IRVING, TEX., DEC. 25 -- This time last year, the Dallas Cowboys were counting down the days until they could take off their uniforms and put their 1-15, NFL-worst record behind them. This season, the countdown had been going the other way -- two weeks remaining, one win needed and a trip to the playoffs will follow.
But that picture dimmed a bit Sunday. A loss to the Philadelphia Eagles left Dallas with one week to earn the berth and a seldom-used backup quarterback to get the job done. The Cowboys can make the playoffs with a win over Atlanta Sunday. They'll also earn a wild-card berth if the Los Angeles Rams beat New Orleans on Monday night.
The hopes turned a bit sour when starter Troy Aikman became the sixth quarterback knocked out of action by the Eagles this season. Aikman, who passed for 2,579 yards and 11 touchdowns, will be sidelined the rest of the year with a separated shoulder.
Backup Babe Laufenberg, the many-time Redskin, threw four interceptions and was 13 of 36 for 140 yards in Aikman's sted. He had completed only one of seven attempts for 10 yards previously this season. On Monday, the Cowboys signed 35-year-old Cliff Stoudt to back up Laufenberg.
On Sunday morning, the Cowboys looked like a sure thing for postseason play. By Sunday night, there were no guarantees.
"But that's the story of our lives," Cowboys linebacker Eugene Lockhart said. "We have to create everything for ourselves. Nobody will give us nothing."
At the start of the season seven victories would have seemed like a miracle to most Dallas fans. The once mighty franchise hasn't had winning record since the 1985 season. But after a four-game winning streak leading into the Eagles game and with a shot at the playoffs, the Cowboys are thinking positively.
"At the beginning of the season, we probably would have said we'd be happy with a 7-9 year," Aikman said. "But now we'll be disappointed if we don't go to the playoffs."
If the Cowboys finish 8-8, they're in the playoffs. Only one team has made a bigger turnaround in NFL history. Baltimore improved its record to 10-4 in 1975 after a 2-12 season the year before.
"It's good to see things back on the right track," former Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett said. "For the last couple of years, people have really been on their backs. Now it looks like it's turning around. A lot of positive things are happening."
For the Cowboys, positive things began off the field when Jerry Jones bought them last year and brought in his college friend, Jimmy Johnson, to coach the team.
Of course, it took most fans a year to recognize that. It didn't matter that Tom Landry's Cowboys posted a 3-13 record in 1988. It didn't matter that Dallas hadn't been to the playoffs since 1985. All that mattered was that Landry, who for 20 years was synonymous with football in Dallas, was out. One win and 15 losses later, Johnson's popularity hadn't increased much.
But one year, 18 trades, 16 Plan B free agent signees and seven wins later, Johnson is looking like a genius.
Nine starters are in their first full season with the Cowboys. Thirty players off Dallas's 47-man roster began the season with three years of NFL experience or fewer. Only seven players from 1985 are still around Texas Stadium.
"People have commented that it's like a revolving door around here," Johnson said. "We made a lot of trades. We sacrificed continuity to build a more talented team."
Last year's Hershel Walker trade with Minnesota made headlines as Dallas gained three players and eight draft choices.
First-round draft pick Emmitt Smith was a product of the trade with Minnesota and another with San Francisco. Smith proved to be another Johnson coup. He had only 14 carries for 61 yards Sunday, but he leads all rookies with 906 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"We all knew we came to a 1-15 team and that we had the opportunity to change that," Smith said. "We figured we couldn't do any worse than what the guys were doing last year."
Nobody but the new players, who came in with fresh attitudes and winning traditions. "I've never been below .500 in anything," Smith said. "We were brought here for a reason. People came off winning teams like the Rams and Raiders. We came to a 1-15 team. We've got to bring something -- winning ways, a winning attitude."
Defensive tackle Dean Hamel (Redskins), defensive end Dan Stubbs (49ers) and safety James Washington (Rams) give the Cowboys playoff experience.
"The overall attitude -- it's changed," Plan B fullback Tommie Agee said. "You can tell from the way we practice and the way the guys talk in the locker room. It's shifted. Now we think we can contend with any team in the NFL."
Dallas started the season with seven losses in its first 10 games. The Cowboys accumulated a franchise-low 100 yards offense in a 20-3 blitz by Phoenix. "We're playing a lot of young guys," Smith said. "We're learning and we've got much more confidence as we get experience. That happens when you get thrown out there."
But the Cowboys have looked anything but thrown out there during the past month, offensively anyway. The Cowboys made up for their 100-yard game against Phoenix with a 41-10 victory in their rematch. It was Dallas's largest margin of victory since 1986. It was the Cowboys' first six-touchdown offensive game since 1980.
"It just comes down to talent," said 29-year-old Bill Bates, one of the old regime in his eighth year with the team. "There's more talent here than we've had in the last few years."
Smith said the Cowboys have been using the perspective others have had of the team over the past few seasons to their advantage.
"Everyone is taking us light, saying we're just having a lucky season," Smith said. "We really think they're wrong. We're young and they have a lot of veterans, but when their veterans leave, we'll still be young and we'll have a lot of experience."