Behind the face masks, there has been an evolution within the Dallas Cowboys that spans their Super Bowl appearances. Their computer has been sprewing out an entirely new breed of player. And the coach has traded his internal transistors for some humor.

Tom Landry funny?

Well, not long ago wide receiver Tony Hill strutted into a meeting either a finable second or so late or a safe second or so early, depending on how Landry's watch was ticking at the time.

In prior years, Landry would not have called a personal foul, but he would have said something on the order of: "Cutting it kinda close, aren't you?" And proceeded with the business at hand.

This time Landry took note of what one player called "Hill's be-bopping way of coming in and taking his place," paused a moment and said: "Tony, are you taking something for that?"

Landry-watchers within the team were startled. Another bit of ice had melted.

The coach has been changing ever so slowly, almost from the moment the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl, nearly seven years ago to the day, regaining the self-assurance of a man who knows his genius but needs it certified before the sporting world.

"He's seen most of what can happen in this game (from Duane Thomas's silences to Thomas Henderson's eruptions and losing so many important games in such odd ways)," said defensive tackle Larry Cole. "He's not become philosophical or anything, he's just like anybody who runs a company and knows what he's doing -- win or lose."

For 11 years, Cole has been keeping his perceptive eyes on the Cowboys who have come and gone -- and the very few who have remained from the team that always lost the NFL championship until Super Bowl 6.

"When I came, there was a play-hard, drink-hard attitude," he said. "Guys like (Bob) Lilly and (George) Andrie, who would pour down so much beer. But we were really active as a group, with a party after every game, win or lose. I think I remember the ones after we lost the most.

"Everybody was together.

"It started to change with the (draft) class of 1970, when Cliff (Harris) and Charlie (Waters) came in, and also (former Cowboys) Duane Thomas and Pat Toomay. After that, everyone was into more individual things.

"And we have real athletes. We always had fine players, but some of us; me, Andrie, Billy Truax, had funny-looking bodies. Nobody cared about weightlifting. Lilly was quick and strong, but he was not an 'athlete,' not into lifting and jogging.

"Randy White (at the same position) pumps iron all the time, works out constantly. He enjoys sweating. It's easy to look back and say the old ways were the most fun. But I like it this way.Everybody is out to establish his own niche. Marriages are much less strained, too."

Still, there is evidence this change has been caused more by the game than the players.

"When Larry came in," said Pat Donovan, of the Class of '75, "the players reported at 10 each morning and were gone by 1 in the afternoon. Later, somebody complained, so they all came in around 1 p.m. and left at 3:30.

"When I was a rookie, there was an offensive meeting Wednesday morning, a defensive meeting Thursday morning and no meetings Friday.

"My second year, there were offensive and defensive meetings Wednesday and Thursday and no meetings Friday. Now we have meetings Friday, too. And there's so much more time on the practice field now.

"I'll bet we spend as much -- or more -- time together as they did back when Cole was breaking in. But we do it in meetings and practice instead of bars. Now pro football's like any other job."

Cole and Donovan both are impressed with the Cowboys' flair for mentally coasting through the early weeks of recent regular seasons and then snapping on the get-serious button during the games that determine the playoff teams.

"We work at turning it on at the right time," Cole said.

"Nobody really turned on anyone when we were going bad early this season," said Donovan."The defense never got down on the offense -- and we didn't burn them when they took a couple games off.

"Nobody choked about it."