Cowboys working to hold on to fourth-quarter advantages

Friday, July 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WICHITA FALLS – On their way to mediocrity last season, the Cowboys set a franchise record that might never will be challenged: most losses when leading after three quarters.

The Cowboys dropped a staggering five games when they took a lead into the fourth quarter. The previous franchise record of four blown fourth-quarter leads had been shared by the 3-13 club of 1988 and the 4-10 club of 1963.

The Cowboys managed an 8-8 season and playoff spot despite the lack of a closer. That makes this team a mystery. If the Cowboys were a .500 team despite five tossed-away late leads, what can they do with better fourth-quarter performances?

One of the objects of this training camp is to answer that question by finding ways to hold on to leads.

"We have to play in the fourth quarter the same way we play in the first, second and third quarters," running back Emmitt Smith said. "When we get a chance to go for the throat on somebody, we have to do it."

The Cowboys used to keep teams down in the fourth quarter. From 1992-95, when the Cowboys won three Super Bowls, they were 44-5 in the regular season when leading after three quarters.

They lost that touch late in the Barry Switzer era. The 1997 team lost three games with fourth-quarter leads, and the aura of late dominance vanished.

"Going into the fourth quarter with leads, that was when we used to put people away," coach Dave Campo said. "For some reason, we were not disciplined enough in that period of time [last season] not to give up a big play or cause ourselves to stop ourselves. That's where we need to improve."

Hoping to correct the problem, Campo opened camp with a fashion statement. Players received T-shirts emblazoned with an "F & F" emblem: focus and finish.

Campo has also used rhetoric. A common theme throughout camp has been keeping focus for four quarters. Sloppy play in drills brings quick lectures.

The best solution may lie with the offense and how it plays with a late lead. The philosophy under former coach Chan Gailey the last two years was to sit on a lead. In their final 10 games last season, the Cowboys scored only 29 points in the fourth quarter. They lost four games when leading after three quarters in that span.

"At times, we got a little too conservative on offense," quarterback Troy Aikman said. The dominating Cowboys never played safety-first ball. A defining moment in the Jimmy Johnson era came in the NFC title game during the 1992 season. Nursing a lead in the fourth quarter, Johnson let offensive coordinator Norv Turner go for the knockout by throwing from deep in his territory. Alvin Harper broke loose on a slant, setting up a win-sealing touchdown.

Campo wants the same daring from new offensive coordinator Jack Reilly. Campo said the past offense "got set in what we could do" and turned conservative. That is how leads are lost.

Reilly described his play-calling style with a late lead as "aggressively conservative." He wants more points but will not be reckless.

"When you get up on people, I think you keep going after them,'' Reilly said. "That's what we'd like to be able to do when we've got somebody down."

Campo said the offense became "unbalanced" late in games. Opponents knew Gailey wanted to drain the clock by running, and they ganged up on Smith. He averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. Smith averaged 4.6 yards per carry in all other quarters.

The best way to create room for Smith is to keep using Aikman and the passing game.

"We recognize that we didn't finish games when we had played well," Aikman said. "It's been brought to everyone's attention. It's something we have to improve on."

The alternative is more mediocrity.

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