Whatever the first NFL playoff weekend lacked in artistry it more than made up for in drama. Dan Marino's encore, Chan Gailey's job security, Tre Johnson's punishment, Buffalo's depression and, of course, instant replay controversy. Only two of the four games were close, and none was particularly well-played, but that didn't diminish the power of the subplots. In some ways, it was the perfect NFL weekend in that it produced just enough fodder to command our attention for the next week.
The Dallas Cowboys, for about the fifth time this season, looked old and inept in defeat. But this time it may have serious consequences. It's bad enough that Gailey is now 0-2 in playoff games as the Cowboys' head coach. It's probably worse that Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders called the Cowboys underachievers afterward. Deion, wearing a lovely fur coat, rattled off the names of Cowboys players who had just completed Pro Bowl, or Pro Bowl-caliber seasons, then said it's inexcusable for a team with that kind of talent to go 8-9. Smith said essentially the same thing. They might as well have fired Gailey right then and there.
And this comes in addition to the fact that Troy Aikman has no use for Gailey's offense. Jerry Jones knows he has a choice to make: Keep Gailey and further alienate Aikman, Smith and Deion. Or lose Gailey and keep his stars happy. It was hardly an endorsement of Gailey when Jones emerged from a meeting with his coach yesterday and essentially sided with Aikman, saying he understands his star quarterback's concerns. Jones demonstrated no such support for Gailey. My bet is he'll switch coaches. It isn't entirely Gailey's fault that his winning percentage (.563) hasn't been as high as that of Jimmy Johnson (.672) or Barry Switzer (.625); the Cowboys are older and haven't had great drafts in recent years. But in this terribly weak NFC East, the Cowboys should have been better than they were.
I rarely enjoy seeing coaches suffer. They work too hard and get far too much blame for the losses. But what happened to Buffalo Coach Wade Phillips in Tennessee was poetic justice. It was simply clownish to bench Doug Flutie, who had won 19 games as a starting quarterback in two seasons. Coaches talk all the time about the concerns of the team coming ahead of a coach's ego. But with Phillips it was just cheap talk. It's easy to say that Rob Johnson led the Bills down the field for the field goal that should have given Buffalo the victory. But with the way Flutie had played the past couple of weeks, who's to say he wouldn't have led the team to a touchdown that would have given the Bills a bigger cushion and/or consumed the final seconds?
Perhaps Phillips should have spent more time with his special teams and less time worrying about the quarterback position, one of the team's strong points. The Bills made too many mistakes in the final sequence to even mention them all. For starters, why float a kickoff, which gives the return team time to set up? There's a reason kickers try to keep the ball as low as possible in such situations: When players are down on the ground trying to locate the ball, it's harder--almost impossible--to set up any kind of return. And one former NFL place kicker who watched the play told me it was inexcusable to have so many cover men bunched up in the middle.
Was Frank Wycheck's cross-field pass to Kevin Dyson a lateral? It was certainly too close to overturn on replay. The real losers, unfortunately, are players such as Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas, who played well enough to advance.
In Miami yesterday, somebody made the mistake of telling Johnson his Dolphins were only the second No. 6 seed to win an AFC playoff game, then asking him if he found that encouraging. "How can that make me feel good?" Johnson asked. "I'm fighting history, I'm fighting percentages."
Yes, but at least for this week he shouldn't be fighting Marino. Look, I want to see as many great players advance as possible, which is why I was rooting for Buffalo. But this notion that Marino's performance Sunday in Seattle means he's still got it is crazy. I'm rooting for Marino again this Saturday in Jacksonville, but the fact is he's missing passes now that he could throw from a chair 10 years ago. Hey, he's old. It's not an insult. It's life. Is he supposed to be able to throw the deep out until he's 50? Please.
Miami's dilemma is the Dolphins can't win without Marino and probably can't win with him. This week, he'll have to stay out of the way of Jaguars defensive end Tony Brackens, one of the best pass rushers in the league. I got the impression from Johnson's session with reporters yesterday that he has convinced himself Jacksonville has too much talent for the Dolphins to beat playing straight-up. So Jimmy is already getting his psych-game together. Asked if he has a special approach for this game, Jimmy's face got all twisted up and he said: "We have an approach. . . . One of the things I'm going to tell [the players] is to try not to tip our hand as to what that approach is."
Approach? What are the Dolphins going to do, switch jersey numbers to confuse Jacksonville?
The Redskins' approach had better start with keeping Tampa Bay's defensive line off Brad Johnson. That starts with guard Tre Johnson. They learned yesterday he will be fined, but not suspended for the Tampa Bay game, for inadvertently hitting an official during Saturday's game. That's good news for the Redskins, especially with Andy Heck out with a torn hamstring muscle. In fact, if all eight teams playing this weekend can keep their best players on the field, the games should actually be entertaining enough to overshadow the subplots.
Join Michael Wilbon online at 2 p.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com for "The Tony and Mike Show."