No. 89: Troy Aikman
There are countless ways that a pro football quarterback is different from every other position in every other team sport, but I’d say most of them can be summed up with this football truism: A quarterback’s job is to win championships.
That might not be fair. That might not be right. That might not even be justifiable. But this is how it goes.
You draft a wide receiver to get open, to catch passes, to block downfield, etc.
You draft a defensive end to beat blockers, to get to the quarterback, to make plays against the run, etc.
You draft a shortstop to play good defense, to get on base, to score runs, to drive in runs, etc.
But you draft a quarterback to win championships. No etceteras about it.
“The test of a quarterback,” Paul Brown said some 60 years ago, “is where his team finishes.”
Countless people have said something similar:
“A good football coach,” Bud Grant said, “needs a patient wife, a loyal dog and a great quarterback — but not necessarily in that order.”
“Sure, luck means a lot in football,” Don Shula said, “Not having a good quarterback is bad luck.”
“Being a leader and having total control of the team is the one asset a quarterback must have,” Vince Lombardi said.
”The quarterbacks that win,” Patrick Mahomes said, “those are the quarterbacks that are talked about for being great.”
“As a quarterback,” Troy Aikman says, “your job is to move the football and win games.”
Somebody showed me how to make a Venn Diagram. So I did:
There are a handful of super-great quarterbacks who are in that “Both” section, and you know who they are … I suspect we’ll get to them at some point this winter. But many quarterbacks are great mainly because they put up big numbers or because they won a championship or multiple championships. If I name off a few Hall of Fame quarterbacks, you could probably put them in one of the two lists instinctively:
That is not entirely fair — the great stats quarterbacks certainly won and the winning quarterbacks certainly put up some stats; it’s not that stark a difference.
But there really is a clear divide between stats and winning.
And the reason for that is …
“Stats are for losers,” Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen says.
OK, um, no, thanks Josh, but that’s a bit overstated. No, the reason for that is …
“The only quarterback stat I look at when the game ends,” Bill Curry says, “is the final score.”
Right, yes, good point Bill. But, it’s more than that too.
The reason there is a clear divide between quarterback stats and winning is that they often represent opposing tracks. Quite often, the VERY REASON quarterbacks put up big numbers is BECAUSE THEY LOSE. It’s a feature, not a bug. Look:
— Quarterbacks who throw for 400 yards in a game lose more often than they win.
— Of the 55 quarterbacks who led the NFL in passing yards since the start of the Super Bowl, 17 of them led their team to losing records and 24 of them did not lead their team to the playoffs.
Actually, this brings us to a trivia question: Can you name the last quarterback to lead the NFL in passing yards and lead his team to a Super Bowl victory?
Think about it for a moment.
Actually, don’t think about it at all: It’s a trick question. It has never happened.
“Troy Aikman,” his old coach Jimmy Johnson says, “could have put up huge passing numbers. He could have put up as big of numbers as anybody. When it came to throwing the football, he was as good as anybody I ever coached. ”
This is a meaningful statement since Jimmy Johnson coached, among others, Dan Marino, who many will call the purest passer in NFL history.
Aikman, to say the least, did not put up huge passing numbers. He never came even close to leading the NFL in passing yards. In 1992, he threw for 3,445 yards, good for fourth in the NFL, about 700 yards behind Dan Marino. That was the most yards he ever threw for in a season. That same year, he threw 23 touchdown passes, also a career-high — he never even reached 20 again.
His 81.6 career passer rating is 68th on the all-time list, snugly between Jason Campbell and Randall Cunningham.
“There are those who don’t put me in that category,” Aikman admits when talking about the greatest quarterbacks of all time. “I don’t think people truly got to see the ability I had as a passer.”
Aikman had a different job — and that was, plainly, to save the Dallas Cowboys. You can’t really tell Aikman’s story without talking at least a little bit about the final years of Tom Landry. From 1966 through 1985 — 20 seasons in a row — Landry’s Cowboys had a winning record every single year. They won two Super Bowls, lost three Super Bowls, reached the conference championship seven other times, and made themselves America’s team, for better and worse.
But in the mid-’80s, Landry seemed to lose his magic. He wasn’t that old — he was several years younger, for example, than Bill Belichick is now — but there was a sense that as a football coach he WAS old, that he had stopped innovating, stopped staying with the times. The team suffered a losing record in 1986 and then another in the strike year of 1987.
“If the teacher doesn’t teach, the student doesn’t learn,” Cowboys president Tex Schramm said after that second losing season, and it was clear by then that Landry’s time was drawing close to an end. The Cowboys then had a truly disastrous 1988 season, finishing 3-13, worst record in the NFL. Landry announced that he wanted to keep coaching into the 1990s, and he might have — there weren’t many people in America with the brass to fire Tom Landry.
But then a guy named Jerry Jones bought the team.
And he fired Tom Landry on his very first day as owner. People still fight about it to this day.
And that’s when the Cowboys drafted Troy Aikman with the first overall pick.
There’s something moving about kids who practice signing their autographs again and again in the deep-seated belief that someday they will be famous. Johnny Bench used to do that in Banger, Okla. — he would sit at Ford McKinney’s Texaco Station and sign his name over and over until he had perfected every loop and every curl.
Years later, Troy Aikman would do the same thing two hours east in Henryetta, Okla.
He was an extraordinary athlete, extraordinary enough that the New York Mets showed real interest in signing him as a pitcher and a shortstop. The way Aikman tells the story, the Mets called and asked what it would take for him to play baseball and pass up his football scholarship to Oklahoma.
Aikman thought about it and said, “$200,000.”
This was 1984; and the Mets actually had the first pick in the draft. I don’t know if the Mets were calling about taking Aikman with THAT pick, but I can tell you that they did select an outfielder named Shawn Abner, and they gave him a $150,500 signing bonus. Abner never played for the Mets.
“$200,000?” the Mets asked Aikman, to make sure they heard him properly. When he did not correct the number, they said: “Good luck playing football at Oklahoma.”
He didn’t have all that much good luck at Oklahoma, to be honest. He did become the first freshman starting quarterback since World War II. His first start, however, was an unmitigated disaster — he completed just two passes and threw three interceptions as the No. 2 Sooners were upset by Kansas.
I just couldn’t run the offense,” a shell-shocked Aikman barely whispered after the game. “I just couldn’t hit the passes. I don’t know what happened.”
“That boy,” Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said as explanation, “was scared to death.”
Well, Aikman was just 17 years old.
He was named the starter as a sophomore — and there was ridiculous pressure on him. For one thing, Oklahoma was ranked the preseason No. 1 team in the country. “I’ll bet that’s never happened before,” Switzer said, “picking a team No. 1 with a brand new quarterback.”
But it was more than just that … Aikman was precisely the opposite of what everyone expected from an Oklahoma quarterback. He was tall and fairly immobile and a pure dropback passer. This could not have been a more foreign concept to Oklahoma, where they ran the wishbone and would throw the ball MAYBE 10 times a game.
Anyway, Aikman started the first three games of the season, all wins, including a 14-7 triumph over Texas, and then they played Jimmy Johnson’s badass Miami team. Aikman was playing really well in the game — he was six for eight for 131 yards passing and he was driving the Sooners toward a touchdown — when the Hurricanes’ Jerome Brown smashed through the line, grabbed Aikman and twisted him down to the ground, snapping Aikman’s ankle in the process.
The Sooners then put in a freshman quarterback named Jamelle Holieway, who was the ideal wishbone quarterback. He led Oklahoma to eight straight victories, including one over Penn State in the Orange Bowl, and a national championship.
And everybody in Oklahoma understood that it might be best if Aikman left for UCLA, where he played in a pro-style offense, was named consensus All-America, and, yes, was taken by the aforementioned Jimmy Johnson with the first pick in the 1989 draft.
So now we go back to the beginning: What was Troy Aikman’s job when he came to the Cowboys? The team was a complete mess. They had little-to-no talent. They won just one game in Aikman’s first season. The reverberations of Tom Landry’s firing were causing earthquakes all over Texas.
What was his job?
“The test of a quarterback,” Paul Brown said, “is where his team finishes.”
That’s right, it was Aikman’s job to make the Cowboys winners again. And in Dallas that meant running an efficient offense, feeding the ball to Emmitt Smith, helping big-play receiver Michael Irvin make big plays and being at his best when it was most important.
Few in the history of the game have done their jobs better.
Sure, there must have been times when Aikman wished he could be in a Dan Marino or Jim Kelly or Steve Young type offense. He had a bazooka for an arm, and he had uncanny accuracy when he threw — that was just a natural gift. If he had been drafted by another team, he’d probably have had 4,000-yard passing seasons and 30-touchdown seasons and all the rest of that stuff.
But his job was different … and he did his job. In 1992, he led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, their best in team history, and in the playoffs he was breathtaking, throwing two touchdowns without a pick against Philadelphia, completing 71 percent of his passes with two touchdowns against the 49ers and, in the Super Bowl against Buffalo, winning the MVP by completing 22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns.
The next year, it happened again — a 12-4 record, moderate numbers, and in the postseason he outdueled Brett Favre in the divisional round (three touchdown passes, 76 percent completions), outplayed Steve Young in the championship game (144.7 passer rating), and was as good as he needed to be in another blowout victory over Buffalo in the Super Bowl.
Two years later, even under a new coach (his old college coach, Barry Switzer), Aikman did the same thing — so-so regular-season numbers, a division title, triple-digit passer ratings in all three postseason games, and 15-of-23 with a touchdown in the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh. In the process, he became the first quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory in three out of four seasons.
Only one other quarterback has done that since … and you probably know his name.
How do you judge that? The interesting thing to me is that it’s clearer how Aikman would have performed in a high-octane passing offense than how someone like Dan Marino or Steve Young or Jim Kelly might have played in that conservative Cowboys offense. This isn’t a knock on them, but it takes something beyond talent and attitude and that so-called “will to win” to step into the background, to sacrifice your own numbers and legacy, in order to lead your team to victory.
This, after all, was a kid who practiced signing his autograph in anticipation of fame.
Of course, Aikman was plenty famous — and is still plenty famous as a FOX Sports broadcaster. It’s not like he was overlooked; the guy had movie-star good looks, and he made some killer throws, and he was a vocal force on America’s team. But you do get the sense that he would have liked to throw the ball a little more.
I mean, Matthew Stafford has played almost exactly the same number of games as Troy Aikman, and has completed a thousand more passes for almost 14,000 more yards and 122 more touchdowns. Stafford is unquestionably one of the greatest pure passers in NFL history.
Then again, I’m pretty sure Aikman wouldn’t trade careers.