NEW YORK, JAN. 8 -- Jimmy Johnson, having guided the Dallas Cowboys to a six-game improvement and into playoff contention, won NFL coach-of-the-year honors from the Associated Press today.

Johnson, in his second year with the Cowboys after an illustrious career as a college coach, drew 18 1/2 votes from 80 writers and broadcasters. He edged Art Shell of the Los Angeles Raiders by 2 1/2 votes.

"We were a ragtag team a year ago," Johnson said. "It really gives me a good feeling, it really takes the edge off the way that we finished, to get this."

In 1989, the Cowboys were 1-15, the worst team in the NFL and in franchise history. It was a rude debut as a pro coach for Johnson, who won a national title in 1987 at the University of Miami.

This season, Dallas was 7-7 and needed a victory in either of its final two games to make the playoffs as a wild card. But quarterback Troy Aikman was injured and the Cowboys couldn't recover, losing to New Orleans on the closing weekend.

Still, it was a remarkable turnaround for the Cowboys.

"I think it helps our credibility," said Johnson, who was a college teammate at Arkansas of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Shell helped restore the winning tradition in Los Angeles. The Raiders returned to the playoffs for the first time in five years as their former star tackle and 1989 inductee into the Hall of Fame guided them to a 12-4 record. Since he took over for Mike Shanahan after four games in 1989, the Raiders are 19-9.

Behind Shell in the voting were Miami's Don Shula with 9 1/2, Buffalo's Marv Levy (9), Chicago's Mike Ditka (8), San Francisco's George Seifert (8), Kansas City's Marty Schottenheimer (5), Seattle's Chuck Knox (4) and Pittsburgh's Chuck Noll (2).