DMN: Don't paint Aikman by numbers, just 'W's
10:37 PM CST on Sunday, January 29, 2006
By RICK GOSSELIN / The Dallas Morning News
Editor's note: Rick Gosselin, one of 39 voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will make the case for Troy Aikman, Rayfield Wright and Michael Irvin.
This story originally appeared Aug. 6, 2005.
The Cowboys visited Atlanta on the Monday night of Christmas week in 1992, needing a victory over the Falcons to clinch their first division title in seven years.
Facing a secondary that featured Deion Sanders, who, in his prime, was supposed to be able to take away half the field from an offense, Troy Aikman completed 15 of 17 passes in the first half for 196 yards and two touchdowns, staking the Cowboys to a 20-10 lead.
Aikman threw his 18th pass on the opening possession of the second half, and Alvin Harper caught it for a 23-yard touchdown and a 27-10 lead.
Emmitt Smith took over from there, rushing for 132 of his 174 yards in the second half as the Cowboys clinched the NFC East and a first-round playoff bye with a 41-17 romp over the Falcons.
But the game was essentially over by the time the Cowboys turned the ball over to Smith. Aikman threw only three more passes the rest of night, finishing 18-of-21 for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
That was how the Cowboys played offense in winning three Super Bowls in a span of four seasons in the 1990s - the pass set up the run. Aikman's arm would get the Cowboys into leads in the first half, and Smith's legs would keep them there in the second half.
That game plan, however, created the one gaping deficiency in the Hall-of-Fame portfolio of Aikman, who becomes eligible in 2006. He lacks the statistics that would demand his enshrinement in Canton.
The 1990s were perhaps the golden era of quarterbacking in the NFL. Dan Marino and Steve Young are being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sunday in the Class of 2005. They join John Elway, who was inducted in 2004, and Jim Kelly, who was inducted in 2002.
Brett Favre will one day make it five quarterbacks in Canton from the 1990s, and Warren Moon looms in the shadows. Statistically, Aikman pales in comparison with his peer group.
Young won six NFL passing titles. Aikman didn't win any. Favre won three NFL MVP awards. Aikman didn't win any.
Marino passed for 300 yards an NFL-record 53 times. Aikman did it 13 times. Elway rallied his team to 47 fourth-quarter victories. Aikman engineered only 16 such comebacks. Moon passed for 4,000 yards in four NFL seasons. Aikman never had a 4,000-yard season.
Aikman doesn't rank in the top 10 in any major passing category. He's 12th all-time in completions and 20th in yards. He doesn't even rank in the top 50 in touchdown passes. Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe both sit higher on that list than Aikman, who topped 20 TDs just once in his 12 NFL seasons.
If you like statistics, you're not going to like Troy Aikman.
But don't blame Aikman. Blame Cowboys coaches Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer. Blame Cowboys offensive play-callers Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese. They didn't allow Aikman any garbage stats.
Aikman was too efficient for his own good. His job was to get the Cowboys in front. When he did - and it was usually by halftime - the Cowboys stopped throwing.
"When we got leads," Turner said, "the run took over."
Counting the postseason, Aikman started 158 games for the Cowboys in the 1990s. The Cowboys led at halftime in 98 of them and found themselves tied on 10 other occasions.
Wonder why Aikman had so few come-from-behind victories? He was rarely behind.
Wonder why Aikman had so few 300-yard passing games in his career? He was usually done throwing by halftime.
In those 158 starts, he threw 10 passes or fewer in the second half of 36 games. There were 13 other second halves that he threw 10 times or fewer because of an injury or because his coaches opted to rest him in a blowout.
So in 31 percent of his starts in the 1990s, Aikman barely threw the ball enough in the second half to keep warm. It's difficult amassing passing statistics when you're not passing.
In 1993, when the Cowboys won their second consecutive NFL championship, Dallas led at halftime in 14 of Aikman's 17 starts. He threw 68 fewer passes in the second half of those games than he did in the first. He passed for 1,921 yards and 12 touchdowns in the first halves and 1,179 yards and three TDs in the second.
From 1992 to '96 when the Cowboys won five straight division titles, Aikman threw 243 fewer passes in the second half of games than in the first. He passed for 8,864 yards and 51 touchdowns in the first halves but only 6,787 yards and 28 TDs in the second.
For the 1990s, Aikman threw 294 fewer passes in the second half than the first. He passed for 15,606 yards and 86 touchdowns in the first halves compared with 3,954 yards and 63 TDs in the second.
But yards and touchdowns never mattered to Aikman. Victories did. And that's where he stands alone in his peer group.
Aikman won more games in one decade (90) than any quarterback in NFL history. Yes, more than Young in the 1990s, Joe Montana in the 1980s and Terry Bradshaw in the 1970s. Aikman also won three Super Bowls. The only two quarterbacks who won more, Montana and Bradshaw, are enshrined in Canton.
It was never about statistics with Aikman. It was about winning.
"I had a lot of confidence in my abilities," Aikman said. "If we had thrown more than we did, there's no doubt in my mind we'd have put up big numbers. But it's not what we did. We won without it. I'm content with that.
"If you throw for 4,000 yards in a season and we go 5-11, what's the difference?"
Aikman emerged as a franchise quarterback during Turner's three seasons as offensive coordinator, from 1991 to '93. He passed for career highs of 3,445 yards and 23 touchdowns in 1992 and was at his efficient best in 1993 when he posted a 99.0 passer rating.
When Turner asked Aikman to cut loose, he cut loose. In the game that triggered the Dallas dynasty - the 1992 NFC title game at San Francisco - Aikman completed 24 of 34 passes for 322 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 30-20 upset of the 49ers.
It was his only 300-yard day in 17 games that season.
But Aikman never complained. Only once did he even hint to Turner that he'd like to throw more. That was after that Atlanta game in 1992.
"He told me he wished we could have kept going," Turner said.
And that was it. All of Aikman's statistics were legit, coming during the flow of games. There was no padding. And no complaints.
JOHN F. RHODES / DMN
While Troy Aikman didn't compile the big passing statistics his contemporaries in the '90s did, he led them all in the most important statistic - victories.
"The one thing that people can never appreciate unless you were around Troy was his unselfishness," said Turner, now head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
"He was so disciplined, you could call the same play five straight times and if the right place to throw was to the tight end, he'd throw it there five straight times. He didn't let his emotions tell him, 'I've got to make a big play now,' or 'I've got to get the ball to Alvin.' Troy played each play the way it was designed to be played. That's discipline. I've never been around another guy like that."
Everyone loves a team player - someone willing to forgo individual good for the good of the team. When a guy like that finally comes along, is he penalized for it? We'll find out in the next few years.