One year and two victories into the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson era, Cowboys watchers can't come to any agreement on whether the team is on the right course, building slowly for an explosion by 1993, or being run into the ground with strange Plan B signings, personnel decisions and silly team rules.

One school of thought: Coach Johnson and owner Jones have the perfect blueprint and are following it to the letter. Former Arkansas Razorback Jones was portrayed as a rube when he bought the Cowboys in the winter of 1989, yet he fleeced cold, ruthless Vikings General Manager Mike Lynn by getting 12 bodies/draft picks for Herschel Walker, whom the Vikings still can't figure out how to use properly. The jury is back, and the verdict is that the Cowboys are guilty of pulling off a heist.

Even after giving up a No. 2 draft pick two weeks ago to acquire fullback Alonzo Highsmith from Houston, the Cowboys have eight first- or second-round draft picks the next two years. And the Cowboys won't have to use any of those picks on quarterback (where they have young Troy Aikman) or running back (Emmitt Smith and Highsmith).

The backup quarterback, Steve Walsh, is better than some teams' starters; young speedster Alexander Wright will be a star wide receiver, perhaps before this season is over.

What the Cowboys needed, after 20 years of training camp disguised as vacation in Thousand Oaks, Calif., was the kind of grueling, get-used-to- the-heat-or-get-out kind of training camp Johnson ran in deathly hot Austin.

There already are indicators that the team has improved dramatically since that stunning upset of the Washington Redskins last Nov. 5 at RFK Stadium. For instance, in the nine games between that victory and the 17-14 season-opening win over San Diego, the Cowboys allowed only five rushing touchdowns. During one stretch the defense did not yield a touchdown for 12 quarters. No opposing running back ran for 100 yards in a game. Six of the nine opponents failed to score 21 points.

One NFC coach (not Joe Gibbs, whose Redskins play the Cowboys Sunday at RFK Stadium) says the Cowboys are vastly improved, that the offensive line and pass rush are lagging, but that pass rushers and a couple of tackles will be delivered with all those draft picks. In a couple of years, the coach says, the Cowboys will be very good.

We don't know if Jimmy Johnson can coach at the NFL level. But we do know one thing: He can evaluate talent. When Johnson arrived from the University of Miami last year, he found Tom Landry had left him with no wide receiver who could run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.6 seconds. But these Cowboys have speed.

Laugh at Johnson and Jones now, this school of thought says, because the laughing will stop by 1993.

On the other hand . . .

There are those who can't figure out what Jones and Johnson are doing. There is evidence to support their school of thought too. Johnson had a rule, for road trips last year that players had to get permission from an assistant coach to leave the hotel. (This, remember, is the same coach who a few years ago allowed some Miami players to wear military fatigues to a banquet with Penn State, which nearly prompted a fight.) The high school rules have angered several players.

Detractors also point to the 20 Plan B signees, five of whom start currently, and say that suggests the talent base in Dallas is woeful, if five discards can start.

Many people around the league also feel the Cowboys were unwise assembling these talented skill players on offense, without having linemen on either side of the ball. The offensive line can't block anybody and there is no pass rush.

Maybe that's why the Cowboys have used so many running backs in the last 12 months. Last year Walker started the first couple of weeks before the Vikings came calling. Darryl Clack got a look. Paul Palmer, acquired for a very low draft pick, started several games. Broderick Sargent had his shot one week.

Daryl Johnston was the only back protected, so he was No. 1 going into this season, if only by default. The club signed Keith "End Zone" Jones to a big contract, even though he was a bench warmer with the Rams. Then there was a pre-draft trade to get Terrence Flagler, and the first-round selection of Emmitt Smith. Is that seven? We lost count.

So, will the Cowboys improve, or will they lose more than a dozen games?

"Morale is good," Johnson said, despite some evidence to the contrary. "I don't know of any team that hasn't had a few unhappy campers. If there were {no unhappiness}, it would make me believe I wasn't working them hard enough . . .

"We knew what we were getting into and what we were walking away from {Miami and another national title}. I don't spend any time looking back. There're no quick turnarounds."

Johnson is very headstrong. "I was told," he said, "you don't have rough contact work once the season starts. So we stopped. And our line got soft on both sides of the ball. We lost more games than I wanted, so in midseason we started back hitting in practice and our defense really improved toward the last of the season. That's the only way I know how to teach.

"This year I'm going to do it my way, the only way I know how to coach."

Because this team is Johnson's team, if it falls flat on its face again after this season, it will be Johnson's fault.

"We've already improved. We've got more depth, more speed," he said. "I have no idea about a timetable. We're going to go as hard as we can go and get there as fast as we can."