favorite team. The Cowboys have more than their share of these supporters. Thus, being a Cowboy fan is a two way street. I love the franchise. I cherish its rich history and look forward to the product they put on the field each fall. But, their fans drive me nuts.
Cowboy fans get delusional. They believe the good times will continue in perpetuity. When hard times come, they often bail. They return when the team gets good again. They have unrealistic expectations. When quarterback Tony Romo jumped on the scene a few years ago (showing flashes of brilliance in the second half of a Monday night game against the Giants), fans insisted that they’d found the heir apparent to Staubach and Aikman. Never mind that he lost the game and made several miscues. They build him up and reveled in his early triumphs. But, he hit a wall as all young players do. Foolish interceptions replaced the touchdown passes. Losses continued to mount. Within a few short weeks, people claimed that Romo was a bum. His inability to lead the team to a playoff victory (against Seattle in 2007 and at home against New York in 2008—after a 13-3 regular season—made many wonder why he couldn’t win the big game.) His poor performance in Philadelphia in Week 17 the next year, with a playoff spot in the balance, only reinforced this notion. Romo sucked. The Cowboys should think about replacing him. This winter, Romo led the team to their first playoff victory since 1996—against the Eagles—made fans ecstatic. Many made Super Bowl plans. A week later, after getting pounded by the Vikings, Dallas radio stations were inundated by callers blaming Romo for the loss.
Overreaction is a common attribute of all football fans. Cowboys fans know no other way to operate. Every win convinces them that they are the team to beat. Every loss crushes their spirit. There is no middle ground. Following the team becomes a roller coaster ride. Often, one has to tune out from the myopic rabble that fills sports radio and avoid the columns from the Dallas Morning News or Fort Worth Star Telegram. Fans and “journalists” alike drink the Cowboys kool aid. They cannot stay detached. They cannot remain stoic. Fans spew psycho talk after every contest. They become genuine lunatics.
All too often, the team and fan base become a reflection of the owner. Jerry Jones has controlled the franchise for the last two decades. He embodies the spirit of Dallas. Jones wants to get star power. He prefers to make a big splash. No signing showed this more than the free agent acquisition of Deion Sanders in 1995. Jerry got the biggest name in football to join his unit. While Deion had plenty of talent and captured all the cameras, his work ethic remained suspect. He coasted on his natural abilities but failed to hone his craft. This lazy mentality pervaded the locker room and infected many of the younger, less talented players. Is it any wonder why the Cowboys began a precipitious decline as Sanders’ aged? Coddled players had no incentive to work hard.
That’s a big problem with Jerry’s Boys’. The players know that the owner will always side with them over the coach. Jones loves to be one of the guys and enjoys a close(r than usual owner/player relationship) with many star players. Men from Deion Sanders to Terrell Owens recognized that they could get away with murder as long as they performed on Sunday. Often, Jones humiliated his coaches and bent over backwards to placate a disgruntled player.
Jerry often threw his coaches under the bus His first move as owner was to fire Tom Landry and replace him with the hottest college coach in America, Jimmy Johnson. When Johnson built a perennial contender, Jerry’s ego couldn’t stand it that he (Johnson) got all the credit while the owner was dismissed. Coach and owner began arguing and ultimately separated. Jones brought in a series of lackeys who submitted to him. These included Barry Switzer, Dave Campo, and Chan Gailey. While Jones’ power increased, the team’s on-field fortunes went down the tubes. Jerry realized the futility of his efforts and brought in hard nosed Bill Parcells. The tough ball coach rebuilt the franchise and littered the franchise will pro bowl talent. After a few years, the Cowboys were back as NFL contenders. Once again, Jerry couldn’t stand a powerful coach. He and Parcells’ relationship deteriorated and Jones replaced the Big Tuna with Wade Phillips.
The hubris of Jerry Jones is amazing. Cowboys fans reflect this mentality.
Nothing drives me crazier than the arrogant Cowboys fan. I like to have reasonable expectations. Don’t tell me the Cowboys are going to win the Super Bowl after they defeat a woely team. I’ll start paying attention when they beat division rivals and pummel a contender—like they did this year against a 13-0 New Orleans. This makes too much sense to the typical Cowboy fan. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the genuinely believe they can go 16-0 every year. They demand perfection. Empirical evidence goes by the wayside. They should win because—-they’re supposed to win. They’re Cowboys. They have five rings. They are elite. And, they insist on telling everyone how wonderful their football team is.
I love the Cowboys fans. I cannot stand fools. The Cowboys have more than their share of idiots as fans. They constantly test my patience. Their rhetoric annoys me. Their expectations are often delusional. And yet, I stay a member of this fraternity. I may despise my fellow fan but I appreciate the product that they support. The Cowboys are special. They play an exciting brand of football. They have a rich history. They are compelling. As much as I’d like to swear off the fans, I know come September, the Cowboys will have my attention. I guarantee that.