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Monday, August 7, 2006
Updated: August 11, 2:47 PM ET
Aikman was lucky, and good

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

There he was, at the podium on Saturday, talking about how he had lived a dream. In a way, I knew the feeling.

Watching Norv Turner present him, and Troy Aikman deliver his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech, was dream-like for a guy who wrote 8 billion words about No. 8's first eight years in Dallas. What a short, strange trip this was to Canton. From bad dreams to living one, just like that.

Troy Aikman
Aikman still looks young enough to quarterback a team, doesn't he?
What hit me as I watched Saturday's ceremony was that Aikman is only 39. Fellow inductee Warren Moon played until he was 44. So Troy Kenneth Aikman is a first-ballot Hall of Famer before his 40th birthday.

Dallas in Wonderland?

This certainly isn't to suggest Aikman doesn't belong in the Hall. No, any quarterback who wins three Super Bowls in four years obviously belongs. Yet the harder you look at Aikman's career, the more you realize that fate played as much a part as greatness.

In some ways, Aikman was as lucky as he was good. Now, this makes you wonder just how good some of today's high-pick "busts" might be if they had the right coordinator or early '90s Cowboys talent around them.

Could David Carr turn into a Hall of Famer? Kyle Boller? Alex Smith?

All I know for sure is that, for three years, I could not have imagined Troy Aikman as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2006.

Neither could the man who handpicked him with 1989's first selection: coach Jimmy Johnson. A couple months later, Johnson used the first pick in the supplemental draft to take the quarterback he won a national championship with at Miami: the un-Troy, Steve Walsh.

The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Aikman had all the prototype tools. But he didn't have Walsh's eye for speed reading defenses or Walsh's feel for finding second or third receiving options.

Johnson's first team, the equivalent of an expansion team, went 1-15 in '89. Walsh won the only game, beating the defending Super Bowl champs in Washington. When deer-in-oncoming-truck-lights Aikman did play, he took some of the worst beatings a quarterback ever lived to tell about.

The following season, Johnson had a plunger's chance to trade Walsh to New Orleans for a first-rounder, a second and a third. Johnson plunged.

That Sunday, Aikman played what surely was the worst game of his pro career, looking more lost than ever in a hopelessly humiliating loss to the Jets on the New York stage. Losing like that could send Johnson into truth-spewing rages -- and occasionally he would regret what he said to those closest to him.

But two nights after that Jets loss, Johnson was in a stormy mood when he bumped into several media members in the hallway outside his office. He basically told them that he had traded the wrong quarterback.

Johnson said: "Troy Aikman was a loser in college, and he'll always be a loser in the pros."

Holy Cowboy.

Yes, at UCLA, Aikman had lost both games he played against crosstown rival USC, quarterbacked by Rodney Peete.

So through that 1990 season, I began to wonder whether Johnson was right. Did Aikman have a winner's intangibles? Or was he saddled with a coordinator -- Don Shula's son David -- whose offense was just too complicated for him? For sure, Aikman didn't click with Shula.

Desperate, Johnson fired Shula and tried to hire Gary Stevens, then Ted Tollner, then Joe Pendry. Each near-move fell through. Who knows? If any of those three had taken the job, Aikman's career might not have taken off.

Johnson considered five or six other candidates before finally interviewing the Rams' receivers coach -- an unknown named Norvell Turner. Johnson told me: "I brought Troy in to meet Norv, and I could see they immediately hit it off."

Turner didn't take himself too seriously. Turner loved country music, Troy's passion. Turner could make Aikman laugh. And Turner could make him see just how great he could be, if he'd just trust himself and his new coordinator.

Turner was the big brother Aikman never had.

Norv Turner fell right out of Super Bowl heaven into Johnson's lap.

The following season, his third, Aikman began to show signs of being pretty good. But when he sprained his knee in a Week 12 loss to the Giants in New York, another Steve haunted him. Only when Steve Beuerlein took over did the young Cowboys take off. Even when Aikman was cleared to play, Johnson stuck with Beuerlein -- who won five straight, including a first-round playoff game over Mike Ditka's Bears in Chicago.

But the following week in Detroit, the dream run died hard, 38-6. Mop-up duty was performed by a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, who was not terribly pleased with his head coach.

Are you listening, David Carr?

Yet Carr doesn't yet have anywhere near the three-deep talent that was exploding to life in Johnson's force field. Emmitt Smith was well on his way to becoming the most prolific back of all time. No receiver could force his way open on third down the way Michael Irvin could. And for the next four seasons, Aikman would be protected by the biggest, baddest offensive line in NFL history.

Aikman also had his guy Norv, who simplified life. Late in that 1992 season, Turner chuckled and told me: "I keep hearing on TV what a genius I am. My God, we run about four or five plays a game! We hand it to Emmitt to the left or right. We throw the out or the post to Michael. And when we execute, we're pretty hard to beat."

Turner certainly didn't prove to be a genius of a head coach.

Troy Aikman
With the weapons around him, Aikman dissected NFL defenses for several years.
Yet with Turner calling pretty basic plays, Aikman didn't need to call many audibles. Aikman, robo-quarterback, simply executed the offense -- and executed opponents. From one of the tightest deliveries ever, Aikman could consistently throw some of the tightest, most laser-accurate spirals.

But was he the leader of the team? No, Irvin was. It's a shame Aikman is in the Hall and Irvin isn't. Irvin was as important to Aikman as Aikman was to Irvin. Maybe more so. When it mattered most, No. 88 always got open and always caught what No. 8 threw him.

Having Johnson to light the rest of the team's fuse was crucial, too. Yet Aikman was just as crucial for Johnson, who finally went out of his way early in the '92 season to bond with his quarterback. As owner Jerry Jones later said: "Jimmy didn't get on board with Troy until he sensed what could happen."

Aikman was sensational in the NFC title game upset at San Francisco and in the Super Bowl blowout of Buffalo. Against the Bills, he completed 22 of 30 for 273 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception, and was the no-doubt MVP. No, the Bills weren't any good on defense. But on the NFL's biggest stage, Aikman didn't exactly play like a loser.

Still, in the next two Super Bowl victories, Aikman threw for only 207 and 209 yards. Not bad, but not great. Emmitt was the unquestioned MVP of Super Bowl XXVIII and Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell should have been the MVP of XXX for throwing three interceptions, two to MVP Larry Brown.

Then again, that final Super Bowl season was an absurdly rough one for Aikman. Coach Barry Switzer was convinced Aikman was trying to get him fired and get Turner (then the head coach in Washington) hired. And yes, Aikman, who could be a raging perfectionist, did think Switzer was letting Irvin and Co. run wild, during practice and after hours.

Accusations flew back and forth. Mud was slung. Incredibly, Switzer and Aikman did not speak for the final two months of the season, including Super Bowl Sunday.

Yet as Aikman so eloquently said Saturday in Canton: "I did what was asked to help the team win, and after a career of putting team goals first, it was extremely satisfying to receive the highest individual honor a player can receive."

Not once in his career did he complain that the Cowboys were running Emmitt too much. And late in '95, he rose above his feud with Switzer and did what needed to be done to win that last Super Bowl.

Yet Aikman wasn't John Elway or Dan Marino. He couldn't lift a team onto his shoulder pads and carry it. He threw a pretty good, but not great, deep ball, and he never really had to be Joe Montana in the clutch.

As the Cowboys began to decay from '96 on, Aikman often no longer looked like a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The perfectionist in him could trigger losing his cool or temper during or after games. He lost his last three playoff games.

Even when the Cowboys were winning, Aikman never could quite allow himself to enjoy it. Concussions prematurely ended his career, though Aikman appeared pretty ready to slide into the broadcast booth.

So when you look hard, Aikman was at his greatest when the Cowboys were at their greatest. His Hall of Fame window opened (in '92) and closed (in '96) pretty quickly.

"I was able to live a dream," Aikman was saying Saturday on my TV. "I played pro football. That I was able to do it with so many great players and coaches and win three championships and wind up here -- it's almost too much to believe."

Perfectly said.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.